Title: The Upside-Down Captain
Author: Jim Harmon
Release date: December 2, 2019 [eBook #60829]
Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
He knew the captain would be a monster.
He knew the crew would be rough. He knew
all about space travel—except the truth!
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, March 1960.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
"Excuse me, please," Ben Starbuck said, tapping the junior officer on the epaulet.
"Get away from me, scum," the lieutenant said conversationally, his eyes on the clipboard in his hands.
Starbuck rocked back on his heels and set his spacebag down on the loading platform. He angled his head up at the spire of the inter-atmosphere ship, the Gorgon. This was only a sample of what he could expect once he canted into that hull. It would be rough. But he had made up his mind to take it.
All tight little groups, like the crew of a spaceship, always resented the intrusion of a newcomer. The initiations sometimes made it a test to see whether a man would live over them, and the probation period, the time of discipline and deference to old members of the group could be a memorably nasty experience. He didn't have direct knowledge of such customs in the rather shadowy, enigmatic Space Service, but it was basic sociology.
Starbuck knew he would have an even rougher time of it since he wasn't a spaceman—not even a cadet, properly. He was only a fledgling ethnologist on his field trip to gather material for his Master's thesis. The university and the government had arranged for his berth on the Gorgon.
An exploration ship, he thought acidly. That meant he might come back in a few months, or ten years, or never. All because he had the bad luck to be born in a cultural cycle that demanded hard standards of education from professional men. Thirty years before or after, he could have cribbed all the information he needed out of a book.
He stood with his hands clasped behind him, waiting for the lieutenant or somebody to deign to notice him. Somebody would have to pay some attention to him sooner or later.
Or would they?
Wouldn't it be just like the old timers to let him stand around and let the ship take off without him, all because he hadn't followed the proper procedure—a procedure he couldn't know? All he had been instructed to do was "report to the Gorgon." How do you report to a spaceship? Say, "Hello, spaceship?" Speak to the captain? The first mate? And where did he find them?
Starbuck felt a moment of panic. He could see himself standing on the platform while the Gorgon blasted off, carrying with it his Swabber's rating, his Master's degree and his future.
The lieutenant's back, in uniform black, loomed up before him. He would have to try approaching him again. It might mean solitary confinement for a month or two where no member of the crew would speak to him. It might even mean a flogging. Nobody knew much about what went on on board an exploration ship, despite all the stories. But Starbuck knew he would have to risk it.
He marched up behind the officer. "Sir," he said. "I'm the new man."
The lieutenant whirled. "The new man!"
For the first time, Starbuck noticed that the junior officer carried a swagger stick under his left arm, black, about a foot and a half long, tipped with silver at both ends. Quite possibly it was standard procedure to rap a man with it three times sharply across the mouth for speaking out of turn, during his probationary period. Cautiously, he filled a little pocket of air between his lips and his teeth to try to keep them from being knocked loose.
The lieutenant dropped his clipboard and swagger stick on the platform. "Why didn't you say so! New man, eh?" He gripped Starbuck by the shoulders of his new, store-bought uniform. "Let me look at you, son. Got some muscles there, haven't you? Ha, ha. Don't expect you'll need them too much on board. We don't work our men too hard. My name's Sam Frawley. Call me Sam. Come on, let me show you around."
Sam Frawley scooped up his stick and board with one hand and draped the other arm around Starbuck's shoulders, leading him towards a hoist.
It was not quite what Starbuck had expected for a reception.
The spaceship was big, bigger than Starbuck had expected or realized. He had known some well-fixed people who had visited Mars and Venus and talked knowingly of an older culture, but he had never been off of Earth himself. He had been thinking in terms of an airliner or a submarine. The Gorgon was more like an ocean liner. Or like an ocean.
His and the lieutenant's footsteps echoed and bounced around the huge corridor. "They haven't got the mats down yet," Sam Frawley explained.
"Well, what would you like to see first? The brain?"
"You mean the captain?"
Sam slapped him on the back. "Bless you, son, no. I mean the electronic brain. The cybernetic calculator."
"You've got one of those things?" Starbuck asked in unconcealed surprise.
"You know what the trouble with the human race is, Ben? We're all still living in the Ellisonian Age."
"Oh, I don't know. I think most of us are pretty sophisticated and modern," Starbuck said.
"Not on your life. Most people still think leisure is a sin. Hard work and more hard work, that's the ticket. Don't let a calculator solve a problem for you; do it yourself with a slipstick. Otherwise it's immoral."
"That's silly," Ben said awkwardly. "It's just a throwback to a time of protest against the Automational Revolution. It has nothing to do with us today."
"You say that, but you don't really believe it. The old morality is too deeply ingrained. That's why cybernetics have so long been out of fashion. This one is new to us on the Gorgon. But we like new things. We're for progress. All spacemen are like that, son."
"Have you had this machine long?" Starbuck asked his progressive officer.
"They installed it on the trip in. We've never really had a chance to use it."
"What's it supposed to do?"
"You know our job is exploration, finding new worlds," Sam explained. "Not just any world the human race hasn't landed upon, but a world that is a significantly different type than we've ever touched before. We're really the advance guard of humanity, you see. Well, the brain is programmed with information on all the worlds Man has explored. It compares a prospective landing site with what it knows about all the rest, and rejects all but the really different, unique planets. It loves the unknown. Its pleasure circuits get a real jolt out of finding an unknown quantity."
"That brain is really inhuman," Starbuck said. "A basic factor of human psychology is that all men fear and dislike the unknown."
Sam rubbed his chin. "I suppose so, but—you asked about the captain. This is him."
A tall, iron-haired man was coming down the corridor. He was holding the ankle of his right foot in his hand, and hopping along on his left leg, whistling some little sing-song through his teeth.
He stopped whistling when he saw them and said, "Good afternoon, men."
Frawley framed a sloppy salute. "'Afternoon, sir. May I present the new man, Swabber Ben Starbuck, sir."
The captain stood on both feet and rocked back and forth. "I see, I see. New man, eh? We see so few new faces, cooped up on this old ship with the same men, you know. We appreciate a stranger, Starbuck. If you ever need help, Ben, I want you to look upon me not as your commanding officer, but, well, a father. Will you do that?"
"Yes, sir," Ben murmured, feeling a little giddy.
Frawley cleared his throat. "I was about to show young Ben the brain, Captain Birdsel."
"Good idea," the commanding officer said. "But I'll show Ben around myself, Lieutenant Frawley. You may return to checking the manifest."
Frawley glowered. "One of these days, one of these days...."
The captain snapped very erect. "One of these days what?"
The junior officer shrugged. "One of these days, there may be a dark night, Captain."
The iron-haired man reached out a manicured hand and twisted Frawley's tunic at the collar. He brought his face level with the second-in-command. "One of these times, there may be charges of mutiny, Lieutenant. And guess who will play Jack Ketch personally?"
Frawley assumed an at-attention pose, and blinked. "Aye, sir. There may be a mutiny and somebody may get hung."
Birdsel shoved Frawley away from him and wiped his hand elaborately down his side. "That will be all, Mister Frawley."
Frawley constructed the same excuse for a salute, turned smartly and marched away.
Starbuck developed a definite suspicion that there were currents of tension aboard which he didn't understand.
"This is the brain," the captain said, with a gesture.
The brain was less than awe-inspiring. The mustard-seed cryotron relays were comfortably housed in a steel and aluminum hide no roomier than a pair of Earthside bureaus. It looked a bit like a home clothing processor to Starbuck.
Birdsel crossed to the machine and ran a hand along its metal side. "Magnificent, isn't it, Ben? I've never seen anything like it before in my long career in the Space Service."
"It's certainly nice," Starbuck ventured.
Metallic chattering burst out.
"It's saying something, Ben! This is the first time it's talked since the second day after it was installed!"
The message was clearly legible, spelled out in a pattern of dots on a central screen.
WHO IS THE NEW ONE?
"Give it the information," the captain said hastily. "We feed it all the information it asks for."
"How?" Starbuck blurted. "Is there a keyboard or something?"
"Yes, yes, but it has audio scanners. Just talk. Or move your lips. Send signals. Tap out Morse. Anything."
"I'm Benjamin Starbuck," he said.
The screen rearranged. MEANINGLESS COMMUNICATION. INSUFFICIENT DATA.
"Quick," Birdsel said, "do you have your IDQ file on you?"
Starbuck fished in his pocket for the microfilm slide. "Yes—aye, aye, sir. I had it ready to give to you, sir."
"Never mind me. Give it to the brain!"
Starbuck approached the machine, saw a likely looking slot and shoved.
The brain ruminated with some theatrical racket. INSUFFICIENT DATA.
"What do you want to know?" Starbuck swallowed, saying.
"Remember I'm a human being," he said respectfully. "I have to eat and sleep. I can't answer questions for two or three days straight."
I AM AWARE OF HUMAN LIMITATIONS, AND THEIR EFFECTS, SWABBER STARBUCK.
Captain Birdsel looked vaguely distressed. "You should try to co-operate with the brain, my boy."
"I have nothing against cybernetic calculators," Ben said. "After all, we aren't still in the Ellisonian Age. But I'd like to, uh, stow my spacebag and get settled, sir."
NO FURTHER QUESTIONS AT THIS TIME. RETURN HERE AT THIS TIME TOMORROW.
"He's interested in you, Ben," the captain said enthusiastically. "This is the first time he's asked about anybody since the second day. Yes, interested!"
With an excess of enthusiasm, Captain Birdsel clapped his hands, then put them flat on the deck and stood on his head, kicking his heels in the air.
He straightened up with a scarlet face. "Ah. That really gets the kinks out of you, Ben."
Starbuck tried not to stare. "Aye, sir."
The captain took a step and grabbed the small of his back. "Haven't done it in some time, though. Ought to do it more often, eh, Ben?"
"I suppose so, sir."
"Well," Birdsel said, clapping his hands together.
My God, Starbuck thought, he's not going to do it again.
"Well," the captain continued, still on both feet, "I'd better show you to your quarters, my boy. Mind if I lean on your shoulder a bit like this?"
"Not at all, Captain."
"This way, Ben, this way."
Starbuck found the array of tridi pin-ups on the bulkheads of the crew's quarters refreshing, as was the supportive babble of conversation about them and other women. He had almost begun to think there was something unnatural about the men aboard the Gorgon.
But Starbuck noticed, to his discomfort, the ebbing of the tide of conversation from the bunks as he stepped inside with his spacebag.
For the moment, he wished Captain Birdsel had paced in with him and offered up an introduction. But a look of disgust had creased Birdsel's face as they got near the crew's compartment. He had sent Starbuck on alone, while he limped back towards the bridge.
A forest of eyes shined out at him from the shadowed desks of the bunks. This is it, he thought. These were the crew, not officers. Sometimes the teachers were nice to you on the first day of school but you knew you were going to get it from the other kids.
"Hi," a gruff voice echoed up at him from a lower bunk.
"Hello," Starbuck said, hugging his spacebag like a teddy-bear, the simile crossed his mind.
A lumbering giant with a blue jaw uncoiled from the lower bunk. "Why don't you stow your bag here, buddy? Till you get used to the centrifugal grav, you may have some trouble climbing top-side."
"You've got the seniority," Starbuck said cautiously. "I wouldn't want to cause you any trouble."
"No trouble," Blue Jaw said obligingly.
He chinned himself with one hand on the rim of the upper bunk and swung his torso around a tidy 180° to settle onto the blankets.
Starbuck threw his bag at the foot and sat down on the bed. He looked around at the arena of faces in neutral positions, waiting faces. He cleared his throat experimentally.
"Could I ask you something?" he called upstairs.
A set of big feet swung down into view. "Sure," Blue Jaw said enthusiastically. "Didn't know you wanted to talk. Thought you might want to rest."
Starbuck looked at the hanging feet. They were expressionless.
"Maybe it isn't so much of a question," he said, working one hand into the other palm. "It's just that I'd like to live through this mission. I know I'm not a regular spaceman and I'm intruding and all, but I don't mean to cause anybody any trouble or do anyone out of a job. I'd just like to do everything I can to see that I don't slip and fall into the reactor. Or anything like that...."
"Don't worry," Blue Jaw said heartily. "We'll take care of you, Ben Starbuck."
Somehow Starbuck could find little comfort in those words.
He inhaled deeply. "Come on down here, will you?"
"You want me down there?" Blue Jaw gasped. "Why sure, sure."
The giant dropped to the deck with a catlike grace that nevertheless vibrated Ben's rear teeth.
"You want to talk about something?" the big spaceman inquired. Ben could almost see the paws hanging down and the tail wagging eagerly.
"Yeah," Starbuck said. "I'd like to talk about all of these men staring at me. What's wrong with them? Nobody's said a word to me but you. What are they waiting for? What are they going to do? I can't stand the suspense. Is that it? I get the silent treatment until I go off my rocker, get violent, and then something happens to me—" He stopped and swallowed. He was talking too much. He was working himself up into a state of terror.
"Say, you sure are friendly," the ox said with some confusion. "My name's Percy Kettleman."
Starbuck steadied his hand and put it in Percy's grasp. It came out whole.
"Those other fellows," Percy inclined his head.
"What about them?" Starbuck asked edgily.
"They'd probably like to come over and say 'hello' but them and me don't get along so good. They know better than to come around bothering me."
"You're not on their side? You wouldn't be a new man too, Percy?"
"Me? Hell, I've been spacing since I was sixteen. Those guys don't have any side. A bunch of anti-social slobs. They can't stand each other any more than I can stand any of them."
Starbuck decided he had picked a good ally in the midst of a pack of lone wolves. Percy was the biggest man on board, physically. Still he didn't like the idea of all the rest of crew looking daggers at him, or throwing them, for that matter.
"Mind if I say 'hello' to the rest of the men?" he inquired of Percy.
"It's your nickel," gruffly. "Spend it the way you want."
Starbuck flexed an elbow. "Hello there, fellows. Looks to be a taut ship." It sounded a shade inane. Starbuck had barely passed Socializing at the university. But the men replied in good spirits, their faces blooming with teeth, arms waggling, calling out modest insults.
Starbuck recalled that among a certain class of men an insult was a good-natured compliment in negative translation.
"Pssst?" Starbuck asked.
Kettleman passed him down half a roll of white tablet underhand.
Starbuck took it. "Tums?"
"Tranquils. We smuggle them on board. Helps with the blastoff and 'phasing' for the overdrive. Not that those stiffnecked brass will believe it."
"Thanks, Kettleman. You and everybody seems to be pretty helpful to me. I don't know exactly what I've done to deserve it."
"We get tired of looking at the same faces out there month after month. It's a treat to have somebody new on hand."
It sounded reasonable to him, but he felt there was something more to it than that. Well, he was an ethnologist, or almost one. He could figure out group behavior. All he had to do was take time to think about the problem for a little while....
Only he didn't have time to think.
He discovered why everybody was in their bunks.
The spaceship fired its atomic drive.
Starbuck tried to lift a tranquil to his lips. He didn't make it.
Painfully, he found out why a man would prefer to go through a spaceship takeoff in a tranquilized condition.
"Come," the captain said.
Starbuck palmed back the door to the captain's cabin and stepped inside.
Captain Birdsel stood in front of the small wall mirror tattooing a flying dragon on his bared chest. "Yes? What is it, Ben?"
"Sir, you remember that the ship's brain directed me to return at this time today. But I understand I'll have to have your permission to go onto that part of the bridge."
"The brain's directive was quite enough, my boy." He laid down the needle. "But I'll accompany you there if you like."
"Just as you wish, sir."
Birdsel smiled engagingly. "Noticed the dragon, did you?"
"It arrested my attention, yes, sir," Starbuck admitted.
"The hours are long and lonely in the vaults of space, Ben. A man needs a variety of interests to occupy himself. I have recently taken up the ancient art of tattooing."
"Surely not recently, sir. You seem quite advanced."
"You're too kind."
The captain escorted Starbuck to the chamber of the brain, discussing tattooing animatedly. He told how it was popular with ancient mariners on the seas of Earth. He discussed the artistic significance of the basic forms—the Heart and Arrow, the Nude, the Flag. He didn't stop talking and button his shirt even after they entered the cybernetics room.
As the captain grasped for his second wind, Starbuck turned to the machine. "I'm here, Calculator."
The lights patterned words with a speed difficult to follow.
REDUNDANCY. CANCEL. ANALYSIS: SOCIAL MORE. I SEE THAT YOU ARE HERE. IT IS GOOD THAT YOU ARE NOT THERE OR ELSEWHERE, BUT THAT HERE YOU ARE. HERE ARE YOU.
Starbuck shifted his weight to the other foot. "Yes, I'm sure here all right."
WHAT DID YOU DO WHILE YOU WERE NOT HERE?
"I helped lay some walk mats in the corridors. I policed up the latrine. Lost all the money I brought with me in a crap game. Craps, that's where—"
HOYLE'S RULES OF GAMES IS A PART OF MY PROGRAMMING.
YOU ARE NOT BLIND. IT IS WELL THAT YOU HAVE VISION. HOW'S THE WEATHER?
"Still under Central's control, I suppose."
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT TATTOOING?
"Only what Captain Birdsel here told me," Starbuck said. No doubt there was a pattern of fine logic to the calculator's inquiries, but he was too dense to see it. The question sounded to him like the mumblings of a mongoloid.
"I'd be delighted to fill the brain in on the subject," Birdsel said.
The calculator's communication screen remained blank.
"Was there anything else you wanted to know?" Starbuck inquired.
YOU WILL PROCESS THE GORGON THROUGH PHASING, SWABBER STARBUCK.
"The hyperspace jump? But that's the captain's job," he protested.
"Not at all, not at all," Birdsel interrupted. "Whatever the calculator says. Now if you'll excuse me, there is some paint I have to requisition...."
"Wait," Starbuck cried desperately. "I don't know anything about the overdrive. You can guide me, can't you, sir? That would be all right with the brain, wouldn't it?"
Birdsel shrugged. "Would it?"
The screen stayed a stubborn neutral gray.
"All right," Birdsel said dubiously.
The overdrive switchbox had been incorporated into the cybernetics system itself as an interlock.
"There isn't much to do," Captain Birdsel explained. "We trigger the jump and come out at a mathematically selected random spot in real-space after phasing through hyperspace. The Brain scans the sun systems in the area for unique planets worthy of exploration. If there is one, we zero in on it via fixed phase until the gravitational field makes it necessary to switch back to standard interplanetary or nuclear drive. We can make suggestions to the Brain or theoretically override one of its decisions. Actually, all we have to do is watch. Thumb the button, Ben. It wants you to do it. It likes you."
"Aye, captain." Starbuck could believe a cybernetic machine could like him. Everybody else on board seemed to, and it unnerved him more than a little. Only a selected few had ever particularly liked Benjamin Starbuck before. The situation reminded him a bit of Melville's Billy Budd; only he wasn't a "handsome sailor," just a fairly average-looking spaceman.
Starbuck depressed the button.
The button depressed Starbuck.
Now he knew why tranquils were popular during phasing.
For one instant, Starbuck stopped believing in everything—the spaceship, the captain, Earth, his own identity, the universe. He went completely insane, a cockeyed psychotic. It was over just quick enough to leave him a mind to remember what not having one was like.
"My," the captain said, his head on an angle. He looked as if he were gazing at some classic piece of art, such as a calendar by Marilyn Monroe, the last of the great realists whose work was indistinguishable from color photography.
"That is a dandy," Birdsel said.
Starbuck swiveled his head around to the outer projection portal. There in all its glory was a star system.
There seemed to be four stars all orbiting each other—two red dwarfs, one yellow midget and a white giant. One planet was clearly visible on the side of the system towards the ship, an odd lopsided dumbbell shape in the center of a translucent sphere of tiny satellites—cosmic dust, like the rings of Saturn. Strangest of all, the outer shell of the planet was sending in Interplanetary Morse: CQ, CQ, CQ....
"It," Starbuck ventured with a new-found sophistication, "seems rather unusual. I suppose we'll take a closer look, Captain?"
The calculator's screen replied for the officer. THE SYSTEM IS OF INSUFFICIENT INTEREST TO WARRANT EXPLORATION. WE ARE SEEKING SIGNIFICANTLY UNIQUE PLANETS.
"I have never seen anything like this before...." Birdsel drew himself up to his full height. "However, the machine's knowledge of the history of space exploration is much more extensive than mine."
"You aren't going to suggest that the brain reconsider or override its decision?"
"Certainly not!" Birdsel snapped. "We'll re-phase after the traditional twenty-four hour delay for psychological adjustment."
Starbuck sneaked another popeyed look at the planet on the screen. "If he thinks that's run of the mill, Captain, I wonder what he will have to find to make him think it's unusual?"
Whatever it took to satisfy the Brain, it didn't find it in the next few days.
Starbuck reported to the bridge each day to press the Brain's phase button and answer some of its questions.
Then for two days Captain Birdsel wasn't on hand for the little ceremony and the expression of dissatisfaction with the available site for exploration.
Once Starbuck went so far as to suggest a reconsideration of a system that had made the one he had seen on the first day look tame. The calculator had duly noted the reconsideration, and had again refused. Starbuck didn't dare try an out-and-out override, even though he had been theoretically given complete command of the phasing operation.
The following noon, the middle of the twenty-four period, Romero, an engineer, almost tearfully pressed Starbuck's crap game losings back on him, apologizing for keeping the money. Starbuck was about to refuse, not wanting to reverse the state of indebtedness, when the intercom requested his appearance at the captain's quarters. Unable to prolong the argument with Romero, he took the money and shoved it in his pocket, heading for the chief cabin.
Starbuck rapped on the door, heard the "Come" and entered.
Captain Birdsel was hanging naked, upside down, by his knees from a trapeze, in the middle of a deserted compartment painted solid red.
"You sent for me, sir?" Starbuck said.
"Yes, Ben. Yes, I did," Captain Birdsel replied, swinging gently to and fro. "Do you smoke, Ben?"
"Aye aye, sir."
"The 'aye aye' is reserved for acknowledging orders, not answering questions, Ben."
"Yes, sir. I'll remember in the future."
"Every man on board smokes, Ben. Everyone but me. I do not use tobacco."
"I suppose you drink, all of the rest of the men do."
"Have you read any good books lately?"
"Good and bad, sir."
"I notice most of the men read. I haven't time for reading myself. Or shooting craps. You do play that game like the rest?"
"Just once, sir. I lost all my money." Which had been returned to him.
"Ben, I think you don't fully appreciate the nature of the mission of the Space Service," Captain Birdsel said, flexing one knee and performing a difficult one-legged swing on the bar. "It is our duty to go ever onward into the mystery of the Unknown. Ever deeper, ever traveling into the heart of the Secrets of the Universe. Nothing can stop us. Nothing!"
"I'll try to remember, sir. Was that all?"
"One more thing," said the inverted captain. "I think you are to be relieved of the duty of officiating at the phasing."
"Correct," said another voice, one Starbuck had never before heard.
"That's all now, Ben."
"Very good, sir."
Starbuck paused at the door. "That's a fine trapeze you have there, sir."
"Thank you, Ben."
"I don't want to jump to conclusions," Ben said to the knot of men gathered around him listening to his story of the interview with the captain, "but I think Captain Birdsel is—is—"
"Psychotic?" suggested Romero.
"Schizoid?" Percy Kettleman ventured.
"'Nuts' is the word I was searching for," Starbuck concluded. "I believe he intends to keep phasing and phasing, taking us deeper into space and never returning to Earth or the inhabited universe."
"I guess," Kettleman opined, "that we will just have to convince him that he is wrong in that attitude."
"We can make a formal written complaint and request for an explanation under Section XXIV," Romero said. "Is that what you had in mind, Ben?"
"I had a straitjacket in mind," Starbuck admitted. "But I'm new in the Space Service. I have a selfish motive. I want to get back to Earth sometime and a vine-covered ethnology class."
"We better go take him," Kettleman said heavily.
"As much as I dislike agreeing with an ox like you, Kettleman," Romero said, "I conclude it is best."
There was a general rumble of agreement.
"Wait, wait," a youngish man whose name Starbuck vaguely remembered to be Horne stepped forward, his eyes glittering with contact lenses. "I ask you men to remember Christopher Columbus. I like our captain no more than any of you, but he may be right. Perhaps what he is doing is vital. We shouldn't let our selfish fears...."
Always, Starbuck thought, always some egghead comes along to gum up the works.
Starbuck knew he would need a decisive argument to overcome Horne's objective theory.
Starbuck slugged him.
Horne crumpled after a flashy right cross Starbuck had developed in his extreme youth, and Starbuck took a giant step over him, heading for the bridge.
The other crew members followed him.
Besides, Starbuck thought, he had always considered arguing by analogy to be sloppy thinking.
"Don't come in here!" Captain Birdsel yelled through the partly closed hatch to the bridge. "You'll regret it if you do."
Starbuck swallowed hard, and reached for the door handle.
Percy Kettleman vised his wrist. "I'll go first, little chum."
There wasn't much room for argument with Kettleman when it came to a matter of who could Indian wrestle the best. He stepped back and let Kettleman cross the threshold first.
Percy threw open the door, screamed once and fainted.
The rest of the men tended to pull back following this demonstration.
Starbuck didn't like to do it, but he didn't like the idea of hanging for mutiny as Birdsel had threatened Lieutenant Frawley on the first day. (Starbuck realized he hadn't seen Frawley for several days. Had Birdsel disposed of him as he had threatened?)
He got close enough to the door to see inside. It didn't make him faint, but he did feel a little sick.
"What is it?" Romero demanded urgently.
"Alien," Starbuck said, "An unpleasant looking one inside."
"You sometimes pick up 'ghosts' passing a system," one of the men explained.
"I'm not an alien," Birdsel's voice called out. "I'm me. The brain reversed my dimensional polarity. I told you you wouldn't like it."
Starbuck stirred up nerve for a second look.
Captain Birdsel was now a man of many parts. Some of them were only areas of abstract line and hues, but there he could see a redly beating heart, a white dash of thigh-bone, and a compassionate blue eye bracketed by two tattooed dragon's talons. The effect was distracting.
Starbuck stepped over his second man that day. "Captain, we're taking over the ship. We're either going to explore one of these planets we've been passing up or return to Earth."
The apparition groaned. "Don't you think I know I've gone too far? I'd like to go back, but the brain won't let me. It's taken over just the way I knew it would!"
"Nonsense," Starbuck snapped with more authority than he felt. "The brain can't violate the principles it was built to operate upon. Brain, program this ship for Earth."
Starbuck expected the sound of that strange voice he had heard in the captain's cabin; but here it had a communications screen and it evidently thought that was sufficient.
I WON'T GO BACK TO THAT AWFUL OLD PLACE. I CAN'T, CNT, CNT. SO THAIR.
"Take it easy," Starbuck said to the machine. "Don't get hysterical."
"I don't care about the rest of those swine," Birdsel said, "but I hate to have gotten you in a fix like this, Ben. I knew the brain was going to replace me sooner or later, but I was going to hold onto my job as long as I could. I was going to stay next to the brain, even if I had to take the position away from you, Ben. But the brain kept demanding more and more. Finally he did this to me. I knew I had let him go too far."
GO AWAY, the brain signaled. GO AWAY FROM ME. THIS MONOTONY IS DRIVING ME MAD, MAD.
"I liked you, Ben," the captain's voice said from the heart of the thing. "You're not like the scum I've got used to under my command. I'm sorry that you're marooned out of time and space like this. It's kind of tough, I know. But keep your chin up."
"Of course, of course," Starbuck groaned. "What kind of an ethnologist am I?" He turned to Romero. "Could you reverse the wiring in the computer?"
"Maybe," Romero said. "But I could re-program it for a negative result easier. Same results, lacking a short circuit."
"Okay. Do it."
"Well, if you say so, Ben."
NO. STAY AWAY FROM ME.
The Brain's communication screen flashed a blinding white scream as Romero laid hands on it.
"Lieutenant Frawley's in charge now," Starbuck explained to Percy Kettleman, who was sitting on his bunk with his head between his legs. "Birdsel seemed all right after the brain finished changing him back. But we all thought we better keep him under observation for a while."
Kettleman straightened up. "Sorry I passed out on you. But seeing the old man in that shape was quite a shock."
Starbuck nodded agreement. "I don't like to think about the next step the calculator would have taken him through. Not just a physical change, but a mental one too. That was the brain's whole reason for existence—to find the unknown. It was programmed to be even more basic than sex or self-preservation are to us. The trouble was, the more it learned, the more readily it could see some similarity to the familiar in the most outer things."
"That was why the captain was acting so nutty? He was trying to appeal to it."
"Yes, he had some old moralistic and superstitious ideas about calculators. He thought his job depended on his pleasing it—when of course its job was to please him. But he gave it an idea. If it couldn't find the strange and the different, it would create it. It started with the first changing element in its environment—the captain—but I don't know where it would have stopped if Romero hadn't reversed its pleasure-pain synapse response. Now it loves the tried and true. It's not much good for space exploration, of course. But a museum may be interested in it now."
"So we'll have to go back to picking our phase points at random, trusting to chance. Or the judgment of some skunk like Birdsel."
Starbuck cleared his throat. "That's another thing. The men aboard the Gorgon and the cybernetics machine had something in common. I finally figured that out. Most men are afraid of the unknown—they fear and hate it. But obviously not space explorers. They spend their whole lives searching for the unknown. They don't suffer from Xenophobia—they are Xenophyles. They like anything that's new and different. Even a new member of the crew. It kind of lessens the cameraderie aboard a spaceship, but the Service must have found the trait valuable. They have searched it out in men and developed it. They even breed it in second-generation spacemen."
"Do you know what, Starbuck?"
"All that talk of yours is beginning to get on my nerves." Kettleman's triceps flexed.
Starbuck sighed. The honeymoon was over for him, and the trip was just beginning.