Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter VI - And Trust Me, You Don't Want to Get Air Weebles

This is a long and pretty plot-relevant chapter, though its full importance will only be revealed much later.  They may even be some character development in it, as well.  See, last chapter was more or less a training montage, but now

Too much work, too little sleep and bad air at last mixed a combination too strong for Alan Corday.  At this stage of his career, whatever legends say to the contrary, he was only a very young man and a young man without experience to steady him and without a solid backlog of reversals to teach him his capacities.  For days beyond his counting he had been living feverishly on hope, and the high flame of expectancy burned fast on the fuel of his strength.

If you were holding out hope that Corday might be able to return to Earth relatively (and relativistically) quickly and take up a normal, boring life, no such luck - it sounds like he's destined to become some legendary spaceman.  Good for the story, I guess, not so much for Corday himself.

One day Corday is trying to learn how to spot Vega, but he's having trouble keeping his attention on Hale, and Jocelyn shows up to ask what's the matter with Corday.  Hale leans over to examine the lad and declares "Well, call it space fever.  'Tain't the gravity jibs nor yet the air weebles."  And I can't help but wonder whether anyone gave Corday a proper physical examination or looked into his medical history before dragging him into an enclosed environment for an extended period.  Sure'd be embarrassing to shanghai a promising young officer only to learn he's got Space Ebola three days out from Earth.  Might be inconvenient as well.

Jocelyn tells Corday to get some rest, which is to say, he tells Corday to go down to a "sing-song" in the mess hall in Jocelyn's place.  A rowdy party is restful, right?

"No! I'm all right!"

"Permit me to observe," said Jocelyn, "that you have just received an order."

Some people have to fight for their right to party, others are given direct commands to do so.

Off Corday goes, legs wobbling, viewports swimming around him, as Gow-eater simultaneously guards and prods him along.  Oh, and about this Gow-eater - he's an opium addict who will do absolutely anything if you threaten to cut off his supply, but Captain Jocelyn isn't bothered since "I'll trust a man with loyalty, even if it's only to a small black pill."  It's a bit of wry humor, a way to characterize both this bit character and the ship's captain, a way to show just how dysfunctional-yet-functional this crew of outcasts and misfits is.

It's just, well, I can't help but wonder if a bit of caution might be warranted here.  Like maybe you might not want to fully trust someone who will do whatever the holder of the precious black pills tells him to.  And a captain might be reluctant to spend valuable space on some druggie's supply of happy pills that could be put to better use carrying precious food, water, air or cargo.  And then there's the question of how you maintain a steady supply of opium when you're spending weeks going from planet to planet.  Does Marby, the ship's steward and Gow-eater's supplier, have to scramble to find drug dealers each time the Hound sets down?  Has there ever been a crisis because some crackdown on a colony world dried up its drug supply?  Or is there a little poppy farm in one corner of the ship?

Anyway, all the music and conversation stops when Corday enters the mess hall, he explains "Captain's compliments.  Regrets absence.  Be pleased to attend in his stead" before collapsing into a chair, and the festivities resume.  There's an orchestra playing classics like "Spacemen Never Die," "The Captain's Alibi," "The Castaway Song" and "Heart For Sale," and I feel a little cheated that Hubbard doesn't give us any lyrics.  But before you start wondering if maybe the author wasn't feeling confident in his songwriting skills at this point in his career, rest assured, we'll have some proper Hubbard musical poetry later.

Mistress Luck is around to use peer pressure to get Corday to drink, he barely whispers a song's chorus, there's more beer offered to try to rouse him, and then things get hazy.  Corday remembers trying to teach the crew a new song, another moment with Mistress Luck pressed against his side, then there's a break in the paragraphs and he finds himself watching Snoozer stir some broth besides his bunk.  Oh, and she's got a new bruise on her cheek.  Corday says hi, she flinches back before offering the soup, and then she's by his cot again but this time her cheek is fine and her hand is bandaged.

And I have to say, this is not a bad way of showing a character slipping in and out of consciousness during a diseased delirium.  I just wish Corday had a better way of tracking the passage of time than the evidence of child abuse.

Snoozer is startled out of a near-doze when Corday stirs, and she pleads that he not start raving again.  This gives Corday some concern - surely you remember that Corday sort of signed onto Queen's mutiny idea?  The sort of thing you wouldn't want to blurt out during a fever dream.  And the author doesn't out and explain this danger to us, but counts on the reader being able to hold onto information from a previous chapter and draw a conclusion from it to understand a character's actions in this one.  Remarkable.

So Corday is worried to learn that Doctor Strange has been by to treat him, and that Snoozer has been looking after him for so long that she's lost track of time.  She's been able to keep everyone but the doctor and the captain from checking on Corday, who reasons that Jocelyn hasn't found out about the planned mutiny since Corday hasn't been shot yet.  Our hero asks who put Snoozer up to the job, and learns that nobody did - "Because maybe I couldn't make myself not do it."

So on the one hand, we have a friendship moment when Snoozer's tears at the thought of Corday dying make him writhe "like a criminal."  But then when he's offered some food, things take a turn.

Alan fumblingly took the milk.  He regarded her with a dawning appreciation.  Drowsiness was coming over him, a healthy drowsiness.  "You know," he smiled, "I saw a painting like you once... the painting of a countess... if you'd wash your face you'd... you'd-" 

Well, we could be generous.  Maybe Corday's sentiments here are strictly platonic and he just thinks this fourteen-year-old should wash up.  But, you know.  Teenie.

At any rate, next time Corday comes to Snoozer is gone, Doc Strange is leaning over him, and gives an odd smile as he asks "Well, how is our mutineer today?"  Wha-wha trumpet effect.

Break in the paragraphs, scene change, now Corday's on the bridge again, hoping to check the ship's logs and figure out just how long he spent sick.  Jocelyn shows up to wryly observe that "I see that somehow you managed to survive," before lighting Corday's fuse by saying "You can always tell the strong ones.  They don't crawl to bed at the first sneeze."  Awful condescending language toward someone he recruited as an officer against his will.  Corday manages to subdue his temper and tries to make his entry into the ship's logs, but Jocelyn refuses to let him look at it.  In fact, the captain orders everyone to have Corday log in and out on a blank sheet of paper, so he won't be able to calculate how many watches he was gone, how fast the ship was going, and thus how much time has elapsed on Earth.

So Corday and the reader are presented with the question: is this Captain Jocelyn's usual brand of arch-dickery, or is this retaliation for Corday's mutinous thoughts expressed during feverish babbling?  Corday rushes back to the sick bay past (suspiciously?) silent crewmen, pushes aside Doctor Strange's young orderly, and confronts the quack.  Apparently during the last paragraph break, Corday promised his entire pay from the voyage if Strange kept his mouth shut.  It's unclear who initiated this deal, but given this author's later obsession with blackmail and leverage, my money's on the doctor.

Corday accuses Strange of cheating him, since Jocelyn seems to be punishing him, but Strange replies that mutineers usually end up shot against a bulkhead, so Corday's survival proves that there was no breach in their contract.  So Jocelyn's jackassery might be due to nothing more than the man's "uncertain moods and extravagant whims."  Whims that have somehow not seen him shanked by a shanghaied crewman who got pushed just a bit too far.  So Strange goes back to reading Abnormal Psychology, Volume III: Methods Used By The Asian Secret Police To Create Insanity... well.  We're not at the point in Hubbard's life where he's going to have psychiatry and psychologists be the principal sources of evil in his stories, but clearly he's on his way.

So Corday slumps out of the sickbay, and he thinks he hears the doctor laughing behind him just before closing the door.  Then he's back on the bridge to relieve Hale, who is looking forward to arriving at Johnny's Landing in thirty watches, home of the "low fission," a combination of tobacco juice, red pepper, HCL and strychnine.  Delicious.  As the officer leaves, Corday gets to wonder whether Hale's friendly, somewhat bumbling demeanor is genuine or an elaborate act.

And then it's fun times on the bridge, with Corday giving orders like "Check blast five hundred," someone reporting "Drives receipt check blast five hundred, sir," and Corday having to say "Silence on the bridge" after someone cracks a joke.  There's about a page of this before Corday, while watching the ship's speed dial, is suddenly hit by "the minuteness of his authority, the insecurities of his position, his uncertainty and his thwarted hopes."  He becomes acutely aware of the cold light of the stars around them, "the chill of absolute zero" just outside the hull."  It's all too much, and Corday has to go into one of the bridge wings, lean against a rail, bury his face in his arm, and spend half his watch in a state of despair, ignoring the gongs warning that the ship is exceeding 185,000 miles per second, just a thousand miles/second shy of lightspeed.

Corday just doesn't care anymore.

Let her go.  Let her edge on up to Constant.  Let her flash on through zero time and explode to pure energy, or let her hang as one ship had at the exact speed of light and hang there forever, impervious, unmoving, her people statues within her, locked, protected and condemned to eternity by zero time.

Whew, and I was worried I wouldn't have any Hubbard Physics to laugh at this chapter.  Yes, the author has gotten it into his head that if you travel at the speed of light, physics breaks, time freezes, and you stop moving altogether.  Now if this was true, light itself wouldn't work properly, but the bigger problem is that just a few chapters ago Hubbard explained that time didn't actually stop for a fast-moving object.

Also, the Hound is already moving faster than lightspeed because it's reaching other planets in a matter of weeks rather than years.

Corday is shaken out of it by Jocelyn asking "Am I disturbing your rest, Mr. Corday?" - evidently the captain has his own warning gongs in his cabin - and Corday is relieved by Swifty.  Our hero returns to his cabin, ignores the box of "antisleep capsules" left on his desk, falls into bed, and fails to sleep because he tenses up everytime he hears footsteps outside his door.

Finally when he had at last dropped into a fitful doze a hand shook him rudely, and he was suddenly sure of his fate.

It was only a quartermaster.  "Time for your watch, Mr. Corday."

So like I said, busy chapter.  We've got added tension over the question of how much Jocelyn knows about Corday and Queen's plan to mutiny, we have more reason to hope that they succeed and chuck the smarmy bastard out the airlock, Corday's relationship with Snoozer is developing in a way that hopefully abides by the law, and our hero's spirit is slowly being crushed by his imprisonment upon this ship.

Also, the author continues to misunderstand physics and let his prejudices about psychology seep into the story, so there's some levity in all this drama and darkness.

Back to Chapter V

No comments:

Post a Comment