Friday, February 1, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 6


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).
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

 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.


(October 2741, 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 ruggabee.
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 play!”
“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 leash.”
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 boys.”
“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 team player.”
“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 money!”
“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.
Coming Next!
Chapter 7: An Old Love and Another Assignment

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