Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XVII - The "Adventure" Continues

Or maybe the Hound hasn't taken off yet.  Last chapter talked about the Hound leaving for Venus the next morning and ended with "all repairs were made and they were done," which could be taken to suggest that they departed.  Except this chapter starts with the Hound's final preparations before liftoff, and they're still in sight of the ridge that Hale and the other casualties were buried on, which is being bathed in symbolic sunlight.  So what was insinuated last chapter is immediately contradicted by this one, another in the list of things this story has done to annoy me.

An "oily" military man is talking to Corday about off-loading "them," presumably the hostages from last chapter, and Corday assures him that he "generally keep[s] his word" even while thinking about what a "debauched" government the officer works for.  Yeah, we weren't told this last chapter when Corday was actually out in Denniston's markets, but apparently it's the sort of horrific society where "human meat hung in shops for sale."  And while Corday did have things to say about how royalty shouldn't have a monopoly on commerce, he had no reaction to cannibalism.  But let's cut him some slack, he's pretty new to the long-passagers' "crusade" to preserve mankind.

The Hound's crew is a bit more excited than usual, since no many of them are new faces and untested, and of course the recruits "did not know about the long passage and its Time", left that part out of your speech for the newspapers, huh?  And it gets better, just wait.

There's a heartwarming, or something, moment where Corday watches an "only slightly drunk" Swifty step onto the bridge and put down his jug of booze in its usual spot.  Corday addresses him as "Mr. Roston," the first person to do so in years, and declares that he just picked up a new atmospheric plane and pilot, making Swifty's current posting redundant.

"A long time ago," said Alan, "you were in a war.  You were very young.  You have grown older.  I think it is time you forgot that war, Mr. Roston."  He walked to the ledge and picked up the new bottle.  He turned and threw it butt first against the bulkhead.  The loud crash of it froze the bridge.

I think you just wrecked the thing that helped him forget the war, Corday.  Although I guess if Swifty really wanted to get rid of the source of his PTSD he could've had Dr. Strange do something to his brain.  Assuming Strange is still alive and not splattered all over the walls of the medbay.  Anybody checked that?  Might want to do that before you take off so you can kidnap another doctor if needed.

"Take your place, Mr. Roston," said Alan.  "From this moment forward you are first mate of this vessel.  You know your duties.  Perform them.  Is that clear?"

Makes sense.  I mean, piloting an atmospheric vehicle is a lot like managing a ship's crew and cargo and crew training and security, right?

And then... this is actually hard to watch.  Read.  Whatever.  See, even before Swifty arrived on the bridge, Corday had his eye on a nameless engineer, "a well-educated, alert young man who knew his job" and is finishing his checks of the newly-installed "detecting equipment" and "drive communicator."  As the engineer completes his task and turns to leave before the Hound takes off, Corday stops him.

"A moment there," said Alan.  The engineer turned.  "Do you know of the long passage?"

He should, since Corday spent part of last chapter putting the word out about the wonderful life to be had completing four lightyear journeys in a matter of weeks.

"Good lord, sir," said the engineer, "I have a good job where I am."

"The long passage pays better," said Alan.

"And has a great deal wrong with its Time Equations," said the engineer.

Why say it like that?  It's not that someone is doing the math wrong... okay, the author has utterly botched things, but in this setting, it is a fact that if you go fast, time gets wonky.  That's not some mistake on the part of academics or anything.

"Only a madman would attempt such a thing as a volunteer. Thank you for the offer. But I have responsibilities here."

Alan looked at him appraisingly. He motioned with his hand to the quartermaster. "Take that man into custody and hold him in sick bay until we have cleared Earth."

Yep.  When people attack the Hound's crew in an attempt to steal its cargo, that's unforgivable.  When the Hound attacks people and kidnaps them to fill crew positions, that's just how things work on the long passage.  Think of it as being drafted for the great crusade to protect mankind in general, if not your life in particular.

The engineer at least makes a fight of it, and manages to break through the spacemen trying to keep him on the bridge, until Corday pistol-whips the back of his head.  But the engineer still tries to struggle to his feet, clinging to consciousness, protesting "But you can't--you can't--my wife--"  And then he's hauled belowdecks.

Corday doesn't immediately react to destroying another man's life in the same way his was ruined, but tells all stations to get ready, and orders Swifty to set a course for Johnny's Landing and get the watches and reliefs all sorted out... so, not Venus then.  That stuff about crops shooting out of the fertile soil of that high-pressure hellscape was a bit of an embellishment, and instead Corday wants to send another load of dupes to that planet they already sent a load of dupes to several chapters ago.

The author isn't nice enough to explain why Corday is doing this.  Has something happened to wipe out the colony on that planet (again) and we weren't told?  Or is Corday merely assuming that the previous colony has gone the way of the colony before that?  Or does he think that Johnny's Landing could use some fresh genetic material after the how-many-hundreds-of-years since they last visited, so he's delivering some fresh men- and womenfolk for the mutants to breed with and stave off cataclysmic inbreeding for another century or two?  Or does he sincerely think that hauling off these five hundred suckers will help Earth's population problems, and the best place to dump them is Johnny's Landing?

I guess the only thing we can know for certain is that this is part of the heroic work of the long passage ships.

Corday goes to Jocelyn's quarters, or rather his cabin now, even though he has so little stuff that it can be safely stored away in drawers and lockers. He sits down, "looking at nothing."

A phrase was ringing in his ears: "You can't... my wife--" And then he saw again a night when it had rained, and he heard again a weirdly beautiful concerto played on a piano in a stew.

His head ached brutally and his nerves were taut.  He looked at the desk.  A bottle of brandy was there and a sheaf of small packets, just as Jocelyn had left them.  Corday poured a drink and then, with a sudden, savage motion emptied into it the contents of a paper.  He drank it down.

And thus we come full circle.  Corday has inherited Jocelyn's position, his quarters, his ship, and his medical problems.  And we've even seen him adopt Jocelyn's mannerisms, his white-lipped but restrained fury, his cold demeanor, and his willingness to enslave others, to destroy their lives, just to save him the trouble of hiring someone for a key position.  He has become the new arch-dick.  The transformation could only be more complete if Corday started calling himself Captain Jocelyn as well.

Behind them a city had dropped from sight, a city overlooked by a knoll, a city which had paid a terrible price for treachery.

Yeah, we're never told the death toll from Corday's engine-blasting, but it must be pretty high - the previous chapter mentioned "streets clogged with dead," "panicked mobs," "the ruin of buildings with their dying still inside."  The majority of the casualties must have been civilians who had nothing to do with a corrupt regime's stupidly greedy attack on an unsuspecting freighter.  But those are all acceptable losses, so that the Hound can continue its heroic task of protecting humanity.

From aliens.  Hey, there's nothing in the mission statement about protecting humans from the Hound.

There's something missing, though.  Corday has everything Jocelyn had, except for a floozy like Mistress Luck to keep his bunk warm.  It's a shame Corday will be sleeping alone-

The drink and drug began to take effect. Alan felt somebody near him and he turned. Snoozer stood at the door, face calm, waiting. She wore a pleasant dress and a new bracelet on her arm. She was no longer fourteen. She was a woman grown, a lovely woman as Alan suddenly saw. He looked at her and wondered that he had not seen before.

The Countess entered the room and closed the door.

Oh, Hubbard.  I'm not going to try to do the math and figure out whether Snoozer is barely legal or not, since strictly speaking she's probably at least a thousand years old, Hubbard has had/will have no problem with putting underage characters in sexual relationships with older men, and it's not so much Snoozer's age that's squicky here so much as it is the fact that Corday has known her since she was barely a teenager.

And high into the black, black void the Hound of Heaven sped, upward bound and outward bound on a mission to the ageless stars.

A mission that will justify swindling, deceiving, kidnapping, and killing their fellow man, a mission that will ruin their chance at a normal life for the sake of what profit can be found flinging cargo between the stars, a mission that they will attempt to justify with the fact that they occasionally exterminate alien races as they wander from port to port.  A mission that better people should be doing, but they aren't, so the Hound's crew gets to be painted in a heroic light despite doing nothing heroic whatsoever.

Also, the stars are still aging, it's the Hound that's relativistically ageless because it's zipping around at near lightspeed.  And so we end the book much like we began it, with the author misunderstanding the fundamental premise of his story.

Back to Chapter XVI 

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