Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 11

Here is yet another 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 (point to the chapter and the link will appear):
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]
Chapter 9 Aboard the Ore Freighter Hell's Gate
Chapter 10 How the Relationship between Robbie and His Silver Mother Changed 
       Still employing the usual flash-back/flash-forward format, Chapter 11 follows Chapter 9.  Capt. Nikalishin returns from his voyage on the Hell's Gate, to find that his year of punishment has ended.  However, the malfunctioning scrubbers on the antiquated vessel have left him sick as as dog and he turns to his old friend Wilda Murchy for help. 
10 April 2767
By the time Capt. Nikalishin returned to Earth after completing five months of servitude aboard the ore freighter, he understood why Asteroid Class vessels bore names like Hell’s Gate, Torment, and Broken Dreams.  For one thing, they did not run in squadrons like the Mars ships and so the sense of being alone in the void was an ominous burden rather than the benevolent escape it had always been for Robbie.  The return had been far worse than the voyage out, for the incessant forward progress of Earth made it twice as long, day after day of the same monotonous routine.  All the limited recreational opportunities aboard the ship had been pursued to tedium, and by the last couple of weeks, anything with the slightest resemblance to fresh food had been depleted; the crew was living on stale prepared cereal, rehydrated soymilk and juices, vitamin supplements, and Pre-Packaged Modular Meals, commonly referred to as “peepums.”  And the final insult was, the coffee had run out.
Although additional processing of the cargo kept the ore-handlers busy, the members of the flight crew simply performed their duty shifts and then went looking for any activity they could find to break up the boredom.  This often included getting into altercations that led to fisticuffs and Robbie spent half his time dealing with disciplinary problems.  He didn’t dare let things get out of hand and so the brig was kept full.  Cmdr. Sakata became openly insolent as the voyage approached its end, and Robbie was forced to handle him carefully in order to avoid an incident.
Furthermore, the situation with the ore dust grew far worse after the cargo hold was filled.  By the time the ship reached Luna Base, the scratching in Robbie’s throat had become a fire that filled his chest and he had developed a disturbing cough and eye irritation.
When he emerged from the shuttle at Old Heathero, he was met by a Lieutenant who snapped a salute and said, “I’ve been instructed to say that the Board of Command welcomes you home, Capt. Nikalishin!  Here are your orders, sir!” and presented not an info key but a sealed plastipaper envelope.  Inside, Robbie found the following: “Please report immediately upon disembarkation to Base Hospital for a full physical and mental evaluation.  Upon its completion, you will receive additional orders.  [signed] R. Adm. Jivanta Soemady, Personnel Liaison Officer, Board of Command, Old Heathero Flight Port.”
Robbie cursed inwardly, then sighed.  He was physically and mentally drained, he had been functioning solely on adrenaline for the last couple of weeks, and all he wanted was to get back to Sloe, fall into bed, and sleep.  But the sigh caused a sharp burning in his chest and he thought, I suppose a check-over by the medics might not be such a bad idea …
 … although he deeply loathed medical examinations.  This time the first thing they did was send him to take a shower.  Robbie chuckled a bit at that; it didn’t reflect well on the sanitary facilities aboard the Hell’s Gate.  The exam itself involved a lot of sitting on scanning tables in one of those garish green hospital tunics that always reminded him of the night his father had almost killed him.  You sat there and froze to death with your feet and legs dangling naked, until the doctor came in and scrutinized you as if you were a lab specimen.
Usually there was a different doctor for every routine physical, but this time Robbie happened to know the man who entered.  Dr. Jay Yacubian was a pulmonary specialist and he seemed puzzled.  “The Techs’ preliminary work-up revealed some peculiar symptoms, Capt. Nikalishin – pharyngitis, a cough with a dark sputum, conjunctivitis, and a rash on the neck and wrists.   But your temperature is normal … ”
“Nickel allergy.”
“Nickel allergy.  I’m allergic to nickel.  It’s in the record there.”
Dr. Yacubian scanned his reader for the subject.  “Oh, yes, I see it.”
“The ship was an asteroid-ore freighter, doc.  It was full of metallic dust – iron, nickel – who knows what else?”
Yacubian reacted with alarm.  “Those things are supposed to have super-powerful atmospheric scrubbers.”
“They do, but I don’t think these were working properly.  I’ve already submitted a request for them to be … ”  Robbie was forced to stop and get his breath.  “Didn’t seem to bother anybody else on the crew, though.  But I’m allergic to nickel.  Always have been.  I can’t wear cheap jewelry – gives me contact dermatitis every time.  The rashes are from the particles getting under my collar and cuffs.  The cough … well … ” 
“And you were – what?  Three months in that environment?”
“God almighty, man, we’d better begin administering an appropriate antidote!  And you need a detailed thoracic scan and a complete chemical work-up!  You’re fortunate your throat didn’t swell shut!  What in the world were those Command people thinking? – assigning an officer with a nickel allergy to the asteroid gig!”
“They probably didn’t know.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Look, doc, I’m trying to do what I’m told and make everybody like me again, you know?”
Yacubian was paying no attention.  “I seem to remember that you almost died from pneumonia two or three years ago,” he said, scrolling the chart again.
Patiently, Robbie said, “It was in December of ’65,” thinking, You absent-minded nit, you were the principal doctor on the case.
“We’ll have to keep you in hospital for a while … ”
Robbie gestured despairingly.  “Aw, doc, don’t do that.  I want my own bed more than anything.  I’ve been five months and five days in that bloody ship’s iron bunk, and I don’t take kindly to these souped-up scanners you medics make their patients sleep on.”
“Well …  Will there be anybody with you, in case you suffer a flare-up of pulmonary edema?”
That scared Robbie a bit, but he said, “I’m living in a hostel.  There are a million people around all the time.”
“Well … ”  The doctor was running a scanner over Robbie’s back.  “Take some deep breaths.” 
He did so.  The process made his chest hurt rather acutely, but he repressed any reaction to the pain.  He wasn’t about to get stuck for an extended stay in a hospital.
Yacubian said, “I think I’ll at least keep you overnight.  The antidote for metallic poisoning has to be administered slowly, and you ought to receive some intravenous antimicrobials just as a precaution.  An infection on top of this inflammation would not be a good thing at all.  If I do let you go home, you’ll have to come in every day for breathing treatments and blood work.”
“For how long?”
“At least a week, and then at wider intervals for as long as it takes to rid your body of all traces of toxicity.”
Robbie gave in and agreed to follow orders.
*          *          *
The set of instructions that Robbie received along with his release requested him to report immediately upon discharge from hospital to Adm. Soemady’s office in General HQ.  He was also informed that a hopper was waiting to convey him there.
All this really surprised him.  He had expected to simply return to Sloe Hostel to await his fate.  The strangest thing was the private conveyance.  Earth’s petroleum reserves had been depleted centuries ago (no real misfortune, since the misuse of fossil fuels had played a significant role in the degradation of Earth’s environment), and the restricted supply of personal electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles was allocated to dignitaries and official bodies.  Reluctance to use either one’s own two good legs or the ubiquitous public transport system was viewed as decadent.
However, at the moment Robbie’s own two legs did not feel as if they could have gotten him to HQ or even to the cross-Base rail terminal, so he had no objection to making use of the hopper.
At Headquarters, he was instantly admitted to the Admiral’s presence.  She was seated at her desk and Robbie didn’t wait to be asked to sit; he sank into a chair, saluting on his way down.  “Sorry, sir.  I’m kind of out of breath – a little under the weather.”
Her scrutiny was every bit as intent as the doctor’s.  “I know.  I have the medical reports here.  Robbie, I must apologize to you on behalf of the entire Board.  We thought we were familiar with your medical records, but I swear none of us knew about the nickel sensitivity.  If we had, we’d never have taken this course.”
“I did wonder for a minute there, sir, if you were trying to kill me.”
Soemady laughed ruefully, shaking her head.  “I’m placing you on medical leave for six weeks.  The medics say you’ll need at least that long to get back to your old self.  I’m ordering you to follow their directives to the letter, Capt. Nikalishin – treatments, rest, nutrition – the whole ball of wax.”
“I’m crushed that you think I wouldn’t, Admiral!  But – does this mean that I don’t get to learn more about whatever those hints were that you dropped during our little stroll?”
Her smile now turned mischievous.  “That’s what it means.”
“Damn.  But dare I very delicately remind you that my year of penance is supposed to be over in some ten days?”
“As a matter of fact … ”  She pushed an info key at him.  “ … it’s over now.  An unconditional reprieve is detailed in this document.  A somewhat insignificant bonus for good behavior, as it were.”
This brought Robbie to the edge of his chair.  “Honestly?”
“Well, aliluya!  But does that … What?”
“What in the world was that expletive you just used?”
“‘Aliluya?’  Oh … ”  Robbie tried to take a deep breath and winced.  “ … it’s just something – a friend of mine used to say.  It’s sort of a ‘god be praised’ thing.  He – my friend, I mean … he was Eirish, you know.  And he had some funny ways of talking … ”
She nodded seriously, as if she quite understood.  Then she handed him a key card.  “Your flat has been released from lockdown.  You’re free to resume residency there any time you like.” 
“Really?  Holy cry!  And – does this mean I can access my bank accounts again?”
“Absolutely.  Furthermore, you’re restored to full Captain’s pay and are once again entitled to all the perks due a Senior Officer.”
Robbie wondered if he had died and was now residing in a kinder dimension.  “The Officer’s Mess?”
She nodded.  “And the Club and the Gymnasium …  You’re back among the living, Capt. Nikalishin – among the so-called elite.”
“I have to say, Adm. Soemady – getting orders from you sure beats getting them from Maj. Nwinn.  But don’t get me wrong – I found him a delightful chap.  In fact, I’d really like to recommend him for a promotion.  Why don’t you stick a Lieutenant Colonel’s insignia on his collar and put him in charge of the Greenlend Weather Station?”
She laughed heartily.  “Robbie, you’re incorrigible.”
He chuckled hoarsely and said, “I’ve always had a hard time seeing the rank before the man – or the woman, as the case may … ”  Suddenly a wave of dizziness surged over Robbie and he swayed a little, clutching the arms of his chair.
Adm. Soemady looked concerned.  “Are you going to be all right by yourself?”
“Oh, yeah … it’s just – my blood oxygen levels are depressed.  The docs gave me one of those little oxygenerators, along with a bucketful of oral medications.  Everything’s here in my duffel.”
“Damn, Robbie, this experiment of ours did nearly kill you.  We just about cut off our noses to spite our faces.”
He regarded her, not quite sure what she could mean by that.  But then he said, “There’s something I really must tell you, Admiral.  I don’t know how you’ll take it, but … ”
Soemady nodded.  “It’s in the psychologist’s report.  You were very forthcoming.”
“And you weren’t going to say anything?”
“Well, personally, I wasn’t surprised.  I was about 99 percent certain you’d experience a flashback out there.”
“It only happened twice.  The first time was on the Bridge – it was pretty awkward.  Cmdr. Sakata is a very unforgiving Second Officer.  The second was in the night – more of a dream rather than a flashback with a bona fide trigger.  Neither created any kind of danger for the ship, and I don’t see any reason for that sort of thing to recur on a regular basis, unless maybe you’re, uh – planning to give me permanent command of an ore-hauler.”
“Now that we’re cognizant of your nickel allergy?  I assure you, we’re not that merciless!  And I can say that was never part of our plans in any event.”
  “Whew, that’s a relief.  But I realize – it’s the same old problem rearing its ugly head again; you can’t put any vessel under the command of a Captain who might not be in full possession of his wits in an emergency.  Of course, it’s presumptuous for me to think you have any command in mind for me at all.  Oh, you might be planning to put me in charge of a latrine brigade or a loading dock detail … ”
Soemady was smiling ambiguously.  “Our plans involve neither of those things you mentioned, I can tell you that much.  Now, that’s all I’m going to say.  You just concentrate on getting your strength back, Robbie.  I’m ordering you to undergo another complete physical in six weeks, and then we’ll see.”
“Oh, I can’t wait for that.”
The Admiral had reached for her com piece.  “Maj. Chalmers, order up the hopper again.  I’m sending Capt. Nikalishin home in style.”
*          *          *
Robbie asked the driver to take him to his flat.  Now that he really could go home, even the presence of Wilda couldn’t make Sloe Hostel appealing.  But after he had unlocked the door and stepped inside, he was not so sure that he had made the right decision.  The place was close and musty and unwelcoming, and it was in exactly the same condition it had been the year before when he had begun serving his sentence.  He wasn’t certain it was habitable, and he doubted he was capable of making it so.
The flat consisted of a living room and a kitchen – separate rooms, the height of status to Robbie in his green youth – as well as a large and a small bedroom, a bath, and a tiny office alcove equipped with communication ports.  The flat was filled with comfortably upholstered furniture, while the rugs on the floor had been wedding gifts to him and Fedaylia.  It was an appropriate accommodation for his rank.  But it hadn’t really satisfied Feddie – she had wanted a townhouse.  And if she had gotten that, she would have probably wanted a mansion standing on its own piece of ground …
Robbie punched up the enviros and fresh air began flooding in.  That helped a little.  He stood looking around, noting that his MaCray watercolor of the boy and the eagles was still hanging on the living room wall just as he had left it.  Beneath it stood the little handmade statuette of a merlin, which had also been a wedding present.  He relaxed slightly; his flat was supposed to have remained untouched under the lockdown, but still he had been afraid that somehow something might have happened to the possessions he treasured.
Robbie hoisted his duffel and headed unsteadily for the bedroom.  He found his bed sitting there desolate, unmade, the humped, stale sheets staring accusingly at him.  It must have been like that since the day he left on his disastrous final mission; Fedaylia must have slept in the little bedroom before she moved out, leaving the other in a mess as a reproach.
He’d have to change the sheets – and even the clean linen was going to smell like the closet …  Dizziness seized him again and he remembered the doctor’s words … Will there be anybody with you in case the pulmonary edema flares up?  He felt distinctly uneasy.
But then Robbie's attention turned to a corner of the ceiling over the chest of drawers.  And there it was – the toy space plane from his childhood, swaying in the draft of the enviros, with its star, a bit tarnished with age now, winking bravely.  When he had been permitted one last visit to his flat to extract his belongings before being sent off to Sloe, he had purposely left the plane behind; it had not seemed right to ask it to share his self-inflicted disgrace.
Usually Robbie took the plane with him on his missions.  Until the last Solar Wind mission the only occasion when he had failed to do so had been the final flight of the Darter.  He hadn’t taken it then because he had been expecting a bad end to that episode.  But he had always wondered if leaving his good-luck charm behind had jinxed the mission.  And who knew?  Maybe its absence had done the same for his probationary flight.  But the truth was, that bad outcome had been his own doing.  After all, nobody but himself had chosen to substitute the bottle of vodka for the plane when he packed his duffel.
Robbie opened a cabinet and took out some sheets.  The simple act of bending over made him break out in a sweat and he thought, I don’t think I can do this.  Thinking some nourishment might help, he went into the kitchen and opened the cold box, forgetting that anything in there was a year old.  A ghastly smell assaulted his senses and he gagged.
That was just too much.  Robbie suddenly felt completely overcome – hopeless and alone.  Why had he ever thought he would be able to do anything with his life again?  Here his sentence was lifted and the brass apparently had something planned for him – and his life was over.  He just wanted to lie down and die.  He didn’t even have a clean change of clothes – anything he did have that was not stuffed in his duffel was at the hostel, and there was no way he could go …
Then he thought, But I’m not in the Brig any longer and I’m not in solitary.  And there are times when a man must make it alone, but then there are other times when he has to have help …
Robbie made it out to the com port and rang up Sloe.  After some dithering, his old friend came on.
“Wilda, this is Robbie.”
“Capt. Robbie!  You’re back!”  She couldn’t have sounded more pleased if she had been informed she had inherited a million credits.  “But you don’t sound very good, love.  Is that you breathing that I hear?  Where are you?”
“I’m at my flat – they’ve released it to me, Wilda.  But – I’m not in such good shape.  I’ve got nickel poisoning and … well, I was wondering if …  Dammit, Wilda, I’ve nothing to eat and everything is … I just wondered … Wilda, I need some help … ”  His voice was quavering.
“Hold on a minute!”  After some authoritative background conversation, Wilda came back on.  “I’m taking the rest of the day off right now!  Do you want me to bring some of the stuff from your room?”
“Oh, Wilda, would you?  Darlin’, there’s no better woman than you ever been created.”
“I think it’s some mothering that you need.  Can you hang on there for – like, maybe, two hours?  I’d like to fetch you some decent food from home.”
“ … I think so … ”  As his breath rasped in his throat, Robbie desperately suppressed the urge to cry.
Apparently Wilda didn’t like what she was hearing, because she said, “Now, don’t you go dying on me, Robbie!  At least wait till I get there!  Just give me two hours!”
She disconnected and Robbie staggered to the couch and dropped onto it.  Aliluya for Wilda … if only I could have married that woman when I was 21, it’s for sure most of my troubles would have never happened!
Coming next:
Chapter 12: A Summer Adventure and a Term at Oxkam


  1. Oh yes, back on track, and so enjoyable. So readable. But so short! More more.more!!


    1. I thought maybe you'd find this one a little too long for the subject matter! Neil, you MUST acquire and read the book I'm working on right now, which is a long excerpt from later in MWFB, when Robbie is 39. I'll be putting up a post regarding my progress on Fathers and Demons (the title). In the meantime, you could read some of my other books. Vanessa loves Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder, which has a preponderance of 5-star reviews, and she also owns The Termite Queen, so you could wrangle those away from her. I think you would really like Monster in particular.