How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command By Dan Graves
© Copyright 2012 by Dan Graves
i. First Impressions.
ieutenant Snell descended into my life in response to an SOS signal. My signal.
After Clay killed Jamil, stole my yacht and skedaddled skyward
with the mindstone we had just discovered (and had instantly known we could never share), three thoughts had barrelled like tornadoes through my mind. The first was all-‐consuming hatred for Clay. The second was to find another mindstone to fill the awful void I was already experiencing. The third was to call for help.
Left at our cook site had been a few tins and packets of food—
stew, oatmeal, lentils, dried milk; in a week I’d be eating the indigenous scrawm—in a month I’d be starving.
So I had inched my way to the top of the highest object in the
vicinity and planted my transmitter there. There was the cap of one of the thousands of mysterious cairns of solid rubble—”beehives”— which dotted the otherwise flat surface of Nuevo Tundra, the only
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 5
source of mindstones in the universe.
About sixty six days later (I lost count early on) SS Willock
emerged from XC-‐space (exocosmic space) into our normal hendecaspace, picked up my signal and honed in on it.
Lieutenant Snell led the Willock’s ground force. He and two of
his men dropped to Nuevo Tundra’s surface in a bulbous transfer dingy scorched on its underbelly. My heart welled with gratitude and relief. A few days more might have been too late for me. My belly protruded, my ears rang, my thoughts wavered between hallucination and reality; my gums were black and most of my teeth had fallen out. More than anything, I wanted a good meal, a hot bath, and the chance to thank my rescuers.
Perhaps Snell’s voice was distorted by his speaker; at any rate
its tone was not flattering. “Pig snot! It’s a twitchy.” He yanked my bag from my grasp and heaved it over his shoulder. “Here you two, get him up.”
The two space-‐marines behind him yanked my arms and half-‐
walked, half-‐dragged me at waist level to the side of the dingy. “Why
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 6
in blazes do we have to rescue scum like this?” the taller one asked. Without waiting for an answer, he turned on me with foul curses. “What the deuce possessed you to get yourself into such a mess, Twitchy?” From his name badge I could see he was called Leith.
Outside the dingy, the pair let me flop face-‐plate-‐forward onto
the sand. Lieutenant Snell guffawed and plopped my bag onto the middle of my back. The shorter marine went on into the airlock. Leith snapped a plastic collar into a channel around the dingy’s airlock and expanded a porta tent from it. When the tent was fully inflated, he kicked the bag off my back, rolled me inside the shelter. Snell followed with my bag. Leith zipped the seal, released a breathable atmosphere into the temporary cocoon, popped open his visor and ordered me out of my space suit. Meanwhile Lt. Snell lifted my bag shoulder high and dumped its content onto the floor for inspection.
With feeble fingers I undid my spacesuit. Leith grimaced.
“Phew, what a stink! You never hear of soap and water, Twitchy?” He resealed his face plate. How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 7
His words stung. I was about to protest this wasn’t my fault
when up from memory bubbled the many acts of defiance and self-‐ indulgence by which I had brought myself to these straits—dropping out of mining college without so much as a “by your leave” to my guardian, flying off to unauthorized destinations in his yacht, blowing my school savings on a pleasure-‐binge on Sirén, hooking up with unsavory partners to try to recoup my losses, neglecting to lock-‐out my yacht’s controls, fingering the mindstone in spite of serious warnings... The retort died on my lips. I settled for an assertion of my humanity.
“The name is Stan. Stan Elyot. Not ‘Twitchy.’”
“Whatever you say, Twitchy.” He tossed me a pack of wet
wipes. So much for my fantasies of a hot shower.
The shorter marine re-‐emerged from the airlock with a
medical kit and pricked my left hand index finger with a lab-‐on-‐a-‐pin. His badge proclaimed him to be Han Lee. Han studied the readout, “He’s clean, Lieutenant. No parasites; no contagion.”
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 8
That was good. It meant I’d be heading into space, one step
nearer Charianna and home.
With portable instruments Leith scanned my head, torso, and
limbs. Satisfied that no weapons, mindstone or contaminants were concealed under my tongue, in my ears, in my stomach, or within nature’s piping, he tossed a clean gown into my face. Some people cannot handle even a smidgeon of power. Clearly Leith was one. With feeble arms and smarting pride I donned the garb, and Leith half-‐ lifted, half-‐shoved me through the airlock.
“Where you from, Twitchy?” called Snell to my back.
“Ought to make those pious surf-‐strokers come fetch their
own sewer rat,” he said, playing on the twin facts that Charianna is predominantly a water world and deeply devoted to the Great King.
ii. Sewer Rat
s I stumbled into the dingy, glad to divorce myself from Nuevo Tundra, my first glance filled me with apprehension. The
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 9
shuttle showed signs of neglect: frayed armrests, streaked gauges, oily surfaces. Was the craft even space-‐worthy. This Lieutenant did not run a tight ship.
I had no time to think about it. Han Lee seized my left arm
firmly above the elbow and I felt the sting of a hypodermic needle in my shoulder. The shot sent a hot rush through my system. Between that and the cabin oxygen (over-‐rich after the thin air of Nuevo Tundra) I grew dizzy and blacked out. The acceleration of liftoff would have knocked me out anyhow.
When I came to, we were synchronizing with the airlock of the
SS Willock. To my blurry eyes, the mother ship looked like a metallic soap bubble. When I shifted for a better view, my head throbbed. Through an opposing port, I saw the reddish limb of Nuevo Tundra, deceptively beautiful below.
“The sewer rat stirs,” sneered Snell, tweaking a yoke to align
the dingy with the Willock’s airlock. Evidently my blacking out had become another excuse for him to disdain me.
The ships bumped. Clamps swung out and locked airlocks rim
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 10
to rim. I unbuckled, gathered my bag (weightless now) and braced myself to meet more people, explain my situation, and protect my secrets. I prayed the Encourager to guide me safely through the labyrinth of pitfalls I faced.
iii. What They Knew
heerful lights greeted my eyes when I obeyed a gesture from Snell and followed Han Lee through the airlock into the
warship. To my relief, the Willock’s mid-‐deck was spick and span, each item stowed in place. The explanation came to me at once: the dingy belonged to the marines and was under Snell’s command, but the Willock was managed by the ship’s captain. My spirits lifted. I could fit in here. I could make myself useful with the hydroponics tanks, repairing equipment, or many other things I had learned in engineering classes before I dropped out. I had even assembled and installed a pair of Eberstein rod in a classroom project. For a few exhilarating seconds I saw things in a more hopeful light.
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 11
Even the fact that I had blacked out on the passage up could
be a blessing in disguise. It strengthened my cover. The marines knew that no one in contact with a mindstone will faint: the stones give too much potency for that. They also knew that no twitchy will ever voluntarily give up a stone. I was a twitchy. I had fainted. Therefore, I did not have a stone.
That is what they “knew.”
But in fact, when I boarded the Willock, hardly a tycoon on
Sirén, and certainly no one on my native Charianna, could have touched me for wealth. I could have bought three Willocks and hired their crews for a year with credits to spare. In short, I was in possession of a mindstone—a priceless riftbender, Kelly Crystal, neuro-‐intensifier, 6D-‐lift, tessawarp, ecstasy-‐jewel, thought-‐warmer, or whatever other name you call it by.
I had one—but had hidden it.
Right there, I know I’ve lost half of you. I can almost hear the
snorts of contempt: “You could never have gotten aboard a Sirénian warship with the thing! Especially not off Nuevo Tundra where the
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 12
marines are doubly alert for any attempt to smuggle the priceless jewels. There is absolutely nowhere you could have hidden a mindstone and kept it from discovery.”
All true. I did not say I took the stone aboard the Willock with
me. Of course it would have been detected at once!
No. I had found a different way to sequester it. As paradoxical
as it may sound, I had it—but I didn’t have it on me.
Now the other half of you are jeering: “A twitchy give up a
mindstone? That will be the day!”
And you are almost right. Easier for a heroin junkie in a
bygone era to kick his habit cold turkey than for a twitchy to relinquish a mindstone. Without the Encourager I could never have done it.
I will explain in its place.
Meanwhile, my rising spirits caromed off a ceiling of glass and
went into freefall. Leith, coming up behind me, shoved me full force across the capsule so that I slammed into the opposite wall and ricocheted with flailing arms and legs back toward the hatch. “Look
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 13
guys, we’ve brought you a sewer rat, a holy-‐hell foam-‐head from Charianna,” he exclaimed with a guffaw. A dozen eyes swiveled toward me as if I were a freak.
iv. Some Things They Didn’t Know
or half an hour after that uncouth introduction to Willock’s other marines, I ticced uncontrollably, as a twitchy will under
stress. Somehow I managed to croak out my gratitude for rescue, and I tried to remember the names of the men introduced to me. Apart from Lieutenant Snell, Han Lee, and Leith, the other space-‐marines were Sundar, Hardy, Crab, Turk, Pavel and Izon. All eyes were on me, and I pulled myself together.
None of the men made any effort to veil their contempt for a
twitchy. Snell said, “It’s as good as a freak show”—and that was the mildest comment that came my way. Leith mimicked—and exaggerated—my uncontrolled motions. I longed to be alone again in my tent down on Nuevo Tundra with my mindstone. Better to drift into eternity at peace clutching the warmth of a stone than...
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 14
Enough of that! The Encourager was stern. Hastily I turned off
my spigot of self-‐pity. We had a deal, the Encourager and I, and I was reneging on my part.
About then, things began to get better. Han Lee handed me a
draught of vitamin-‐rich broth and I gulped it down with thanks. Within a few minutes, feeling noticeably stronger, I was able to croak out my story to an audience of eight marines, Lt. Snell, and the ship’s navigator and co-‐pilot who had joined us.
I told them of my dissipation in Hamartia City, Sirén, and they
laughed ruefully. Many of them, pleasure-‐penniless, had joined the space-‐marines to escape indenture on that wastrel planet.
Clay had recruited Jamil and me for a stone-‐mining expedition.
His part was to provide the coordinates to Nuevo Tundra and teach us the mining process; Jamil would stake our equipment and grub; and I would provide the transportation—cousin Leo’s three-‐bunk space Yacht Carmen. We agreed to sell any stone we found and split the profit three ways.
Before long, we had found a Kelly crystal, a ravishing
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 15
mindstone, and all three of us had coveted it. Clay had urged us to keep our hands off the lovely thing, himself handling the purple beauty only with tongs; but we did not heed his advice. All heart for selling the glorious prize had trickled out of Jamil and me the moment our finger-‐tips brushed its glossy surface and the tingle of super-‐ awareness flashed along our nerves. One could die for such a thing and never let it go. Jamil did die for it.
Clay cursed us, beat back our hands, and flung the stone into
the titanium-‐steel safe we had brought along to safeguard it. He slammed it shut. It required three keys to open. We each had one.
Feeling our first symptoms as twitchies, Jamil and I had rushed
at the box and struggled to open it. Without Clay’s key we could not. We turned on Clay. “Give us your key,” we demanded.
By way of answer, Clay produced a firestick and shot Jamil.
That sobered me. I bolted from the yacht, zigzagging as I ran.
Clay fired twice at my back but missed me both times. A few minutes later, he rolled Jamil out of the airlock, tossed my bag atop the body, sealed the yacht and departed.
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 16
I was alone, not another miner for hundreds of miles. There
was a good chance I would starve to death before relief came. “He was heartless. He could have pitched me a few rations,” I grumbled. “If we hadn’t shifted some of our grub out of the yacht to have it handy by the cooker, I’d have starved.” I showed them my gums—my teeth had fallen away from eating scrawm, the only growth on Nuevo Tundra which offers a human the slightest sustenance.
“But he tossed you your personal bag, didn’t he?” asked Snell.
“So he couldn’t have been as heartless as you say.”
Surprised, I looked into the man’s dark eyes. I’d never
considered that obvious point before now.
“Maybe he was experiencing regrets,” I said.
“Maybe,” said Snell skeptically. “Or maybe you killed Jamil,
and Clay fled for his life.”
The thought that I could be under suspicion for the murder of
Jamil sent me into a fresh round of convulsions. I called on the Encourager for help. A measure of peace returned to me.
When I’d gotten my latest round of spasms under control, I
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 17
told my audience how I had appealed to the Great King in my desperation and how the Encourager had come to me. The marines grew restive at this. A couple rolled their eyes. Leith said roughly: “The Great King. Yeah. I believe in the tooth fairy, too. No one’s ever seen this mythical King except some Jew priests down in Jerusalem. Mighty convenient for them to trot out his authority when they want to shove the rest of us around. You can take your Great King and... Anyone who buys that hokum, well, all I can say is, they’re nuts.” He tapped the side of his head. Sirénians are known for their anti-‐ Semitism and blasphemy; after all, they are rebels.
“If he’s so powerful, why doesn’t this Encourager do
something about your twitches?” asked the Crab pointedly. (How he’d gotten that name I never found out.)
In truth, it was only because of the Encourager I had been able
to face the twitches and let go the mindstone I’d unearthed after Clay had bolted with the first; but I dared not tell them so. That would be revealing too much. To get back to Sirén alive with the stone I had to keep it a secret. I was terrified my tongue would betray me.
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 18
“We’re working on that,” was all I could say.
There were sneers all around. Leith looked intently at me.
“You’re hiding something,” he muttered. He turned to the others and repeated his suspicion loudly. “He’s hiding something.”
This was a serious moment. There was always a chance the
marines might dope me with truth serum. If they asked just the right questions, my mindstone would be outed and my future would be toast. The scorn and bullying I already endured would be magnified. Stress of it almost sent me into another spate of tics. Silently I cried out to the Encourager.
Suddenly I saw the humor in Leith’s statement. Hiding
something? If they only knew what I was hiding! Here I was with wealth and a power they could only dream of, and I had no way to use either one. I laughed so hard tears spurted from my eyes.
It was probably the best reaction I could have had. Everyone
stared at me like I had gone nuts, then one by one began to grin, or even chuckle as my laugh infected them. The swarthy fellow named Sundar snorted, “You got second sight or something, Leith?”
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 19
The others laughed openly at that, and one by one drifted
back to their duties. Mine was not the first tale of stone-‐loss they had heard.
When they had left, Lieutenant Snell took my official
statement and cursed me violently. “You should have told us about the murder when we picked you up, Twitchy. Now we’ve got to burn another unit of fuel dropping down to investigate. All I can say, Bub, it’s your money. You’ll die indentured, paying for this rescue and the investigation—and serve you right, too.”
His attitude was over the top. He was supposed to be the
professional, not me.
“I appreciate you rescuing me,” I said. “But surely the space
marines have a procedure for rescues. Mine cannot have been the first case of this kind. And to expect me to carry the ball in the state I was in… Had I been in your place and you in mine, I would have asked how you came to be alone, why you had signaled for help, and what you had done with your ship.”
“Are you telling me my job, Twitchy?” Snell’s cold eyes
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chiseled into me. “Willock doesn’t have to ship your lousy carcass to Sirén. There is no protocol between your Charianna and us.”
“I know Sirén does not consider itself bound by galactic
protocol. All the same, your marines must have procedures for cases like mine and you should have followed them. And now, if you will excuse me, I need rest. I’m on empty.”
Snell glared but emitted no more threats as I pushed away
from the arm of the flight chair I had been perching on. For my part, I was relieved to have survived the initial dangerous round of questioning, and eager for some shut eye. Perhaps with rest, I could strategize my next moves.
v. Journal of a Misfit
he next day I asked for a job.
“Sure, Twitchy,” said Snell. I started to bristle, then bit
my tongue. Like it or not, I was saddled with that nickname. With regret, I recalled the times I had sneered at twitchies back on Sirén. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 21
Next I knew, I was the ship’s designated latrine attendant. Not
as glamorous as taking scientific observations or manning the hydroponics tanks, but hey, now I had a chance to prove I was no freeloader, and an occupation to pass the time. What is more, Snell ordered me to log my hours which will be deducted from my rescue fee.
Who can help but wonder at the marvels of modern science:
bioformed planets, thousand ton ships that lift with the lightness of a feather—and a urinal that works faultlessly in weightless conditions. The most tedious part of my job was cleaning a bank of electrostatic filters because I had to run a vacuum probe through each vane.
My first four days aboard Willock, as we rode a low orbit
above Nuevo Tundra, I gulped controlled air as if my lungs were attached to one of the vacuum cleaners I operated. My gums regained pinkness, the result of rich oxygen and nutritious rehydrated soup. And I adjusted to the creaks and whirs of the ship that had at first made sleep difficult.
On the fifth day, I began a journal in my Logic-‐Brute. My
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 22
entries were in Jerusalem Standard Reckoning (JSR) although the Willock employed the Sirénian calendar. Sivan 24th, 958 JSR. I’m cooped in with eight men whose principle source of fun is to find new ways to torment me. They thump my bunk shield when I’m dozing, call me Twitchy, confer loudly about having me vacuum-‐test newly-‐ patched spacesuits, etc. Leith is the worst; he will shove me suddenly from behind and laugh, “See, I’m the Encourager, just giving you a nudge to help you on your spiritual journey.” From time to time I stare out the port, down upon the dusky red of Nuevo Tundra, unrelieved in its monotony except for the darker gash of Humboldt’s fissure which runs crookedly from pole to pole. I had thought I would never want to visit the place again, but now I long to stretch my legs, and enjoy some solitude. There are levels in hell.
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 23
How I long for the day I can stride off the ship onto the surface of Sirén to saunter alone along a lane with cool breezes and wide open spaces under a warm sun. But that won’t be soon; the Willock will be out here until its tour is up, several months from now, and I can anticipate no escape from my present company in all that time. Charianna seems farther away than it did when I was dying alone of Nuevo Tundra. Luckily I have my own bunk. Our compartment is built for ten, because in addition to these star troops, Willock sometimes carries a galactographer or other scientific supercargo. The ship’s crew bunks in a separate compartment “above” us; of the marines only Lt. Snell is allowed to enter that level. I haven’t seen the captain yet. The guys say she’s pretty. To judge by her voice over the ‘com, she’s beautiful. It’s melodious with a slight burr. I’m half in love.
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 24
Sivan 25th. Han Lee, doubling as a dentist (all these marines are trained in two or three specialties), biopsied one of my follicles today for stem cells and placed the sample into a Sheila Cultivator. It will bud replacements for my missing teeth. In a week or ten days, he’ll transplant them into my jaw. He said he would have stimulated regrowth of the existing teeth ultrasonically if the roots hadn’t been so damaged. Han has an interesting story—was actually born on Earth, but, seething with resentment at the Great King because he had lost a girlfriend to XC madness, he recklessly sought forgetfulness in the pleasures on Sirén until a depleted bank account forced him to join the space marines. So far he’s the only one who has conversed with me as though I am a human being. Sivan 26th. The guys attempted to coerce me into a Sporaka double-‐tournament, needing an eighth since Sundar was on
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 25
observation and rules prevented Snell from fraternizing with subordinates. They were meaning to gamble, of course. Gambling was one of the behaviors that had ruined me on Sirén. The Encourager planted a check within me, thin as tissue paper and as easily brushed aside, a warning to avoid entangling myself again in addictive behavior. I knew I would be considered a prig if I refused, and was blowing a chance to gain a measure of tolerance from my bunk mates, but there was no help for it. Drawing on the strength of the Encourager I declined their proposal as graciously as I could, even offering to join them instead in a game of Quantum Packet which is equally popular on Sirén but seldom played for stakes. They booed the suggestion. Taunting me as a wet blanket, they flung boots and empty food tubes at me and gave me several incontrovertible evidences that in their eyes I was five or six degrees below a matricide. The most belligerent was Leith who muttered that they should have left me on Nuevo
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 26
Tundra, and actually ejected a wad of spit in my direction. I dodged it, but the tension was high until Magwin, the purser, joined them as their eighth player, taking the heat off me. The worst of it was I itched to throw a token into the game which I love. Sivan 27th. Maybe it was because I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t know, but I threw up during exercise. Embarrassing and messy. I was an hour wiping off the elastic bands. Bubbles of puke had to be fished out of nooks where they had drifted. I am exercising to gain muscle so I’ll be able to walk when I get to Sirén, but exercise is no fun in zero gee. One good thing, though: I was able to touch my mindstone while cleaning up the mess, and assure myself it was still parked within reach... Here I had better step out of my journal long enough explain that last line. Otherwise, you won’t know what I’m talking about. As I
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 27
described above, Clay stole the mindstone the three of us found, marooning me on Nuevo Tundra. Crazed with stone lust and desperate to fill the void within me, I hacked at the sides of the beehive we were working until I found a second mindstone. When I had steamed it clean and cooled it, I clutched it in my hand. My spasms had stopped at once. Once again I had felt the golden pleasure of a mindstone, this time long enough to really feel its power. My mind sharpened. Smells became intoxicants. Colors brightened and glowed. Euphoria welled within me. I wanted to sing, to meditate, to drink in the world.
Opening my hand I had stared into the stone. It was like
opening one’s eyes in XC-‐space. Just as no one has ever satisfactorily described spirit, so I could not define this stone. My mind slithered over angles that had no corners. A kaleidoscope spun down into a vortex, throwing out sparks whose shapes defied the human eye. It was XC-‐Space all over again— except somehow... broken. I had shuddered—not because of any evil in the stone (it was a neutral thing)—but because it was so baffling, so impossible to fathom. I
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 28
pulled my eyes back to the surface. All was tranquility again and I was content to just hold the glorious thing. Weariness drained from me.
Scientists call this elation lapiscaleo, but common folk refer to
it as stoneglow. As long as the mindstone was in direct contact with my flesh, I would experience the glow. Withdraw the stone and I would instantly be a twitchy again.
With the stone in hand, I wondered how I could keep it from
being wrested from me if I were rescued. At the thought of losing the mellow thing, an almost infinite well of sadness rose in me, so bleak I could have killed myself. Then I felt again its warmth in my hand and was instantly almost infinitely content. That is when I realized that among the properties of this precious thing was an ability to amplify emotions.
I was studying the depths of the thing again, when suddenly I
felt it stir faintly in my hand. Now I remembered that others had remarked on the same thing—as if the stone was trying to twist out of one’s hand. It occurred to me that because this was a thing of XC-‐ space, its slight movements might be owing to fluctuations in that
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 29
One thought led to another, and, with my heightened intuition
I realized that by giving the stone a little shove and twist with my hand while nudging it in a certain manner with his mind, I could push it into XC-‐Space just off my “fingertips.” I tried it without quite letting go, and found my guess was justified. By making a reverse tugging motion with my hand and mind, I could retrieve it. I repeated the process again and again until I was quite sure it was entirely under his control. Now aboard ship I had just confirmed that the stone still was “where” I had parked it, supposing whereness is a property of XC-‐ space. So there you have my secret. As far as I can tell, no one has ever before discovered or described this trick for hiding a mindstone.
Now back to my journal.
Sivan 28th. Feeling better today. Tammuz 16th. Finally saw the captain. She’s pretty all right—pretty old: 161 today. We had ration packs with chocolate cake to honor her birthday; the guys laughed all
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 30
through the meal at putting one over on me. I didn’t care. Still think she has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. vi. How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command Av 1st. We’ve had quite a stir since I last wrote. Rival gangs of miners (the marines nicknamed them the Hissies and the Sissies) got into a fracas down on Nuevo Tundra and the Sissies radioed for help. The Willock lobbed a translateration bomb into no-‐man’s land as a warning to the antagonists. The result was an implosion, and a crater half a mile wide appeared, all its matter shifted through XC space into the local sun. After this demonstration of force, the ship dropped down to make sure that love and fraternal good will was restored between the Hissies and Sissies. Willock was one of Sirén’s “toy warships,” a merchant vessel remodeled in imitation of a class-‐six Star-‐Guard vessel of the Forty Worlds. The Forty Worlds quite reasonably
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 31
refused to sell Sirén real warships. You don’t give that kind of power to a renegade regime. Although in this peaceful millennium, wars between planets are unthinkable, Sirén’s mad council might consider such action. The purpose of the Star-‐Guards is not war. They rescue stranded individuals, suppress private feuds, and police the worlds to ensure that space piracy never takes root. Along the way, they might translaterate a stray asteroid to protect a planet. Sirén’s makeshift navy had similar roles in the relatively circumscribed radius the Great King allowed it to oocupy. Lest you are tempted to ridicule Sirén’s “toy navy,” remember that each ship is equipped with more stun-‐power and firepower than entire armies of earlier eras. And unlike former eras, they have translaterators, which are able to vacate matter from a preset spherical radius and shift it through XC-‐space onto some nearby sun or planet, thus creating a devastating low pressure “blast” as air rushes in
How I Saved Lt. Snell’s Command 32
to fill the vacuum. Unlike thermonuclear reactions, these events leave no radiation, heat, or radioactive side effects. The marines ordered me to stay inside the tin can because I had no deflecto armor. I confess this disappointed me, for I very much wanted to stretch my legs. I wasn’t exactly homesick for Nuevo Tundra’s rancid air and endless red plains, but the thought of striding a couple miles in the opposite direction of the marines in had it attractions. Half a dozen miners approached Willock, waving a white flag and holding up empty hands to show they were unarmed. These were the Sissies who had radioed for help. They spoke urgently with Lt. Snell, warning him that the Hissies were swearing retaliation against the Willock. A couple Hissies had been crawling across no man’s land intent on lobbing a shrapnel keg at the Sissies when Willock’s bomb imploded directly above them. One of the dead had a brother, the other an uncle who vowed revenge. That’s the problem with over-‐reliance on technology—it has
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no discernment. These deaths could serve as a textbook example of why human assets on the ground are essential. Even the Great King, omniscient and omnipotent found it best to become a man in dealing with men. To be sure, Willock’s crew had done a ground scan, following proper procedure, but then fiddled for an hour before lobbing the warning shot, without bothering to re-‐scan. Lt. Snell’s typical slackness. Not that the dead had justification for being at the wrong place at the wrong time—but revenge never considers its own wrongs. The marines thanked the Sissies for the warning, but took it as seriously as you would a warning that a 220 year old grandma was going to attack you with a crochet hook from her wheelchair. They asked a few questions about the lay of the Hissies’ camp, but, trusting their deflecto armor, satellite images, firepower, binocular goggles and galaxy-‐size egos they didn’t think much of the threat. Captain called down on the com, urging Snell to adopt full
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armor. “I don’t tell you how to fly your ship, you don’t tell me how to handle military maneuvers,” retorted Snell. He did not lack self assurance, that’s for sure, but it was his willingness to rely on his instincts to the dismissal of everyone else’s judgment that would have cost him his command had it not been for me. The eight swaggered down to the Hissies’ camp in light-‐ weight walking armor. Captain prudently powered up Willock’s powerful deflectors. Next thing I knew, Captain was shouting at me to get down to the lock and receive the wounded. As soon as the lock opened, I saw things were bad. Sundar’s right sleeve was Maxtited® shut. Leith was being carried on a makeshift stretcher the way pall bearers carry a casket. Bellowing with rage and embarrassment, the men hoisted him in. Han Lee slapped a lab chip onto Leith’s arm. When the readout
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appeared, he shook his head. “No sense wasting supplies on him. He has half an hour tops. No more.” “As bad as that?” asked Snell in a subdued tone. “This is going to put paid to my career.” The marines came to a standstill. Never before had any of them heard an admission of vulnerability from their lieutenant. Snell deserved whatever consequences befell him, but I hurt for him all the same. Our hush registered on the lieutenant. “What are you gawking at?” he screamed. “We’ve a job to do.” Instantly everyone busied themselves as if no thought but their work had crossed their minds. “And you,” said Snell, glowering at me, “Why are you hovering around me?” “Let me see what I can do with Leith,” I pleaded. “I’ve had first aid.” I was horrified that they’d abandon Leith while he still breathed. I suppose it is the difference between being raised on Charianna and Sirén. Snell hesitated, finally shrugged assent. “OK. Just don’t
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waste vital supplies on him. No more than one standard unit of anything. There may be other casualties.” Snell shouted at his squad to shuck their light deflecto and don the heavy stuff, but they had anticipated the order and were halfway there. He delegated Leith’s and Sundar’s tasks to other team members. For five or six minutes, all seemed chaos, but before ten minutes were up, two marines had winched the armored truck (a Conestoga II) onto the planet’s surface. Others had loaded scopes, range-‐finders, probes, and shells. I heard, more than saw, this activity. I had pulled on gloves and was busy cutting away Leith’s scorched breastplate with a needle torch and prying off pieces. Thank heaven for first-‐ aid training! Han Lee returned with a local anesthetic and patched the raw end of Sundar’s arm. Sundar insisted he was going out with the team and nobody argued with him. They needed every warm body they could muster. Sundar poped a
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painkiller and sealed his suit’s leaks; he was ready to lend his one good hand to the job. Meanwhile, I had Leith’s suit off. It seemed as if I was hours at it, but it actually took me only minutes. Blood was bubbling out of his chest around fragments of metal. Sundar, who had inserted a needle into one of his own veins, sat watching me as plasma trickled into his good arm, replacing what had leaked out because of his injury. “Isn’t anything you can do,” said Sundar, “except IV him and that is only going to prolong the inevitable.” Leith’s lips were blue. His skin was cold, his pulse barely discernable. “Here, I’ll poke the needle for you.” Sundar had just finished assisting me one-‐handedly when Lt. Snell hollered into the cabin, “Below aft, Sundar! We’re going to smoke these foxes out of their holes!” Sundar dashed for the ladder. I had to credit him with guts. When the hatch thudded shut, the compartment was suddenly quiet. Glancing up at just the right moment, I saw
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the Conestoga framed in a porthole as it crawled away on its deadly mission. Then my eyes dropped back to my patient. I knew that the best thing I could do for him was to compress the bleeding gaps in his chest; but the metal had to come out first. Pressure would merely drive the shrapnel farther in and worsen his condition. I snatched a pair of tweeze-‐pliers and started yanking out shreds of steel at top speed. Whether Leith lived or died would be a function of how fast I could extract the fragments and spray elasto-‐foam to seal his chest. From what I had overheard, the Hissies had packed a combination of mining explosives and homemade gunpowder beneath the shaft of a portable hydraulic ram and fired it like a cannon, sending the eighty-‐pound shaft and several pounds of scrap metal whistling toward the marines. Leith took the brunt of that blizzard of steel. His light armor defelcted about 99% of the energy directly into XC-‐Space, but the remaining 1% had overwhelmed his
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defenses with sufficient force to split his suit wide open and drive shards into his chest. His IV bag ran dry. I read the specs as quickly as I could, reached for another of the same, and switched the bags out. The Lieutenant could scream at me all he wanted for giving Leith seconds, but fluids were the man’s only chance of survival. Every shard of metal I plucked from his body worsened the bleeding. There was a rattle in his chest. Finally, I had gotten all the metal out. I squirted antibiotic goo on him, grabbed a can of EEF® and sprayed his chest. As soon as I touched it with a drop of catalyst it did just what it was supposed to do, shrinking and solidifying. The sum effect (as they had taught us in first aid) was to compress the wounds and stanch the blood flow. The EEF® would soften and peel off like rubber from a mold when we brushed it with a counter-‐agent. I pulled a flex wrap tight around Leith to sanitize the area. There seemed to be nothing more I could do. I had stopped
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the outward bleeding but who could say what was going on inside? Internal bleeding was probable. He barely breathed. It was horrible to think of him passing into eternity unprepared—a sworn enemy of the Great King. I found myself pleading with the Encourager for him. “Use the stone, Stan.” I almost gasped with the force of the command. Immediately I saw the sense of it. Down on Nuevo Tundra the mindstone had brought me strength and healing and could do the same for Leith. But he’ll become a twitchy and try to wrest it from me, I protested. Or one of the ship’s crew will see me using it and that will be that. Even as I protested, I realized it was useless. I had better find a way to obey. I could cup the stone below Leith’s body to protect it from monitoring eyes. And I remembered an earlier conjecture, which now became a certainty to me, that the stone’s power lay in its ability to magnify conscious thought. Leith would never be aware of it. Unconscious as he was, I would have to do the thinking
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for him. The Encourager seemed to say, “If a man must lose his life to save it, how much more must he be willing to lose his mindstone?” Reluctantly I stripped off my glove, moved my hand beneath the table and tugged the stone from XC-‐Space. I felt its glorious glow on my fingertips. Shielding it with my fingers I brought it into contact with Leith’s back. Instantly I groaned. I could feel the smothery blood bubbling out of his lungs as if it was bubbling out of my own. I wanted to slip the stone off him, free myself from this agony. Somehow, half-‐fainting, I managed to keep the thing in contact with his body while willing his recovery. Gradually, over what seemed an eternity, but was probably no more than ten minutes, Leith’s breathing firmed and a slight flush returned to his ashen skin. My pain diminished, too. His eyes fluttered vacantly and he moaned. I had become so rapt in watching his improvement I had forgotten that
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this was the moment when I must break the stone’s contact with him, lest he waken, become conscious of it, and covet it. Fortunately for me, the ship shuddered just then and my hand fell away from Leith of its own accord. I quickly parked the stone in XC-‐Space, feeling forlorn as I lost contact with it. Immediately my body convulsed, followed by tics which wouldn’t stop. But I had experienced worse. As soon as I was able, I stumbled to a port and peered out. A puff of sand swirled like a dirt devil in the vicinity of the Hissies’ camp. An explosion. From the size of it, I could tell it was one of ours. There was another rumble. The ship shuddered again. A pillar of smoke rose above Humboldt’s Fissure. I saw the Conestoga II creeping along the raw seam. Leith moaned and I turned from the window back to him. Exhausted though I was from my battle for his life, I still had work to do if he were to recover. He needed more fluids.
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As I was getting a saline solution, another explosion rocked the ship. And another. No doubt the Hissies had dug themselves deep holes. The marines would be listening with probes and at the slightest hint of movement underground, and would drop corkscrew charges onto the surface, the kind that auger themselves swiftly through sand or stone and explode deep below the earth with vibrations calculated to turn an enemy’s inwards to mush. I’d have to wait for details. But while they were killing foxes I could take satisfaction in having saved a life, for I was now sure Leith was going to make it. Av 3rd. I dragged around all day yesterday, listless from exhaustion, and was taunted by my mess mates. “You had it easy,” they said, and boasted of their vengeance upon the Hissies. To hear them tell it, they are redoubtable conquerors, bug exterminators who will have the hormones of every woman in the Forty Worlds raging for them as soon
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as they can shout to the cosmos what they have done. Han Lee switched on some of Sundar’s stem cells to start growing him a new hand. Even with growth-‐accelerants, it won’t be full size for at least five years. He’s going to look comical with a baby fist on the end of his brawny stub until it reaches maturity. Everyone said Leith had them fooled; it was just shock and surface cuts. Han Lee said he’d have to file a complaint with the makers of the lab-‐on-‐a-‐chip for a defective unit. Sundar though, was staring from Leith to me with a puzzled expression every time I looked up. He was with Leith the longest and knows that the man really was as good as dead. I overheard him whispering to Snell. “One way to tell,” said Snell. “I’ll remove the compress.” He called Han Lee and they examined Leith together in the bunk room. They came out with sober expressions. Neither said
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anything to me, but evidently they did to the others, because at chow Hardee said, “You may be a twitchy and a bit of a snob, but you aren’t a bad sort, Doc.” Now everyone calls me Doc; everyone, that is, except Leith. He avoids my eyes and won’t speak to me. vii. No Thanks
There isn’t much else to tell. On Av 4th, Snell called me into
the cubby that passes for his office and chewed me out for violating his orders on medical supplies.
I retorted that orders or no orders, Leith was alive.
“If you were one of my marines I’d throw you into isolation
without food for five days for your disobedience,” he replied. “But as you are a civilian, and as Leith is alive, I am going to fine you half the credits you’ve earned. Remember this, I am boss over our supplies. If ever anything like this happens again, I won’t be so lenient.”
That was as close as Snell ever came to thanking me for saving
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Han Lee and Sundar sought me out and asked questions about
the Great King and the Encourager. Both became more thoughtful. Leith never would look me in the eye the rest of our tour, nor did he ever thank me.
Nevertheless, I was content. I had done what the Encourager
asked of me and had my reward in his approval and in the improved attitude of the men in our remaining months in space. During our remaining months in space, I mastered XC calculations and brushed up my engineering math to work out the proper “trajectory” down which to “push” my mindstone so that it would lodge in XC-‐space around Siren ready for me to pluck when we got there. But that is another story. THE END
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H o wI S a v e dL i e u t e n a n t S n e l l ’ sC o mma n d ©201 2b yDa nGr a v e s
When a military op went awry on Nuevo Tundra, Stan Elyot risked his life and mindstone to save his enemies.