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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Shaw Bob
 

«Orbitsville», Bob Shaw

one

The President was called Elizabeth, and it was thought by some that the mere coincidence of name had had a profound influence on her life-style. Certainly, she had — since the death of her father — made Starflight House into something which more resembled an historic royal court than the headquarters of a business enterprise. There was a suggestion of neo-Elizabethan ritual, of palace intrigue, of privilege and precedence about the way she ran her trillion-dollar empire. And the touch of antiquity which annoyed Garamond the most — although probably only because it was the one which affected him most — was her insistence on personal interviews with ship commanders before their exploratory missions.

He leaned on a carved stone balustrade and stared, with non-commital grey eyes, at the tiers of descending heated gardens which reached to the Atlantic Ocean four kilometres away. Starflight House capped what had once been a moderate-sized Icelandic hill; now the original contours were completely hidden under a frosting of loggias, terraces and pavilions. From the air it reminded Garamond of a gigantic, vulgar cake. He had been waiting almost two hours, time he would have preferred to spend with his wife and child, and there had been nothing to do but sip pale green drinks and fight to control his dangerous impatience with Elizabeth.

As a successful flickerwing captain he had been in her presence several times, and so his distaste for her was personified, physical. It influenced his attitude more pervasively than did his intellectual unease over the fact that she was the richest person who had ever lived, and so far above the law that she had been known to kill out of sheer petulance. Was it, he had often wondered, because she had the mind of a man that she chose to be an unattractive woman in an age when cosmetic surgery could correct all but the most gross physical defects? Were her splayed, imperfect teeth and pallid skin the insignia of total authority?

And as he watched the coloured fountains glitter in the stepped perspectives below, Garamond remembered his first visit to Starflight House. He had been about to undertake his third mission command and was still young enough to be self-conscious about the theatrical black uniform. The knowledge that he was entering the special relationship reputed to exist between President Lindstrom and her captains had made him taut and apprehensive, keyed up to meet any demand on his resourcefulness. But nobody in Fleet Command, nor in Admincom, had warned him in advance that Elizabeth gave off a sweet, soupy odour which closed the throat when one was most anxious to speak clearly.

None of his advisers on Starflight House protocol had given him a single clue which would have helped a young man, who had never seen anything but perfection in a female, to conceal his natural reaction to the President. Among his confused impressions, the predominant one had been of an abnormally curved spine at the lower end of which was slung a round, puffy abdomen like that of an insect. Garamond, frozen to attention, had avoided her eyes when she nuzzled the satin cushion of gut against his knuckles during her prolonged formal inspection of his appearance.

As he leaned on the artificially weathered balustrade, he could recall emerging from that first interview with a cool resentment towards the older captains who had told him none of the things which really mattered in personal dealings with the President; and yet — when his own turn came — he had allowed other raw Starflight commanders to go unprepared to the same inauguration. It had been easy to justify his inaction when he considered the possible consequences of explaining to a new captain that the coveted special relationship would involve him in exchanging looks of secret appreciation with Liz Lindstrom when — in the middle of a crowded Admincom flight briefing — she handed him a scrap of paper upon which she, the richest and most powerful human being in the universe, had printed a childish dirty joke. If the time for suicide ever came, Garamond decided, he would choose an easier and pleasanter way…

“Captain Garamond,” a man’s voice said from close behind him. “The President sends her compliments.”

Garamond turned and saw the tall, stooped figure of Vice-President Humboldt crossing the terrace towards him. Holding Humboldt’s hand was a child of about nine, a sturdy silver-haired boy dressed in pearlized cords. Garamond recognized him as the President’s son, Harald, and he nodded silently. The boy nodded in return, his eyes flickering over Garamond’s badges and service ribbons.

“I’m sorry you have been kept waiting so long, Captain.” Humboldt cleared his throat delicately to indicate that this was as far as he could go towards expressing views which were not those of Elizabeth. “Unfortunately, the President cannot disengage from her present commitment for another two hours. She requests you to wait.”

“Then I’ll have to wait.” Garamond shrugged and smiled to mask his impatience, even though the tachyonic reports from the weather stations beyond Pluto had predicted that the favourable, ion-rich tide which was sweeping through the Solar System would shortly ebb. He had planned to sail on that tide and boost his ship to lightspeed in the shortest possible time. Now it looked as though he would have to labour up the long gravity slope from Sol with his ship’s electromagnetic wings sweeping the vacuum for a meagre harvest of reaction mass.

“Yes. You’ll have to wait.”

“Of course, I could always leave — and see the President when I get back.”

Humboldt smiled faintly in appreciation of the joke and glanced down at Harald, making sure the boy’s attention was elsewhere before he replied. “That would never do. I am sure Liz would be so disappointed that she would send a fast ship to bring you back for a special interview.”

“Then I won’t put her to that inconvenience,” Garamond said. He knew they had both been referring to a certain Captain Witsch, a headstrong youngster who had grown restless after waiting two days in Starflight House and had taken off quietly at night without Elizabeth’s blessing. He had been brought back in a high-speed interceptor, and his interview with the President must have been a very special one, because no trace of his body had ever been found. Garamond had no way of knowing how apocryphal the story might be — the Starflight fleet which siphoned off Earth’s excess population was so huge that one captain could never know all the others — but it was illustrative of certain realities.

“There is a compensation for you, Captain.” Humboldt placed one of his pink-scrubbed hands on Harold’s silver head. “Harald has been showing a renewed interest in the flickerwing fleet lately and has been asking questions on subjects which loosely come under the heading of spaceflight theory and practice. Liz wants you to talk to him about it.”


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