Friday, May 3, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 9

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
Chapter 6 Crises and Decisions
Chapter 7 An Old Love and Another Assignment
Chapter 8 (Pt.1) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.1]
Chapter 8 (Pt.2) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.2]

We revert now to the usual alternating flash-forward/flash-back format.  Ch. 9 follows Ch. 7.  We see the Captain as he takes command of an antiquated ore freighter, where a different style of command is in order.  This is a quite short chapter, especially when compared with the previous one, which required dividing into two posts.  That's one of the problems I have with this book -- inconsistent chapter lengths.


November 2766-January 2767

Capt. Nikalishin had gone the specs-and-sims route again in order to acquaint himself with Asteroid Class ships, but those vessels were inherently more problematic than any of the Union Class ships.  For one thing, ore freighters didn’t always conform to specifications; most of them had more than 25 years of hard service on them and had been retrofitted so many times that they possessed a good deal of non-standard jury-rigging.  Fortunately, they usually had veteran engineering crews who had spent years coddling their ships’ idiosyncrasies.
The crewmembers of such ships were a hard-bitten lot, difficult to pry out of their established ways.  Hardly any women chose to serve aboard such dingy and labor-intensive vessels and many of the crewmembers were civilians, an independent bunch who considered most academically trained officers to be sissies.  The Captains also tended to be old hands; there were only a few command officers who were attracted to that kind of work and they usually kept their jobs.  Robbie had attended Flight Academy at the same time as the reassigned Capt. Brindisi and he was all too aware that his peer was a tough customer.  He had his work cut out for him.
So, when Robbie inspected the crew after boarding the Hell’s Gate, he scrapped his usual low-key, self-deprecating command style.  He didn’t invite them to visit him whenever they felt the urge, he didn’t request that they correct his errors, and he made no jokes.  He simply informed them in a clipped tone that he was temporarily replacing their regular Captain, that he had no intention of usurping Brindisi’s job long-term, and that he demanded nothing less than their full cooperation. 
Somebody spoke up from the middle of the assemblage.  “Where is our Captain, anyway?  Why’d they give his job to a fancy-pants bloke like you?”
And somebody else called, “I’d wager you never even set foot on an ore scuttle before – sir!”
Robbie fixed the area with a cold eye, pretending he knew who had spoken.  “Mister, I didn’t give either you or the other swab permission to speak.  Keep up that cocky attitude and you’ll be cooling your heels in the brig.  I presume this tub has a brig?  Sgt. Valleho?”
The Security Chief answered, “Yes, sir, the Hell’s Gate has a sizable brig, and Capt. Brindisi makes good use of it!”
“Just to show you I can be fair … after all, you civvie scabs probably pride yourselves on your ignorance of flight protocols … I’ll answer your questions.  Capt. Brindisi has been temporarily reassigned.  That’s as much as I know.  Contrary to what you may believe, commanding officers aren’t always told the reasons for their orders any more than you are.  The same goes for why they picked me for this ship, because I certainly didn’t ask for the job.  And you’re right – I’ve never commanded an Asteroid Class ship before, or flown on one.  But I’ve been under the impression that I was not the only one working the consoles here, and I do know a bit about space navigation.  So if you just keep doing your jobs and pay enough attention to my orders so that when I say adjust bearing 020 mark 005, we don’t end up 220 mark 050, I can’t see we’ll have any problems.  Now take your assigned stations and begin launch preparations.”
Some of the military men were grinning a little, always happy to see the civvies put in their place.  They can’t all be scoundrels, Robbie thought.  But, goddamit, this isn’t the way I like to command, and it’s going to be a very long voyage.
The only upside of the situation was that by the time the ship returned to Earth, his year of penance would be almost over.  And something was afoot, Adm. Soemady had said …
*          *          *
The Hell’s Gate was dark, dirty, and smelly.  Robbie was forced to bed down in a cabin usually reserved for mining inspectors, because the Captain’s quarters were full of Brindisi’s personal effects and Robbie didn’t want to stir up ill will by disrupting the status quo.  The clanking and creaking of the ship disturbed Robbie’s sleep and the hard bunk gave him a chronic backache.  The food was adequate but monotonous.  This was no hot-minute ship like the Red Planet.  The Captain cursed the members of the Board of Command who had felt it necessary to inflict such a test upon him.
And the freighter was permeated with ore dust, even though before the voyage it had undergone a full decontamination and was carrying nothing but provisions for the mining stations.  Plagued by a scratchy throat, Robbie ordered the engineers to run a systems check on the atmospheric scrubbers, but no malfunctions were found.
The most dicey personnel situation Robbie had to deal with during that mission involved the Second Officer.  He was a humorless, brutish man who made scant attempt to hide his conviction that, if something was amiss with Brindisi, the command should have gone to him.  Robbie never felt able to trust him, fearing he would pull some trick out of resentment, and this wore on the nerves. 
But the worst thing Robbie had to endure was the dread of a moment that he knew would inevitably come …
They were heading for the permanent mining station in the Asteroid Belt’s Sector S-260, an area of iron/nickel Class S rocks.  Laboring as a miner on one of these stations on the fringes of the inner solar system was even worse than serving on an ore-hauler.  Robotic tugs searched out asteroids of an appropriate size and composition, grappled them, and towed them to the station.  There, they were crushed up into manageable pieces, given a preliminary sort to extract the worst chondritic material, and then stored in the potbelly of the hold until a hauler arrived.  An Asteroid Class ship could haul enough high-grade iron/nickel ore to manufacture twenty kilos of rail line or twenty wind turbine towers.  Earth still had plenty of ferrous minerals remaining in its lithosphere, but every space rock that was brought back meant one less scar that had to be gouged into the planet’s hide.
Hell’s Gate reached its destination rather suddenly.  One second, the big viewing port was displaying only stars; then the next, an enormous, pockmarked potato hove into sight.  Robbie was starting to give an order to reduce speed when he saw it, and then …  
… the lights went out as a terrible concussion shocked through the ship.  He was sliding across a tilted deck, amid screams of panic, crashes of falling girders, the shriek of venting atmosphere …  And then emergency lights … flickering flames … and the sight of that great, pocked entity looming over him where the bulkhead should have been …
“Captain?  Reduce speed to what?” the Pilot was saying, frowning over his shoulder.
Robbie jumped, and the vision of the asteroid’s leering, dimpled face shrank once more into the background of his memory.  “Reduce to 20 MS, Lieutenant.  Ens. Quam, attempt to hail the station.  Cmdr. Sakata, you have the Bridge.”  And he departed, feeling his Second Officer’s coldly speculative eyes following him.
Robbie went to his cabin and dashed cold water against his face.  Bloody hell, this was just what he had feared the first glimpse of an asteroid would do to him … trigger a recurrence of the flashbacks that the passing of time had pretty much rendered a mere unpleasant memory.  God, he didn’t want to retrogress …  But his anticipatory dread had been so great that retrogression was almost inevitable … 
Without a doubt that was the reason why the Board had sent him on this mission:  to determine how he would react to fresh contact with an actual asteroid – to discover if his mind would start playing tricks on him again.  But what the hell difference did it make to whatever they had planned for him?  Surely the Board didn’t intend to assign him to a permanent command of an ore freighter … 
Robbie shuddered.  If they did have some such diabolical trick up their sleeves, it would be the last straw.  He wouldn’t be able to handle it – he would be forced to concede defeat and request a ground assignment.  And all his patient endurance over this past eight months would have been for naught.
Such a fresh attempt to defeat him sounded like something the Base Commander would cook up, but certainly not Adm. Soemady.  She had made him believe that something positive was in store for him, so maybe his apprehensiveness was all for nothing.  Maybe there was some motive behind this test that he simply couldn’t figure out …
Presently, Robbie went back to the Bridge and reassumed command, fancying that Sakata relinquished the chair with considerable reluctance.  Multiple asteroids were visible now, and one could see the mining station in the distance.  Somewhere out there – not in this sector of the Belt, but somewhere – was a big chunk of rock with the blackened shell of a ship sticking out of it, and some traces of organic molecules that had once been living human flesh …
       Robbie fixed his eyes desperately on the station and said, “Reduce velocity another 5 Millstrands, Lieutenant, and come about, 010 mark 007.  It’s time we docked this boat.”
Next installment:
Chapter 10
How the Relationship between Robbie and His Silver Mother Changed


  1. Keep it rolling Lorinda - great story!


  2. Keep it rolling Lorinda - great story!


    1. Neil, now you've got the commenting down so well that you got the same one in here twice! LOL
      So I take it if I ever publish this, you'd buy it? The trouble is, it's not ready to publish - it's humongous, out of control. Even just the first half of Robbie's life would take up two long volumes.

  3. I was on my mobile and couldn't tell whether the first comment had worked! - still a newbie on this I'm afraid!

    Why would I want to buy it when it's all here for me?! - you need to stop now, take it all off-line, draw a line (call it Volume 1 or something), tidy up and finish, and publish - then I'm gonna have to buy it! Ha! (Why am I telling her this? ... Who am I talking to?!).

    And guess what Tolkein said before he decided to publish The Lord of the Rings?, yes ... "it's humongous, out of control. Even just the first half of ...". It's a common dilemna, God had the same problem with his Bible, but then many think he should have just left it online of course - oops!

    1. Of course, I love it that somebody likes my writing so much- it's very flattering! But an author pretty much knows when a book is right, I think, and this book is definitely not publishable in its present form. I had originally intended to use the alternating flash-back/flash-forward form for the whole novel, but I sort of caught up with myself and there was a lot more to talk about in Robbie's early life before I could complete the later. I'm considering scrapping the flash-back format altogether, but I don't know if I can work it out. I could do something with it as a series, I suppose, but even so it needs to be drastically pruned. So don't expect anything published anytime soon. I prefer to work on the excerpt from a later part that I'm calling "Of Fathers and Demons." I think you'll like it too. It's definitely more literary fiction than SF and it has some serious philosophical discussion and possibly controversial ideas, along with some terrific charactizations, if I do say so myself. Btw, Robbin Nikalishin is a principal character (aged 39).
      Re God ... Yes, I think he got a little repetitive in places. I was trying to read the entire Torah awhile back, and I gave up in the middle of Deuteronomy because it repeated everything that had been said earlier and I was getting very bored. (The word means literally "second law.") I wonder if all the repetitiveness had something to do with being originally an oral transmission - you say things over and over if you want people to remember them.

  4. I wouldn't worry - break some rules and change styles/format to suit you and the story. Flashbacks or not, your 'voice' is credible, and I believe in the characters. That counts for a lot.

    God could learn a lot from you.

    1. I appreciate your saying my voice is credible and you believe in the characters. I do think those are the most important things. I had planned to stop publishing installments at some point - I just wanted to get some opinions as to whether the story was worth continuing to edit and revise. But except for one comment on Ch. 2, I've never gotten any feedback except yours - either positive or negative. I'm going to post a few more chapters (the next one is important to the understanding of how Robbie's life turns out) and then we'll see.
      Gee, your remark about God - I'm going to get a swelled head!