Spender broke in then with his customary cold, quiet speech. "A sickman, eh? Then we have approximately one chance in three of living through our first encounter with the enemy when we leave here. That is according to the statistics, I believe. But to the best of my recollection, our previous captain brought us through eighty-eight skirmishes before anyone got hurt." He shook his head and thoughtfully contemplated the big, raw knuckles of his hand.
As is perfectly obvious from the above, the situation was ill-suited for a new officer to take command of the ship. I would have liked to settle the matter a little more before he got there, but there was nothing I could do about it then. Besides, it wasn't my worry any more, I realized gratefully. The problem of loyalty and confidence was now the business of the new CO. I did not envy him his job, but it had to be done.
At the very first glance, you could see what Harding had been talking about. Commander Frendon was the absolute epitome of every popular physiological cliche associated with people of unusual psi endowment for the past century that it has been known. At least ten years younger than any of the rest of us, he was of medium height, extremely skinny and nervous, his eyes glancing about with a restless uncertainty. It seemed almost too obvious on him, I thought, and wondered who had been responsible for assigning him to anything at all in the armed forces.
He grinned slightly at us when he came in, dearly unsure of himself, and made a valiant but artificial-sounding effort. "Hello men," he said. "My name is Frendon. I'm the new CO."
"Yeah," muttered Harding, "we see that you are."
"What's that lieutenant?" Frendon's voice was suddenly sharp, and the wavering grin had vanished.
"I said, yes sir," Harding replied sullenly. "Welcome aboard."
Frendon nodded curtly, and glanced around at the rest of us, at no time looking anyone directly in the eyes. I stood up and held out my hand. "Maise, here," I said. "Your Exec." And naturally I added the traditional welcome.
Spender introduced himself, and as he was speaking, the remaining crew man walked in to find out what was up. He took one look at Frendon, understood, and turned to leave again.
"And the man in the lead-lined tunic is Lieutenant Korsakov," I said quickly. "He's your engineer."
Korsakov sullenly said hello and waited. And Frendon also waited, all the time standing stiff and sensitive. One got the impression that he was in a nervous agony, but unable to help himself or to receive help from anybody else. When the introductions were long since completed, Frendon still stood uncertainly, and an unpleasant silence developed.
"Sit down, captain," I suggested. "How about some coffee?"
Frendon nodded and jerkily moved to the seat I had vacated. The eyes of the other men followed him, studying his uniform. Although it was clear by now that he was wearing the ordinary insignia of the SCS, nobody was particularly reassured, because we had all heard of the new arrangement under which the Psi Corps operated.
So Frendon sat. The silence continued. Everybody stared at him, and he looked helplessly around. I worked up what I felt was a friendly grin, and his gaze finally found itself on me and stayed there, almost pleading.
"You'll have to forgive us, captain," I told him. "We're an old bunch of mangy veterans, and it's going to be a little strange for a while having a bright new captain."
"Certainly," Frendon said, his voice hardly above a whisper. "I understand." He hesitated and then added in a quick defensive rush of words, "But, of course, you must understand that this isn't the first ship I've commanded, and I've been in combat before too, and so I don't see why I should be so doggone strange."
That's what he said. Doggone.
"Well," I murmured and cleared my throat. "Of course, captain."
Harding broke off his steady, hostile glare, and fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette.
"Captain," he started, a little uncertainly, which was unusual for Harding, "can I ask you a frank question?"
"Huh?" Frendon looked at the Astrogator blankly. "Why ... why, er, certainly, lieutenant. Harding you say your name is? Certainly, Harding, go right ahead."
Lieutenant Harding carefully lighted his cigarette. Then he said, "Captain, will you tell us whether or not you are a sickman--I mean a Psi Corps officer?"
"Why?" Frendon leaned forward tensely, then relaxed self-consciously. "Why do you ask that, Harding? Aren't you familiar with the insignia of your own branch of service?"
"Yes, sir," Harding replied blandly, "but there have been a number of reports that they were going to assign a sick ... I mean a Psi Corps officer to the command of all new Combat Devices, only they would be wearing SCS insignia. Since we have been outfitted fresh and all, we probably come under the heading of new Devices."
"What if I were a Psi Corps officer?" Frendon demanded truculently, his long, skinny frame taut with excitement.
Harding considered that question, or rather statement, and puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette. Finally he shrugged. He reached over and meticulously crushed out the cigarette in an ash tray.
"For the benefit of you, lieutenant"--Frendon's bitter gaze swept the entire room--"and the rest of you, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Psi Corps. Does that satisfy you?"
"Yes, sir," I said quickly. Nobody else said anything.
Frendon stood up and stalked tensely to the door. There he spun around and said, "But there is a branch of the military service designated as the Psi Corps, and if you wish to discuss it in the future, kindly refer to it by its official title or abbreviation, and not by that atrocious nickname of 'sick.' I am sure the Central Command Authority knows what it is doing, and if they did intend to assign such personnel they must have very good reasons for it. Understand?"
There was a general nodding of heads and a scattered, sullen, "Yes, sir."
"Now then, you may call out the ship's company, Mr. Maise," Frendon said to me.
"Well, captain," I replied, "we're all here." Then sure enough, Frendon made us all stand at attention while he read his orders to us, just like it says in the book at the academy. After which, happily, he went to his cabin, and let us go back to our work.
That was the introduction of Commander Frendon to the crew. He made a distinct impression. Entirely bad. Veteran small-ship personnel in this war have shown themselves to be extremely clannish, at best, deriving their principal sense of security not from the strength of the fleet which they never see and rarely contact, but from their familiarity with and confidence in each other's capabilities. Now these men had a new CO who was not only a stranger, but one who they felt sure was a member of the feared and mistrusted Psi Corps, a sickman, a man whose battle tactics were reputedly nothing but a bunch of blind, wild guesses. Previously, I had been the unwanted and suspected stranger, so I knew how Frendon would feel.
The situation developed rapidly, probably because we had only six days before our scheduled departure into the combat zone. That afternoon, Korsakov and Harding were supposed to be checking the wiring of fire-control circuits. Base mechanics had installed the gear and tested it, but it is standard operating procedure for the ship's crew to do their own checking afterwards, the quality of the work by electronics mechanics on planetary assignment being what it is these days.
I found them sitting on the deck, engaged in a desultory, low-voiced conversation. They had stripped the conduit ducts of plating, but there was no sign that they had done anything further.
"All right, you guys," I said. "Get up and finish that check. We may have to use those missiles one day soon, and I'd like to be sure they go where they are sent."
Korsakov looked up at me, his broad, thick mouth spread in an unpleasant toothy grin and his bushy eyebrows raised. "What difference will it make, my friend?"
"None," supplied Harding. Then he added, "As a matter of fact, it might even be better to leave them scrambled. If we strike an alien, our new captain is going to close his eyes and punch buttons at random, probably. Why shouldn't we leave the fire controls at random, too?"
"They might," Korsakov said, still grinning inanely, "even cancel out his error."
"Cut it out," I said. "You know better than that."
"Maybe you do, Maise." Harding replied, "but we don't."
My face must have telegraphed my mood, because he lurched to his feet and quickly added, "Now wait a minute, Maise. Don't get excited. You're not in command any more, so you don't have to stick to that authority line now. Oh sure, I know you're the Exec, but what the hell, Maise."
I stared at him for a moment, then said quietly, "Come on Kors. On your feet, too. Get that work done."
"Ha," said Korsakov, but he stood up.
Harding moved closer to me. "Confidentially, Maise," he said, "what do you really think?"
I shrugged. "What am I supposed to think?"
"You know as well as I do that he's a sickman."
"I told you not to use that nickname around me," I replied with annoyance. "Naturally you're going to mistrust them if you tie them up in your mind with a name like that."
"Do you trust them?"
I suddenly wasn't sure myself, so I evaded by saying, "Frendon told us he wasn't one, anyway."
"Did you expect him to tell the truth?" Korsakov sneered. "After going to the trouble of getting an auxiliary commission in the SCS? He knows what we think."
"Sickman," Harding repeated, watching me carefully. "And I'm plenty sick of having the brass hats handing us junk like that. It used to be that the worst we'd get would be fouled up equipment that we'd have to check and rewire ourselves, like these fire controls. Now they give us a fouled-up captain."
"Look," I said. "I want you to cut that talk out, Harding. That's an order. And if you think I can't pour it on you guys, just try me once."
Korsakov, who had been staring morosely into the wiring duct, turned around to face me. He had that nasty grin on his face again.
The best thing I could think of to do at that moment was to pretend I assumed that they would obey and go on back to the control room. I knew they wouldn't pay much attention to the order, but the stand had to be taken. I was still pretty much a stranger myself, but I wasn't going to let them think they could sell me their friendship at the cost of the captain's authority.
One thing I did accomplish, however, was the completion of the fire-control checkout. There was a lot of rewiring to do, but they had it finished in two hours, and everything was perfect.
Frendon went off to the city that evening, and didn't show up the next day except for about an hour. Apparently, he had been talking to a Psychological Advice officer or somebody like that, and now proceeded to interview each of us in private, quite obviously trying to gain some kind of rapport with us. It didn't work. Even if it hadn't been so obviously what it was, it wouldn't have worked. The men couldn't stand simply having him around, and their conviction that he was a Psi Corps officer merely grew stronger.
When he left for the day, it was a relief. You couldn't like the guy, but you couldn't help but feel sorry for him--at least, I couldn't.
That evening, since we were still docked on Mars, I went to the Base service club for dinner. Sitting in a booth there I found the three of them--Harding, Spender and Korsakov. For the first time, they actually seemed happy to see me, and the usual animosity I had experienced from them had almost vanished. Of course, I knew what the reason was. They could now hate somebody else, and since I was in the same dismal situation that they were in, they generously permitted me to share their gloom.
I ordered some good Earthside bourbon, and sat down with them. Harding had apparently been making a little speech, which I had interrupted, and which he now concluded to me.
"So what do you think we can do?"
"About what?" I said.
"You know about what."
I shrugged and reached for my drink off the servidore.
"I know you don't like to talk about it, Maise," Harding said, "but we have to. Something has to be done."
I started to say something, but he raised a hand and hurried on. "I know, I know," he growled, "command authority, dignity of rank and all that sort of nonsense and tradition. Sure, I'd like to see some of it, too. But this is a hopeless case, Maise. Frendon is a sickman. Or a Psi Corps man if you prefer. Undoubtedly they have some awfully clever fellows back on Earth to do our thinking for us, but as far as I am concerned, they might as well have sent us an idiot child to run the ship in combat. Don't you understand?"
He was looking at me earnestly, the deep concern he felt plain on his face. I already knew that Harding could be depended upon to reflect the sentiments of the group, and to say exactly what he felt. It was a useful bit of knowledge.
"I know what you mean, Harding," I said, "but--"
"Well, think about it then, man," he interrupted sharply. "You're in the same ship, you know. When we blow up, you do, too. And it isn't just that we'll all be killed with this incompetent guess-kid in command--we probably would anyway, sooner or later. But it's the waste of a good ship. You know as well as I do that it stands to reason combat can't be run as a game of blind man's bluff. And that's just what Frendon will make it. If you're going to make proper use of your military potential it takes brains, like our old skipper had."
"They say the Psi Corps training brings out the most sensitive intellectual capacities of a man," I replied, quoting from the old publicity releases on it and keeping my voice level and dispassionate. "The Central Command Authority believes that it will raise the possibility of survival from twelve to thirty-two per cent in actual combat."
Korsakov giggled, belched, hiccupped and finished his drink. "Thirty-two per cent," he said. "That is one chance in three."
"You don't understand," Harding insisted. "Maybe the guessing games and tests they run back on Earth do give the sickmen one chance in three of being right by blind guessing. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about us--on our ship in combat and not in a laboratory back on Earth. We had a captain who ran the ship well, ran it in eighty-seven separate forays with the aliens and brought us back each time. He got killed himself on the eighty-eighth. That's the sort of captain we want, Maise. A man who can use his head and who can bring the ship through eighty-odd runs safely. And that is going to take something besides guesswork. Don't forget--if you like to believe in mathematical probability statistics--our chances should be getting slender after all our combat experience. Yours, too, for that matter."
"Maybe," I hedged, "your previous captain was a Psi Corps man in disguise."
"No, he wasn't," Spender cut in calmly. "I knew him for years. We went through the same service training and served together every minute of the war. And they didn't start this sick-business until three years or so ago."
"Well, they say there are natural Psi men who don't need the training so much."
"Fairy tales," snorted Harding. "That stuff doesn't go. I don't believe it."
That was clear. And no argument would convince him otherwise, even if I had felt inclined to give him one, which I didn't.
Korsakov, the silent Russian, thoughtfully rubbed his thick hands together, and then punched the button calling for another drink. "Once in three times," he said. "It's all been proved. Out of the next three missions we go out on, we come back only once." His homely face broke into a tired grin.
I laughed with him, but Harding did not like the joke. "It isn't funny," he growled. "If they can't find a decent captain to send us, why can't they move up one of us that has at least served with a good commander in combat, and maybe learned some of his tricks from him. Not that I would want the job. But it would be better than Frendon. Anything would."
I raised my eyebrows at him skeptically. He got the idea and swore. "You know I didn't mean that I want the job, so don't go goggling your righteous eyes at me, Maise. I know my limitations, but I also know a good captain when I see one. And what do they send us? A kid who not only is a nut, but he's already so scared he--"
"Once in three times," Korsakov said loudly. He was apparently getting pretty drunk. "Their computing machines would need an aspirin to handle that situation. We go out three times but we only come back once." He turned and peered intently at me, his heavy bushy eyebrows drawn severely down and wiggling. "Puzzle: complete the figure without retracing any lines or lifting the pencil from the paper. How do we manage to go out there the third time when we haven't yet come back from the second mission, huh?"
"Shut up, Kors," Spender said without emotion. "You're getting a fixation."
"I'm not the astrogator," Korsakov muttered, laying his head down on the table. "If you want a fix on our position, you will have to call on Mr. Harding."
My bourbon was probably good, but I couldn't taste it. There was too much else to think about. I said, "Well, what are you going to do if he really is a Psi Corps man?"
"That," Harding said thoughtfully, "is the question."
"Maise, you're the Exec," Spender commented. "It's up to you to work us a replacement."
"Didn't you see his orders?" I snapped. "They're dated from Central Command Authority itself. Even if I did know somebody here in Mars Command--which I don't--it wouldn't do any good."
"He's right," Harding grumbled. "Everybody knows that once they've assigned a sickman, the only people who can get him reassigned are the sickmen themselves. Maise couldn't do anything about it unless he was a member of the Corps himself. But that settles it, though--his orders being from Central, I mean. Nobody but a sickman would have his orders cut at Central for a puny little ship like ours. It proves what we thought about him, anyway."
"I don't think it proves anything," I retorted angrily. "I don't think the question is whether or not Frendon is a sick--now you've got me saying it--a Psi Corps man. The question is whether we're going to settle down and stop whining just because we got a new CO we don't like, and that we can't do anything about. We're not running this war. They're running it back on Earth."
"We're fighting it," Spender commented, chewing on a big, raw knuckle.
Harding looked at me skeptically. "How much space-combat have you seen, Maise?"
"Six years, more or less," I told him. "I've seen plenty of the stuff. I'd just as soon let somebody else do it from now on in, but nobody asked me."