Friday, May 6, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter IV - One Deuce and Two Dames

We join Corday sitting in the second mate's cabin, not-quite-listening to someone the narration refers to only as "the Deuce" blather on about the Hound of Heaven's mechanical issues for nearly three pages straight.  It's unclear how much time has passed since the previous chapter, but there's no mention of any bandages on his twice-stabbed hand, or a still-bleeding wound, or even some old scars that bring up impotent fury, so... well, what's time on a fast-moving spaceship?

The Deuce has the Hound's blueprints spread out on a table, documents "much-chewed by cockroaches, dimmed with mold and overlaid time after time with smudged pencil marks showing a multiplicity of changes."  No, there's no digital data storage or anything, this was written before computers really took off.  Which isn't to guarantee that Hubbard would have had these guys pull the schematics up on-screen even if he'd written the story at the dawn of personal computing.

The Hound is a mess because 1) she's old, and 2) she gets tinkered with whenever she comes to port, that is "if yer lucky and the devils ain't terrin' Earth apart with er war or if yer ain't got a dictator or if yer just plain suffered in the docks."  We learn a bit about the ship's history, that it was military vessel when it was first launched two millennia ago, made entirely of the then-new "Shieldite," the first metal "that would insulate gammas" (so what, aluminum?).  But by the time the ship returned from a failed trip to "Alpha" in which half her crew jumped ship and the rest mutinied, the Hound was fifty years obsolete.  So she was set to be scrapped, only to be outfitted with a "high drive" for Ze Long Passage, and her new owners made another trip to Alpha Centauri, a trip that should only take

Nine years they figured and come back with a fortune. But you know what happens. Alpha ain't got any fortunes and never did have and greed took them farther and yer crew came home to people they didn't know... well, we won't talk about that. But yer see the mess she's in."

If there's no profit to be made in trips to Alpha Centauri, why is the Hound going that way now?

As for Corday, he's assigned to fix the Hound's bulkheads, bridge instruments, berthing, communications, and steering systems, the later of which got wrecked when the Hound "went appetite over tincup when we hit an atmosphere in Rigel Kentaurus."  All the sort of things an "engineer-surveyor" of the tenth class would know how to do, yeah?  After looking hopefully at Corday's ration of booze but being unable to get the guy to take a hint, il Deuce takes his leave.  As far as I can tell, he doesn't make a reappearance, but he wasn't really important so meh.

Corday eventually realizes the chief engineer is gone after spending some time staring down at the sixty-year-old blueprints... of a two-thousand-year-old spaceship... well, obviously they have to periodically copy them onto fresh parchment, right?  Space roaches and all that.  Except when they did they kept using "spelling so ancient that it almost required a linguist to translate," just to keep things interesting.

Anyway, Corday notices there's someone standing at the door, who turns out to be the girl who was hanging on Jocelyn's arm back at that bar.  She's "poised and indolent, looking at him, her eyes soft, a little taunting," wearing clothes "designed to show what they were supposed to hide."  A woman who knows she's pretty and knows how to use her looks to maximum effect.  One of them fatal femmes, in other words.

She introduces herself as "Mistress Luck," tsk-tsks about the "beastly little room they've given you," then... wait, the start of the chapter said this was the second mate's cabin... oh, the second mate is the ship's navigator, so that's probably the position Corday has been enslaved to fill.  So the Deuce must've been an engineer or something.  So why was he called the Deuce?

Anyway, Corday's head is spinning only partially because of Mistress Luck's perfume, and his thoughts turn to Chica... oh, that's right, the girl he left behind.  Anyway, he takes a panicked moment to wonder how old she'll be when he returns.

She mustn't wait!  She mustn't.  But she would be happy for two years and hopeful.  Then she would worry a little for three.  And at last she would have to assume that he was dead.  The long passage would never occur to her.  It was not too well known.  The ships which returned were few, and new ones seldom joined the strange trade.

That strange, rarely-profitable, and life-destroying trade.  Like if I showed up in port tomorrow on a ship full of poodle skirts and doo-wop music and had to come to terms with the fact that Elvis was long dead.

She mustn't wait.  And yet fear told him that she would.  And the years would pass by--

Mistress Luck was pouring him a stiff drink.  "Now you mustn't neglect your rations.  That keeps a man going, keeps him from thinking.  You don't want to think, you silly boy.  Why think?  The Universe is broad."

See, this is how you deal with bored sailors - not mind-crushing psychology, but mind-numbing alcohol.

But no sooner does Miss Luck pour Corday a drink than Captain Jocelyn appears in the doorway to tell Ms. Luck "I've a thing or two to be done."  The lady gives Corday some last advice to not let the others bully him and reminds the guy that he's third in command, at which words Jocelyn "twitched at his belt" - his gunbelt?  And it's his hand that's twitching, right, and not-

Anyway, Jocelyn informs Corday that "it is part of my lady's duties to see that officer's country is comfortable," but advises the newcomer to not "make yourself too comfortable, Mr. Corday."  And he clarifies that Corday has yet to earn third-in-command status.  And then he takes Mistress Luck with him and slams the door behind them.

Well that was something.  No, this isn't the herald of any sort of love triangle as Corday tries to steal Jocelyn's girl all while agonizing over whether to remain faithful to Chica back on Earth - unlike Deuce, Mistress Luck will make reappearances in later pages, but as best I can remember she's just kind of there.  Not sure what narrative purpose she serves other than to establish Jocelyn's heterosexuality.  No sodomy in the captain's quarters on this boat.

Corday immediately opens the door and rushes into the hallway to watch them leave, I guess in case they start tearing off their clothes en route to Jocelyn's quarters?  But then a heavy voice, one made husky with years of tobacco use, observes "Well, well, sonny.  So you run afoul of that."  The newcomer is a "heavily, even magnificently" dressed woman, an old and flabby woman, I'm talking rolls of "white, lardulous flesh," but "her eyes were young and there was a coquetry in her voice" that makes Corday shudder.

The newcomer advises young Corday to reflect on what happened to the previous second mate (without telling him what happened to Corday's predecessor), and joins the list of people who've told him that he has much to learn.  Especially about ladies, if he's interested in someone like Mistress Luck - after all, "Takes experience to know what a man wants.  Lots of experience, Mr. Corday."

So yes, so far every female character in this story has hit on our hero, with the exception of the runner from the previous chapter, presumably because she was too young and too nervous to try.

Cigars and lard eventually introduces herself as Queen, the only Queen among the 120 people on the Hound, and someone who knows and is friends with all the rest, "even the ones the sawbones drove daffy."  Corday makes the mistake of wondering if Queen is married, and is flatly told that she was, once, but he died ten ship-years and several sidereal centuries ago.

Well, the devil with it.  It's over and last trip I couldn't even find his grave.  There was a city on it.  Would have amused Jerry.  Buildin' a city on his bones.  You got any cigars?

Awkward.  But this isn't a strictly social call.

Queen looks around for eavesdroppers, and then in a low, urgent voice talks about how Corday is "the first chance we've had," someone educated enough to navigate the ship and well-connected to contemporary society, and someone who does not want to be on the boat.  To Corday's credit he tries to explain that his family is actually broke, but Queen presses on about how few of the crew is here by choice and how much of a devil Captain Jocelyn is.  Plus, there's enough loot on the Hound to smooth any transactions back to terrestrial life.  You can see where she's going with this.

"That's mutiny?"

"Call it an ugly word if you like.  There's no law in the long passage but a captain's and captains come and go.  They come and go, kid.  You understand me?  And there's only one way to go on the long passage."

"If you mean murder-"

"More ugly words.  Call it murder.  You won't get spattered.  Will you play?"

And after hesitating for a moment, Corday asks what he has to do.  Queen tells him to lay low for now, learn all he can about operating the ship, figure out how to chart a course for Earth, and fix the Hound's problems as best he can.  And then when everyone's ready, he'll get a signal and it'll be go-time.  Corday's shaking with excitement at the prospect of getting home sooner than later, and Queen departs with a wink, praising him with "You're a good boy, Mr. Corday.  I know we're in good hands."

So it looks like we've got some tension set up for the rest of the book, a countdown of doom hanging over Captain Jocelyn's head until the crew rises up against the cruel taskmaster and brings him to justice in a thrilling and satisfying battle sequence.

Looks can be deceiving.

Back to Chapter III

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