(21 July 2766, Old Heathero Flight Port)
It hadn’t taken Robbie long to realize that being assigned to Maj. Nwinn was an element of the unorthodox punishment the Board of Command had devised for him. The man had a natural aptitude for being simultaneously intimidating and obnoxious, a bit like the Commodore whose nose Robbie had broken, only with a little more substance. That could not have been a coincidence – it was more likely meant to be a test, which Robbie was determined to pass. After all, the alternative to his present situation would have been a dishonorable discharge and a years-long prison term, and undoubtedly much more. As it was, the Board had neither grounded him nor taken away the rank that was so precious to him (even though for the moment he was a Captain in name only) and his sentence would end in another nine months.
Of course, not all of the Board members were friends of Robbin Nikalishin. Some thought his moral fiber was too threadbare for him to be worth bothering with and others had genuine reservations about trusting a formerly drunken Captain with serious responsibilities – and he was pretty sure one woman held a grudge against him because he had never given her the time of day back in his callow youth. And then of course there was the Base Commander, with whom he had a long and uncomfortable history …
But there were others who had continued to believe in him even when he gave them no reason to do so – who had contrived to get him assigned to the hostel where his old friend Wilda Murchy managed the dining room – who would continue to support him even if he did seem doomed to commit little acts of defiance like that one about coming an hour late for his appointment with Maj. Nwinn. Robbie had never been capable of tolerating the pretentiousness of rank, and he was discovering no amount of good intentions could root that attitude out of his soul.
On that long-past day when he had received the Presidential Service Award, he had stood at attention as Pres. Wallery had hooked the medal to his tunic and then, instead of shaking her hand as protocol dictated, he had grasped her shoulders, remarked, “I voted for you, darlin’!” and given her a kiss. The spectators had loved it, and the President had laughed and blushed like an adolescent instead of reacting like the distinguished septuagenarian that she was. She hadn’t taken the least offense at his familiarity, but the memory of the scandalized expressions on the faces of those pompous asses eyeing them from the podium could still make Robbie chuckle ...
Robbie realized that he was sitting there fingering his medals with a fatuous half-smile on his face. He had decided to wear his medals whenever he reported for orders because he felt he had earned them (except the Crimson Ivy, Earth’s highest citation, which he believed he had done nothing to deserve). He saw that the young Petty Officer behind the desk (the Major’s Adjunct, a euphemism for Com Clerk) was regarding him surreptitiously.
The Captain’s grin broadened. “Major’s busy today, what?”
“Yes, sir. Always, sir.”
Robbie allowed himself to croak skeptically. The Adjunct looked uncomfortable. Obviously, the young man knew the Major wasn’t busy at all and didn’t really like having to play this game. He didn’t seem a bad sort of fellow – just stuck in an undesirable posting.
Then the intercom squealed and Nwinn’s voice said, “I’ll see the Captain now."
Relieved, the Adjunct gestured Robbie through the door.
Inside the office, Nikalishin snapped a smart salute. In Flight Command only a Commodore or an Admiral outranked a Captain, but here in the wallow of Ground Command many ranks took precedence over Captain. Unfortunately Major was one of them.
Nwinn sat behind his desk, staring fixedly at a jumbled reader sheaf as if he were terribly preoccupied. His face wore its normal expression of annoyed petulance; his brows grew downward between the epicanthic folds of his beady eyes and his mouth seemed to be perpetually sucking on a lemon.
“At ease, Capt. Nikalishkin … ”
Now, this happened every time Robbie reported for orders. The first time he had stood in that office, the Major had scrutinized the bio sheet as if he had no idea who this man was who had been thrust upon him, and he had said, “That’s a peculiar name you bear. Some kind of eastern Uropian origin, I suppose.” Disdain saturated his voice.
“It’s Rus, sir,” responded Robbie, thinking that this South Asien bantam rooster had very little right to find fault with other peoples’ strange names and origins.
“Huh. You talk like a proper Brit. Born in Russa, were you?”
“No, sir, I was born in Arentina Section.”
This apparent non sequitur really threw the Major, and he hastily dropped the topic. “Well, whatever. I think you know why you’re here, Nikalishkin … ”
"Nikalishin, sir. It’s Nikalishin.”
“That’s what I said. So, now, Nikalishkin … ”
And thus it went every time Robbie reported to his Assignment Officer, and so it went in the noon heat of 21 July 2766. The Major said, “At ease, Capt. Nikalishkin … ”
… and Robbie said, “Nikalishin, sir. It’s Nikalishin.”
… but this time Nwinn didn’t say, “Well, whatever.” Instead, he said, “Have a seat, Captain.”
Now, this was a surprise. Never once had Robbie been asked to sit in the Major’s presence; Nwinn would simply spit out the orders, hand over an info key, perhaps give the Captain a punctilious discourse on the proper way to salute or the correct length for an officer’s trousers, and dismiss him without further ado.
“Sit down! I said, sit down! Have you finally drunk yourself deaf, Nikalishkin?”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Deliberately omitting the “sir,” Robbie sat down.
“We’ve got some problems in the Mars Fleet … mmm – let’s see here … ”
Robbie’s mental mouth fell open. Mars Fleet? Why would the man be mentioning the Mars Fleet? Robbie was no longer a part of that command – he was currently assigned to the Lunar Wing.
“Capt. Zimmli is in hospital recovering from a hysterectomy … Capt. Kastens has post-concussion syndrome – hit his head playing darts … ”
Nwinn ignored Robbie’s skeptical interruption and droned on, “A couple of other officers are on leave, since we’re way out of the Cluster and there aren’t many flights on the rotation. All told, four Union-Class Captains are incapacitated or otherwise off the duty roster and we’re one short in stand-by. The upshot is, I’ve been ordered to ask if you think you could handle a transshipment run to Mars.”
Robbie was stunned. “Me? A Mars run? But … ”
“There will be passengers in addition to cargo. They’re putting them all together now with these bigger ST-90’s. They’re a bit slower, though, I’ve heard.”
“Uh-h-h … an … ST-90?”
“Can you handle it or not?” snapped Maj. Nwinn. “I haven’t got all day.”
“God almighty … Are you sure there’s not some mistake?”
“I don’t make mistakes, Mister.”
“Oh, of course you don’t – sorry, sir. And … yes – yes, I think I – I know I can handle it. What’s the … how soon is the TOD?"
“Day after tomorrow. The ship is the Red Planet – its cargo is being loaded up on Luna even as we speak. Report to Shuttle Pad 8 at 0600h. Here’s the info key with everything you need to know.”
Robbie reached to take it, flabbergasted. They had said that, if everything went well, he might be able to “undertake something more significant” at some point late in his punishment, but he had never expected anything so soon, or so major. “Sir, may I ask if your recommendation had anything to do with this unexpected opportunity?”
“Hell, no. I just pass the orders along. To speak bluntly, I would never recommend an officer who drinks during his watch for so much as walking the Base Commander’s dog. But the people upstairs are comfortable with the record you’ve accrued since you began serving your sentence, and we’re short on Command Officers, as I told you, if you were listening. Now, that’ll be all, Nikalishkin. Dismissed.”
Sufficiently knocked down a notch, Robbie stood up, saluted, and departed without another word.
“Well, this is an odd time for you to be here! Nothing much worth anything left on the counter, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, the cabbage is a bit gray, but Amelia made me a tomato-cheese melt to go with it and I snagged the last banana out of the bin. I missed lunch completely, so I thought I’d better catch a bite before … Wilda, I’m having a hard time believing it, but they’ve cut me some significant orders.”
“They have!” She plunked down in the chair opposite him. “What is it?”
“A Mars transshipment. Darlin’, they’re actually going to allow me to take the Bridge of a Mars vessel.”
”Gaw, Robbie, is that right? How did that happen?”
“I have no idea. Wilda, I never expected anything besides Lunar shuttles until at least eight or nine months into this sentence, and then I never expected it would be a Mars mission.”
“Well, I think it’s a wonderful sign, Robbie!”
“It will be a long voyage, because it’s off-Cluster – it’ll use up a hundred days of my penalty time. What can the Board be up to?”
“Well, maybe nothing! After all, you’ve been good as gold, Captain.”
“Well, maybe not that good … ” Robbie chuckled nervously. “Anyway, I’m not about to argue with ’em. Minie’s been wanting to visit her sister, so I’m going to ring her up at work and tell her today would be a good time for her to go. I suppose she’ll be insulted that I don’t want to spend my last two nights with her, but this is important and I need to try to get some decent sleep. I spent the afternoon studying schematics and specs and I’ll be up late with the manifests. Then tomorrow I’ll be running simulations all day.”
“Why do you have to do all that? You can’t have forgotten that much in three months.”
“Well, it’s been closer to eight, unless you count the three days I was in space before I punched out Wellspoon. They may have amended the flight protocols; besides, it doesn’t take long to get rusty. And the Red Planet is an ST-90 – I’ve never flown that class of ship. I wonder … ” Robbie sat frowning, pushing the limp banana peel into a little curl on his plate. “Surely they aren’t hoping I’ll mess up again. What if the climate on the Board of Command has gone sour and they’re deliberately trying to put me in a situation I can’t handle?”
“And put people’s lives in danger? Do you think Adm. Soemady would allow that? Or Adm. Lekoa? She would have to sign off on this, wouldn’t she?”
“Yeah, you’re right. But some people over there hate me, you know that.”
“Nobody could hate you that much, Robbie! Personally speaking, I don’t see how anybody could hate you at all.”
Robbie chuckled again, reaching to squeeze her arm. “I wish you could take the place of one of those bitchy old women on the Board, Wilda.”
“I wish I could, too! Wouldn’t that be a hoot? – if they appointed a civilian Food Service Manager to the Board of Command!”
“Anyway, this is undoubtedly a test – I can’t see it in any other light. But if they’re expecting me to fail, I’m afraid they’re going to be disappointed.”
“That’s the spirit, love! Show those beefeaters over there in HQ what my Capt. Robbie is really made of!”