Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 7

Here is the newest installment of my unfinished novel, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of The Termite Queen).
I'm curious as to how many of you are actually reading this series.  I can't tell because I don't get any comments.  Some of the episodes get a lot of page views, but nobody writes, "Enjoyed this chapter, can't wait for the next" or even "This is really a boring story -- why are you bothering to post it?"  So give me some feedback -- please?  Would you enjoy the story more if you were reading it in book form, without so much time between posts?
A list of the previous posts, with links:
Chapter 1 The Captain Eats Crow
Chapter 2 How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name
Chapter 3 The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment
Chapter 4 School Days at Epping Academy
Chapter 5 The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet
Chapter 6 Crises and Decisions

In keeping with my method of alternate flash-backs and flash-forwards, Chapter 7 chronologically follows Chapter 5.  We begin to know the Captain's first love, whom we met back in Chapter 1, and we get a bit further into the intricacies of his life and character.


(30 October-4 November 2766, Old Heathero Flight Port)

When Robbie arrived back on Earth after the Red Planet mission, he walked into his quarters at Sloe Hostel and knew immediately that something was different.  Even though Minie did not officially reside in Sloe, she had managed to accumulate a lot of personal belongings in the Captain’s room.  Now the closet stood open and every last thread of female clothing was gone, along with the contents of the bathroom cabinet.  Then he saw a scrap of plastipaper on the bed pillow.
Dearest Robbie redbrest, it read.  We both knew it was just a temperery get together.  3 month is to long without a socail life, and something else came along.  Ill never forget you, though, wizzer – its been a hoot being a heroes trag for awile just like I knew it would.  Bye bye, duck …  Yours, with great memeries, Willemina Dill.
Robbie stood perusing the note with a rueful half-smile on his face, grimacing over the misspellings.  Then he sighed fatalistically, swung his duffel onto the bed, and started unpacking his gear.
*          *          *
Robbie walked into the Old Fox’s Head about 1630h, waving a sheepish greeting at the publican Ned Aftergood.  Robbie still got embarrassed at the recollection of what had taken place in this pub last January.
“’Afternoon, Captain!” Ned called.  “We had a notion you’d be coming right along after Wilda showed up.  She’s in the back there, at your usual table.”
Archie Haskins, the barkeep, was thumbing the armholes of one of his famous vests, in this instance a loud purple and yellow stripe.  “So what do you think of this one, Robbie?  Are you comfortable with it?”
“Well … it kind of hurts my eyes, but I’d certainly never mistake it for an asteroid.”
As a chuckling Robbie approached Wilda, she gave him a bright smile and said, “Well, Capt. Robbie!  So Minie threw you over?”
“How’d you know?”
“A man doesn’t make a date with an old love as soon as he steps off a spaceship if his girl of the moment is waiting for him.”
Robbie tossed the note on the table and while Wilda read it, he went and fetched himself a pint.  Dropping into a chair, he took a tentative pull on his beer and shuddered.  “Holy grief, that stings!  Do you know, that’s the first drop of anything with even a dash of alcohol in it that I’ve tasted since the Solar Wind?”
“Yeah, I was wondering.”
“Well, the terms of the sentence permit me an occasional social pint, and they’ve granted me five days’ leave before I’m due to report to the estimable Maj. Nwinn.  And I feel like celebrating, because this voyage couldn’t have gone better.  My rank is supposed to be nothing but an empty word during this ordeal, but out there in space I was a real Captain again, Wilda.  And it was wonderful!” 
“Aw, Robbie, that’s great to hear.”
He gestured at the note.  “Like Minie says, our arrangement never had anything permanent about it.  It’s not like I didn’t appreciate her being willing to consort with somebody in my state of disgrace – actually I was more grateful to her than she’ll ever know!  But the relationship was getting a little stale lately, for both of us, I think.  At least now I can shave in the bathroom again.”  Robbie messaged his naked chin regretfully.
“When are you going to grow that beautiful beard back, Robbie?”
“Oh … not yet.  Its absence kind of helps me remember my humiliations – keeps me on the straight and narrow, as it were.  Besides, if I let it go a day and check out the stubble, I can tell it’s gotten an awful lot grayer during this last two years.  Scares me a bit to think that I might look like a proper elderly gentleman if I re-grew it.”
Wilda chuckled, but her demeanor was slightly serious.  “Actually, I can tell from the bottom of the sideburns …  They’re getting pretty silvery, Robbie.”
  “Yeah … silvery … ”  He took another pull on his glass.  “Maybe you ought to commiserate with me rather than help me celebrate, Wilda – here I’ve lost another girl and I’m getting antiquated to boot.  And you’ve got the best shoulder to cry on of any woman I know.”
“And I’m always happy to offer that shoulder, Robbie.  But I do need to get home by 1800h.  My brood complains that Dickon’s cooking isn’t up to mine, even if all we’re having is chop and tomatoes.”
“Even after all these years, I still have trouble believing he doesn’t mind us meeting like this.”
“Well, he and I trust each other and tell each other everything.  That’s why we had four babies together, more than we’re supposed to.  It’s just, everything is always right between us.”
Robbie stared into his half-drained glass, swirling the contents.  “That’s what she once said she wanted – Feddie, you know.  A settled life, with children and a man waiting to come home to.”
“And there was no way that you could give her that.”
“Wilda, can you see me tied down to Earth, shuffling data for Ground Command?  I’d rather fly Lunar shuttles or even atmospheric for the rest of my life than do that!”
“Well, I’ve known that from the beginning, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” responded Robbie, sighing.  “But I’ve always had trouble believing that Feddie would really want that kind of life.  Have you heard anything about her while I was gone?  I had hoped there would maybe be a message …  God, I’m such a fool, darlin’ …” He stared moodily at the wedding band he continued to wear on his left hand, rotating it with his thumb.
Wilda gripped his wrist and shook it a little.  “Ellen and I watch the assignment rosters – we like to keep up with what our old chicks from the hostel are doing.  I checked out Fedaylia’s name a couple of weeks ago, and she’d been posted as Second Com Officer on an Exploration Class ship – the Eye of the Future, as I recall.  It was headed out on some big scientific expedition to Venus and Murcuri.”
“There, you see now?  She doesn’t want to settle down any more than I do!  But I guess that fits with what she told me the last time I saw her – that she was ready to try for the hero gig herself.  This is a start on that, I guess.  But I wonder … maybe she’s with somebody … somebody on that expedition …  I wish I could get access to the crew manifest ... ”  Robbie’s right hand contracted on Minie’s note.
“Now, Robbie, don’t get all tensed up.  Fedaylia’s never filed a contract severance, has she?  From what you’ve told me about her, I’m not sure she’d hook up seriously with another man without severing the contract first.”
Robbie laughed, but there was no mirth in it.  “Yeah, she’s got principles, all right, and she can be quite rigid in sticking to some of them.”  He clenched the hand with the ring, then hid it in his lap under the table.  “But that doesn’t mean she might not be with another man on a casual basis, like I’ve been with Minie.  I mean, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to expect her to be faithful to me when I haven’t made the slightest effort to be faithful to her since she ran out on me.  But she never supported me – she used me – betrayed me … She never gave me any help when I needed it, the way I had expected a wife would do …  Hell, it’s women that drive men to drink, Wilda.  All except you, that is … and … well, there are a few others ... ”
“Robbie, you’ve never loved any other woman the way you love Fedaylia.”
He drained his glass.  “You’re right at least about the way I love her.  It’s a lot more comforting, darlin’, to just have the cozy kind of relationship that you and I have.”
She said again, “My shoulder is always there for those crying eyes, Capt. Robbie.”
He sighed deeply.  “You know, Wilda, I’ve got this uneasy feeling that something big is about to happen in my life.”
“A good kind of big?”
“Well, I don’t know.  You’d think I’d feel positive, what with this last assignment and all, but I’m not very inclined to let myself be optimistic these days.  When you’re young and naïve, you always manage to feel invincible, but I left that feeling behind a long time ago.  But I’m ready for the change, whatever it is.”  And he added, “I’m getting impatient to taste the pineapple.”
“Oh, never mind that.  I only meant, I’m ready for life to bring it on.”
“Maybe it’s just that you’re turning 37 tomorrow.”
“I am?  Holy cry, you know, you’re right!  I’d completely forgotten about my birthday -- again!  Wilda, did I ever tell you that in some parts of the Spainish-speaking world, people celebrate the 31st of October as a day when the dead are honored?  El día de los muertos, they call it.  In Mehik they make little skulls out of candy and pastry.”
She shuddered.  “That’s a morbid custom to connect with your birthday!  Robbie, I just wish I could talk you into having supper with Dickon and me and the children tomorrow night.  There won’t be any skulls on the menu, but with Dickon working in … ahem! … ‘animal protein distribution,’ I can get the makings for a mean steak and kidney pie.  And it goes without saying I’d cook up the famous cake.”
Wilda was resigned to having Robbie turn her down, because in all the years she had known him, she had never been able to cajole him into meeting her husband.  But this time he confounded her by saying, “You know what, darlin’?  I just might do that – I think I’m finally ready.  Beats spending a birthday alone, that’s for sure.  I can finally get a glimpse of what real domestic bliss is like – what Dickon’s had and I’ve missed all these years.  Get a taste of home cooking for a change.  I’m not complaining about what you and your staff do at Sloe, Wilda – you work wonders, what with the limited resources they give you – but I have been missing the Officers’ Mess.  What time would you like me to come?”
Wilda was gaping at him.  “Well, I never, Capt. Nikalishin!  Did you really say what I think I heard?”
Robbie laughed.  “Yeah, probably.  Remember what I said just now? – that something big was about to happen in my life?  I guess this is it!”
*          *          *
Five days later, Maj. Nwinn kept Robbie waiting only 30 minutes and then waved him into a chair almost before he had time to salute.  “It seems the Board was satisfied with the way you conducted yourself on the Red Planet, because they’ve kept you on the stand-by list.  Orders have been cut for you to take command of the Hell’s Gate on 7 November.”
It was an unpleasant shock.  “The … Hell’s Gate?  That’s not a Mars vessel.  That’s – an  Asteroid Class ship.  An ore hauler.”
“Imagine knowing that, Nikalishkin,” said the Major sarcastically.
“Uh … an Asteroid …  Isn’t that Capt. Brindisi’s ship?  What happened to him?  Did he slip in the shower or something?”
“He’s been temporarily reassigned.”
“Temporarily reassigned?”
“I thought you heard me.”
“So that they could give the command of the Hell’s Gate to Robbin Nikalishin?”
An irritated Maj. Nwinn said, “I don’t have all day to deal with your redundant questions, Mister.  Here’s the info key – it’ll tell you everything you need to know.  Dismissed.”
*          *          *
On his way back to Sloe, Robbie detoured through the Greenbelt that surrounded the Command Officers’ Residential Sector.  His former quarters were in those parts, but last April, when his pay had been reduced and his assets impounded, his flat had been placed in lockdown mode and he had been denied access to it.  He liked to walk in this area occasionally, to remind himself of what he might be allowed to return to if he successfully survived his year of disgrace.  Besides, with its hundred-year-old lindens and oaks and its rowans and hazel bushes, the Greenbelt was a welcome relief to the eye for someone fresh from the sterile reaches of space. 
And it was full of birds, even at this time of year.  In the spring nightingales nested there, and now sparrows were flocking around the concourse, demanding handouts from passersby.  Robbie always carried a packet of birdseed in his pocket and now he paused to deal some to the twittering beaks.  The activity helped to calm his mind, which had been seriously unsettled by the nature of this new assignment.
Behind him somebody called “Captain?  I’d like a word with you!”
Turning around, Robbie was surprised to see R. Adm. Jivanta Soemady, one of his friends on the Board of Command.  He struck a quick salute, barking, “A privilege, sir!”
“Oh, can it, Robbie,” she said.  “Save your starchy subordinate act for somebody who doesn’t know you as well as I do.  Besides, here I am in civvies, out for a run, and it’s best if you don’t attract attention to us.  Why don’t we take a ramble down this side path?”
His curiosity piqued, Robbie fell into step with the petite, 55-year-old Admiral.  He was aware that this path cut through one of the less frequented areas of the Greenbelt.  “To what do I owe such an honor, sir?”
“It’s merely a fortuitous meeting, but I’d been hoping for this kind of chance encounter, because there are things I’ve been itching to say to you.  What did you think of your recent orders?”
“Uh … the Red Planet was incredible – I never in my wildest dreams expected to be given the opportunity of commanding a ship like that!  Of course, I missed my old crew, but Capt. Kastens’ crew was top-of-the-line, too – I could get real fond of ’em all.  I’m perfectly aware that’s not to be, let me hasten to add, sir.”
“Ever feel the need for a drink while you were on board, Captain?”
 “Oh, not once, Admiral, and that’s the truth.  And let me just say I can’t thank you enough and I’d appreciate it if you’d pass that along to anybody who might have helped to get me this mission.  But, uh … ”
“But today’s orders are a different kettle of fish, aren’t they?  You’ve never served on an Asteroid Class freighter, I believe.”
“Not even before SkyPiercer and certainly not since.  But a bit of a pattern seems to be emerging here.  I’d never served on an ST-90, either.  Is that intentional?  And is putting me in command of the Hell’s Gate the smartest thing you’ve ever done?  I mean, you know more than you want to about Robbin Nikalishin’s relationship with asteroids … ”
“I certainly do.”
 “So I guess I have to assume that I’m being tested.”
“Well … we wanted to find out how capable you are these days at coping with the unexpected.  You know you have a lot more to prove than just staying clean of booze.  By the way, we grabbed the Senior Officers of the Red Planet the minute they disembarked and debriefed them.”
Robbie eyed her sidelong.  “Why, Admiral … did you set them to spy on me?”
“Heavens, no.  They had no idea they were going to be debriefed until we called them in.  I’m happy to report we did not receive a single negative assessment – except from one character who shall be nameless, who was disappointed that you weren’t more intimidating.”  The Admiral laughed.
 “I think I know the one you mean, but I won’t say that person’s name, either.  I think that person would have liked it if I’d carried a whip.”  Robbie laughed along with her, feeling some sense of relief, but he couldn’t help wondering what all this was leading up to.  “So, uh … you decided a fine reward for good behavior would be the command of an ore freighter.”
The Admiral cocked an eyebrow.  “It was necessary to take the next step.”
“Toward what, if it’s not too much to ask?”
“It is,” she said, and she changed the subject.  “Did you know that Gen. Stepanek decided to take early retirement?”
“No!  You may recall that I’m denied access to command info, Admiral, so I’m really out of the loop.”
“I think she got tired of bucking the Robbie Faction.  She was one of your most implacable opponents on the Board, you know.”
“Well, I always suspected as much.”
“I learned awhile back that it was Stepanek who suggested to our Base Commander that Com. Wellspoon would make the perfect probationary monitor for you.”  Soemady sounded terminally disgusted.
“Oh, she was!  Bloody hell, she liked me even less than I would have thought!  So who’s replacing her, or am I not allowed to know?”
“No, it’s common knowledge.  Actually, she departed about eight weeks into your sentence and Brig. Gen. Nigel Evens took command of the EAFC operation here.  He’s a Brit who attended Old Heathero Flight Academy about ten years before your time, but his entire length of service has been in the Western Hemisphere.  His last posting was as Chief of Atmospheric Flight Operations at Habana in Kuba Prefecture.”
“And, uh … how does that change the complexion of the Board?”
“It helped your case a lot – we got a new ally.  Without his support, you might not have gotten a Mars Fleet command so soon.  It also didn’t hurt that Adm. Lekoa has been having a crisis of conscience.”
“Let’s just say that in the beginning the Chief of Interplanetary Flight Command couldn’t bring herself to allow an officer convicted of drinking on duty to take the Bridge of any ship within her sphere of responsibility.  That’s what really made that final vote on your sentence touch-and-go”
“But now?”
“She’s seen the light.  I’ve been working hard to wear her down and I’ve finally succeeded.”
“Admiral, I don’t really understand what I’ve done to merit this speeded-up schedule.  Sometimes I feel that I’m getting much less punishment than I deserve.”
The Admiral laughed.  “Well, don’t let anybody but me hear you say that, Mister!  You’re not out of the woods yet!”  Then Jivanta Soemady stopped walking and turned to face the Captain.  “You know we had to do something, Robbie.  Under the Code of Military Justice the Board of Command had the legal authority to intervene in the sentencing phase for your type of crime and to alter the prescribed penalty, but your misconduct was so flagrant and so public that we couldn’t just slap you on the wrist and let you off scot-free.  You should have heard the decibel level during that debate!  Your opponents on the Board were itching to impose the maximum penalty – demotion and dishonorable discharge and at least five years in prison.  But the ESC simply couldn’t afford to squander your expertise, so the brass in New Washinten exerted a little pressure that enabled the Robbie Faction to fix you up with what you got.  Now, does that surprise you?”
“The brass in … They intervened for me?  Who?  Why?”
“Mmm – that isn’t in the realm of ‘common knowledge.’  But it’s true, nevertheless.  And surely you must realize that what really turned the tide in your favor was that last minute guilty plea –  the fact that you made no argument whatsoever in your own behalf.  When a man acknowledges his misdeeds and takes responsibility for them, and announces that he expects no mercy and will accept whatever is dished out to him and try to turn it into something positive … well, it makes it hard to throw the book at him.”
“Sir, I’m going to dare to ask another question.  Why are you talking to me like this today?  Part of the sentence was that I’m not supposed to have contact with Senior Officers.  You shouldn’t be talking to me about so much as the weather, should you?”
“Why do you think I dragged you down this obscure path?  And I caution you not to mention this conversation to anyone.  But I just felt you deserved a little encouragement.  You’re too astute not to suspect that something is afoot.  That’s all I’m going to say at the moment, and it’s more than I should.  This second assignment may be tough on you, Robbie, but if you can get through it in good shape, I promise that after you return you’ll find out what this is all about.”
“Well, Admiral,” said Robbie, scrubbing the back of his neck, “that’s tantalizing.  It’s not going to help the time go faster.”
She laughed.  “Just don’t let your supporters down, Robbie.  I and your other friends on the Board are once again staking our reputations on your success.”
He twitched his head.  “Holy cry, you’re going to jinx me, Adm. Soemady!”
Again, she laughed.  “Actually, Capt. Nikalishin, it’s my opinion that you’ve handled this difficult experience in an exemplary manner.”
“Well … I should be used to the taste of crow by this point in my life.  People who have a lot of obsessive hopes and expectations … it seems like life has to keep knocking them down so they always have something to reach for.”
“You’ve proved you’re a lot more resilient than people expected you to be.  I wish we could have given you more consideration – taken into account all the adversity you’ve had to contend with since ’61.  But the military isn’t famous for looking at the human side of things.”
“Respectfully, Admiral, I really don’t agree with what you say – that JAG and the Board should have looked at me with some kind of special pitying eye.  I lost my way and did some things I always swore I never would, and I needed to redeem myself, no matter what mitigating circumstances might have been factored into it.  Like I said when I made my guilty plea, it wasn’t right for me to try to justify or rationalize what I did, or to blame anybody but myself.  I learned young the necessity for self-discipline and personal responsibility.  It’s just that I … well, I lost hold of the threads for a time there, to speak metaphorically.”
Coming next!
Chapter 8: Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves

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