"But in the meantime I want you to keep an eye on Kennon. If his outline is all right, I'm going to authorize him to set up this experiment. I want to give him every possible chance. I like him -- and he's done good work. I wouldn't want him to feel that I distrust him."
"Which you do, of course," Blalok said dryly.
Alexander smiled. "Actually," he said with equal dryness, "I distrust everyone."
"If you think this job is easy, you have another think coming," Kennon said bitterly. "I hired out as a veterinarian, not as a nursemaid for a bunch of psychoneurotic humans and superstitious Lani. The place is jinxed, they tell me. -- Ha! Jinxed! Sure it's jinxed! What job wouldn't be with a bunch of goofballs like these I've got working on it.
"I can't keep a Lani here for two weeks without having her throw a catfit, and the superstitious idiots are affecting the men -- who ought to know better! I wish I'd never have opened my big mouth to Alexander! As far as I'm concerned he can take this job and--"
"Hey -- take it easy, man!" Blalok said. "You're heading straight for a nervous breakdown."
"And why shouldn't I?" Kennon asked. "Nothing goes right. There's always trouble. I order materials -- they don't arrive. There's worker trouble, equipment trouble, installation trouble. Everybody's cutting corners, trying to get done faster and away sooner -- and all they do is mess up work that should have been done right the first time. We should have been finished last week, but we have another week to go, at least unless some bumble-fingered beanbrain gets another bright idea that sets us back again. I'm sick to death of it!"
"I know, I know," Blalok said soothingly, "and I'm sorry."
"Sorry? What good is that? You and Jordan come up here in relays. Just what do you think you'll find? Or has Alexander dragged you into keeping an eye on me because I don't like someone snooping inside my skull?"
"It's not that," Blalok said. "It's just----"
"Oh, don't make excuses. You know and I know the Boss-man is suspicious." Kennon shrugged. "Normally I wouldn't blame him but it's a damned nuisance with things the way they are. All we have is one more bay and a hall to finish - but if---- "
"Now wait a minute," Blalok said. "Get the kink out of your neck and simmer down. Sure -- the Boss-man told us to keep an eye on you -- but that's not why I'm here this time."
"Douglas came back this morning."
"I don't know." Blalok's face wore the noncommittal look it always wore when he was taking liberties with the truth.
"You're probably the worst liar in the galaxy," Kennon chuckled. "He's here to breathe down my neck, isn't he?"
"Keep him off my back for another week and he can breathe all he wants to. I'll be done then."
"I can't promise a thing."
Kennon shrugged. "It's too much to ask, I guess."
"But I can try," Blalok added.
"That's enough for me." Kennon grinned. "Has he turned Alexandria into a shambles yet?"
"Not yet, but everyone's uneasy."
"I can't blame them. That young fellow's undiluted poison. By the way, how does he look?"
"About the same."
"The medics must have done a good job," Kennon said.
"The Boss-man shipped him to Beta for treatment," Blalok said. "He didn't trust the docs out here."
"That figures. At any rate Douglas couldn't have gone to a better place."
"What happened to him?"
"He stuck his nose where he shouldn't," Kennon said pointedly.
"I'm sorry, Evald. Even if you knew, I couldn't talk about it. What I know about Douglas is classified!"
"Well -- Douglas is doing plenty of talking. Claims his stay in the hospital was all your fault."
Kennon shrugged. "That's his opinion. And as long as he stays out of my way he's welcome to it."
Blalok looked at Kennon's haggard face with mild concern, "Doc," he said, "you'd better take it easy. You're going to pieces."
"I'll be through here in another week, I'll have this all wrapped up."
"Providing you're not wrapped up first."
"In a shroud. You look like a walking corpse."
Kennon chuckled wearily. "Sometimes I feel like one. But I'd like to get this job finished."
"Well, I'll do what I can," Blalok said. "I'll try to keep him down at Alexandria for a few days."
"It'll be enough," Kennon said. More than enough -- he added mentally. The coils of fuel wire were ready to load, and the power slugs for the ship's reactor were already stored in the power plant building here at Olympus. Three more days and the old spacer would be as ready to fly as she would ever be. And after that, it was in the lap of fate.
He ushered Blalok to his jeep and watched until he disappeared.
"I'm getting to be a first-class liar," he remarked wryly to himself as he turned back to the temporary quarters he was occupying at the station. "And the bad thing about it is that I'm actually enjoying it."
A few weeks ago an admission like that would have been inconceivable. It was odd, he thought, how one thing led to another and produced an end that could not be foreseen. Now he could lie and dissemble with the best. He had no compunction about falsifying a requisition, or stealing what he could not obtain with apparent honesty. His character had sunk to an all-time low, he reflected with grim humor as he walked into the shadow of the main building. Neither Blalok's nor Jordan's frequent visits bothered him. Both men were creatures of habit and both were married. They stayed home at night -- and it was nighttime that he worked on the spacer. The project afforded him a perfect cover and it was only minutes by jeep away from the crater.
Even so, the double duty was an appalling task. And it would have been impossible if it wasn't for Copper. Her quick fingers, keen eyesight, and uncanny memory made the work seem simple, and neither the tediousness of repairing miles of circuitry nor the depressing environment of Olympus Station seemed to bother her. While he worked with the men on the project she restored and reassembled circuits in his quarters and at night they replaced them in the old ship. And the God-Egg was rapidly becoming operational.
Kennon wondered what it was about Copper that made her so different from the rest. Olympus didn't bother her at all. In fact she seemed to thrive on the depressing atmosphere that filled the Station. Perhaps it was because she had violated the tabu about the God-Egg so often that ordinary superstition had no effect upon her. He shrugged. He had troubles enough without worrying about Copper's motivations, and not the least of these was taking the God-Egg into space.
Kennon looked forward to blast-off with distinct misgivings. There was too much about the ancient spacer that was strange -- and too much that was terrifying.
Basically the ship was an ion-jet job with atomic primaries and a spindizzy converter that might possibly take her up as high as middle yellow Cth -- far enough to give her a good turn of speed, but not enough to compensate for timelag. Her screens were monstrosities, double polyphase lattices that looked about as spacetight as so many sieves. There were no acceleration dampers, no temporal compensators, no autopilot, no four-space computer, and the primaries operated on nuclear rather than binding energy. The control chairs weren't equipped with forcefields, but instead had incredibly primitive safety webs that held one in place by sheer tensile strength. Taking a ship like that into space was an open invitation to suicide. A man needed a combination of foolhardy bravery and incredible fatalism to blast off in a can like this. He had the stimulus, but the knowledge of what he would face troubled him more than he cared to admit. More and more, as he understood the ship, he was amazed at the courage of the ancients who had blithely leaped into hyperspace in these flying coffins with no more motivation than to see what was beyond the nearest star. And in ships more primitive than this men had swept through the star systems nearest Earth in the outward expansion of the First Millennium.
He sighed. The breed of man must have been tough in the old days -- and he'd soon be finding out if any of that ancient toughness remained.
He opened the door to his quarters.
Copper was sitting in his favorite chair, a pile of completed assemblies neatly stacked beside her, and a disorderly file of crumpled cloth at her feet. Her face was sullen as she looked up at him. "I've had about all of this I'm going to take," she said mutinously as she stirred the heap of cloth with a bare foot. "Not even you are going to make me wear those -- things!"
Kennon sighed. It was the same old story. For months he had been trying patiently to indoctrinate Copper with a minimum of civilized habits, but she was quite literally a savage. In her entire lifetime she had never worn clothing, and to encase her body in hose, kilts, blouse, and sandals was a form of torture. She scratched, wiggled, and twisted at the garments until she looked as bad as she felt, and would usually finish a session by tearing off the offending clothes and sulking. She was doing it now.
"You must act like a civilized human being," Kennon said mildly. "You're simply going to have to learn to wear these clothes properly."
"Why? I'm more comfortable as I am."
"That's not the point. You are going to be living in human society and you must act human. The only planet where you could get away with nudity is Santos, and we're not going there."
"I've explained it time and again. We'll have to go to Beta. That's the only place I know where you'll have a fair hearlng. And on Beta people wear clothes. They have to. It's cold, even in summer, and in the wintertime, there's snow."
"Ice crystals that fall like rain, but I've told you this before."
"And I still don't believe it."
"Believe it or not you're going to wear those things. Now put them on!"
She looked at him with mutiny on her face. "All right, slave driver," she muttered as she picked up the clothing, "but I hope you'll itch someday and be unable to scratch."
"And try to wear those garments more gracefully. You make them look like a sack."
"They feel like one. I keep thinking that all I need is a tag around my neck."
"You haven't much time to get used to them," Kennon said. "We're leaving this week."
"Yes -- and you'll wear those things to the ship, into the ship, and all the time we're on the ship. You'll keep wearing clothing until it looks right."
"Slave driver!" Copper hissed.
"Slave," Kennon answered equably.
Copper giggled. The sound was utterly unexpected, and completely incongruous. That was the wonder of her, Kennon reflected. Her mercurial temperament made life something that was continually exciting She was a never-ending delight.
It was the last trip. Kennon loaded the jeep with the last-minute items he would need. The four reactor cores in their lead cases went aboard last and were packed inside a pile of lead-block shielding.
He helped Copper in and looked back without regret as the bulk of Olympus Station vanished below him in the dusk. The last of the work crew had left that afternoon. The station was ready for occupancy. His assignment had been completed. He felt an odd pleasure at having finished the job. Alexander might not be happy about his subsequent actions, but he could have no complaint about what he did while he was here.
"Well -- say good-bye to Flora," he said to Copper.
"I don't want to," she said. "I don't want to leave."
"You can't stay. You know that."
She nodded. "But that doesn't make me any less regretful."
"All right -- scared. We're going to try to make the God-Egg fly again. Not only is it sacrilege, but as you've often said, it's dangerous. I have no desire to die."
"You have two courses---"
"I know -- you've pointed them out often enough," Copper said. "And since you decided to go I'd go with you even though I knew the Egg would blow up."
"You're quite a girl," Kennon said admiringly. "Did I ever tell you that I love you?"
"Not nearly often enough," Copper said. "You could do it every day and I'd never get tired of hearing it."
The jeep settled over the lava wall. "We'll leave it in the passageway when we're through," Kennon said. "Maybe it will survive blast-off."
"Why worry about it?" Copper asked.
"I hate destroying anything needlessly," Kennon said.
"And since we have plenty of time, we might as well be neat about our departure."
He was wrong, of course, but he didn't know that.
Douglas Alexander checked the radarscope and whistled in surprise at the picture it revealed. "So that's where he's going," he said softly to himself. "Cousin Alex was right as usual." He grimaced unpleasantly. "He's up to something -- that's for sure." His face twisted into an expression that was half sneer, half triumph. "This is going to be fun." He moved the control, and his airboat, hovering silently at five thousand meters, dropped toward the ground in free fall as Douglas loosened the Burkholtz in the holster at his waist. "But what is he doing?" he muttered. The question hung unanswered in the still air of the cabin as the airboat dropped downward.