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Here is the newest
installment of my unfinished novel,
The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars,
fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin,
the starship Captain who
made the first contact
with extraterrestrials in the 28th century
centuries before the time of The Termite Queen).
A list of the previous posts, with links:
The Captain Eats Crow
2 How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name
3 The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment
Chapter 4 School Days at Epping Academy
Chapter 5 The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet
In keeping with my method
of alternate flash-backs and flash-forwards, Chapter 6 chronologically follows
Chapter 4 and continues the saga of Robbin Nikalishin's youth and adolescence.
CHAPTER 6: CRISES AND DECISIONS
Epping Science Academy)
The first real crisis in the life of Robbie and Sterling Nikalishin came
not long before the boy’s twelfth birthday.
All the students at Epping Academy were required to engage in a physical
training program and were encouraged to take part in team sports if they were
so inclined. Robbie was of average
height for his age, but he had a stocky build, and the coach immediately began
to recruit him for the intensely competitive football program. The school league of which Epping was a
member played the rough-and-tumble version of the game that goes by the name of
Robbie decided to give it a try after watching a match or two. This required Sterling to scrape up the money
for gear, uniforms, and fees. But she
was willing to do anything that would make her son happy, and so she made some
sacrifices, went a little deeper in debt, and in the summer of 2741, Robbie
played in his first game.
He became competent at the sport and emerged appropriately bruised and
battered from each match. Before long he
was the leading scorer for the Junior Team, which was a bit weak that year; if
it had not been for his play, they would have achieved an abysmal record. As it was, they ranked fourth in a league of
eight at midseason and were on the brink of garnering a tournament berth for
the first time in three years.
Then something happened that was to have a profound influence on Robbie’s
life. The boy was among the spectators
for one of the Senior Team’s matches, during which a player on the opposing
team came down sideways on his head and had to be carried off the field. Word soon spread that his neck was broken and
he had been admitted to the Neural Regeneration Facility at Oxkam Medical
School. There was no guarantee that the
treatment would be successful; the chances were 50-50 that the sixteen-year-old
would spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.
Two days later Robbie’s team was scheduled to play a major match at
1600h. When Sterling got home from work
at 1800h, she found a message asking her to call the Athletic Office. Her heart in her throat, she complied, only
to learn that her son had not shown up for the game and his whereabouts were
unknown. “He isn’t here,” she responded
in both consternation and relief.
“Goodness me, what’s happened to him?”
“Well, we lost the match and dropped into fifth place,” the outraged
coach shouted at her, “and now we’re not likely to make the tournament, all
because of your son’s irresponsibility. When
he turns up, I’m going to have his hide!”
Frantically, Sterling tried to get hold of Kolm MaGilligoody and managed
to catch her son’s friend just as he returned to the dormitory. He had been in a meeting with his advisor and
hadn’t attended the game, so he knew nothing of Robbie’s activities and was
dumbfounded that his friend could have let his team down in that fashion.
Sterling had just cut the com link when the door of the flat opened and
in stalked her son.
She pouncing up to him. “What are
you doing here, Robbie? And where have
you been? – everybody’s looking for you!
Surely you didn’t forget you had a game this afternoon! Your team lost because you weren’t there to
“It’s not my team,” he said, standing there staring up at her. “I saw there was a special program at the
Planetarium in Grenich. I’d never been
there, so I went.”
“You went – to Grenich?
Robbie! By yourself? That’s a long way, and by rail!”
“I didn’t have any trouble,” he said.
“I’m not a little puppy dog, Mum, that needs to be led around on a
She was spluttering, the questions coming to her mind too fast to put
into words. “Why did you do this? Tell me you really did forget the game! Surely you didn’t sabotage your team – your
school – deliberately!”
“I didn’t forget,” he said. “I’m
not going to play anymore. I tried to
tell Coach Barnwell I didn’t want to play, but he wouldn’t take me
seriously. So I figured the only way to
show him I meant what I said was not to show up. Besides, I wanted to go to Grenich and I
doubt if anyone would have given me permission.”
“You don’t want to play football?
Just like that – you’re dropping it?”
“Why is that so important, Mum?”
“I put a lot of money into it, for one thing – money we could have used
for something else!”
“Oh, well … I’m sorry about that.
But I’ve got more important things to do with my life than wallowing
about in the mud with half a dozen bruisers falling on top of me.”
“You didn’t feel that way in the beginning! What changed your mind? It’s a very masculine thing to be an athlete,
Robbie. When you’re a few years older
and you start thinking about girls, you’ll find they’re attracted to athletic
“Girls like sweaty, mud-covered men who stink?” he said, with a barking
laugh. “Do you like that kind? But I guess you do – you married one of those.”
He most likely did not intend the retort to be as cruel as it came off,
but it was surely the first time in his life that he wounded his mother with a
deliberately rude remark.
Her pale cheeks flushed. “Robbin,
don’t take that tone with me – I’ll not stand for it!”
He knew immediately that he had overstepped the bounds, but he was in a
disordered state of mind. “I should
think you’d be happy that I don’t want to break my neck and have to spend the
rest of my life in an electric cart.”
Then she remembered the boy from the opposing team. “Oh.
Oh, Robbie, that’s what you were thinking … ”
“I’ve got more important things to do with my life,” he repeated.
She had turned away, still trying to recover from his verbal slap. “Well, but … it’s the way you did it, son. The school’s honor was at stake. You were the team’s leading scorer and
without you they lost, and so they’re probably out of the tournament.”
“What’s so honorable about knocking people you don’t know silly just so
you can run around the field holding a steel plaque over your head?”
“It’s a stain on your personal
honor, then! You weren’t fair to your
teammates, who do think it’s important to win.
You’ve got to learn to be team player.
You’ll never make it in the Flight Academy if you don’t know how to be a
“I can be a team player when it matters,” he said, with that obnoxious
air of resignation that youngsters can display when they despair of ever
teaching their parents the right way to think, “but this – doesn’t –
matter!” He emphasized each word with a
thump on the table. “I’m not playing any
more team sports – at least, not the kind where you get knocked down and
trampled. Maybe I’ll run track with
Kolm, or join the squash club.”
“Maybe you just won’t do any of that.
We can’t afford more expenses of that sort.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” he said.
“It’s why I stopped by here on my way back to school. Here’s your credit key.”
Sterling’s jaw dropped. “My credit
… Robbie! Did you come in here and steal my key?”
“I didn’t steal it – I’m bringing it back, aren’t I? But I didn’t have enough money to pay for the
train fare or the ticket to the Planetarium show, and I needed a quick bite to
eat, too. I didn’t think it would matter
if I borrowed it.”
“Not matter? Robbin, what’s got
into you? You could at least have asked
me! But then you couldn’t have carried
out this little scheme, could you? And
you’ve gone and spent the credits I had set aside to buy food for next week –
on this whim about going to Grenich!
Robbie, what do you think is going to become of us, anyway?”
Suddenly, Sterling began to cry, and that scared him. This woman who had endured her consort’s
beatings and who had drugged him and spirited herself and her son away from
Barsilia in the middle of the night … he couldn’t remember ever seeing her cry.
“Don’t do that, Mum,” he said.
“What do you mean, what’s going to become of us?”
“My work just doesn’t pay enough, Robbie.
I don’t think we can make it. I
don’t know if you’re going to be able to stay here at Epping.”
He turned pale. “Not stay … But I have to!”
“Even if they don’t expel you for this escapade, there just isn’t any
“Granddad – what about Granddad?
Can’t he help?”
“You know his health isn’t very good.
Your grandparents are getting old, Robbie – I can’t keep hitting them up
for funds. I haven’t even been able to
pay back what I’ve already borrowed from them.
I simply won’t ask them for any more!”
“But, Mum … ” He approached,
reaching out imploring hands, but she was snuffling into a handkerchief and didn’t
see the gesture. “Mum, I can’t go back
to a Gov school. They don’t teach
advanced calculus – I’m not sure Brickston even taught pre-calculus. I have to have calculus before I can get into
second-tier physics. I’ll never get
anywhere if I don’t stay here. There
aren’t any birds in Brickston, Mum, and I can’t see the stars from there. Bloody hell … ” He was sounding far more distraught than one
would have expected a twelve-year-old to be over such matters.
Sterling looked at him, her lips quivering. “Robbie, I know you deserve better than I can
give you. I know you’re destined for a
great life – I can just feel it. But
sometimes you have to face facts.
Sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“Yes, there is! There’s got to
be! God almighty, Mum, don’t make me
leave here! I’ll apologize to the coach
– I’ll go back to the team … I’ll – I’ll get some kind of job myself – yeah,
that’s what I’ll do! I’ll do anything you
say! Just fix it so I can stay here and
learn what I need so I can go to the stars!”
Sterling was his mother and she couldn’t bear to think that her own
inadequacy might cause her son to lose his chance for greatness. And so she straightened her shoulders and
said, “Don’t talk so distracted, Robbie.
And don’t worry about having to leave – I’ll figure out something. You know I can be pretty resourceful. Just worry about the disciplinary action
you’re going to face when you go back to the campus. And that can start right now with you sitting
down and ringing up the Athletic Office and trying to explain yourself.”
And Robbie believed
her because never in his whole life had she let him down, and he did what she
told him to do, submitted to his punishment, and managed to salvage his future
at Epping Science Academy. But that evening
Sterling sat looking out of the window for a long time, watching men and women
with more resources than she had walking back arm in arm from the direction of
the rail terminal, laughing together as they entered the chic little cafes
along the Village street. From that
sight, a secret plan began to take shape in Sterling’s mind. It was a plan that made her tremble, but she
loved her son more than her life and she was willing to sacrifice anything to
ensure his future.
Chapter 7: An Old Love and Another Assignment