Just then Temple Bells strolled up to them. "Morning, you two lovely people." She hugged Hilton's arm as usual. "Shame on you, Teddy. But I wish I had the nerve to kiss him like that."
"Nerve? You?" Teddy laughed as Hilton picked Temple up and kissed her in exactly the same fashion--he hoped!--as he had just kissed Teddy. "You've got more nerve than an aching tooth. But as Jarve would say it, 'scat, kitten'. We're having breakfast a la twosome. We've got things to talk about."
"All right for you," Temple said darkly, although her dazzling smile belied her tone. That first kiss, casual-seeming as it had been, had carried vastly more freight than any observer could perceive. "I'll hunt Bill up and make passes at him, see if I don't. That'll learn ya!"
Theodora and Hilton did have their breakfast a deux--but she did not realize until afterward that he had not answered her question as to what he had done to her Bill.
As has been said, Hilton had made it a prime factor of his job to become thoroughly well acquainted with every member of his staff. He had studied them en masse, in groups and singly. He had never, however, cornered Theodora Blake for individual study. Considering the power and the quality of her mind, and the field which was her specialty, it had not been necessary.
Thus it was with no ulterior motives at all that, three evenings later, he walked her cubby-hole office and tossed the stapled papers onto her desk. "Free for a couple of minutes, Teddy? I've got troubles."
"I'll say you have." Her lovely lips curled into an expression he had never before seen her wear--a veritable sneer. "But these are not them." She tossed the papers into a drawer and stuck out her chin. Her face turned as hard as such a beautiful face could. Her eyes dug steadily into his.
Hilton--inwardly--flinched. His mind flashed backward. She too had been working under stress, of course; but that wasn't enough. What could he have possibly done to put Teddy Blake, of all people, onto such a warpath as this?
"I've been wondering when you were going to try to put me through your wringer," she went on, in the same cold, hard voice, "and I've been waiting to tell you something. You have wrapped all the other women around your fingers like so many rings--and what a sickening exhibition that has been!--but you are not going to make either a ring or a lap-dog out of me."
Almost but not quite too late Hilton saw through that perfect act. He seized her right hand in both of his, held it up over her head, and waved it back and forth in the sign of victory.
"Socked me with my own club!" he exulted, laughing delightedly, boyishly. "And came within a tenth of a split red hair! If it hadn't been so absolutely out of character you'd've got away with it. What a load of stuff! I was right--of all the women on this project, you're the only one I've ever been really afraid of."
"Oh, damn. Ouch!" She grinned ruefully. "I hit you with everything I had and it just bounced. You're an operator, chief. Hit 'em hard, at completely unexpected angles. Keep 'em staggering, completely off balance. Tell 'em nothing--let 'em deduce your lies for themselves. And it anybody tries to slug you back, like I did just now, duck it and clobber him in another unprotected spot. Watching you work has been not only a delight, but also a liberal education."
"Thanks. I love you, too, Teddy." He lighted two cigarettes, handed her one. "I'm glad, though, to lay it flat on the table with you, because in any battle of wits with you I'm licked before we start."
"Yeah. You just proved it. And after licking me hands down, you think you can square it by swinging the old shovel that way?" She did not quite know whether to feel resentful or not.
"Think over a couple of things. First, with the possible exception of Temple Bells, you're the best brain aboard."
"No. You are. Then Temple. Then there are ..."
"Hold it. You know as well as I do that accurate self-judgment is impossible. Second, the jam we're in. Do I, or don't I, want to lay it on the table with you, now and from here on? Bore into that with your Class A Double-Prime brain. Then tell me." He leaned back, half-closed his eyes and smoked lazily.
She stiffened; narrowed her eyes in concentration; and thought. Finally: "Yes, you do; and I'm gladder of that than you will ever know."
"I think I know already, since you're her best friend and the only other woman I know of in her class. But I came in to kick a couple of things around with you. As you've noticed, that's getting to be my favorite indoor sport. Probably because I'm a sort of jackleg theoretician myself."
"You can frame that, Jarve, as the understatement of the century. But first, you are going to answer that question you sidestepped so neatly."
"What I did to Bill? I finally convinced him that nobody expected the team to do that big a job overnight. That you could have ten years. Or more, if necessary."
"I see." She frowned. "But you and I both know that we can't string it out that long."
He did not answer immediately. "We could. But we probably won't ... unless we have to. We should know, long before that, whether we'll have to switch to some other line of attack. You've considered the possibilities, of course. Have you got anything in shape to do a fine-tooth on?"
"Not yet. That is, except for the ultimate, which is too ghastly to even consider except as an ultimately last resort. Have you?"
"I know what you mean. No, I haven't, either. You don't think, then, that we had better do any collaborative thinking yet?"
"Definitely not. There's altogether too much danger of setting both our lines of thought into one dead-end channel."
"Check. The other thing I wanted from you is your considered opinion as to my job on the organization as a whole. And don't pull your punches. Are we in good shape or not? What can I do to improve the setup?"
"I have already considered that very thing--at great length. And honestly, Jarve, I don't see how it can be improved in any respect. You've done a marvelous job. Much better than I thought possible at first." He heaved a deep sigh of relief and she went on: "This could very easily have become a God-awful mess. But the Board knew what they were doing--especially as to top man--so there are only about four people aboard who realize what you have done. Alex Kincaid and Sandra Cummings are two of them. One of the three girls is very deeply and very truly in love with you."
"Ordinarily I'd say 'no comment', but we're laying on the line ... well ..."
"You'll lay that on the line only if I corkscrew it out you, so I'll Q.E.D. it. You probably know that when Sandy gets done playing around it'll be ..."
"Bounce back, Teddy. She isn't--hasn't been. If anything, too much the opposite. A dedicated-scientist type."
She smiled--a highly cryptic smile. For a man as brilliant and as penetrant in every other respect ... but after all, if the big dope didn't realize that half the women aboard, including Sandy, had been making passes at him, she certainly wouldn't enlighten him. Besides, that one particular area of obtuseness was a real part of his charm. Wherefore she said merely: "I'm not sure whether I'm a bit catty or you're a bit stupid. Anyway, it's Alex she's really in love with. And you already know about Bill and me."
"Of course. He's tops. One of the world's very finest. You're in the same bracket, and as a couple you're a drive fit. One in a million."
"Now I can say 'I love you, too', too." She paused for half a minute, then stubbed out her cigarette and shrugged. "Now I'm going to stick my neck way, way out. You can knock it off if you like. She's a tremendous lot of woman, and if ... well, strong as she is, it'd shatter her to bits. So, I'd like to ask ... I don't quite ... well, is she going to get hurt?"
"Have I managed to hide it that well? From you?"
It was her turn to show relief. "Perfectly. Even--or especially--that time you kissed her. So damned perfectly that I've been scared green. I've been waking myself up, screaming, in the middle of the night. You couldn't let on, of course. That's the hell of such a job as yours. The rest of us can smooch around all over the place. I knew the question was extremely improper--thanks a million for answering it."
"I haven't started to answer it yet. I said I'd lay everything on the line, so here it is. Saying she's a tremendous lot of woman is like calling the Perseus a nice little baby's-bathtub toy boat. I'd go to hell for her any time, cheerfully, standing straight up, wading into brimstone and lava up to the eyeballs. If anything ever hurts her it'll be because I'm not man enough to block it. And just the minute this damned job is over, or even sooner if enough of you couples make it so I can ..."
"Jarvis!" she shrieked. Jumping up, she kissed him enthusiastically. "That's just wonderful!"
He thought it was pretty wonderful, too; and after ten minutes more of conversation he got up and turned toward the door.
"I feel a lot better, Teddy. Thanks for being such a nice pressure-relief valve. Would you mind it too much if I come in and sob on your bosom again some day?"
"I'd love it!" She laughed; then, as he again started to leave: "Wait a minute, I'm thinking ... it'd be more fun to sob on her bosom. You haven't even kissed her yet, have you? I mean really kissed her?"
"You know I haven't. She's the one person aboard I can't be alone with for a second."
"True. But I know of one chaperone who could become deaf and blind," she said, with a broad and happy grin. "On my door, you know, there's a huge invisible sign that says, to everyone except you, 'STOP! BRAIN AT WORK! SILENCE!', and if I were properly approached and sufficiently urged, I might ... I just conceivably might ..."
"Consider it done, you little sweetheart! Up to and including my most vigorous and most insidious attempts at seduction."
"Done. Maneuver your big, husky carcass around here behind the desk so the door can open." She flipped a switch and punched a number. "I can call anybody in here, any time, you know. Hello, dear, this is Teddy. Can you come in for just a few minutes? Thanks." And, one minute later, there came a light tap on the door.
"Come in," Teddy called, and Temple Bells entered the room. She showed no surprise at seeing Hilton.
"Hi, chief," she said. "It must be something both big and tough, to have you and Teddy both on it."
"You're so right. It was very big and very tough. But it's solved, darling, so ..."
"Darling?" she gasped, almost inaudibly, both hands flying to her throat. Her eyes flashed toward the other woman.
"Teddy knows all about us--accessory before, during and after the fact."
"Darling!" This time, the word was a shriek. She extended both arms and started forward.
Hilton did not bother to maneuver his "big, husky carcass" around the desk, but simply hurdled it, straight toward her.
Temple Bells was a tall, lithe, strong woman; and all the power of her arms and torso went into the ensuing effort to crack Hilton's ribs. Those ribs, however, were highly capable structural members; and furthermore, they were protected by thick slabs of hard, hard muscle. And, fortunately, he was not trying to fracture her ribs. His pressures were distributed much more widely. He was, according to promise, doing his very best to flatten her whole resilient body out flat.
And as they stood there, locked together in sheerest ecstasy, Theodora Blake began openly and unashamedly to cry.
It was Temple who first came up for air. She wriggled loose from one of his arms, felt of her hair and gazed unseeingly into her mirror. "That was wonderful, sweetheart," she said then, shakily. "And I can never thank you enough, Teddy. But we can't do this very often ... can we?" The addendum fairly begged for contradiction.
"Not too often, I'm afraid," Hilton said, and Theodora agreed....
"Well," the man said, somewhat later, "I'll leave you two ladies to your knitting, or whatever. After a couple of short ones for the road, that is."
"Not looking like that!" Teddy said, sharply. "Hold still and we'll clean you up." Then, as both girls went to work: "If anybody ever sees you coming out of this office looking like that," she went on, darkly, "and Bill finds out about it, he'll think it's my lipstick smeared all over you and I'll strangle you to death with my bare hands!"
"And that was supposed to be kissproof lipstick, too," Temple said, seriously--although her whole face glowed and her eyes danced. "You know, I'll never believe another advertisement I read."
"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as to say that, if I were you." Teddy's voice was gravity itself, although she, too, was bubbling over. "It probably is kissproof. I don't think 'kissing' is quite the word for the performance you just staged. To stand up under such punishment as you gave it, my dear, anything would have to be tattooed in, not just put on."
"Hey!" Hilton protested. "You promised to be deaf and blind!"
"I did no such thing. I said 'could', not 'would'. Why, I wouldn't have missed that for anything!"
When Hilton left the room he was apparently, in every respect, his usual self-contained self. However, it was not until the following morning that he so much as thought of the sheaf of papers lying unread in the drawer of Theodora Blake's desk.
Knowing that he had done everything he could to help the most important investigations get under way, Hilton turned his attention to secondary matters. He made arrangements to decondition Javo, the Number Two Oman Boss, whereupon that worthy became Javvy and promptly "bumped" the Oman who had been shadowing Karns.
Larry and Javvy, working nights, deconditioned all the other Omans having any contact with BuSci personnel; then they went on to set up a routine for deconditioning all Omans on both planets.
Assured at last that the Omans would thenceforth work with and really serve human beings instead of insisting upon doing their work for them, Hilton knew that the time had come to let all his BuSci personnel move into their homes aground. Everyone, including himself, was fed up to the gozzel with spaceship life--its jam-packed crowding; its flat, reprocessed air; its limited variety of uninteresting food. Conditions were especially irksome since everybody knew that there was available to all, whenever Hilton gave the word, a whole city full of all the room anyone could want, natural fresh air and--so the Omans had told them--an unlimited choice of everything anyone wanted to eat.
Nevertheless, the decision was not an easy one to make.
Living conditions were admittedly not good on the ship. On the other hand, with almost no chance at all of solitude--the few people who had private offices aboard were not the ones he worried about--there was no danger of sexual trouble. Strictly speaking, he was not responsible for the morals of his force. He knew that he was being terribly old-fashioned. Nevertheless, he could not argue himself out of the conviction that he was morally responsible.
Finally he took the thing up with Sandra, who merely laughed at him. "How long have you been worrying about that, Jarve?"
"Ever since I okayed moving aground the first time. That was one reason I was so glad to cancel it then."
"You were slightly unclear--a little rattled? But which factor--the fun and games, which is the moral issue, or the consequences?"
"The consequences," he admitted, with a rueful grin. "I don't give a whoop how much fun they have; but you know as well as I do just how prudish public sentiment is. And Project Theta Orionis is squarely in the middle of the public eye."
"You should have checked with me sooner and saved yourself wear and tear. There's no danger at all of consequences--except weddings. Lots of weddings, and fast."
"Weddings and babies wouldn't bother me a bit. Nor interfere with the job too much, with the Omans as nurses. But why the 'fast', if you aren't anticipating any shotgun weddings?"
"Female psychology," she replied, with a grin. "Aboard-ship here there's no home atmosphere whatever; nothing but work, work, work. Put a woman into a house, though--especially such houses as the Omans have built and with such servants as they insist on being--and she goes domestic in a really big way. Just sex isn't good enough any more. She wants the kind of love that goes with a husband and a home, and nine times out of ten she gets it. With these BuSci women it'll be ten out of ten."
"You may be right, of course, but it sounds kind of far-fetched to me."
"Wait and see, chum," Sandra said, with a laugh.
Hilton made his announcement and everyone moved aground the next day. No one, however, had elected to live alone. Almost everyone had chosen to double up; the most noteworthy exceptions being twelve laboratory girls who had decided to keep on living together. However, they now had a twenty-room house instead of a one-room dormitory to live in, and a staff of twenty Oman girls to help them do it.
Hilton had suggested that Temple and Teddy, whose house was only a hundred yards or so from the Hilton-Karns bungalow, should have supper and spend the first evening with them; but the girls had knocked that idea flat. Much better, they thought, to let things ride as nearly as possible exactly as they had been aboard the Perseus.
"A little smooching now and then, on the Q strictly T, but that's all, darling. That's positively all," Temple had said, after a highly satisfactory ten minutes alone with him in her own gloriously private room, and that was the way it had to be.
Hence it was a stag inspection that Hilton and Karns made of their new home. It was very long, very wide, and for its size very low. Four of its five rooms were merely adjuncts to its tremendous living-room. There was a huge fireplace at each end of this room, in each of which a fire of four-foot-long fir cordwood crackled and snapped. There was a great hi-fi tri-di, with over a hundred tapes, all new.
"Yes, sirs," Larry and Javvy spoke in unison. "The players and singers who entertained the Masters of old have gone back to work. They will also, of course, appear in person whenever and wherever you wish."
Both men looked around the vast room and Karns said: "All the comforts of home and a couple of bucks' worth besides. Wall-to-wall carpeting an inch and a half thick. A grand piano. Easy chairs and loafers and davenports. Very fine reproductions of our favorite paintings ... and statuary."
"You said it, brother." Hilton was bending over a group in bronze. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear this is the original deHaven 'Dance of the Nymphs'."
Karns had marched up to and was examining minutely a two-by-three-foot painting, in a heavy gold frame, of a gorgeously auburn-haired nude. "Reproduction, hell! This is a duplicate! Lawrence's 'Innocent' is worth twenty million wogs and it's sealed behind quad armor-glass in Prime Art--but I'll bet wogs to wiggles the Prime Curator himself, with all his apparatus, couldn't tell this one from his!"
"I wouldn't take even one wiggle's worth of that. And this 'Laughing Cavalier' and this 'Toledo' are twice as old and twice as fabulously valuable."
"And there are my own golf clubs...."
"Excuse us, sirs," the Omans said, "These things were simple because they could be induced in your minds. But the matter of a staff could not, nor what you would like to eat for supper, and it is growing late."
"Staff? What the hell has the staff got to do with ..."
"House-staff, they mean," Karns said. "We don't need much of anybody, boys. Somebody to keep the place shipshape, is all. Or, as a de luxe touch, how about a waitress? One housekeeper and one waitress. That'll be finer."
"Very well, sirs. There is one other matter. It has troubled us that we have not been able to read in your minds the logical datum that they should in fact simulate Doctor Bells and Doctor Blake?"