VOYAGE TO FAR N'JURD
By KRIS NEVILLE
Illustrated by MACK
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine April 1963.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
They would never live to see the trip's
end. So they made a few changes in their way
of life—and many in their way of death!
"I don't see why we have to be here," a crewman said. "He ain't liable to say anything."
"He shore better," the man in front of him said loudly.
"Be still," his wife said. "People's lookin' at ya."
"I don't care a smidgen," he said, "if en they ayre."
"Please," she said.
"Joanne Marie," he said, "you know that when I aims ta do somethin', I'm jest natcher'lly bound to do hit. An' iffen I aims ta talk...."
"Here comes the priest. Now, be still."
The man looked up. "So he do; an' I'll tell ya, hit shore is time he's a-gittin' hyere. I ain't got no all night fer ta sit."
The crewman to his left bent over and whispered, "I'll bet he's gonna tell us it's gonna be another postponement."
"Iffen he does, I'm jest a-gonna stand up an' yell right out that I ain't gonna stand fer hit no longer."
"Now, dear," said Joanne Marie, "the captain can hear ya, if you're gonna talk so loud."
"I hope he does; I jest hope he does. He's th' one that's a-keepin' us all from our Reward, an' I jest hope he does heyar me, so he'll know I'm a-gittin' mighty tyird uv waitin'."
"You tell 'im!" someone said from two rows behind him.
The captain, in the officer's section, sat very straight and tall. He was studiously ignoring the crew. This confined his field of vision to the left half of the recreation area. While the priest stood before the speaker's rostrum waiting for silence, the captain reached back with great dignity and scratched his right shoulder blade.
Nestir, the priest, was dressed out in the full ceremonial costume of office. His high, strapless boots glistened with polish. His fez perched jauntily on his shiny, shaven head. The baldness was symbolic of diligent mental application to abstruse points of doctrine. Cotian exentiati pablum re overum est: "Grass grows not in the middle of a busy thoroughfare." The baldness was the result of the diligent application of an effective depilatory. His blood-red cloak had been freshly cleaned for the occasion, and it rustled around him in silky sibilants.
"Men," he said. And then, more loudly, "Men!"
The hiss and sputter of conversation guttered away.
"Men," he said.
"The other evening," he said, "—Gelday it was, to be exact—one of the crew came to me with a complaint."
"Well, I'll be damned," Joanne Marie's husband said loudly.
Nestir cleared his throat. "It was about the Casting Off. That's why I called you all together today." He stared away, at a point over the head and to the rear of the audience.
"It puts me in mind of the parable of the six Vergios."
Joanne Marie's husband sighed deeply.
"Three, you will recall, were wise. When Prophet was at Meizque, they came to him and said, 'Prophet, we are afflicted. We have great sores upon our bodies.' The Prophet looked at them and did see that it was true. Then he blessed them and took out His knife and lay open their sores. For which the three wise Vergios were passing grateful. And within the last week, they were dead of infection. But three were foolish and hid their sores; and these three did live."
The captain rubbed his nose.
"Calex i pundendem hoy, my children. 'Secrecy makes for a long life,' as it says in the Jarcon." Nestir tugged behind him at his cloak.
"I want you all to remember that little story. I want you all to take it away from here with you and think about it, tonight, in the privacy of your cabins.
"And like the three wise Vergios who went to the Prophet, one of the crewmen came to me. He came to me, and he said: 'Father, I am weary of sailing.'
"Yes, he said, 'I am weary of sailing.'
"Now, don't you think I don't know that. Every one of you—every blessed one of you—is weary of sailing. I know that as well as I know my own name, yes.
"But because he came to me and said, 'Father, I am weary of sailing,' I went to the captain, and I said, 'Captain, the men are weary of sailing.'
"And then the captain said: 'All right, Father,' he said, 'I will set the day for the Festival of the Casting Off!'"
The little fellow was pleased by the rustle of approval from the audience. "God damn, hit's about time!" Joanne Marie's husband said.
Nestir cleared his throat again.
"Hummm. Uh. And the day is not very far distant," said Nestir.
"I knowed there was a catch to hit," Joanne Marie's husband said.
"I know you will have many questions; yes, I know you will have—ah, ah—well, many questions. You are thinking: 'What kind of a Festival can we have here on this ship?' You are thinking: 'What a fine thing—ah, what a good thing, that is—ah, how nice it would be to have the Casting Off at home, among friends.'"
Nestir waved his hands. "Well, I just want to tell you: I come from Koltah. And you know that Koltah never let any city state outdo her in a Festival, uh-huh.
"The arena in Koltah is the greatest arena in the whole system. We have as many as sixty thousand accepted applicants. All of them together in the arena is a—uh, uh, well—a sight to behold. People come from all over to behold it. I never will forget the Festival at which my father was accepted. He....
"Well, the point I want to make is this: I just wanted to tell you that I know what a Festival should be, and the captain and I will do everything in our power to make our Casting Off as wonderful as any anywhere.
"And I want to tell you that if you'll come to me with your suggestions, I'll do all I can to see that we do this thing just the way you want it done. I want you to be proud of this Casting Off Festival, so you can look back on it and say, uh, uh—this day was the real high point of your whole life!"
Everyone but Joanne Marie's husband cheered. He sat glumly muttering to himself.
Nestir bobbed his shiny head at them and beamed his cherubic smile. And noticed that there was a little blonde, one of the crewmen's wives, in the front row that had very cute ankles.
While they were still cheering and stomping and otherwise expressing their enthusiasm and approval, Nestir walked off the speaker's platform and into the officer's corridor. He wiped his forehead indecorously on the hem of his cloak and felt quite relieved that the announcement was over with and the public speaking done.
Dinner that evening was a gala occasion aboard the ship. The steward ordered the holiday feast prepared in celebration of Nestir's announcement. And, for the officers, he broke out of the special cellar the last case allotment for Crew One of the delicate Colta Barauche ('94). He ordered the messman to put a bottle of it to the right of each plate.
The captain came down from his stateroom after the meal had begun. He nodded curtly to the officers when he entered the mess hall, walked directly to his place at the head of the table, sat down and morosely began to work the cork out of his wine bottle with his teeth.
"You'll spoil the flavor, shaking it that way," the third mate cautioned. He was particularly fond of that year.
The captain twisted the bottle savagely, and the cork came free with a little pop. He removed the cork from between his teeth, placed it very carefully beside his fork, and poured himself a full glass of the wine.
"Very probably," he said sadly.
"I don't think hit'll do hit," the first mate said. "He hain't shook hard enough to matter."
The captain picked up the glass, brought it toward his lips—then, suddenly having thought of something, he put it back down and turned to Nestir.
"I say. Have you decided on this Carstar thing yet, Father?"
The little priest looked up. He laid his knife across the rim of his plate. "It has ramifications," he said.
When the third mate saw that his opinion on the wine was not immediately to be justified, he settled back in his chair with a little sigh of disapproval.
"Well, what do you think your decision will be, Father?" the steward asked.
Nestir picked up his knife and fork and cut off a piece of meat. "Hummmm," he said. "It's hard to say. The whole issue involves, as a core point, the principle of casta cum mae stotiti."
The first mate nodded sagely.
"The intent, of course, could actually be—ah—sub mailloux; and in that event, naturally, the decision would be even more difficult. I wish I could talk to higher authority about it; but of course I haven't the time. I'll have to decide something."
"He had a very pretty wife," the third mate said.
"Yes, very." Nestir agreed. "But as I was saying, if it could be proven that the culstem fell due to no negligence on his part, either consciously or subconsciously, then the obvious conclusion would be that no stigma would be attached." He speared his meat and chewed it thoughtfully.
"But it wasn't at all bloody," the wife of the second mate said. "I scarcely think he felt it at all. It happened too fast."
Nestir swallowed the mouthful of food and washed it down with a gulp of wine.
"The problem, my dear Helen," he said, "is one of intent. To raise the issue of concomitant agonies is to confuse the whole matter. For instance. Take Wilson, in my home state of Koltah. Certainly he died as miserable a death as anyone could desire."
"Yes," said the second mate's wife. "I remember that. I read about it in the newspapers."
"But it was a case of obvious intent," continued Nestir, "and therefore constituted a clear out attempt to avoid his duty by hastening to his Reward."
Upon hearing the word duty, the captain brightened.
"That," he said to Nestir, "my dear Father, is the cardinal point of the whole game, y'know." He scratched the back of his left hand. "Duty. And I must say, I think you're being quite short-sighted about the Casting Off date. After all, it's not only a question of how we go, but also a question of leaving only after having done our duty. And that's equally important."
"The Synod of Cathau—" Nestir began.
"Plague take it, Father! Really, now, I must say. The Synod of Cathau! Certainly you've misinterpreted that. Anticipation can be a joy, y'know: almost equal to the very Reward. Anticipation should spur man in duty. It's all noble and self sacrificing." He scratched the back of his right hand.
The second mate had been trying to get a word in edgewise for several minutes; he finally succeeded by utilizing the temporary silence following the captain's outburst.
"You don't need to worry about your Casting Off, Captain. You can leave that to me. I assure you, I have in mind a most ingenious method."
The captain was not visibly cheered; he was still brooding about the sad absence of a sense of duty on the part of Nestir. "I will welcome it," he said, "at the proper time, sir. And I certainly hope—" His eyes swept the table. "I certainly hope to be Cast Off by an officer. It would be very humiliating, y'know, to have a crew member do it."
"Oh, very," said the steward.
"I don't know," the second mate's wife said, "whether you better count on my husband or not. I have my own plans for him."
"This problem of Carstar interests me," the third mate said. "Did I ever tell you about my wife? She strangled our second baby."
"He was a very annoying child," his wife said.
"He probably wouldn't have lived, anyway," the third mate said. "Puny baby."
"That," said Nestir, "is not at all like the Carstar case. Not at all. Yours is a question of saliex y cuminzund."
The first mate nodded.
"It seems to me that the whole thing would depend on the intent of the strangler."
"Captain," the steward said, "you really must let me give you some of that salve."
"That's very kind of you, but I...."
"No bother at all," the steward said.
"As I see it," Nestir said, "if the intent was the natural maternal instinct of the mother to release her child from its duty, then...."
"Oh, not at all," the third mate's wife said. "I did it to make him stop crying."
"Well, in that case, I see no reason why he shouldn't get his Reward."
"I certainly hope so," the third mate said. "Jane worries about it all the time."
"I do not," Jane contradicted.
"Now, honey, you know you do so."
At that moment, he lost interest in his wife and leaned across the table toward the captain, "Well?" he asked.
The captain rolled the wine over his tongue. "You were right, of course."
The third mate turned triumphantly to the first mate. "There, I told you so."
The first mate shrugged. "I never do say nothin' right," he said. "I hain't got no luck. I've spent more years un all ya, carpenterin' up a duty log that's better un even th' captain's. An' hit's Martha an' me that gotta wait an' help th' next crew. Lord above knows how long time hit'll be afore we uns'll got ta have a Festival."
"Oh, really, now. Now. Duty, duty," the captain reprimanded him mildly.
"Duty! Duty! Duty! You all ur in a conspiracy. You all want me ta die uv old age."
"Nonsense," said the steward. "We don't want anything of the sort. After all, someone has to orient the new crew."
"Quite right," said the captain. "You ought to be proud."
The first mate slammed his napkin in the middle of his food and stalked out of the mess hall.
"Quite touchy today," Nestir observed.
"By the way," the third mate said. "Wanda gave me a petition to give to you, Father."
"Yes. She's sixteen, now."
"Wanda who?" the steward asked.
"Wanda Miller, the bosun's daughter."
"I know her," Helen said.
"She's the oldest child on the ship, and she wants you to sign her adult petition so she can be in the Festival, Father."
"She's so young...."
"After all, one must have done some duty," the captain said.
"He wants you to sign it so he can take her in the Changing of the Wives," Jane said.
Nestir fidgeted uncomfortably. "Well, I'll look at her record," he said.
"It's an idea," the second mate said. "Otherwise, we'll be short one woman."
"There wouldn't be one short if he had brought a wife," the first mate's wife said, looking squarely at the captain.
"Now, Martha. I place duty above pleasure. You're just angry, y'know, because you have to stay with your husband."
"All right, so I am. But it's true. And if Carstar hadn't been killed, there would have been two short." She shot a wicked glance at Nestir. "Why don't you and him share a woman—"
"Although the Prophet knows what woman in her right mind would consent to...."
"Well," said Nestir hesitantly.
"Listen," the third mate said, "the second's right. If you don't sign it, someone will have to do without a woman."
Nestir blushed. "I'll look it over very carefully, but you must realize that the priestcraft...."
"Actually, in a way, it would be her duty to, you see. Think of it like that: as her way to do her duty."
"She's too young for you, dear," Jane said to her husband.
"Oh, I don't know," the steward said. "Sometimes they're the best, I hear."
The third mate, whose name was Harry, stood before the mirror combing his hair. He had been combing his hair for the last fifteen minutes.
"I suppose the crew is celebrating?" his wife said.
She stood up and walked over to the dresser. Absently she began to finger the articles on it.
"You really shouldn't have told them about little Glenn tonight."
"No, Harry. I mean it. Helen looked at me strangely all through dinner. She has three children, you know."
"You're imagining things."
"But she does have three children."
"I mean about her looking at you."
Harry fiddled with his tie without speaking.
"I mean, as much as to say: 'Well, I raised all of mine.'"
"But honey, about little Glenn. That was an accident, almost. You didn't really mean to choke him that hard."
"But still ... it ... I mean, there was Helen, looking at me like I wasn't doing my duty. You know."
"No," he said. "That's nonsense, Jane. Sheer nonsense. You know what the priest said."
He polished one of his brass buttons with the sleeve of his coat.
"I don't think all that is necessary just to go on duty."
She walked to the bed and sat down. "Harry?"
"Don't you really think she's awful young?"
"I mean, why don't you pick someone else? Like Mary? She's awful sweet. I'll bet she'd be better."
"She's a lot of fun."
He brushed at his hair again. "Who do you want, Jane?"
"Oh, I don't know." She looked down at her legs, raised them up from the floor and held them out in front of her. "I think I'd kind of like Nestir. With his funny bald head. I hope he asks me."
"I'll mention it to him."
"Would you really, Harry? That would be sweet."
"Sure, honey." He looked down at his watch.
"Harry? Are you going to meet Wanda in the control room?"
"I thought so. Well, remember this, dear: It isn't the day of the Changing of the Wives yet. Don't forget."
"Honey! You don't think for a minute that...."
"No, dear. I know you wouldn't. But just don't, I mean."
He walked over and kissed her forehead and patted her cheek. "Course not," he said, comfortingly.
He left her sitting on the bed and strolled down the officers' corridor, whistling.
He made a mental note to have the bosun send some of the crew in tomorrow to wash down these bulkheads. They needed it. In one corner a spider spun its silver web.
He jogged up the companionway, turned left and felt the air as fresh as spring when he stepped under the great ventilator.
And beneath it lay one of the crew.
He kicked the man several times in the ribs until he came to consciousness.
"Can't sleep here, my man," Harry explained.
"Awww. Go way an' le' me 'lone, huh?"
"Here. Here." He pulled the fellow erect and slapped him in the face briskly. "This is the officers' corridor."
"Oh? Ish it? Schorry. Shore schorry, shir. So schorry."
Harry assisted him to the crew's corridor where he sank to the floor and relapsed once more into a profound slumber.
Harry continued on to the control room.
When he entered it, the second mate was yawning.
"Hi, John. Sleepy?"
"Uh-huh. You're early."
"Don't mind, do you?"
"No ... Quiet tonight. Had to cut the motors an hour ago. Control technician passed out."
The second mate took out a cigarette and lit it. "Can't blow the ship up, you know. Look like hell on the record. Hope the captain don't find out about it, though. He'll figure the man was neglecting his duty."
He blew a smoke ring.
"Might even bar him from the Festival."
"Yeah," said Harry, "the captain's funny that way."
The second mate blew another smoke ring.
"Well," Harry said.
"Uh. Harry? Are you really going to take that Wanda girl?"
"If Nestir lets me."
"Say. Harry. Do you suppose your wife would...?"
Harry crossed to the second mate and put a hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, old fellow. She's got it in her head to take Nestir." He shrugged. "I don't exactly approve, of course, but ... I'm sure if he doesn't want her, she'd be glad to hear your offer."
"Aw, that's all right," John said. "Don't really matter. Say. By the way. Have I told you what I intend to do to the captain? I've got it all thought out. You know that saber I picked up on Queglat? Well...."
"Look. How about telling me another time?"
"Uh, Sure. If you say so. Uh?"
"I'm kind of expecting Wanda."
"Oh. Sure. I should have known you weren't here early for nothing. In that case, I better be shoving off. Luck."
"Thanks. See you at breakfast."
After the second mate left, Harry walked over to the control panel. The jet lights were dead. He picked up the intercom and switched over the engine call bell. "'Lo," he said into the microphone. "This is the bridge.... Oh, hi, Barney. Harry.... Have you got a sober control technician down there yet...? Fine. We'll start the jets again. If the captain comes in now—well, you know how he is.... Okay, thanks. Night."
He replaced the microphone. He reached over and threw the forward firing lever. The jet lights came on and the ship began to brake acceleration again.
Having done that, he switched on the space viewer. The steady buzz of the equipment warming sounded in his ears. Wanda would be sure to want to look at the stars. She was simple minded.
He swiveled around. "Oh, hello, Wanda, honey."
"Hello, Haireee. Are you glad little ol' me could come, huh?"
"Me, too. Can I look at the—oh. It's already on."
"Uh-huh. Look. Wanda."
"I talked to Nestir today."
"Goody. What did he say, huh? I can be an adult and get to play in the Festival, can I?"
"I don't know, yet. He's thinking about it. That's why I want to see you. He's going to check your record. And Wanda?"
"Them stars shore are purty."
"Wanda, listen to me."
"I'm a-listenin', Haireee."
"You're simply going to have to stop carrying that doll around with you if you want to be an adult."
In Nestir's cabin the next morning, the captain and the priest held a conference.
"No, Captain. I'm afraid I can't agree to that," Nestir said.
The captain said, "Oh, don't be unreasonable, Father. After all, this is a ship, y'know. And I am, after all, the captain."
Nestir shook his head. "The crew and the officers will participate together in the Festival. I will not put the officers' corridor off limits, and—Oh! Yes? Come in!"
The door opened. "Father?"
"Yes, my son? Come in."
"Thank you, Father. Good morning, Captain, sir."
"Sit down, my son. Now, Captain, as I was saying: no segregation. It's contrary to the spirit, if not the wording, of the Jarcon."
"But Father! A crewman! In the officers' corridor! Think!"
"Before the Prophet, we are all equal. I'm sorry, Captain. Now on Koltah, we practiced it with very good results, and...."
"I say, really—"
"Father?" said the crewman who had just entered.
"Yes, my son. In one moment. Now, Captain. As I have been explaining: The arena method has advantages. In Koltah we always used it. But here—due to the—ah—exigencies of deep space—I feel convinced that a departure from normal procedure is warranted. It is not without precedent. Such things were fairly common, in astoli tavoro, up until centralization, three hundred years before Allth. Indeed, in my home city—Koltah—in the year of the seventh plague, a most unusual expedient was adopted. It seems...."
"You're perfectly correct, of course," the captain said.
"That's just what I wanted to see you about, Father," the crewman said. "Now, in my city state of Ni, for the Festivals, we...."
"Shut up," said the captain softly.
"Now, as I was saying, Captain, when the methods used in...."
"If you'll excuse me, Father, I really should return to duty," said the crewman.
"Quite all right, my son. Close the door after you."
"I must say, fellow, your sense of duty is commendable."
"Well, uh, thank you, sir. And thank you, Father, for your time."
"Quite all right, my son. That's what I'm here for. Come in as often as you like."
The crewman closed the door after him.
He had been gone only a moment, scarcely time for Nestir to get properly launched on his account, when Harry, the third mate, knocked on the door and was admitted.
"Oh? Good morning, Captain. I didn't know you were here." Then, to the priest: "I'll come back later, Father."
"Nonsense," said the captain. "Come in."
"Well, I had hoped to see the Father for a minute on ... private business."
"I have to be toddling along," said the captain.
"But Captain! I haven't finished telling you about...."
"I'll just go down and get a cup of coffee," the captain said.
"I'll call you when I'm through," said Harry.
The captain left the room.
"It's about Wanda, Father," said the third mate.
The priest studied the table top. He rearranged some papers. "Ah, yes. The young girl."
"Well, I mean, it's not only about Wanda," said Harry. "You see, my wife, Jane, that is...."
"Yes?" said the priest. He took his pen out of the holder.
"I think, with the proper ... ah ... you know. What I mean is, I think she might look with favor on you in the Changing of the Wives, if I said a few well chosen words in your behalf."
"That is very flattering, my son." He returned the pen to the holder. "Such bounty, as it says in the Jarcon, is cull tensio."
"And with your permission, Father...."
"She's a very pretty woman."
"Ah.... Quite so."
"Well, about Wanda. I really shouldn't mention this. But Father, if we are short one woman...."
"I mean, the girls might think a man gets rusty."
"I see what you mean." Nestir blinked his eyes. "It wouldn't be fair, all things considered."
He stood up.
"I may tell you, my son, that, in thinking this matter over last night, I decided that Wanda—ah—Miller, yes, has had sufficient duty to merit participation in the Festival."
"Justice is a priestly virtue," Harry said.
"And you really think your wife would...?"
"Oh, yes, Father."
"Well, ahem. But...."
"Ad dulce verboten."
"That is to say, in order for a woman to join in the ritual of the Changing of the Wives, she must, ahem, be married."
"I never thought of that," said the third mate disconsolately.
"I think that can be arranged, however," said Nestir. "If you go by the mess hall on your way out, please tell the captain we can continue our discussion at his pleasure."
"Sit down, Captain," said Nestir, when the captain entered. "No. Over there, in the comfortable chair. There. Are you comfortable, Captain?"
"Of course I am."
"Good. I have a question to ask you, Captain."
Nestir rubbed his bald head. "Sir," he said by way of preamble, "I know you have the greatest sensibility in questions of duty."
"That's quite so, y'know. I pride myself upon it, if I do say so."
"Exactly. Argot y calpex. No sacrifice is too great."
"Well, then, say the first day of Wenslaus, that would be—ah, a Zentahday—I may depend upon you to wed Wanda Miller, the bosun's daughter, yes?"
"No," said the captain.
"Come now, sir. I realize she is the daughter of a crewman, but—"
"Father," said the captain, "did I ever tell you about the time I led an expeditionary force against Zelthalta?"
"I don't believe you have."
"Then I will tell you. Came about this way. I was given command of fifty-three thousand Barains. Savage devils. Uncivilized, but fine fighters. I was to march them ninety-seven miles across the desert that...."
"Captain! I fear I must be very severe with you. I will be forced to announce in the mess hall this evening that you have refused to do your duty when it was plainly and properly called to your attention."
"Very well, Father," the captain said after several minutes. "I will do it."
He was trembling slightly.
That morning was to be the time of the captain's wedding. He had insisted that it be done in privacy. For the ceremony, he refused to make the slightest change in his everyday uniform; nor would he consent to Nestir's suggestion that he carry a nosegay of hydroponic flowers. He had intended, after the ceremony, to go about his duty as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened; but after it was done with, the vast indignity of it came home to him even more poignantly than he had imagined it would.
Without a word, he left the priest's stateroom and walked slowly, ponderously, with great dignity, to his own.
It was a very fine stateroom. The finest, but for Nestir's, in the whole ship. The velvet and gold drapes (his single esthetic joy) were scented with exotic perfume. The carpet was an inch and a half thick.
He walked through his office without breaking his stride.
The bed was large and fluffy. An unbroken expanse of white coverlette jutting out from the far bulkhead. It looked as soft as feather down.
Without even a sigh, he threw himself upon the bed and lay very, very quiet. His left leg was suspended in the air, intersecting, at the thigh, the plane of the coverlet at forty-five degrees; the number of degrees remained stiffly, unrelaxingly forty-five.
Only after a long, long time did he roll over on his back and then it was merely to stare fixedly at the ceiling.
It is entirely possible that he would have lain there until Doomsday had not his introspection been, around noon, interrupted by an apologetic tap on the door.
"Come in," he whispered, hoping she would not hear him and go away.
But she heard him.
"Husband," Wanda said simply. She closed the door behind her and stood staring at him.
"Madam," he said, "I hope you will have the kindness not to refer to me by that indecent appelation a second time."
"Gee. You say the cutest things. I'm awful glad you had to marry me, huh."
The captain stood up, adjusted his coat and his shoulders, and walked across the room to the dressing table. He opened the left-hand drawer, removed a bottle, poured himself half a water-glass full and drank it off.
"Ah," he said.
He returned to the bed and sat down.
"Can'tcha even say hello ta little ol' me, huh?" she asked.
"Hello," he said. "Madam, sit down. I intend to give you an instructive lecture in the natural order of...."
"Ah," he said. "Quite true, of course."
She walked over to the chair and sat down. "I don't like them," she said. "Them cloth things over there."
"Those, Madam," he said, "are priceless drapes I had imported from the province of San Xalthan. They have a long, strange history.
"About three thousand years ago, a family by the name of Soong was forced to flee from the city of Xan because the eldest son of the family had become involved in a conspiracy against the illustrious King Fod. As the Soong family was traveling...."
"I don't like 'em anyway," said Wanda.
"Madam," said the captain, "kindly bring me that."
"Yes. Thank you."
He took the doll from her. He got up again, walked to the chest of drawers, searched around for a penknife. Finally he located it under a stack of socks.
He returned to the bed. Sitting on the edge, he began to rip the doll along the seams with the penknife. Very carefully he emptied the sawdust out upon the carpet, and with equal deliberation, he cut up the canvas covering into small patches. Within fifteen minutes, for he worked very slowly, the doll was completely destroyed.
He laid the penknife on the night stand by his bed. He took out a match and struck it across the bottom of his shoe; he bent over and ignited the remains of the doll.
"You'll burn yer rug," Wanda said.
"Yes," the captain said, "I will. Be so kind as to close the door when you leave."
The next day the captain appeared at mess.
The third mate said, "I want to thank you for what you done for me, Captain."
"Don't mention it," the captain said, bisecting a pilchard with his fork.
"It's nice Wanda gets to be in the Festival," Jane said. "It pleases my husband so."
"I'm very excited about it all," the steward said.
The first mate turned his egg over with his fork and peered suspiciously at the underside of it. "Hit's all right fur you uns ta feel excited. Martha an' me are still purty bitter."
"Yes," Martha said, "I don't see why the children couldn't take care of themselves."
"Who'd get the new crew out of ice?" John, the second mate, said.
"That," the first mate admitted, "is th' problem. Can'tcha even cook an aig?" he asked the steward.
"What's the matter with the egg?" the third mate asked.
"Hit hain't cooked right," the first mate insisted.
"Helen," the captain said, "may I see you after the meal?"
Helen looked demurely into her plate. "Certainly, captain. But if it's about the Changing of the Wives, I've already been asked for."
"And," John said proudly, "I'll bet she was one of the first ones asked."
"Nestir asked my wife almost a month ago," said Harry. "She was the very first."
"Well," the captain said, "that's what I had in mind." He turned to survey the table. His eyes lit upon Mary, the steward's wife.
She looked at him and shook her head. "John already asked me."
"Well," the captain said, "I must say, this is a very fine breakfast, steward. I dearly love pilchards for breakfast. Convey my compliments to the cook."
"Captain," said Nestir, "I was telling the men ... just before you came ... in about the great pageant of Koltah in the year of '93. At the time, in a special celebration—annum mirabelei—we decided to observe the ancient customs of Meizque. The customs are of some interest, and I thought we might apply several of them to our own Festival."
"Whatever you wish," said the captain tiredly, stirring his coffee.
Before Nestir could resume his account, John interrupted. "I want to mention this again. I have a very special treatment for you, Captain. You should be encouraged by that. No one will ever have a better Casting Off than you."
"Thank you," said the captain. "I shall look forward to it." He laid down his spoon. "Oh, Anne. May I see you?"
"I'm sorry," said the wife of Barney, the engineer. "Really and truly I am, but I've already been asked, too."
"Oh," said the captain.
He looked over at the last officer's wife, Leota. But he quickly looked away.
"Well," he said, "this is a fine breakfast we have this morning steward."
"Thank you, sir. I'll tell the cook."
Jane said, in order to stave off the encroaching silence, "Nestir, how old are you?"
"Going on forty—Jane."
"The prime of life," the steward said.
"Ah," the captain said thoughtfully. "Leota...."
She looked up and soundlessly her mouth formed the words, "Too late."
The captain dropped the spoon to his plate.
Silence fell. It grew prolonged and uncomfortable. Finally the first mate said, "Hit hain't the right way to cook aigs, damn hit."
The captain said, "Father, I say. All the officers' wives have been asked."
"Yes," said Nestir. "They have, haven't they?"
"Do you suppose it would be all right if I just...."
"You know the rules," Nestir said sternly.
"That's what I was afraid you'd say," said the captain. He looked up at the ceiling; his face was placid. He reached up with his right hand and began to scratch his chin. He scratched his chin for a long time, scarcely breathing.
The officers and their wives were silent, waiting for him to speak.
"I believe I'll have another cup of coffee," he said at last.
"Yes, sir," said the steward, snapping his fingers for the waiter.
Martha said: "You should have asked earlier."
"I know," the captain said. "Father, I really don't see why I have to Change Wives."
"But Harry will have yours that day. And you know the rules."
"There are a lot of good-looking women in the crew," the steward said.
"Quite a number," said the captain.
He arose from the table and steadied himself a moment. "Never mind the coffee," he said. "I shouldn't drink over one cup for breakfast. I believe it aggravates my scrofula."
He turned, and walked out of the mess hall.
He walked very straight and tall. He walked down the crew's corridor toward their quarters.
Shortly he saw a woman coming out of one of the cabins.
"Madam," he said.
She came over to him. "Yes, sir?"
"Madam," he said, "Madam, I...."
"Would ja like to have a drink of water? It's right down this way, an' then ya turn ta the left."
"No ... uh. I.... Madam, would you honor me by becoming my partner for the night of the Changing of the Wives?"
She balanced on the balls of her feet and looked up at him. "Yur th' captain, ain'tcha?"
"Yes," he said. "I am."
"Sure, I'll do hit," she said. "I'd be mighty proud ta."
The captain turned away and then turned back. "Madam," he said, "what is your name?"
"Joanne Marie. Jest ask for me. Everybody down here knows me."
"Joanne Marie, Joanne Marie," he repeated under his breath. He shuddered and turned to go.
The day of the Changing of the Wives came to the ship. It was a very important ritualistic day, held, always, three weeks and one day before the Festival of the Casting Off.
The morning of the day, Nestir spoke to the assembled complement. He explained its symbolic importance: he explained its historic development; he delivered, in cretia ultimatum est, an exegesis on the Jarcon. And then he took off the cloak of priestcraft and cast it to the floor. "For I am," he said, "Ah, a man as you are men."
Then, being no longer empowered to pronounce a benediction (under normal conditions, the function of a younger priest), he left the cheering members of Flight Seventeen A and sped directly to his stateroom.
The afternoon passed uneventfully. The complement of the ship moved about their routine chores tingling in anticipation of the evening.
At the evening meal, a new seating arrangement was instituted at the insistence of the steward and the third mate. The newly formed couples were to sit side by side.
To accomplish this, it was necessary to set two extra plates in the officers' mess. One, for Wanda, next to the third mate; and one, for Joanne Marie, beside the captain.
"Please pass the meat," the third mate said.
Nestir handed it across to him.
"Thank you, Father."
"Today, in culpa res, I no longer have that honor," Nestir reminded him. "The blood-red cloak of priestcraft will never again touch my shoulders this side of the Reward."
"I'd be a little sad," said the steward.
"Oh, I don't know," the third mate said.
"It probably all depends," Helen, the wife of the second mate, agreed.
"Hit's a far, far better thing I do," the first mate said sonorously. He was a little drunk.
The captain speared one pea and ate it. "I envy you," he said, looking over at Joanne Marie.
Wanda Miller, who had already upset her glass of water in the third mate's lap, said, "Pass the biscuits, hey.... You uns have better'n we do."
"No," said the steward, "not at all, my dear. We eat the same as the crew."
"Yes; precisely so," the third mate said.
"Except ours is fixed up a little differently," said Jane.
"An' our cook can't fry an aig," the first mate said.
"I wouldn't say that," said the captain.
"Shucks," Joanne Marie said, "anybody can fry an aig."
"On the contrary, Madam. I recall once, when I was a political adviser for the Kong regime...."
"Do you mean mea-Kong?" the steward asked.
"No, that was in Koltah."
"Yes," Nestir said. "I am very familiar with them. They...."
"That's not the one I meant," the captain snapped.
Nestir leaped to his feet. "Well!" he said loudly. "I'm through eating."
"Oh, come now, old man. There's no hurry, really, y'know," the captain insisted gently.
"Ain't there?" Joanne Marie asked. "Gee. I can see you sure ain't like my husband. I mean my ex." She giggled.
"Well, I guess I'm finished, too," Jane said. "Well. Good night, Harry."
"Good night, dear."
In the mess hall, the lights were out. The figure of the captain loomed like a stark obelisk in the gloom.
"Captain, sir, we uns uv been sittin' here at this table fur hours an' hours. I'm gettin' purty tired us sittin'."
"It's not long until the Festival," he said.
"When the mess boy cleared away all them dishes, I thought shore you'd leave, then."
"Oh, no," said the captain. "This is very exciting."
"It ain't, the way I see it," Joanne Marie said.
"Different perspective, Madam. Doubtless you would not have considered it very exciting either, the time I ran a wagon train from Tamask-Cha. You see, the material was to be delivered on a mining contract. Madam, I can assure you it was hot. The only road was a narrow line across the Ubiq desert. And late the first evening...."
"I can see it warn't very exciting," Joanne Marie said.
"I am getting sleepy," the captain said at length.
"Oh, I'm usually awake this late. Shucks, I'm used to it. Sometimes I jest get ta sleep when it's time ta get up. But I do wish we'd go to bed."
"Madam, your language!"
"All I said was...."
"I know; I know," the captain said. "Madam, come to my stateroom. You may sleep on the sofa."
"Weeeel," Joanne Marie said, "I ain't a-sayin' that. I know my rights."
"Let us not be difficult. I am certain, when I explain to you in a logical fashion the obvious impossibility of—of—"
"You got no wife?"
"No," he said.
"Yeah. I thought not. That sure is swell."
"Madam. Perhaps I can say it this way. I have certain perturbations, but I can assure you, whatever you attempt my aim is inflexible. For me, the Captain, to—ah—consort with a crew woman is preposterous."
"Is that what you call it? Now that's a funny word. My husband calls it—"
Joanne Marie was cowed into silence. They walked directly to his stateroom.
Once inside, Joanne Marie said, "Now ya jest sit down, comfortable like. I got somethin' I want to tell ya."
"No," the captain said.
"I ain't even told ja yet."
"It won't matter," the captain said.
"My husband don't like me," she said.
He dropped his head into his hands and sighed deeply. Then he looked up, his face set in icy resignation.
John, the second mate, awoke early the morning of the Festival.
"Helen, honey," he said. "Wake up."
She murmured sleepily.
"Come on, now, wake up."
She rolled over to her side of the bed.
"All right," he said. He reached out, fumbled for and found his cigarettes.
"You know what I'm going to do to the captain?" he asked. He lit a cigarette and lying on his back blew smoke rings at the ceiling.
"Yes," his wife said, "you told me."
"First, I'm going to take that saber I got on Queglat and scrape open his scrofula. Then, when he's bleeding nicely, all I have to do is pour a bottle of alcohol on him. Don't you think that will be nice?"
"You know, I'm kinda sorry I went to all the trouble sharpening that saber. After all, it might be more painful if the saber was dull."
"But then, on the other hand...."
"Dear, will you hand me a cigarette?"
He shook out a cigarette, lit it off his and handed it to her.
"So what do you think?"
"It doesn't matter, dear," she said.
"Oh, but it does matter," John insisted. "I think it's very important." He snubbed out his cigarette. "It's all the little details that one should take into account. Can't be too careful about something like that."
He rolled over on his back again. "I'm hungry," he said.
"I really thought they should have served breakfast," Helen said.
"Well, it wouldn't be right to leave all those dirty dishes for the second crew."
"I mean just sandwiches."
"Yes," he said, "they could have made up some sandwiches. I think, though, I'd settle for a cup of tea."
"I could brew you some on the hot plate."
"It's too much bother," John said. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind?"
"No. If you'll get up and put the water on."
"All right," he said.
He threw his legs over the side, fumbled with his feet for the house slippers, padded to the hot plate, put the water on, and came back to bed.
"We've still got an hour before the bell," he said.
"Are you going to shave?"
"I don't think so; not today," he said.
"By the way, honey; what's in that can over there?"
"Fuel oil," she said.
"What's it for?"
"You'd be surprised," she said.
After a while, the water began to sizzle against the sides of the pan.
"Time to get up," she said. She crawled over her husband, slipped into a robe, and proceeded to brew the tea.
"It's not much of a breakfast, John."
"Say," he said, "where's my bottle of alcohol for the captain."
"I set it over by the medicine cabinet, out of the way."
"I wonder if it'll be enough?" he mused.
"I hope so," she said. "Are you going to get up, or must I serve you this tea in bed? I will if you want me to."
"I'll get up," he said. He got up.
"Let's take it in the nook to drink," he said.
"Oh? Why not?"
"One of the legs is off the table."
"If you'd told me, I'd fixed it."
"Never mind," she said.
They each drank two cups of tea; and then each dressed for the Festival.
After that, they sat in silence, awaiting the bell to signal the start of the Festival.
"I'm going to hurry out," John said at length, "as soon as the bell rings, so I can stand outside the captain's door and get him when he comes out."
"That's not fair, John," she said. "You're supposed to wait for the second bell before you can even start to Cast anyone Off."
"I know," said John, "but this way, I'll be sure to get the captain."
"Well," she said, "I'm certainly glad you have that attitude."
He asked, after more silence, "What are you going to do?"
"I think I'll stay here for a little while," she said.
"Yes, that might—"
The bell rang soundingly throughout the ship.
"Time to go," John said. He grabbed his saber. "Where's the alcohol?"
"In there," she said.
He skidded into the bathroom, pocketed the alcohol, and started for the door.
"Aren't you even going to kiss me good-by?"
"Oh, sure. Forgot." He crossed to her, bent down and kissed her. She put her left arm around his neck. With her right hand, she located the table leg she had placed behind her pillow.
John drew away and half turned. "Good—"
She hit him in the left temple with the table leg. He went down like a poleaxed steer.
She laughed happily.
When the bell sounded for the people to separate, preparatory to the hunt proper, the captain got up and buckled on his huge infantry sword. He had spent most of the night sharpening it.
He had after long hours of considering, decided that there was only one honorable course left to him. He would defend himself.
For if he were the Sole Survivor of the hunt, he would be Cast Off properly by the first mate. Otherwise....
The possibility that it might be done by a crewman was staggeringly humiliating. He would salvage his honor from that final indignity at all costs.
Of course, if he were captured by an officer, it would be a different matter entirely; he would surrender and submit like the gentleman he was. But a crewman....
He took the sword out of the scabbard and rubbed his thumb along the side of it.
He swung it, and it whistled in the air crisply, pleasingly.
He grasped it firmly in his right hand and walked to the door. He threw open the door and jumped back and away.
But it was safe; there was no one outside.
He stepped into the corridor.
He looked both ways. He listened.
Then he began to run, swiftly, silently, on his toes.
At the first intersection, he stopped and surveyed the crossing corridor.
To his left, almost at the far bend, he saw a crewman; however, the man was not looking in his direction, and the captain felt that he could be reasonably safe from detection if he crossed quickly enough. He sprinted across the open space.
On the other side, he stopped and waited. After several minutes of silence, he knew that he could safely continue.
He ran for a long distance.
Finally, safely down in the second level, he slowed to a walk. He was breathing heavily; it was very loud, and his footsteps echoed hollowly.
He was alone down there. He could tell that.
At the Jonson bend, he breathed a sigh of relief. Ahead was the empty corridor that led to the dead end, Forward. He could see down it, clear to the bulkhead. And as he knew it would be, it was devoid of life and movement.
He sat down to wait out the long day.
He scratched his chin.
He would have nothing to do until the closing bell. At which time he would be forced to go to the assembly area.
As would anyone else, according to the rules of the Festival as laid down by Nestir, who had not yet been sent to his Reward.
That would be a dangerous time. For then there would be no esthetic consideration. It would be a fight amongst all assembling for the final honor of Sole Survivor. One could expect no mercy: clean, quick sword stroke, no more. No suffering at all.
It was not a pleasant prospect. But to be the coveted Sole Survivor compensated for the risk.
The captain laid the sword across his lap and petted it.
He would fight. And no crew member need expect to be the man Cast Off by the first mate; that was to be the captain's fate.
The second bell called to the ship shrilly.
The hunt was on!
Martha and the first mate assembled the children in the large, comfortable hospital. The steward's department had fixed them all a lunch. The children were silent, for the angry brow of the first mate was a complete damper on their usual animal spirits. There was no holiday happiness.
The children moved around and fell into little, shifting groups. Several of them began to game at marbles, but the first mate broke it up before it degenerated into a fist fight.
"Well, there goes the hunting bell," Martha said.
"Yes," the mate said, "hit do, don't hit."
"I think they could have a regular nurse for this sort of thing," Martha said.
The mate grunted. "Humph. I shore hope they uns don't raise no ruckus. I've got me a splittin' haidache."
"Shhhh. Listen. I thought I heard someone scream."
"Yep," the mate said. "I was sure afraid uv hit; won't be able to heyar myself think all day long. I'm a-tellin' ya, Martha, if these young uns start a-actin' up, too, I'm jest a-gonna take a knife an' split this here haid open, Reward or no Reward."
"That's not a nice way to talk," Martha said.
"No, hit hain't. But I'm a-sayin' hit."
"I'll tell you what I'll do," Martha said. "I'll call all the children together and tell them nursery stories. That oughta keep them quiet. And you go over there and lay down where there won't be anyone to bother you."
"All right, Martha, an' I shore do thankee."
The first mate made his way to the farthest bed, sat down, took off his shoes, and stretched out on it. He reached up and felt his head tenderly.
"Children," Martha called. "Oh, children! I want you all to come over here."
Reluctantly, the children obeyed her.
"That's right," she said. "Now. You all sit down and make yourselves comfortable, and be still as mice so my husband can sleep, and I'll tell you stories. And then, after a while, we'll eat the nice lunch the steward fixed for us, and we'll all have the bestest time."
"I don't like you," one of the little boys said.
"Little boy," Martha said, "I don't like you, either."
"Oh," the little boy said.
"Now," Martha said, "I'm going to tell you the wonderful story about a very pretty Princess and a very pretty Prince: Once upon a time, there was a land called Zont. It sank long ago under the big, salty sea of Zub...."
"My name's Joey," the little boy said.
"Well, Joey," Martha said, "do you see that long, steel rod over there, where we hang clothing from?"
"If you don't shut your little mouth, I'll hang you on it by your thumbs."
"Betcha ya won't," one of the little girls said.
"Once upon a time," Martha said, "there was this handsome Prince and pretty Princess. But the father of the Princess, King Exaltanta, was a heathen and did not believe in the Prophet. Now. When a true believer, kind King Farko, captured King Exaltanta's kingdom, the deposed king hid his daughter in the deepest dungeon.
"Now when the fair Prince, who was the son of King Farko, and whose name was William, heard of the Princess in the dungeon, he decided that he would rescue her and marry her. And after she had had one child by him, the two of them would travel to the Holy City of Meizque to participate in the Changing of the Wives and the Festival there.
"Well, it so happened that King Farko got a special dispensation from the Great Priest to send the members of Exaltanta's family to their Reward without their consent. As he prepared the ceremonies—they were to be very simple: for, after all, the royal household members weren't true believers, and would consequently need to spend a million years (at least) as Outcasts before entering into their Reward, anyhow—as he prepared the ceremonies...."
"But does everyone get a Reward? Even people who don't believe?" a little girl asked, wide eyed.
"Nearly everyone, my child. The Prophet was not a cruel man. Of course, people who try to Cast themselves Off never, never, never get a Reward. But others, everybody else, all get theirs. It's only a question of how long they have to wait. Sometimes, as when they're unbelievers, it may be a long, long, long time, but...."
"I know that," Joey said.
Martha looked up at him and sighed; she stood up. "Come with me, dear," she said.
At that moment, the door flew open with a loud bang.
The first mate, who had been asleep, sat bolt upright on the bed. "God damn hit!" he screamed. "My haid!"
"Oh," said a crew member, who was dragging a woman by the hair, "I'm terribly sorry. I didn't know you were in here. I just came in to Cast Mary Jane Off in privacy." He waved an odd-looking instrument at Martha by way of amplification.
"Hello, mummy," one of the smaller girls said to the woman.
"Oh, why, hello, honey. Are you having fun?"
"Oh, yes, mummy."
Mary Jane looked at the crewman. "Well, Bob," she said, "I guess we'll just have to go some place else."
"Well, git hout er come in, but shut that door! That noise out there is a-tearin' off my haid!"
The crewman called Bob dragged the woman called Mary Jane out of the room. She pulled the door closed behind her.
"Well, children," Martha said, "we ought to get back to my story. Now, King Farko, as you will remember, received a special dispensation...."
Nestir locked his door when the separation bell sounded.
Having done that, he proceeded to fix himself a meal. It was a simple one, consisting only of what material he had been able to steal from the steward's department the previous night.
As he ate, he reflected upon his course of action. It was, he could see, going to be difficult to justify at the Reward. But he had been a priest, and because of that he was reasonably well grounded in theological dialectics.
The Festival, of course, was a fine thing. But it had its weak points. Chief among them being that the Casting Off was left to inexperienced hands, and certainly, if there was ever a time when experience was required, then the Casting Off was that time. One should be Cast Off at leisure; suffering long and deliciously. A state hero, for instance, honored by being Cast Off by one of the King's Guards, certainly died the best death imaginable.
In the present case, although the death as Sole Survivor was to come at the hands of the first mate (who really lacked the training for such a position of trust), it would be the best Casting Off available. For the first mate could follow instructions, and Nestir had written the instructions.
Nestir intended to remain in the stateroom all day; the hunt would go merrily along without him.
When the assembly bell rang, he would still remain in his stateroom.
Then, late at night, he would leave. He would slip down to the first mate's stateroom and determine from him where the premature Sole Survivor slept. Then he would find him and Cast him Off in his sleep. And Nestir would be the actual Sole Survivor.
Nestir could justify his conduct by virtue of the little known theological clause: ego bestum alpha todas. A decision handed down by the High Court of the Prophet (Malin vs the Estate of Kattoa: T & C, '98) nearly a hundred years previously.
Nestir had, in his hip pocket, a small vial of slow-acting poison. He would drink it just before Casting the man Off. Then were he not handled the next day by the first mate, he would die the Outcast death, by his own hand.
He did not doubt his ability to convince Them at the Reward. It would be difficult, but it was not beyond his ability. Certainly, if no one took the opportunity of Casting him Off as he sat behind the locked door of his room, it wasn't Nestir's fault.
The bosun pushed the ventilator grill away and jumped out of the shaft even before it hit the carpet.
He landed catlike, his knees bending springily to absorb the shock. He landed directly behind Nestir and pushed the little man against the wall.
Nestir struggled out of the wreckage of the chair.
"How ... why ... why...?" he said.
"Ah-ha," the bosun said. "Fooled ja, didn't I?"
The bosun was carrying a thin rapier.
"Let's discuss this," Nestir said. "One must go about these things slowly."
"Sorry," the bosun said.
"My God," said Nestir, "you can't Cast me Off just like that: without any suffering!"
"Sorry," the bosun said. "Don't have all day. Spend all day with you, and then what? The more people I can Cast Off before the assembly bell, the better chance I'll have to be the Sole Survivor."
"Have you no compassion, man? Can you turn aside from the course of the gentle Prophet?"
"Sorry," the bosun said again, sincerely. "I can't stand here all day discussing it."
"Ah, me," said Nestir as the bosun drew back from the thrust, "who would have thought that I would be trapped by a religious fanatic?"
"Must look out for myself, you know," said the bosun.
Helen said, "I thought maybe I hit you too hard."
"No," John said. "Fortunately not." He had just opened his eyes.
He was strapped tightly to the bed. "I appreciate what you're doing," he said. "I know you want to be sure I'm Cast Off right. But honey, do you think it was fair to jump the bell on me like that?"
"Well," she said, "that's what you intended to do to the captain."
He grinned ruefully. "Darn it. I did look forward to Casting him Off."
"Oh, well," his wife said, "I guess we can't have everything."
"True, my dear," said John. "It was very thoughtful of you."
"I wanted to be sure that my husband had the best."
"I know you did."
"Well," she said. "I guess I may as well begin."
"Yes," he said.
"Have you any suggestions, honey?"
"No," he said. "I'll leave it all up to you."
"All right." She walked to the dresser and picked up a pair of pliers. She crossed to him.
She had already removed his shoes while he was unconscious.
"I think," she said, "I'll take the big toe first."
"Whatever you like, my dear."
After a moment, she said, "My, I didn't know it was going to be so hard to pull a few little old toenails."
After she had finished with his left foot, she poured alcohol over it.
Then she had to wait for him to regain consciousness.
"Honey?" she asked.
"You didn't scream very much."
"That's all right," he said. "You're doing fine."
"All right," she said. "If you're satisfied. I guess I may as well start on the other foot.... Oh, John?"
"Would you like for me to fix you a cup of tea before we go on?"
"I don't think so. But it's a nice thought."
"You asked what that fuel oil was for, remember?"
"Well, when I finish this," she said, "I'm going to pour it over you and light it."
"Helen," he said, "I married one of the ... cleverest ... women ... in the ... system."
"There," she said, "I thought I'd never get that one."
The captain got very cramped, sitting there. It was late. He expected it was about time for the assembly bell to ring.
He stood up.
No one had come down his corridor all day, and he felt very pleased with his acumen in selecting it.
There wasn't nearly as much noise as there had been earlier; people were thinning out. He hoped there wouldn't be many left in the fight for the assembly.
He heard, interrupting his reverie, a thin, shrill shriek, drifting down the corridor from his left. Then, looking, he saw a crewman running toward him.
He tightened his grip on his infantry sword.
Then he relaxed. It was all right.
The man had no arms.
The crewman came to a stop in front of him.
"Oh? Captain. Good afternoon, sir."
"Good afternoon. Careful there. You'll get blood on my uniform."
"How are things going, back there?"
"Pretty slow ... last ... couple hours."
"Getting pretty weak, eh?"
"Yes, sir. Mind if ... I ... sit down?"
"Not at all. Make yourself at home."
"Thank ... you, sir." He sat down. "My," he said, "I'm tired."
"Loss of blood, probably. Listen, old fellow. Do you think you've about quit suffering, now?"
"Oh, yes," the crewman said. "Scarcely feel ... a thing any more. Numb."
"Well, in that case, no sense in keeping you from your Reward."
"Not ... a bit."
The captain drew back his huge sword.
"See ... you ... around," the crewman said.
The sword whistled down.
The captain wiped the sword on the crewman's blouse. His legs were still stiff. He needed a little exercise. He began to walk toward the dead end of the corridor, keeping a weather eye behind him.
"... Bombs away!"
The crewman hurtled onto his shoulders from the steampipe above.
The captain fell flat, and his sword went skittering away, rattling loudly on the steel deck.
"Umph!" he said.
"Boy!" the crewman said, "I shore thought you'd never come back down here."
The captain was stunned. He could feel the crewman lashing his hands together behind him.
"What were you doing up there?" the captain said at length.
"I clumb up there when I a-hyeared ya a-comin' like a herd o' elephants. I thought ta come down here an' wait hit out 'til th' assembly bell."
"My intentions exactly," the captain said, testing his bonds. There was no escape from them. "Your voice sounds familiar."
"Yeah. Hit should. I'm Henderson, th' officers' messman."
"Lord give me strength," the captain said.
"Now, iffen you'll jest roll over on yer back, Captain."
"What for, my boy?"
"I kinda thought that first off I'd like ta pour this little bottle of hydrofluoric acid on ya."
"That's very clever," the captain said. Then he reconsidered. "For a crewman, that is."
The first mate looked over at the bosun.
"Yes," the bosun said.
"Fine, I thought you'd be." He took out his penknife and began to whittle on a piece of wood.
After a while he said, "You haint mindin' me puttin' hit off this away?"
"No," the bosun said, "suit yourself."
The first mate sent a shaving skittering with his knife blade. "Shucks," he said, "there hain't really no hurry."
The bosun raised his head from his chest and shook the hair out of his face. "Not really, when you consider it," he said.
"Yep, that's right." The first mate began to work on the point of the stick; he sharpened it down to needle fineness, and then he carefully cut in the barb. "Hain't very strong wood; them barbs are cut against the grain, an' they're liable ta split off when I try ta pull 'em out."
"I hope not," the bosun said.
The first mate said, "Yep, I'm shore afraid they're a-gonna do jest that little trick."
"Look," said the bosun, "this hair's gettin' in my eyes. I wunder if you'd mind kinda snippin' it off?"
"Not a-tall," the first mate said.
He walked over to the bosun, grabbed a handful of hair and sawed it off with the penknife.
"It shore is. Thanks."
The first mate threw down the stick on the table. "Really should uv cut that before."
"I suppose so," the bosun said.
"'Course I warn't hable to see what uz in th' priest's mind."
"No, that's true," the bosun agreed.
The first mate walked over and picked up the typewritten instructions.
"You're a-gonna get a fine Castin' Off," he said.
"I should," the bosun said. "It ain't everybody can be th' Sole Survivor."
"That's true," the first mate said. "Well," he said after a minute, "I jest guess I know them there instructions fine as anything. I suspect we may as well start, iffen hits agreeable ta you."
"I'm ready," the bosun said.
The first mate took his penknife and tested the edge with his thumb. "Shore is sharp," he said. "Ought ta be. I jest got done a-honin' hit."
He walked over to where the bosun was hanging.
"Well," he said. "No time like the present."
He raised the knife.
"Jest a minute," he said. "I think I'll get me some music on the radio. You don't mind?"
"No," said the bosun. "Not a bit."
The first mate walked to the hyperspace radio and flicked on the dial. After fiddling with it for some time, he picked up a symphony being broadcast from Kque. "There," he said, "that's th' kind uv music I shore do like ta hear."
The music welled out and filled the room with sound.
"Shore is purty," the bosun said.
The first mate walked back to him.
"Guess I'll start on your back," he said. He reached up and ripped the bosun's shirt off.
Then, when the back was laid bare, he made a very shallow cut running the length of the shoulders from armpit to armpit.
"Be kinda hard ta get started," he said.
He put the penknife in the incision and began to pry the skin loose. "Gonna take me a long time ta get a hand holt," he said. "Course onct I do, hit'll be as easy as skinnin' a skunk."
"Take yer time," the bosun said.
The music turned quiet and sounded of the rippling brooks on far Corazon; it reflected the vast meadows of Nid and the giant, silver-capped mountains of Muri. A cello picked up the theme and ran it, in rich notes, over the whole surface of the dead world, Astolath. A whining oboe piped of the sweet winds from Zoltah; and the brass beat out the finny rhythm of the water world of Du.
"'Scuse me," the first mate said. He laid down the penknife and walked to the radio. With a flick of his wrist, he cut it off.
"What uz th' matter with hit?" the bosun asked.
"Didn't ja notice?" said the first mate. "Th' third fiddle was sour."
"Guess I wasn't listenin' close enough," said the bosun.
The first mate returned to his work. "May as well get on with it," he said.
He raised the penknife again.
Martha threw the door open. "Here!" she said. She swung Joey around in front of her by the left ear. "I'm going to have to leave him in here with you, where he won't get into trouble."
The first mate laid aside the penknife.
"Martha," he said, "I jest plain don't like kids."
"I'm sorry," she said, "But I just can't keep him with the rest of the children. I just can't."
"Whatud he do?" the bosun asked.
"Do? Let me tell you," Martha said. "First, he...."
"I didn't," Joey said.
"I haint got no all day ta listen ta ya, woman," the first mate said.
"Well. The worst of it was with little Jane. Do you know what he tried to do to her?"
"No, and I shore don't care," said the first mate testily.
"Well, first he got her down under the table; and then he sat on her; and if I hadn't stopped him, he would have pounded her brains out against the deck."
"My, my," said the bosun.
"That hain't a-tall nice."
"Grownups do it," Joey said.
"That's entirely different," the bosun said.
"No, it ain't. You just don't like me, that's all."
"Little Jane wasn't ready," Martha said. "She hasn't had a chance to do her duty."
"It don't matter," Joey said.
"Little boy," said the bosun, "do you know where people go who talk that way?"
"I don't care," Joey said.
"You see? I'll simply have to leave him in here with you."
"All right," the first mate agreed reluctantly. "Now, little boy," he said, "you hain't a-gonna bother me, hear? I'm very busy. You jest go over there and watch."
"Yes," said the bosun.
Martha said, "Well, I better get back to the other children."
She left and the first mate turned back to his job.
"What's he crying for?" Joey asked.
"'Cause it hurts," the first mate explained.
"You missed somethin' there in th' back," Joey said.
"Why did you try to choke that little girl?" the mate asked.
"'Cause I wanted to."
"Well," the first mate said, "that's why I left that little patch o' skin."
"Oh," said Joey.
He stood up and walked around the bosun.
"What're ya gonna do next?" he asked.
"Be still," said the bosun.
"I bet I know," Joey said. "I'll bet you're gonna take that little stick over there an' stick it in him."
"That shore ... is right," the bosun said proudly.
"Can I, huh?"
"No," the first mate said.
"Why not? All ya gotta do is...." He picked up the stick and lunged at the bosun.
The first mate tripped him and took the stick away from him.
"Let him alone," the bosun said to Joey. "He's doin' jest fine."
"Thankee," said the first mate.
Martha came back.
"Is he bothering you? We could put him in the ice with the new crew," she said.
"Fine," the first mate said.
"Oh, no," Joey said. "You gotta catch me first." He began to back away from Martha.
She took a step toward him.
He turned and started to run.
"Thought so," she said. She had been holding one hand behind her. It contained a plastic ash-tray. She caught him squarely between the ears with it, and he went down.
"Good heave, Martha!" the first mate said.
She walked over to Joey, picked him up and started to the door.
At the door she paused.
"What did you say you wanted for supper, Fontelroy?"
"Two aigs," he said.