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Authors: John Grant

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BOOK: Strider's Galaxy
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She smoothed the skin of her stomach with a digit of soap and looked directly up at three-quarters of Dulac's face. The remaining quarter, at the top right, was taken up with the Main Computer's constant updating of the operations Leander and Nelson were carrying out on the command deck. It was unnecessary for Strider to know any of this—she trusted them implicitly—but the Main Computer insisted on feeding her the data every time she activated one of her screens.

The effect at the moment was odd. It was as if Dulac were permanently winking at her.

Maybe he was. But the rest of his face seemed completely disinterested.

As he started speaking she had a sudden awful suspicion.

." . . and we'll need a full report in due course, Captain Strider."

"You can get that just as well from the Main Computer." She bent down and raised her leg cautiously, and began to soap her calf. The g in the
Santa Maria
's living quarters was currently a little under Mars-standard: if you splashed around too much there'd be water everywhere.

"But I want it from you, Strider. And a separate report from First Officer O'Sondheim, of course."

"No."

She slowly lowered her leg and began on the other one.

"I think I may have misheard you."

She twisted her head upwards again. Both the visual image and the sound were patchy this close to the cocktail of electromagnetic radiation that the active surface of Jupiter constantly ejected.

"No," she repeated. "My first imperative is to manage this ship as efficiently as I possibly can. Making unnecessary reports gets in the way of that imperative. There was a crisis, and O'Sondheim and I dealt with it. Anything else you can get from the Main Computer, as I said. Or you could ask Pinocchio—he was there at least part of the time."

"But I want—"

"More to the point," she said, cutting through him, "is what you have to report to me. That drone's puter crashed, and there wasn't any back-up. I know that the SSIA always tries to run things as cheaply as it can, but that was a false economy. You could have lost the
Santa Maria
and everybody aboard her."

She remembered the way, when she'd been on the command deck, that the thought of those three kids had kept coming back into her mind.

"Are you deliberately committing an act of insubordination, Captain Strider?" said Dulac formally.

"Yes, but it's so that I can do my job better. More efficiently."

"I could have you out of there in three hours. O'Sondheim could do your job just as well."

"No he couldn't."
Oho,
she thought,
so you
haven't
been through the Main Computer's records yet.

Dulac pursed his lips and glanced down at something front of him. "How is O'Sondheim shaping up?" he said after a few moments.

Strider began to straighten up.

"If I thought there were any deficiency on the part of First Officer O'Sondheim," she said coldly, "I would report it to you. He seems to have been undertrained for his task, but he and I can make a good team together."

"But you're not very fond of each other, are you?"

"We have . . . an interesting relationship. It works out OK, though." She began to wash the lower part of her face.

Dulac glanced down again at what was presumably a checklist of things to ask her.

"And Leander and Nelson?"

"They're first-rate," said Strider emphatically. "Leander has tremendous powers of intuition, while Nelson's got a quick computational brain and"—she waved a hand lazily and a spray of shower-water shot towards the wall.
Oh shit.
—"and a lot of common sense. They're a great partnership."

"A better partnership than yourself and First Officer O'Sondheim, would you say?"

She hadn't really thought about it before. "Yeah," she said eventually. "They probably are."

"Would you say that O'Sondheim is a weak link, in that case?"

"Not at all."
I don't have to like Danny, but I bloody well do have to be loyal to him.

"We can remove him from the chain of command, if you would prefer."

"No. I won't have that. I've spent three years establishing a rapport with the guy." She reached out behind her for the shampoo cylinder, not wanting to take her eyes off Dulac's three-quarter face. The cylinder proved elusive, so she pretended she had simply been stretching her arm. "I told you: we make a good team. If you drafted in someone else, I might have to spend another three years and discover we made a lousy team. By then we'd be well on our way to Tau Ceti—a bad moment to sack someone."

"I
will
want," said Dulac mildly, "a complete report on the situation aboard the
Santa Maria
before I will permit you to ignite the nuclear-pulse drive." He rubbed his chin with a palm, and Strider suddenly realized that he was as tired as she was—maybe even tireder. "In the meantime, are there any of your personnel who you feel should be . . . er . . . taken off the staff?"

Holmberg,
thought Strider immediately, but almost at once realized she didn't want to abandon anyone. It was a tight little community aboard the
Santa Maria
, and at the moment it was working fairly well. Holmberg was a small and seemingly counterproductive component of the machine, but who knew? If the machine was working fine, it'd be crazy to mess around with it. For all she knew, Holmberg was holding some part of the machine together.

But there was another.

"Strauss-Giolitto," she said.

Dulac looked down again.

"The teacher," he said.

"One of the teachers. Andersen's fine. There's no problem with him. But Strauss-Giolitto . . . yeah, we might have a difficulty."

"Why's that?" said Dulac, still looking downwards. "Her credentials are excellent."

"She's prejudiced."

Dulac looked back up at the screen, visibly surprised.

"Against whom?"

"Bots in particular," said Strider. "I mean, I know Pinocchio's supposed to present himself to everyone except me as a bit dimwitted, but Strauss-Giolitto keeps trying to score points off him as if to prove publicly that he's inferior." At last she'd found the shampoo cylinder, but right now she wasn't sure she wanted to use it. "Just above bots on her spectrum of contempt come people who can't trace their roots back to Europe, in particular Greater Yugoslavia." She put the cylinder down on the shower-bath's rim and began soaping her armpits for the second time.

Prejudice between Artifs and Reals was a fairly commonplace emotion: Strider herself certainly thought the whole business of Artiffing reprehensible. But it didn't just work the one way round. The counterpoint was that many Artifs thought the Reals—who chose to live no longer than the couple of centuries or so that nature allotted—were throwbacks to a pre-technological age. In the twenty-first century there had been lynchings and riots. Now Artifs and Reals just rubbed along with each other. There was sometimes friction—Strider herself had broken up a fight between an Artif and a Real when the
Santa Maria
had been six months out from Mars—but most of the time it didn't matter.

Other frictions could turn up through religious adherence, particularly between the Umbellists and . . . well, between them and anyone else, really. The Muslims alive after the War of Hatred had realized that, if this was what dissent between sects could do, the consequences of an all-out war between different religions were unthinkable. The same point had been alarmingly clear to the various Christian sects. Islam and Christianity had united to form a single religion, with Buddhism not as part of it but as a benign, friendly fellow-traveller on the Tao. Hinduism was accepted into the Faith of Unity only later, after it had abandoned the caste system. Smaller religions were picked up along the way.

There were still a few purist Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Sikhs, or whatever. A very few.

Umbellism was different. The Prophet Umbel—after whom Umbel Nelson had been named by pious parents—had lived 2273–2318. During his short lifetime—he had been drowned during the Battle of Istanbul—he had caused major damage to the human species by stirring up old intolerances that had largely been forgotten. Strider had been taught much about him during her childhood at the institution in Ouagadougou. She hadn't much liked what she'd heard, although she'd let most of it wash over her: her potential goddess had abandoned her at birth, and she refused from infancy to worship any other deity. Gods were betrayers.

Umbel had spoken with God, who had told him that there was only one way to Heaven. It involved killing anyone who declined to believe that Umbel's drug-induced experience had been a genuine communion with the deity. The experience, whatever it was, had certainly been profound: Umbel himself had forsaken drugs, which was the reason why the religion he announced during his early days in Afghanistan forbade most pleasurable activities and prescribed strict penalties for those who indulged in them.

"She is herself a Christian," said Strider. The water was beginning to run cold. Even though there was plenty of recycled water aboard the
Santa Maria
, the heating was unreliable. She wished the conversation could be over. She didn't mind people seeing her naked, but there were parts of the showering process that she preferred doing in private. Oh, what the hell. "I don't hold it against her, of course."

"You're an atheist, Strider, are you not?"

"Yes. But I'm not a militant."

Dulac abruptly smiled. "You wouldn't be captain of the
Santa Maria
if you had been."

"The point hadn't escaped me."

"So is Strauss-Giolitto putting her prejudices into any kind of action that could jeopardize the welfare of the mission?"

"I don't enjoy seeing the way she behaves towards Pinocchio. It offends me. Some of the other personnel feel the same way. The Reals, that is. She's an Artif who doesn't like bots. Her views are irrational."

"Forget about Pinocchio. He can take it."

"I
know
Pinocchio can take it. It's whether the rest of us can that I'm worried about." On second thoughts, she'd get to work with the shampoo. It would be less embarrassing. Had Dulac been present in person she'd probably have felt less inhibited. She squirted an ejaculation of the green gel into her hand and began to rub the stuff into her wet hair. "She's a divisive element, is what I'm getting at," said Strider. "A lot of us are fond of him. Me particularly, for obvious reasons. And I don't want her teaching the kids the same prejudices she has. In short, I'd like you to ship her out of here."

"I'm afraid that will be impossible, Captain Strider," said Dulac, suddenly formal again. "Maria Strauss-Giolitto has a role to play in your small society."

Strider reflected. The shampoo had decided to invade one of her ears, and was popping there disconcertingly.

"Like what?" she said at last.

"A healthy society has to have a gadfly," said Dulac.

Strider thought about this for a while longer.

"Yeah," she eventually said, "I can see what you mean. But this particular gadfly isn't especially constructive. It'd be better if there was one who was a constant pain in the butt to authority, that'd . . ."

Holmberg,
she thought again.
That's why I don't mind you so badly. You keep me on my toes. But Strauss-Giolitto . . .

Strider took a breath. "I don't want the woman on my ship. She's likely to endanger the children as they grow up. The way they think. Through that, she's endangering the Tau Ceti
II
colony."

"She stays aboard." The three-quarters of Dulac's face that Strider could see was looking completely unperturbed. "She has been placed where she is for a reason. Between you and me, however, I can't stand her either. But you could ask your friend Lan Yi for an opinion."

Strider waggled her finger in her ear until the noise of the shampoo abated.

"That's not the kind of question I ask my people. I'll ask Pinocchio, maybe."

She knew her voice sounded grudging. As captain of a starship, the last thing she should be doing was wandering around asking personnel what they thought of each other: that would make her more divisive than Strauss-Giolitto could ever be. Even asking Pinocchio . . .
felt
wrong.

"By the way, Captain Strider," said Dulac, "congratulations on dealing with that berserker drone today. You coped most admirably, and with the minimum wastage of resources."

"Hang about a fucking moment. A few minutes ago you were saying you wanted a briefing," said Strider, pausing, her fingers on her scalp.

"There's no need. As you pointed out, we can get everything we want from the Main Computer." Dulac smiled again. "There's a replacement shuttle coming up from Ganymede tomorrow, to bring you up to full complement."

"You mean you
rigged
all that?"

"No," said Dulac. "But we expected an incident like it to happen. We'd have arranged something, otherwise."

"And risked killing us all?" said Strider, incredulous.

"This is a very important mission, Captain Strider," said Dulac. "During your trip out from Mars we've had word from one of the other Project Eyeball probes. Sigma Draconis has a terrestrial-type planet, so there's a new craft under construction. If you people had proved incapable of dealing with this emergency, we'd have used the new craft to explore the Tau Ceti system."

He drew his hand across what she could see of his brow. His look of unperturbedness had gone. It was obvious he was unhappy to be saying what he was saying.

"You see, Captain Strider, if you'd fouled up here the SSIA would have lost a lot of money and a lot of effort, but we'd have known what had happened. If you're not able to cope with this sort of problem—well, once you're out of the Solar System it might be forty years before we were certain things had gone wrong. In forty years' time the governments of Earth and Mars might have decided that interstellar travel was a waste of valuable resources. So, if an accident like today's hadn't happened, we'd have engineered one."

He brushed his hand across his forehead again.

BOOK: Strider's Galaxy
4.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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