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Voyage from Yesteryear
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As the Mayflower II wheeled slowly in space high above Chiron, the outer door of Shuttle Bay 6 on the Vandenberg module separated into four sectors which swung apart like the petals of an enormous metal flower to expose the nose of the surface lander nestling within. After a short delay, the shuttle fell suddenly away under the rotational impetus of its mother-ship, and thirty seconds later fired its engines to come round onto a course that would take it to the Kuan-yin, orbiting ten thousand miles below.

"Our orders are to ‘. . . precede the Ambassador’s party through the docking lock to form an honorary guard in the forward antechamber of the Kuan-yin, where the formalities will take place,’ " Sirocco had read aloud to the D Company personnel assigned as escorts at the briefing held early that morning. " ‘Punctilious attention to discipline and order will prevail at all times, and the personnel taking part will be made mindful of the importance of maintaining a decorum appropriate to the dignity of a unique historic occasion.’ That means no ventriloquized comments to relieve the boredom, Swyley, and the best parade-ground turnout you ever managed, all of you. ‘Since provocative actions on the part of the Chironians are considered improbable, number-one ceremonial uniforms will be worn, with weapons carried loaded for precautionary purposes only. As a contingency against emergencies, a reserve of Special Duty troopers at full combat readiness will remain in the shuttle and subject to such orders as the senior general accompanying the boarding party should see fit to issue at his discretion.’"

"Ever get the feeling you were being set up?" Carson of Third Platoon asked sourly. "If anyone gets it first, guess who."

"Didn’t you know you were expendable?" Stanislau asked matter-of-factly.

"Ah, but think of the honor of it," Hanlon told them. "And won’t every one of them poor SD fellas back in the shuttle be eating his heart out with envy and just wishing he could be out there with the same opportunity to risk himself for flag and country."

"I’ll trade," Stanislau offered at once.

Sirocco looked back at the orders and resumed, " ‘The advance guard will fan out to form two files, of ten men each, aligned at an angle of forty-five degrees on either side of the access lock and take up station behind their respective section leaders. Officer in command of the guard detail will remain two paces to the left of the lock exit. Upon completion of the opening formalities, the guard will be relieved by a detail from B Company who will position themselves at the exit ramp, and will proceed through the Kuan-yin to post sentry details at the locations specified in Schedule A, attached. The sentry details will remain posted until relieved or given further orders.’ Are there any questions so far?"

The Ambassador referred to was to be Amery Farnhill, Howard Kalens’s deputy in Liaison. Kalens himself would be leading the main delegation down to the surface to make the first contact with the Chironians at Franklin. The decision to send a secondary delegation to the Kuan-yin had been made to impress upon the Chironians that the robot ship was still considered Earth’s property, which was also the reason for posting troops throughout the vessel. As a point of protocol, Wellesley and Sterm would not become involved until the appropriate contacts on Chiron had been established and the agenda for further discussion suitably prepared.

The Kuan-yin had changed appreciably from the form shown in the pictures he had seen of the craft that had departed from Earth in 2020, Colman noted as he sat erect to preserve the creases of his uniform beneath the restraining belt holding him to his seat and watched the image growing on the wall screen at the forward end of the cabin. The original design had taken the form of a dumbbell, with fuel storage and the thermonuclear pulse engines concentrated at one end, and the computers and sensitive reconnaissance instruments carried at the far end of a long, connecting, structural boom to keep them safely away from drive-section radiation. The modifications added after 2015 for creating and accommodating the first Chironians had entailed extensions to the instrumentation module and the incorporation of auxiliary motors which would spin the dumbbell about its center after arrival in order to simulate gravity for the new occupants while the first surface base was being prepared.

In the years since, the instrumentation module had sprouted a collection of ancillary structures which had doubled its size, the original fuel tanks near the tail had vanished to be replaced, apparently, by a bundle of huge metal bottles mounted around the central portion of the connecting boom, and a new assembly of gigantic windings surrounding a tubular housing now formed the tail, culminating in a parabolic reaction dish reminiscent of the Mayflower II’s main drive, though much smaller because of the Kuan-yin’s reduced scale. The Mayflower II’s designers had included docking adapters for the shuttles to mate with the Kuan-yin’s ports, and the Chironians had retained the original pattern in their modifications, so the shuttle would be able to connect without problems.

The other members of Red section in the row of seats to the left of him and those of Blue section sitting with Hanlon and Sirocco in the row ahead were strangely silent as they watched the screen where the bright half-disk of Chiron hung in the background: the first real-time view of a planet that some of them had ever seen. Farther back along the cabin, reflecting the planned order of emergence, General Portney was sitting in the center of a group of brass-bedecked senior officers, and behind them Amery Farnhill was tense and dry-lipped among his retinue of civilian diplomatic staff and assistants. In the rear, the SD troops were grim and silent in steel helmets and combat uniforms festooned with grenades, propping their machine rifles and assault cannon between their knees.

Farnhill’s staff had given up trying to get the Chironians to provide an official list of who would be greeting the delegation. In the end they had simply advised the Kuan-yin when the shuttle would arrive and resigned themselves to playing things by ear after that. The Chironians had agreed readily enough, which was why the orders issued that morning had called for a reduced alertness level. Kalens’s delegation had met with an equal lack of success in dealing with Franklin, and had elected finally to go to the surface on the same basis as the delegation to the Kuan-yin, but with more elaborate preparations and ceremonies.

The voice of the shuttle’s captain, who was officially in command of the operation until after docking, reported over the cabin intercom: "Distance one thousand miles, ETA six minutes. Coming into matching orbit and commencing closing maneuver. Prepare for retardation. Kuan-yin has confirmed they will open Port Three."

The image on the screen drifted to one side as the shuttle swung round to brake with its main engines, and then switched to a new view as one of the stern cameras cut in. Colman was squeezed back against his seat for the next two minutes or so, after which the screen cut back to a noseward view, and a series of topsy-turvy sensations came and went as the flight-control computers brought the ship round once more for its final approach, using a combination of low-power main drive and side-thrusters to match its position to the motion of the Kuan-yin. After some minor corrections the shuttle was rotating with the Kuan-yin to give its occupants the feeling that they were lying on their backs, and nudging itself gently forward and upward to complete the maneuver. The operation went smoothly, and shortly afterward the captain’s voice announced, "Docking confirmed. The boarding party is free to proceed."

"Proceed, General," Farnhill said from the back.

"Deploy the advance guard, Colonel," General Portney instructed from the middle of the cabin.

"Guard, forward," Colonel Wesserman ordered from a row in front of Portney.

"Guard detail, file left and right by sections," Sirocco said at the front. "Section leaders forward." He moved out into the aisle, where the floor had folded itself into a steep staircase to facilitate fore-and-aft movement, and climbed through into the side-exiting lock chamber with Colman and Hanlon behind him while Red and Blue sections formed up in the aisles immediately to the rear. In the lock chamber the inner hatch was already open, and the Despatching Officer from the shuttle’s crew was carrying out a final instrumentation check prior to opening the outer hatch. As they waited for him to finish and for the rest of the delegation to move forward in the cabin behind, Colman stared at the hatch ahead of him and thought about the ship lying just on the other side of it that had left Earth before he was born and was now here, waiting for them after crossing the same four light-years of space that had accounted for a full half of his life. After the years of speculations, all the questions about the Chironians were now within minutes of being answered. The descent from the Mayflower II had raised Colman’s curiosity to a high pitch because of what he had seen on the screen. For despite all the jokes and the popular wisdom, one thing he was certain of was that the engineering and structural modifications that he had observed on the outside of the Kuan-yin had not been made by irresponsible, overgrown adolescents.

"Clear to exit," the Despatching Officer informed Sirocco.

"Lock clear for exit," Sirocco called to the cabin below.

"Carry on, Guard Commander," Colonel Wesserman replied from the depths.

"Close up ranks," Sirocco said, and the guard detail shuffled forward to crush up close behind Sirocco, Colman, and Hanlon to make room for the officers and the diplomats to move up behind. Sirocco looked at the Despatching Officer and nodded. "Open outer hatch." The Despatching Officer keyed a command into a panel beside him, and the outer door of the shuttle swung slowly aside.

Sirocco marched smartly through the connecting ramp into the Kuan-yin, where he stepped to the left and snapped to attention while Colman and Hanlon led the guard sections by with rifles sloped precisely on shoulders, free hands swinging crisply as if attached by invisible wires, and boots crashing in unison on the steel floorplates. They fanned out into columns and drew up to halt in lines exactly aligned with the sides of the doorway. Behind them the officers emerged four abreast and divided into two groups to follow Colonel Wesserman to the left and General Portney to the right.

"Present . . . arms!" Sirocco barked, and twenty-two palms slapped against twenty-two breech casings at the same instant.

Through the gap between the officers, the diplomats moved forward and came to a halt in reverse order of precedence, black suits immaculate and white shirtfronts spotless, and finally the noble form of Amery Farnhill conveyed itself regally forward to take up its position at their head.

"His Esteemed Excellency, Amery Farnhill," the assistant one pace to the rear and two paces to the right announced in clear, ringing tones that resonated around the antechamber of the Kuan-yin’s docking port. "Deputy Director of Liaison of the Supreme Directorate of the official Congress of the Mayflower II and appointed emissary to the Kuan-yin on behalf of the Director of Congress . . ." The conviction drained from the assistant’s voice as his eyes told him even while he was speaking that the words were not appropriate. Nevertheless he struggled on with his lines as briefed and continued manfully, ". . . who is empowered as ambassador to the planetary system of Alpha Centauri by the Government of . . ." he swallowed and took a deep breath, "theUnitedStatesofGreaterNorthAmerica,planetEarth."

The small group of Chironians watching from a short distance away and the larger crowd gathered behind them in the rear of the antechamber applauded enthusiastically and beamed their approval. They weren’t supposed to do that. It didn’t preserve the right atmosphere.

"They’re okay," a disembodied voice whispered from no definable direction. "We’re making our selves look like jerks."

"Shuddup, Swyley" Colman hissed.

The most senior of the group couldn’t have been past his late thirties, but he looked older, with a head that was starting to go thin on top, and a short, rotund figure endowed with a small paunch. He was wearing an open-necked shirt of intricately embroidered blues and grays, and plain navy blue slacks held up with a belt. His features looked vaguely Asiatic. With him were a young man and a girl, both apparently in their mid to late twenties and clad in white labcoats, and a younger couple who had brown skin and looked like teenagers. A six-foot-tall, humanoid robot of silvery metal stood nearby, a tiny black girl who might have been eight sitting on its shoulders. Her legs dangled around its neck and her arms clasped the top of its head.

"Hi," the paunchy man greeted amiably. "I’m Clem. These are Carla and Hermann, and Francine and Boris. The big guy here is Cromwell, and the little lady up top is Amy. Well, I guess . . . welcome aboard."

Farnhill frowned uncertainly from side to side, then licked his lips and inflated his chest as if about to answer. He deflated suddenly and shook his head. The words to handle the situation just wouldn’t come. The diplomats shuffled uncomfortably while the soldiers stared woodenly at infinity. A few awkward seconds dragged by. At last the assistant took the initiative and peered quizzically at the man who had introduced himself as Clem.

"Who are you?" he demanded. The formality had evaporated from his voice. "Are you in authority here? If so, what are your rank and title?"

Clem frowned and brought a hand up to his chin. "Depends what you mean by authority," he said. "I organize the regular engineering crew of the ship and supervise the maintenance. I suppose you could say that’s authority of a kind. Then again, I don’t have a lot to do with some of the special research programs and modifications but Hermann does."

"True," Hermann, the young man in the white labcoat, agreed. "But on top of that, parts of this place are used as a school to give the kids early off-planet experience. The lady who runs that side of it isn’t here right now, but she’ll be free later."

"She got tied up over lunch trying to answer questions about supernovas and quasars," Francine explained.

"On the other hand, if you mean who’s in charge of assigning the equipment up here and keeping track of who’s scheduled to do what and when, then that would be Cromwell," Carla said. "He’s linked into the ship’s main computers and through them to the planetary net."

"Cromwell knows everything," Amy declared from her perch. "Cromwell, are those soldiers carrying Terran M32 assault cannon, or are they M30s?"

"M32s," the robot said. "They’ve the enhanced fire-selectors."

"I hope they’re not going to start shooting each other up here. It would be pretty scary in orbit. They could decompress the whole ship."

"I think they know that," Cromwell said. "They’ve spent a lot longer in space than the few trips you’ve made."

"I suppose so."

The assistant’s patience snapped at last. "This is ridiculous! I want to know who is in overall authority here. You must have a Director of Operations or some equivalent. Please be kind enough to—"

Farnhill stopped him with a curt wave of his hand. "This spectacle has gone far enough," he said. He looked at Clem. "Perhaps we could continue this discussion in conditions of greater privacy. Is there somewhere suitable near here?"

"Sure." Clem gestured vaguely behind him. "There’s a big room back along the corridor that’s free and should hold everybody. We could all get some coffee there too. I guess you could use some—you’ve had a long trip, huh?" He grinned at the joke as he turned to lead the way. Farnhill didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.

"Ahem . . ." General Portney cleared his throat. "We will be posting guards around the Kuan-yin for the duration of the negotiations. I trust there will be no objections." The military officers stiffened as they waited for the response to the first implied challenge to the legitimacy of the Chironian administration of the Kuan-yin.

Clem waved an arm casually without looking back. "Go ahead," he said. "Can’t see as you really need any, though. You’re pretty safe up here. We don’t get many burglars." Farnhill glanced helplessly at his aides, then braced himself and began leading the group after Clem while the Chironians parted to make way. The military deputation broke formation to take up the rear with Wesserman tossing back a curt "Carry on, Guard Commander" in the direction of Sirocco.

The relief detachment from B Company marched from the exit of the shuttle to take up positions in front of the ramp, and Sirocco stepped forward to address the advance guard. "Ship detail, atten-shun! Two ranks in marching order, fall . . . in!" The two lines that had been angled away from the lock re-formed into files behind the section leaders. "Sentry details will detach and fall out at stations. By the left . . . march!" The two lines clumped their way behind Sirocco across the antechamber, wheeled left while each man on the inside marked time for four paces, and clicked away along the corridor beyond and into the Kuan-yin.

Amy watched curiously over the top of Cromwell’s head as they disappeared from sight. "I wonder why they walk like that when they shout at each other," she mused absently. "Do you know why, Cromwell?"

"Have you thought about it?" Cromwell asked.

"Not really."

"You should think. Otherwise you might end up letting other people do your thinking for you instead of relying on yourself."

"Ooh . . . I wouldn’t want to do that," Amy said.

"All right then," Cromwell challenged. "Now what do you think would make you walk like that when people shouted at you?"

"I don’t know." Amy screwed her face up and rubbed the bridge of her nose with a finger. "I suppose I’d have to be crazy."

"Well, there’s something to think about," Cromwell suggested.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Clump, clump, clump, clump, clump, clump, clump, clump.

"Detail . . . halt!"

Clump-Clump!

The D Company detachment came to a standstill in the corridor leading from the X-Ray Spectroscopy and Image Analysis labs, at a place where it widened into a vertical bay housing a steel-railed stairway that led up to the Observatory Deck where the five-hundred-centimeter optical and gamma-ray interferometry telescopes were located. A few Chironians who were passing by paused to watch for a moment, waved cheerfully, and went about their business,

"Sentry detail, detach to . . . post!" Sirocco shouted. PFC Driscoll stepped one pace backward from the end of the by-this-time-diminished file, turned ninety degrees to the right, and stepped back again to come to attention with his back to the wall by the entrance to a smaller side-corridor. "Parade . . . rest!" Driscoll moved his left foot into an astride stance and brought his gun down from the shoulder to rest with its butt on the floor, one inch from his boot. "Remainder of detail, by the left . . . march!"

Clump, clump, clump, clump . . .

The rhythmic thuds of marching feet died away and were replaced by the background sounds of daily life aboard the Kuan-yin—the voice of a girl calling numbers of some kind to somebody in the observatory on the level above, children’s laughter floating distantly through an open door at the other end of the narrow corridor behind Driscoll, and the whine of machinery. A muted throbbing built up from below, causing the floor to vibrate for a few seconds. Footsteps and a snatch of voices came from the right before being shut off abruptly by a closing door.

Driscoll was feeling more relieved. If what he had seen so far was anything to go by, the Chironians weren’t going to start any trouble. He’d had to bite his tongue in order to keep a straight face back in the antechamber by the ramp, and it was a miracle that nobody important had heard Stanislau sniggering next to him. The Chironians were okay, he had decided. Everything would be okay . . . provided that ass-faces like Farnhill didn’t go and screw things up.

What had impressed him the most was the way the kids seemed to be involved in everything that was going on just as much as the grown-ups. They didn’t come across like kids at all, but more like small people who were busy finding out how things were done. In a room two posts back, he had glimpsed a couple of kids who couldn’t have been more than twelve probing carefully and with deep frowns of concentration inside the electronics of a piece of equipment that must have cost millions. The older Chironian with them just watched over their shoulders and offered occasional suggestions. It made sense, Driscoll thought. Treat them as if they’re responsible, and they act responsibly; give them bits of cheap plastic to throw around, and they act like it’s cheap plastic. Or maybe the Chironians just had good insurance on their equipment.

He wondered how he might have made out if he’d had a start like that. And what would a guy like Colman be doing, who knew more about the Mayflower II’s machines than half the echelon-four snot-noses put together? If that was the way the computers had brought the first kids up, Driscoll reflected, he could think of a few humans who could have used some lessons.

His debut into life had been very different. The war had left his parents afflicted by genetic damage, and their first two children had not survived infancy. Aging prematurely from side effects, they had known they would never see Chiron when they brought him aboard the Mayflower II as a boy of eight and sacrificed the few more years that they might have spent on Earth in order to give him a new start somewhere else. Paradoxically, their health had qualified them favorably in their application to join the Mission since the planning had called for the inclusion of older people and higher-risk actuarial categories among the population to make room for the births that would be occurring later. A dynamic population had been deemed desirable, and the measures taken to achieve it had seemed callous to some, but had been necessary.

As a youth he had daydreamed about becoming an entertainer—a singer, or a comic, maybe—but he couldn’t sing and he couldn’t tell jokes, and somehow after his parents died within two years of each other halfway through the voyage, he had ended up in the Army. So now, though he still couldn’t sing a note or tell a joke right, he knew just how to use an M32 to demolish a small building from two thousand yards, could operate a battlefield compack blindfolded, and was an expert at deactivating optically triggered antiintruder personnel mines.

About all he was good with outside things like that was cards. He couldn’t remember exactly when his fascination with them had started, but it had been soon after Swyley, then a fellow private, had taught him to shuffle four aces to the top of a deck and feed them into a deal from the palm. Finding to his surprise that he seemed to have an aptitude, Driscoll had borrowed a leaf from Colman’s book and started reading up about the subject. For many long off-duty hours he had practiced top-pass palms and one-handed side-cuts until he could materialize three full fans from an empty hand and lift a named number of cards off a deck eight times out of ten. Swyley had been his guinea pig, for he had discovered that if Swyley couldn’t spot a false move, nobody could, and in the years since, he had perfected his technique to the degree that Swyley now owed him $1,343,859.20, including interest.

But his reputation had put him in a no-win situation at the Friday night poker school because when he won, everybody said he was sharping, and when he didn’t, everybody said he was lousy. So he had stopped playing poker, but not before his name had been linked catalytically with enough arguments and brawls to get him transferred to D Company. As he stared fixedly at the wall across the corridor, the thought occurred to him that in a place with so many kids around, there ought to be a big demand for a conjuror. The more he thought about it, the more appealing the idea became. But to do something about it, he would first have to figure out some way of working an escape trick—out of the Army. Swyley should have some useful suggestions about that, he thought.

Clump, clump, clump, clump. His train of thought was derailed by the sound of steady tramping approaching from his left—not the direction in which the detail had departed, which shouldn’t have been returning by this route anyway, but the opposite one. Besides, it didn’t sound like multiple pairs of regulation Army feet; it sounded like one pair, but heavier and more metallic. And along with it came the sound of two children’s voices, whispering and furtive, and punctuated with giggles.

Driscoll turned his eyes a fraction to the side. They widened in disbelief as one of the Kuan-yin’s steel colossi marched into view, holding a length of aluminum alloy tubing over its left shoulder and being followed by a brown, Indian-looking girl of about seven and a fair-haired boy of around the same age.

"Detail . . . stop!" the girl called out. The robot halted. "Detail . . . Oh, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. Stand with your feet apart and put your gun down." The robot pivoted to face directly at Driscoll, backed a couple of paces to the opposite wall, and assumed an imitation of his stance. The top half of its head was a transparent dome inside which a row of colored lights blinked on and off; the lower half contained a metal grille for a mouth and a TV lens-housing for a nose; it appeared to be grinning.

"Stay . . . there!" the girl instructed. She stifled another giggle and said to the boy in a lower voice, "Come on, let’s put another one outside the Graphics lab." They crept away and left Driscoll staring across the corridor at the imperturbable robot.

A couple of minutes went by. Nobody moved. The robot’s lights continued to wink at him cheerfully. Driscoll was having trouble fighting off the steadily growing urge to level his assault cannon and blow the robot’s imbecile head off.

"Why don’t you piss off," he growled at last.

"Why don’t you?"

For a moment Driscoll thought the machine had read his mind. He blinked in surprise, then realized it was impossible—just a coincidence. "How can I?" he said. "I’ve got my orders."

"So have I."

"That’s different."

"How?"

"You don’t have to do this."

"Do you?"

"Of course I do."

"Why?"

Driscoll sighed irritably. This was no time for long debates. "You don’t understand," he said.

"Don’t I?" the robot replied.

Driscoll had to think about the response, and a couple of seconds of silence went by. "It’s not the same," he said. "You’re just humoring kids."

"What are you doing?"

Driscoll didn’t have a ready answer to that. Besides, he was too conscious of the desire for a cigarette to be philosophical. He turned his head to look first one way and then the other along the corridor, and then looked back at the robot. "Can you tell if any of our people are near here?"

"Yes, I can, and no, there aren’t. Why—getting fed up?"

"Would it worry anyone if I smoked?"

"It wouldn’t worry me if you burst into flames." The robot chuckled raspily.

"How do you know there’s no one around?"

"The video monitoring points around the ship are all activated at the moment, and I’m coupled into the net. I can see what’s going on everywhere. Go ahead. It’s okay. The round cover on the wall next to you is an inlet to a trash incinerator. You can use it as an ashtray."

Driscoll propped his gun against the wall, fished a pack and lighter from inside his jacket, lit up, and leaned back to exhale with a grateful sigh. The irritability that he had been feeling wafted away with the smoke. The robot set down its piece of tubing, folded its arms, and leaned against the wall, evidently programmed to take its cues from the behavior around it. Driscoll looked at it with a new curiosity. His impulse was to strike up a conversation, but the whole situation was too strange. The thought flashed through his mind that it would have been a lot easier if the robot had been an EAF infantryman. Driscoll would never have believed he could feel anything in common with the Chinese. He didn’t know whether he was talking to the robot, or through it to computers somewhere else in Kuan-yin or even down on Chiron, maybe; whether they had minds or simply embodied some clever programming, or what. He had talked to Colman about machine intelligence once. Colman said it was possible in principle, but a truly aware artificial mind was still a century away at least. Surely the Chironians couldn’t have advanced that much. "What kind of a machine are you?" he asked. "I mean, can you think like a person? Do you know who you are?"

"Suppose I said I could. Would that tell you anything?"

Driscoll took another drag of his cigarette. "I guess not. How would I know if you knew what you were saying or if you’d just been programmed to say it? There’s no way of telling the difference."

"Then is there any difference?"

Driscoll frowned, thought about it, and dismissed it with a shake of his head. "This is kinda funny," he said to change the subject.

"What is?"

"Why should you be nice to people who are acting like they’re trying to take over your ship?"

"Do you want to take over the ship?"

"Me? Hell no. What would I do with it?"

"Then there’s your answer."

"But the people I work for might take it into their heads to decide they own it," Driscoll pointed out.

"That’s up to them. If it pleases them to say so, why should we mind?"

"The people here wouldn’t mind if our people started telling them what to do?"

"Why should they?"

Driscoll couldn’t buy that. "You mean they’d be just as happy doing what our people told them to?" he said.

"I never said they’d do anything," the robot replied. "I just said that people telling them wouldn’t bother them."

Just then, two Chironian girls strolled around the corner from the narrow corridor. They looked fresh and pretty in loose blouses worn over snug-fitting slacks, and had lightweight stretch-boots of some silvery, lustrous material. One of them had brown, wavy hair with a reddish tint to it, and looked as if she were in her midthirties; the other was a blonde of perhaps twenty-two. For a split second, Driscoll felt an instinctive twinge of apprehension at the thought of looking ridiculous, but the girls showed no surprise. Instead they paused and looked at him not unpleasantly, but with a hint of reserve as if they wanted to smile but weren’t quite sure if they should.

"Hi," the redhead called cautiously.

Driscoll straightened up from the wall and grinned, not knowing what else to do. "Well . . . hi," he returned.

At once their faces split into broad smiles, and they walked over. The redhead shook his hand warmly. "I see you’ve already met Wellington. I’m Shirley. This is my daughter, Ci."

"She’s your daughter?" Driscoll blinked. "Say, I guess that’s . . . very nice.

Ci repeated the performance. "Who are you?" she asked him.

"Me? Oh . . . name’s Driscoll—Tony Driscoll." He licked his lips while he searched for a follow-up. "I guess me and Wellington are guarding the corridor."

"Who from?" Ci asked.

"A good question," Wellington commented.

"You’re the first Terran we’ve talked to," Shirley said. She nodded her head to indicate the direction they had come from. "We’ve got a class of kids back there who are bubbling over with curiosity. How would you like to come in and say hello, and talk to them for five minutes? They’d love it."

"What?" Driscoll stared at them aghast. "I’ve never talked to classes of people. I wouldn’t know how to start."

"A good time to start practicing then," Ci suggested.

He swallowed hard and shook his head. "I have to stay here. This conversation is enough to get me shot as it is." Ci shrugged but seemed content not to make any more of it. "Are you two, er . . . teachers here or something like that?" Driscoll asked.

"Sometimes," Shirley answered. "Ci teaches English mainly, but mostly down on the surface. That is, when she’s not working with electronics or installing plant wiring underground somewhere. I’m not all that technical. I grow olives and vines out on the Peninsula, and design interiors. That’s what brought me up here—Clem wants the crew quarters and mess deck refitted and decorated. But yes, I teach tailoring sometimes, but not a lot."

"I meant as a regular job," Driscoll said. "What do you do basically?"

"All of them." Shirley sounded mildly surprised. "What do you mean by ‘basically’?"

"They do the same thing all the time, from when they quit school to when they retire," Ci reminded her mother.

"Oh yes, of course." Shirley nodded. "That sounds pretty awful. Still, it’s their business."

"What do you do best?" Ci asked him. "I mean . . . apart from holding people’s walls up for them. That can’t be much of a life."

Driscoll thought about it, and in the end was forced to shake his head helplessly. "Not a lot that you’d be interested in, I guess," he confessed.

"Everybody’s got something," Shirley insisted. "What do you like doing?"

"You really wanna know?" An intense note had come suddenly into Driscoll’s voice.

"Hey, back off, soldier," Ci said suspiciously. "We’re still strangers. Later, who knows? Give it time."

"I didn’t mean that," Driscoll protested, feeling embarrassed. "If you must know, I like working cards."

"You mean tricks?" Shirley seemed interested.

"I can do tricks, sure."

"Are you good?"

"The best. I can make ’em stand up and talk."

"You’d better mean it," Shirley warned. "There’s nothing worse than trying to spend money you don’t have. It’s like stealing from people."

Driscoll didn’t follow what she meant, so he ignored it. "I mean it," he told her.

Shirley turned to look at Ci. "Say, wouldn’t he be great to have at our next party? I love things like that." She looked at Driscoll again. "When are you coming down to Chiron?"

"I don’t know yet. We haven’t heard anything."

"Well, give us a call when you do, and we’ll fix something up. I live in Franklin, so there shouldn’t be too much of a problem. That’s where we usually get together."

"Sounds good," Driscoll said. "I can’t make any promises right now though. Everything depends on how things go. If things work out okay, how would I find the place?"

"Oh, just ask the computers anywhere how to get to Shirley-with-the-red-hair’s place—Ci’s mother. They’ll take care of you."

"So maybe we’ll see you down there sometime," Ci said.

"Well . . . yeah. Who knows?" He was about to say something more when Wellington interrupted.

"Two of your officers are heading this way. I thought you ought to know."

"Who?" Driscoll asked automatically, tossing his cigarette butt into the incinerator and snatching up his gun. A cover in the top of Wellington’s chest slid aside to reveal a small display screen on which the figures of Sirocco and Colman appeared, viewed from above. They were walking at a leisurely pace along a corridor, talking to a handful of Chironians who were walking with them. Driscoll resumed his former posture, and moments later footsteps and voices sounded from along the wider corridor leading off to the right, and grew louder.

"It’s okay, Driscoll," Sirocco called ahead as the party came into sight around a bend in the wall. "Forget the pantomime. We’re back in the Bomb Factory." Driscoll relaxed his pose and sent a puzzled look along the corridor.

"I might have guessed," Colman said, nodding to himself and taking in the two girls as he drew to a halt.

"Very cosy," Sirocco agreed.

"Er . . . Shirley and Ci," Driscoll said. "And that’s General Wellington."

"Been having a nice chat, have you?" Sirocco asked.

"Well, yes, actually, I suppose; sir. How did you know?"

Sirocco waved at the corridor behind him. "Because it’s happening everywhere else, that’s how. Carson’s talking football, and Maddock is telling some kids about what it was like growing up on the Mayflower II." He sighed but didn’t sound too ruffled about it. "If you can’t beat ’em, then join ‘em, eh, Driscoll . . . for an hour or so, anyway. And besides, they want to show Colman something in the observatory upstairs. I don’t understand what the hell they’re talking about."

"Steve’s an engineer," one of the Chironians, a bearded youth in a red check shirt, explained, indicating Colman and speaking to Ci. "We told him about the resonance oscillations in the G7 mounting gyro, and he said he might be able to suggest a way of damping them with feedback from the alignment laser. We’re taking him up to have a look at it."

"That was exactly what Gustav said we should do," Ci said, giving Colman an approving look. "He was looking at it yesterday."

"I know. Maybe we can get Gustav and Steve working on it together."

"Hey, don’t get too excited about this," Colman cautioned. "I only said I’d be interested in seeing it. The Army might have different ideas about me getting involved. Don’t bet your life savings on it."

The Chironians and Colman disappeared up the steel-railed stairway, and Shirley and Ci went on their way after Wellington reminded them that they had less than fifteen minutes to board the shuttle for Franklin. Driscoll and Sirocco remained with Wellington in the corridor.

"If you don’t mind my saying so, isn’t this a bit risky, sir?" Driscoll said apprehensively. "I mean . . . with all this going on? Suppose Colonel Wesserman or somebody shows up."

"No chance with these Chironian robots around. They’ve got the place staked out." He wrinkled his nose, and his moustache twitched as he sniffed the air. "Take a break while you’ve got the chance, Private Driscoll," he advised. "And I’ll have one of those cigarettes that you’ve been smoking."

Driscoll grinned and began feeling more confident. "You see, Wellington," he said. "They’re not all as bad as you think."

"Amazing," the robot replied in a neutral voice.

A party was thrown in the Bowery that night to celebrate the Mayflower II’s safe arrival and the end of the voyage. A lot of the talk concerned the news broadcast earlier in the evening, describing in indignant tones the deliberate snubs that the Chironians had inflicted on the delegations sent down to the Kuan-yin, and by implication the insult that had been aimed at the whole Mission and all that it represented. In the opinions of many present, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Chironians were taught a lesson; they’d asked for it. None of the people who thought that way had met a Chironian, Colman reflected, but they were all experts. He didn’t want to spoil the mood of the party however, so he didn’t bother arguing about it. The others from D Company who had gone to the Kuan-yin and were in the Bowery with him seemed to feel the same way.

 
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