Monday, June 6, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XVI - The Crusade of the Long Passage

By the time Corday has traveled down corpse-strewn streets to reach the spaceport, there's no sounds of combat and even the smoke is clearing.  He finds "strange soldiers" surrounding the Hound of Heaven, which now has a hole in its side from an artillery strike.  This seems an odd tactical move on the part of the bad guys, since they supposedly want the Hound's cargo, but I'm sure they had good reason to shell what they're trying to capture.

A "huge globular shape" skids to a halt by the gate, and that's the most description we're getting of whatever vehicles the people of the Third Estate use to get around.  Consoundalin, the naval aide and a few other bigwigs disembark, and Corday is white-lipped and shaking with anger as he orders his hostages to strip.

Alan waved them to a wall.  "You are my hostages.  If I get everything I require here, you will be restored and go free.  If I do not, you will die.  That is simple.  Carrying it out will be simpler yet."

Consoundalin snarled something, and the naval aide said, "He says you're a demon.  A moment before you called we had the ship in there under attack.  It is not fair.  You were not firing from your ship!  The switchboard girl died and we had no way to trace where you were.  What brimstone work is this?"

"Something hotter than brimstone!" said Alan.  He found himself aching to kill these people for the damage they had done, for the people they had shot down-- and all for the loot of a cargo.

Uh huh.  Didn't you say the Hound has had to pull similar stunts as this to get the supplies it needed from a world?  Conflict with your fellow man, presumably violent conflict, just so you could go on hauling cargo?  For that matter, your captain is a kidnapper and your crewmates all people who threw their own lives away, just for the sake of a cargo.

Also, it's a bit hard to take the moral high ground when you committed genocide three chapters ago on a sentient species whose only crime, as far as you knew, was taking over a long-abandoned human colony.  

Anyway, Swifty shows up, and Corday has him put the hostages in chains on some lower deck of the ship where people can easily check on them.  Oh, and Bill the Eye, the kid who was left at the Hound when Corday took everyone else to turn an engine into a cannon?  He's fine despite being next to an artillery target.  Just a bit "scratched and bruised in resisting the ship attackers."  Corday has him help Swifty.

Then our protagonist goes to check out a building a lot of the no-longer-hostile soldiers were gathered around, a particularly sturdy structure that must have served as a control center back when the starport was in use - you'd have to build it strong to withstand all those rockets taking off nearby, see.  And sure enough, that's where Corday finds the second away team.

The place was carnage.

The dead were racked along the wall, each one at a post.  The wounded had dragged themselves to the center of the room to die.  And before a window slit, through which still pointed his outmoded blaster, lay Captain Jocelyn, his face serene in death.


Mistress Luck is dead too.  You remember her, right?  Jocelyn's floozy who teased Corday once or twice?  The narration tells us she "should never have been there, who had come there well after the last of the fight," so I guess she followed Corday along with the rest of the crew off the ship, then ran off to find her honey.  It's just that we're never out and told this, and the last time she's mentioned in the story is when she's helping Jocelyn with his spacesuit buckles, and nobody notices she's with them during the hike up the hill or that she's suddenly gone missing.

But whatever, she ran off and found Jocelyn dead and stabbed herself in the heart and died on his corpse, it's very sad and romantic.

Then the ship is rumbling with activity, and I have to stop and double-check to make sure that a page hasn't fallen out of my crumbling copy of Return to Tomorrow, but nope.  We just abruptly changed scene without so much as a break in the paragraphs or a little line of asterisks to signify the transition.  Thanks, guys.

Anyway, a combination of townspeople and crewmen are working on fixing the Hound, and have even improvised a "rack" for the ship... which has already landed, and doesn't strictly need one to take off.  Trouble is, all the parts came from old storehouses, Earth hasn't advanced much since the Hound's last visit beyond weapon upgrades.  But they'll at least get the Hound spaceworthy again.

Oh, and Corday's captain now.

There had been no question about Alan, no contest of any kind.  Since the moment they had known, every remaining man, woman and child in the crew had given him every courtesy, first because of their soared respect for him, second because none could compare with him.  And so he went now, heavily, into the cabins where once an admiral had commanded in some far-off and forgotten day.

I guess it's easy to take charge when everyone higher than you on the totem pole has gotten themselves killed, and the majority of the crew has gotten their minds scrambled so they won't mope about the long passage.

There is of course a letter addressed to Corday waiting for him on Jocelyn's desk, "in the event of my death," and by its date it was written a good while ago, when Jocelyn "still snarled at him and gave him contempt," as opposed to... nope, can't remember Jocelyn not being bitchy.  Well, he was cold and silently disappointed when Corday screwed up during the campaign against the alien scum on Johnny's Landing.  I guess that could be an improvement over Jocelyn's usual disdainful sarcasm.

Jocelyn's final message to Corday, "Sometime Noble and Surveyor-Engineer of sometime New Chicago," is over four pages long, so I can't quote it in its entirely.  Well, I could, but that's a lot of typing.  It explains some things, confirms other things we suspected, and tries to justify still other things.

Turns out Jocelyn's full name is Duard Henry Jocelyn, and he was formerly a captain in the Solar Guards, whatever those were.  The letter confirms the rumor that Jocelyn's beryllium oxide poisoning was indeed terminal, which is why the captain sat down and wrote this stuff down after hearing Strange's prognosis-

Hey, whatever happened to Dr. Strange?  He and his patient, the sole survivor of Jocelyn's team, were left behind in the Hound when Corday led his march, and then the ship took a direct hit from an artillery shell.  Flipping ahead, they're not mentioned in what's left of the story.  Hmm.  Well, I'm sure they're fine, it's not like the kid was affected by the artillery strike.

Also, the beryllium oxide incident took place after the Battle of Johnny's Landing, so Jocelyn must have been snarling and snapping even after that, but finally lightened up off-camera before the arrival at Earth.

Jocelyn finally apologizes to Corday - well, something like an apology, Jocelyn wrote "I have much which pleads your forgiveness, beyond the much I had elsewhere had to do."  So he's not actually apologizing for kidnapping Corday in the first place, because Jocelyn had to do it.  See, that night in the bar, despite what Jocelyn was saying, he was actually giving Hale secret hand signals to take Corday at all costs, because he immediately recognized the young noble as the perfect successor.

And I broke you into an officer, Alan, with means you will despise.  I ask your pardon now.  A long while back, I ordered Queen to propose a mutiny.  That gave you will to learn and profit by your thirst for my blood.

Yes, it was Jocelyn who set up that plot point that ended up not going anywhere, deliberately wasting our time.  What a dick.

And I commanded Strange to make you ill so that your watch count would be lost. And I built your hope for early return to Earth and kept you learning and watching how to make us come back. And then, God forgive me now, I broke your heart.

Jocelyn did this even though he knows the same pain, though in his case his sweetheart had been dead for years before he made it back home.  He wasn't enough of a diabolical mastermind to have known that Corday would, having watched his dreams decay in his absence, automatically return to the Hound.  Instead Jocelyn had two crewmen shadowing Corday the whole time in case he did something drastic like try to start a new life.  Though Jocelyn was enough of a diabolical mastermind to make sure Corday never bonded with any of his fellow crew members, because "Command can have no friends.  As you have come to his moment, beside my desk, a lonely man and in command."  What a dick.

But there was a point to all this dickery, a greater purpose, an answer to the question Corday has asked many times since joining the long passage - "Why?"

You have been in many actions on many strange planets.  You have seen strange things.  And you have watched our Earth ebb and flow.

Earth will not live forever.  And, unless he is helped, neither will man.

Yes, the Hound could land somewhere and start a colony, but it can't, because it has a duty to perform.

You have seen sentient races living on our technologies or inventing their own.  Do you want them to outlast our breed?  Do you want those other species to inherit at last our Universe?  I think not, Alan.  I think you will go on.

This is the crusade of the long passage, a lonely and unthanked crusade.  

Man shall triumph at last amongst the stars.

Man, not Achnoids, not Gleenites, not crawling things, can and must survive.

This ship and her sisters in the stars and on the passage are without the slightest help from Earth, the only means which shall cause man to survive as a race and triumph everywhere.

This isn't total bullshit, it's just mostly bullshit.

Let's assume that every alien race in the universe is a hostile monster that must be destroyed so that Man can rightfully inherit the vastness of existence.  You'd think that, when faced with such threats, there would be some sort of space navy dedicated to keeping the spheres safe for human habitation.  Call them the Space Patrol, Galactic Marines, whatever, you'd want some ships of war out patrolling for signs of hostile intelligences and capable of nipping them in the bud before they became a threat. 

Except, well, Hubbard doesn't have that in this story - instead everyone's decided that interstellar combat is unfeasible, so there's no space navies to be found.  And with this calculated omission, tramp freighters like the Hound of Heaven can serve as mankind's guardians, conducting biological warfare on any hostile aliens they happen to encounter while dropping by a planet every few hundred years or so.  For a couple of days, while looking for customers or new goods to haul.

It's actually kind of surprising that some alien civilization hasn't grown spaceflight-capable during the long passage ships' longer absences.

And the rest of Jocelyn's spiel?  When has the Hound ever helped humanity?  Beyond alien genocide, I mean.  Trading furs from a distant planet at an exorbitant price?  Swindling settlers by promising a bountiful colony on another world, but failing to mention how the previous attempt failed?  Selling off a bunch of historical curios because nobody has any use for a cargo of shiny rocks?  Kidnapping people to fill crew positions?  Attacking settlements because nobody wants to give them fuel?

These people aren't heroes, Hubbard.  They're opportunists out to get rich so they can try to take some of the sting off the fact that they've thrown their lives away, people so daunted by the prospect of starting over that they'd rather keep doing what they're doing, year after time-dilated year, even though they hate it and don't see a point to such an existence.

I almost wonder if this whole "crusade of the long passage" garbage is just the big lie Jocelyn constructed for himself so he put that medicinal powder in his drink instead of rat poison.  But Corday doesn't laugh at it or rail against it, he seems to accept it as valid.

Do not curse equations.  Someday man will conquer Time.  Until he does, Alan, you and men like you and ships like the Hound will bless those equations which let us go at all and with such swiftness carry on the race, the triumphs, the hope of Man.

These are the same equations that mean that the Hound will always be outgunned by any hostile humans on the worlds it visits, and will have no new technology to offer the people who have had centuries to develop while it was flying the Big Dipper Route or whatever.

I wish you luck in your command an luck amongst the stars, the loyalty of our crew and the friendship of our colonies which we so strangely serve.

Assuming, of course, that they haven't disappeared between visits.  Not that the Hound is obligated to look into that during its grand crusade to protect humanity.

And perhaps someday, if the priests are right, I can shake your hand, Alan, and hear from you the job you did.

The assumption here seems to be that Alan is going to hell too, and if that sounds unlikely to you, just wait.

God bless you.

Good luck.

I trust you.  And all I had and hope for, all are yours.


I'm just going to pretend that he signed this letter with a doodle of a phallus.

So Corday stands and stares at nothing for a bit, reflecting on the past, his sight "queerly misted."  And then he gets back to work overseeing repairs.  Later that afternoon he gives some "coldness" to some visiting "learned gentlemen," and then he tells a bunch of lies to a reporter among them, explaining how "in the stars and amongst the colonies there were many weapons and that a long-passage ship, coming home even after the lapse of centuries, still could lay low this society."  He even makes up something about an extraordinary communications system (radio?) that allows these long-passage ships to keep in touch, and vows to warn other ships of potential treachery.  So hopefully these people won't waylay the next freighter to land for a cargo it already intends to sell or trade for supplies so it can take off again.

Then it's back to business as usual.  Corday gets some books to try to catch up on what the Hound missed since it last visited Earth, and then spreads rumors "about riches and the fabulous spaceman's life which was all gain and no work whatever" while his crew "inveigled men and women into signing."  The next day he trades the Hound's undefined cargo for supplies, still "holding aloof" when interacting with others, and... oh, now he's trying to have a positive impact?  Yeah, Corday also suggests "that trade was no monopoly of the monarch but the right of freeborn citizens of the merchant class."  Hooray, our hero is upholding democracy!  Well, capitalism.  That's close, right?

And then they're done, blasting off again with five hundred colonists headed toward what the papers will call an "uncultivated land on Venus where food springs up from the ground overnight."

Why the hell is a ship on the long passage going to Earth's next-door neighbor?  If this society is so eager to get rid of excess population that it welcomed Corday's threat of laying waste to the city, why haven't they been doing this already?

Back to Chapter XV

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