Sandra had so arranged matters that she and Hilton were sitting in chairs side by side, with Sandra on his right and the aisle on his left. Nevertheless, Temple Bells sat at his left, cross-legged on a cushion on the floor--somewhat to the detriment of her gold-lame evening gown. Not that she cared.
When those wonderful voices swung into the immortal Quartette Temple caught her breath, slid her cushion still closer to Hilton's chair, and leaned shoulder and head against him. He put his left hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently; she caught it and held it in both of hers. And at the Quartette's tremendous climax she, scarcely trying to stifle a sob, pulled his hand down and hugged it fiercely, the heel of his hand pressing hard against her half-bare, firm, warm breast.
And the next morning, early, Sandra hunted Temple up and said: "You made a horrible spectacle of yourself last night."
"Do you think so? I don't."
"I certainly do. It was bad enough before, letting everybody else aboard know that all he has to do is push you over. But it was an awful blunder to let him know it, the way you did last night."
"You think so? He's one of the keenest, most intelligent men who ever lived. He has known that from the very first."
"Oh." This "oh" was a very caustic one. "That's the way you're trying to land him? By getting yourself pregnant?"
"Uh-uh." Temple stretched; lazily, luxuriously. "Not only it isn't, but it wouldn't work. He's unusually decent and extremely idealistic, the same as I am. So just one intimacy would blow everything higher than up. He knows it. I know it. We each know that the other knows it. So I'll still be a virgin when we're married."
"Married! Does he know anything about that?"
"I suppose so. He must have thought of it. But what difference does it make whether he has, yet, or not? But to get back to what makes him tick the way he does. In his geometry--which is far from being simple Euclid, my dear--a geodesic right line is not only the shortest distance between any two given points, but is the only possible course. So that's the way I'm playing it. What I hope he doesn't know ... but he probably does ... is that he could take any other woman he might want, just as easily. And that includes you, my pet."
"It certainly does not!" Sandra flared. "I wouldn't have him as a gift!"
"No?" Temple's tone was more than slightly skeptical. "Fortunately, however, he doesn't want you. Your technique is all wrong. Coyness and mock-modesty and stop-or-I'll-scream and playing hard to get have no appeal whatever to his psychology. What he needs--has to have--is full, ungrudging cooperation."
"Aren't you taking a lot of risk in giving away such secrets?"
"Not a bit. Try it. You or the sex-flaunting twins or Bev Bell or Stella the Henna. Any of you or all of you. I got there first with the most, and I'm not worried about competition."
"But suppose somebody tells him just how you're playing him for a sucker?"
"Tell him anything you please. He's the first man I ever loved, or anywhere near. And I'm keeping him. You know--or do you, I wonder?--what real, old-fashioned, honest-to-God love really is? The willingness--eagerness--both to give and to take? I can accept more from him, and give him more in return, than any other woman living. And I am going to."
"But does he love you?" Sandra demanded.
"If he doesn't now, he will. I'll see to it that he does. But what do you want him for? You don't love him. You never did and you never will."
"I don't want him!" Sandra stamped a foot.
"I see. You just don't want me to have him. Okay, do your damnedest. But I've got work to do. This has been a lovely little cat-clawing, hasn't it? Let's have another one some day, and bring your friends."
With a casual wave of her hand, Temple strolled away; and there, flashed through Sandra's mind what Hilton had said so long ago, little more than a week out from Earth: "... and Temple Bells, of course," he had said. "Don't fool yourself, chick. She's heavy artillery; and I mean heavy, believe me!"
So he had known all about Temple Bells all this time!
Nevertheless, she took the first opportunity to get Hilton alone; and, even before the first word, she forgot all about geodesic right lines and the full-cooperation psychological approach.
"Aren't you the guy," she demanded, "who was laughing his head off at the idea that the Board and its propinquity could have any effect on him?"
"Probably. More or less. What of it?"
"This of it. You've fallen like a ... a freshman for that ... that ... they should have christened her 'Brazen' Bells!"
"You're so right."
"I am? On what?"
"The 'Brazen'. I told you she was a potent force--a full-scale powerhouse, in sync and on the line. And I wasn't wrong."
"She's a damned female Ph.D.--two or three times--and she knows all about slipsticks and isotopes and she very definitely is not a cuddly little brunette. Remember?"
"Sure. But what makes you think I'm in love with Temple Bells?"
"What?" Sandra tried to think of one bit of evidence, but could not. "Why ... why...." She floundered, then came up with: "Why, everybody knows it. She says so herself."
"Did you ever hear her say it?"
"Well, perhaps not in so many words. But she told me herself that you were going to be, and I know you are now."
"Your esper sense of endovix, no doubt." Hilton laughed and Sandra went on, furiously: "She wouldn't keep on acting the way she does if there weren't something to it!"
"What brilliant reasoning! Try again, Sandy."
"That's sheer sophistry, and you know it!"
"It isn't and I don't. And even if, some day, I should find myself in love with her--or with one or both of the twins or Stella or Beverly or you or Sylvia, for that matter--what would it prove? Just that I was wrong; and I admit freely that I was wrong in scoffing at the propinquity. Wonderful stuff, that. You can see it working, all over the ship. On me, even, in spite of my bragging. Without it I'd never have known that you're a better, smarter operator than Eggy Eggleston ever was or ever can be."
Partially mollified despite herself, and highly resentful of the fact, Sandra tried again. "But don't you see, Jarve, that she's just simply playing you for a sucker? Pulling the strings and watching you dance?"
Since he was sure, in his own mind, that she was speaking the exact truth, it took everything he had to keep from showing any sign of how much that truth had hurt. However, he made the grade.
"If that thought does anything for you, Sandy," he said, steadily, "keep right on thinking it. Thank God, the field of thought is still free and open."
"Oh, you...." Sandra gave up.
She had shot her heaviest bolts--the last one, particularly, was so vicious that she had actually been afraid of what its consequences might be--and they had not even dented Hilton's armor. She hadn't even found out that he had any feeling whatever for Temple Bells except as a component of his smoothly-functioning scientific machine.
Nor did she learn any more as time went on. Temple continued to play flawlessly the part of being--if not exactly hopefully, at least not entirely hopelessly--in love with Jarvis Hilton. Her conduct, which at first caused some surprise, many conversations--one of which has been reported verbatim--and no little speculation, became comparatively unimportant as soon as it became evident that nothing would come of it. She apparently expected nothing. He was evidently not going to play footsie with, or show any favoritism whatever toward, any woman aboard the ship.
Thus, it was not surprising to anyone that, at an evening show, Temple sat beside Hilton, as close to him as she could get and as far away as possible from everyone else.
"You can talk, can't you, Jarvis, without moving your lips and without anyone else hearing you?"
"Of course," he replied, hiding his surprise. This was something completely new and completely unexpected, even from unpredictable Temple Bells.
"I want to apologize, to explain and to do anything I can to straighten out the mess I've made. It's true that I joined the project because I've loved you for years--"
"You have nothing to ..."
"Let me finish while I still have the courage." Only a slight tremor in her almost inaudible voice and the rigidity of the fists clenched in her lap betrayed the intensity of her emotion. "I thought I could handle it. Damned fool that I was, I thought I could handle anything. I was sure I could handle myself, under any possible conditions. I was going to put just enough into the act to keep any of these other harpies from getting her hooks into you. But everything got away from me. Out here working with you every day--knowing better every day what you are--well, that Rigoletto episode sunk me, and now I'm in a thousand feet over my head. I hug my pillow at night, dreaming it's you, and the fact that you don't and can't love me is driving me mad. I can't stand it any longer. There's only one thing to do. Fire me first thing in the morning and send me back to Earth in a torp. You've plenty of grounds ..."
For seconds Hilton had been trying to break into her hopeless monotone; finally he succeeded. "The trouble with you is, you know altogether too damned much that isn't so." He was barely able to keep his voice down and his eyes front. "What do you think I'm made of--superefract? I thought the whole performance was an act, to prove you're a better man than I am. You talk about dreams. Good God! You don't know what dreams are! If you say one more word about quitting, I'll show you whether I love you or not--I'll squeeze you so hard it'll flatten you out flat!"
"Two can play at that game, sweetheart." Her nostrils flared slightly; her fists clenched--if possible--a fraction tighter; and, even in the distorted medium they were using for speech, she could not subdue completely her quick change into soaring, lilting buoyancy. "While you're doing that I'll see how strong your ribs are. Oh, how this changes things! I've never been half as happy in my whole life as I am right now!"
"Maybe we can work it--if I can handle my end."
"Why, of course you can! And happy dreams are nice, not horrible."
"We'll make it, darling. Here's an imaginary kiss coming at you. Got it?"
"Received in good order, thank you. Consumed with gusto and returned in kind."
The show ended and the two strolled out of the room. She walked no closer to him than usual, and no farther away from him. She did not touch him any oftener than she usually did, nor any whit more affectionately or possessively.
And no watching eyes, not even the more than half hostile eyes of Sandra Cummings or the sharply analytical eyes of Stella Wing, could detect any difference whatever in the relationship between worshipful adulatress and tolerantly understanding idol.
The work, which had never moved at any very fast pace, went more and more slowly. Three weeks crawled past.
Most of the crews and all of the teams except the First were working on side issues--tasks which, while important in and of themselves, had very little to do with the project's main problem. Hilton, even without Sandra's help, was all caught up. All the reports had been analyzed, correlated, cross-indexed and filed--except those of the First Team. Since he could not understand anything much beyond midpoint of the first tape, they were all reposing in a box labeled PENDING.
The Navy had torn fifteen of the Oman warships practically to pieces, installing Terran detectors and trying to learn how to operate Oman machinery and armament. In the former they had succeeded very well; in the latter not at all.
Fifteen Oman ships were now out in deep space, patrolling the void in strict Navy style. Each was manned by two or three Navy men and several hundred Omans, each of whom was reveling in delight at being able to do a job for a Master, even though that Master was not present in person.
Several Strett skeleton-ships had been detected at long range, but the detections were inconclusive. The things had not changed course, or indicated in any other way that they had seen or detected the Oman vessels on patrol. If their detectors were no better than the Omans', they certainly hadn't. That idea, however, could not be assumed to be a fact, and the detections had been becoming more and more frequent. Yesterday a squadron of seven--the first time that anything except singles had appeared--had come much closer than any of the singles had ever done. Like all the others, however, these passers-by had not paid any detectable attention to anything Oman; hence it could be inferred that the skeletons posed no threat.
But Sawtelle was making no such inferences. He was very firmly of the opinion that the Stretts were preparing for a massive attack.
Hilton had assured Sawtelle that no such attack could succeed, and Larry had told Sawtelle why. Nevertheless, to keep the captain pacified, Hilton had given him permission to convert as many Oman ships as he liked; to man them with as many Omans as he liked; and to use ships and Omans as he liked.
Hilton was not worried about the Stretts or the Navy. It was the First Team. It was the bottleneck that was slowing everything down to a crawl ... but they knew that. They knew it better than anyone else could, and felt it more keenly. Especially Karns, the team chief. He had been driving himself like a dog, and showed it.
Hilton had talked with him a few times--tried gently to make him take it easy--no soap. He'd have to hunt him up, the next day or so, and slug it out with him. He could do a lot better job on that if he had something to offer ... something really constructive....
That was a laugh. A very unfunny laugh. What could he, Jarvis Hilton, a specifically non-specialist director, do on such a job as that?
Nevertheless, as director, he would have to do something to help Team One. If he couldn't do anything himself, it was up to him to juggle things around so that someone else could.
For one solid hour Hilton stared at the wall, motionless and silent. Then, shaking himself and stretching, he glanced at his clock.
A little over an hour to supper-time. They'd all be aboard. He'd talk this new idea over with Teddy Blake. He gathered up a few papers and was stapling them together when Karns walked in.
"Hi, Bill--speak of the devil! I was just thinking about you."
"I'll just bet you were." Karns sat down, leaned over, and took a cigarette out of the box on the desk. "And nothing printable, either."
"Chip-chop, fellow, on that kind of noise," Hilton said. The team-chief looked actually haggard. Blue-black rings encircled both eyes. His powerful body slumped. "How long has it been since you had a good night's sleep?"
"How long have I been on this job? Exactly one hundred and twenty days. I did get some sleep for the first few weeks, though."
"Yeah. So answer me one question. How much good will you do us after they've wrapped you up in one of those canvas affairs that lace up the back?"
"Huh? Oh ... but damn it, Jarve, I'm holding up the whole procession. Everybody on the project's just sitting around on their tokuses waiting for me to get something done and I'm not doing it. I'm going so slow a snail is lightning in comparison!"
"Calm down, big fellow. Don't rupture a gut or blow a gasket. I've talked to you before, but this time I'm going to smack you bow-legged. So stick out those big, floppy ears of yours and really listen. Here are three words that I want you to pin up somewhere where you can see them all day long: SPEED IS RELATIVE. Look back, see how far up the hill you've come, and then balance one hundred and twenty days against ten years."
"What? You mean you'll actually sit still for me holding everything up for ten years?"
"You use the perpendicular pronoun too much and in the wrong places. On the hits it's 'we', but on the flops it's 'I'. Quit it. Everything on this job is 'we'. Terra's best brains are on Team One and are going to stay there. You will not--repeat NOT--be interfered with, pushed around or kicked around. You see, Bill, I know what you're up against."
"Yes, I guess you do. One of the damned few who do. But even if you personally are willing to give us ten years, how in hell do you think you can swing it? How about the Navy--the Stretts--even the Board?"
"They're my business, Bill, not yours. However, to give you a little boost, I'll tell you. With the Navy, I'll give 'em the Fuel Bin if I have to. The Omans have been taking care of the Stretts for twenty-seven hundred centuries, so I'm not the least bit worried about their ability to keep on doing it for ten years more. And if the Board--or anybody else--sticks their runny little noses into Project Theta Orionis I'll slap a quarantine onto both these solar systems that a microbe couldn't get through!"
"You'd go that far? Why, you'd be ..."
"Do you think I wouldn't?" Hilton snapped. "Look at me, Junior!" Eyes locked and held. "Do you think, for one minute, that I'll let anybody on all of God's worlds pull me off of this job or interfere with my handling of it unless and until I'm damned positively certain that we can't handle it?"
Karns relaxed visibly; the lines of strain eased. "Putting it in those words makes me feel better. I will sleep to-night--and without any pills, either."
"Sure you will. One more thought. We all put in more than ten years getting our Terran educations, and an Oman education is a lot tougher."
Really smiling for the first time in weeks, Karns left the office and Hilton glanced again at his clock.
Pretty late now to see Teddy ... besides, he'd better not. She was probably keyed up about as high as Bill was, and in no shape to do the kind of thinking he wanted of her on this stuff. Better wait a couple of days.
On the following morning, before breakfast, Theodora was waiting for him outside the mess-hall.
"Good morning, Jarve," she caroled. Reaching up, she took him by both ears, pulled his head down and kissed him. As soon as he perceived her intent, he cooperated enthusiastically. "What did you do to Bill?"
"Oh, you don't love me for myself alone, then, but just on account of that big jerk?"
"That's right." Her artist's-model face, startlingly beautiful now, fairly glowed.