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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnwise Child - Chapter 15
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Unwise Child - Chapter 15 Post by :traffic-tart Category :Long Stories Author :Randall Garrett Date :May 2012 Read :3197

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Unwise Child - Chapter 15

Midnight, ship time.

And, as far as the laws of simultaneity would allow, it was midnight in Greenwich, England. At least, when a ship returned from an interstellar trip, the ship's chronometer was within a second or two, plus or minus, of Greenwich time. Theoretically, the molecular vibration clocks shouldn't vary at all. The fact that they did hadn't yet been satisfactorily accounted for.

Mike the Angel tried to make himself think of clocks or the variations in space time or anything else equally dull, in the hope that it would put him to sleep.

He began to try to work out the derivation of the Beale equations, the equations which had solved the principle of the no-space drive. The ship didn't move through space; space moved through the ship, which, of course, might account for the variation in time, because--

--the time is out of joint.


The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!


_Hamlet_, thought Mike. _Act One, the end of scene five.

But why had he been born to set it right? Besides, exactly what was wrong? There was something wrong, all right.

And why from the end of the act? Another act to come? Something more to happen? The clock will go round till another time comes. Watch the clock, the absolutely cuckoo clock, which ticked as things happened that made almost no sense and yet had sense hidden in their works.

The good old Keku clock. Somewhere is icumen in, lewdly sing Keku. The Mellon is ripe and climbing Jakob's ladder. And both of them playing Follow the Leda.

And where were they heading? Toward some destination in the general direction of the constellation Cygnus. The transformation equations work fine on an interstellar ship. Would they work on a man? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to transform yourself into a swan? Cygnus the Swan.

And we'll _all play Follow the Leda....

Somewhere in there, Mike the Angel managed to doze off.

* * * * *

He awoke suddenly, and his dream of being a huge black swan vanished, shattered into nothingness.

This time it had not been a sound that had awakened him. It had been something else, something more like a cessation of sound. A dying sigh.

He reached out and touched the switch plaque.

Nothing happened.

The room remained dark.

The room was strangely silent. The almost soundless vibration of the engines was still there, but....

The air conditioners!

The air in the stateroom was unmoving, static. There was none of the faint breeze of moving air. Something had gone wrong with the low-power circuits!

Now how the hell could that happen? Not by accident, unless the accident were a big one. It would take a tremendous amount of coincidence to put all three of the interacting systems out of order at once. And they all _had to go at once to cut the power from the low-load circuits.

The standard tap and the first and second stand-by taps were no longer tapping power from the main generators. The intercom was gone, too, along with the air conditioners, the lights, and half a dozen other sub-circuits.

Mike the Angel scrambled out of bed and felt for his clothing, wishing he had something as prosaic as an old-fashioned match, or even a flame-type cigarette lighter. He found his lighter in his belt pocket as he pulled on his uniform. He jerked it out and thumbed it. In the utter darkness, the orange-red glow gave more illumination than he had supposed. If a man's eyes are adjusted to darkness, he can read print by the glow of a cigarette, and the lighter's glow was brighter than that.

Still, it wasn't much. If only he had a flashlight!

From a distance, far down the companionway, he could hear voices. The muffled sound that had awakened him had been the soft susurration of the door as it had slid open when the power died. Without the electrolocks to hold it closed, it had opened automatically. The doors in a spaceship are built that way, to make sure no one will be trapped in case of a power failure.

Mike dressed in a matter of seconds and headed toward the door.

And stopped just before he stepped out.

Someone was outside. Someone, or--something.

He didn't know _how he knew, but he knew. He was as certain as if the lights had been on bright.

And whoever was waiting out there didn't want Mike the Angel to know that he was there.

Mike stood silent for a full second. That was long enough for him to get angry. Not the hot anger of hatred, but the cold anger of a man who has had too many attempts on his life, who has escaped narrowly from an unseen plotter twice because of pure luck and does not intend to fall victim to the dictum that "the third time's a charm."

He realized that he was still holding the glowing cigarette lighter in his hand.

"Damn!" he muttered, as though to himself. "I'd forget my ears if they weren't sewed down." Then he turned, heading back toward his bed, hoping that whoever was waiting outside would assume he would be back immediately. At the same time, he lifted his thumb off the lighter's contact.

Then he sat down on the edge of his bed and quickly pulled off his boots. Holding them both in his hands, he moved silently back to the door. When he reached it, he tossed both boots to the rear of the room. When they landed clatteringly, he stepped quietly through the door. In three steps he was on the opposite side of the corridor. He hugged the wall and moved back away from the spot where the watcher would be expecting him.

Then he waited.

He was on one side of the door to his stateroom, and the--what or whoever it was--was on the other. Until that other made a move, Mike the Angel would wait.

The wait seemed many minutes long, although Mike knew it couldn't have been more than forty-five seconds or so. From other parts of the ship he could hear voices shouting as the crewmen and officers who had been sleeping were awakened by the men on duty. The ship could not sustain life long if the air conditioners were dead.

Then, quite suddenly, the waiting was over. Behind Mike there was a bend in the corridor, and from around that bend came the sound of running footsteps, followed by a bellowing voice: "I'll get the Commander; you go down and get the other boys started!"

Multhaus.

And then there was a glow of light. The Chief Powerman's Mate was carrying a light, which reflected from the walls of the corridor.

And Mike the Angel knew perfectly well that he was silhouetted against that glow. Whoever it was who was waiting for him could see him plainly.

Multhaus' footsteps rang in the corridor while Mike strained his eyes to see what was before him in the darkness. And all the time, the glow became brighter as Multhaus approached.

Then, from out of the darkness, came something that moved on a whir of caterpillar treads. Something hard and metallic slammed against Mike's shoulder, spinning him against the wall.

At that moment, Multhaus came around the corner, and Mike could see Snookums scurrying on down the corridor toward the approaching Powerman's Mate.

"Multhaus! Look out!" Mike yelled.

The beam from the chief's hand torch gleamed on the metallic body of the little robot as it headed toward him.

"Snookums! Stop!" Mike ordered.

Snookums paid no attention. He swerved adroitly around the astonished Multhaus, spun around the corner, and was gone into the darkness.

"What was all that, sir?" Multhaus asked, looking more than somewhat confused.

"A course of instruction on the First and Second Laws of Robotics as applied by the Computer Corporation of Earth," said Mike, rubbing his bruised side. "But never mind that now. What's wrong with the low-power circuits?"

"I don't know, sir. Breckwell is on duty in that section."

"Let's go," said Mike the Angel. "We have to get this cleared up before we all suffocate."

"Someone's going to get galloping claustrophobia before it's over, anyway," said Multhaus morosely as he followed Mike down the hallway in the direction from which Snookums had come. "Darkness and stuffy air touch off that sort of thing."

"Who's Officer of the Watch tonight?" Mike wanted to know.

"Ensign Vaneski, I think. His name was on the roster, as I remember."

"I hope he reported to the bridge. Commander Jeffers will be getting frantic, but he can't leave the bridge unless he's relieved. Come on, let's move."

They sprinted down the companionway.

* * * * *

The lights had been out less than five minutes when Mike the Angel and Chief Powerman's Mate Multhaus reached the low-power center of the Power Section. The door was open, and a torch was spearing its beam on two men--one kneeling over the prone figure of the other. The kneeling man jerked his head around as Mike and the chief came in the door.

The kneeling man was Powerman First Class Fleck. Mike recognized the man on the floor as Powerman Third Class Breckwell.

"What happened?" he snapped at Fleck.

"Don't know, sir. I was in the head when the lights went. It took me a little time to get a torch and get in here, and I found Breckwell gone. At least, I thought he was gone, but then I heard a noise from the tool cabinet and I opened it and he fell out." The words seemed to come out all in a rush.

"Dead?" asked Mike sharply.

"Nossir, I don't think so, sir. Looks like somebody clonked him on the head, but he's breathin' all right."

Mike knelt over the man and took his pulse. The heartbeat was regular and steady, if a trifle weak. Mike ran a hand over Breckwell's head.

"There's a knot there the size of a golf ball, but I don't think anything's broken," he said.

Footsteps came running down the hall, and six men of the power crew came pouring in the door. They slowed to a halt when they saw their commanding officer was already there.

"A couple of you take care of Breckwell--Leister, Knox--move him to one side. Bathe his face with water. No, wait; you can't do that till we get the pumps moving again. Just watch him."

One of the men coughed a little. "What he needs is a good slug of hooch."

"I agree," said Mike evenly. "Too bad there isn't any aboard. But do what you think is best; I'm going to be too busy to keep an eye on you. I won't be able to watch you at all, so you'll be on your own."

"Yessir," said the man who had spoken. He hid his grin and took out at a run, heading for wherever it was he kept his bottle hidden.

"Dunstan, you and Ghihara get out and watch the halls. If any other officer comes this way, sing out."

"Yessir!" came the twin chorus.

More footsteps pounded toward them, and the remaining men of the power crew arrived.

"All right, now let's take a look at these circuits," said Mike.

Chief Multhaus had already flipped open all the panels and was peering inside. The men lined the torches up on the desk in the corner, in order to shed as much light as possible over the banks of low-power wiring, and went over to where Multhaus and Mike the Angel were standing.

"Dig out three replacement switches--heavy-duty six-double-oh-B-nines," said Multhaus. There was a touch of disgust and a good-sized serving of anger and irritation in his voice.

Mike the Angel surveyed the damage. "See anything else, Multhaus?"

"No, sir. That's it."

Mike nodded. "About five minutes' work to get the main switch going, which will give us power, and another ten minutes for the first and second stand-bys. Go ahead and take over, Multhaus; you won't need me. I'll go find out what the bloody unprintable is going on around here."

* * * * *

Mike the Angel ran into Captain Sir Henry Quill as he went up the companionway to the bridge.

"What happened?" demanded the captain in his gravelly tenor voice.

"Somebody ripped out the main switches to the low-power taps from the main generators, sir," said Mike. "Nothing to worry about. The boys will have the lights on within three or four minutes."

"Who...?"

"I don't know," said Mike, "but we'd better find out pretty fast. There've been too many things going on aboard this ship to suit me."

"Same here. Are you sure everything's all right down there?"

"Absolutely, sir. We can quit worrying about the damage itself and put our minds to finding out who did that damage."

"Do you have any ideas?"

"Some," said Mike the Angel. "As soon as the intercom is functioning again, I think you'd better call a general meeting of officers--and get Miss Crannon and Fitzhugh out of bed and get them up here, too."

"Why?" Black Bart asked flatly.

"Because Snookums has gone off his rocker. He's attacked at least one human being that I know of and has ignored direct orders from a human being."

"Who?" asked Black Bart.

"Me," said Mike the Angel.

Mike told Captain Quill what had happened as they made their way back up to the bridge.

Ensign Vaneski, looking pale and worried, met them at the door. He snapped a salute. "I just reported to Commander Jeffers, sir. Something's wrong with the low-power circuits."

"I had surmised as much," said Black Bart caustically. "Anything new? What did you find out? What happened?"

"When the lights went out, I was having coffee by myself in the wardroom. I grabbed a torch and headed for Power Section as soon as I could. The low-power room was empty. There should have been a man on duty there, but there wasn't. I didn't want to go inside, since I'm not a power officer, so I came up here to report. I--"

At that moment the lights blazed on again. There was a faint hum that built up all over the ship as the air conditioning came on at the same time.

"All right, Mister Vaneski," said Black Bart, "get below and take care of things. There's a man hurt down there, so be ready to take him to sick bay when the Physician's Mate gets there. We don't have a medic in any condition to take care of people, so he'll have to do. Hop it."

As Vaneski left, Black Bart preceded Mike into the bridge. Pete Jeffers was on the intercom. As Mike and the captain came in, he was saying, "All right. I'll notify the Officer of the Watch, and we'll search the ship. He can't hide very long." Then, without waiting to say anything to Mike or Quill, he jabbed at another button. "Mister von Liegnitz! Jake!"

"_Ja? Huh? What is it?" came a fuzzy voice from the speaker.

"You all right?"

"Me? Sure. I was asleep. Why?"

"Be on your toes, sleepyhead; just got word that Mellon has escaped from his stateroom. He may try to take another crack at you."

"I'll watch it," said von Liegnitz, his voice crisp now.

"Okay." Jeffers sighed and looked up. "As soon as the power came on, the Physician's Mate was on the intercom. Mellon isn't in his stateroom."

"Oh, wonderful!" growled Captain Quill. "We now have one insane robot and one insane human running loose on this ship. I'm glad we didn't bring any gorillas with us."

"Somehow I think I'd be safer with a gorilla," said Mike the Angel.

"According to the Physician's Mate, Mellon is worse than just nuts," said Jeffers quietly. "He says he loaded Mellon full of dope to make him sleep and that the man's got no right to be walkin' around at all."

"He must have gotten out while the doors were open," said Captain Quill. He rubbed the palm of his hand over the shiny pinkness of his scalp. His dark, shaggy brows were down over his eyes, as though they had been weighted with lead.

"Mister Jeffers," he said abruptly, "break out the stun guns. Issue one to each officer and one to each chief non-com. Until we get this straightened out, I'm declaring a state of emergency."

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