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The Aftermath

by Ben Bova

BOOK I

ATTACK AND SURVIVAL

I wage not any feud with Death For changes wrought on form and face; No lower life that earth’s embrace May breed with him, can fright my faith.

ORE SHIP SYRACUSE:

MAIN POWER BAY

“Don’t touch that switch!”

“Ow!”

His father’s shouted warning made Theo Zacharias jerk upright. He banged his head painfully on the steel shelf that jutted out over the power bus recess set into the floor plates of the cramped compartment.

“You could trip all the breakers on the power bus,” Victor Zacharias admonished his son. “The whole damned ship would go dark.”

Fifteen-year-old Theo sat there surrounded by relays and circuit breakers, his knees poking up from the recess like a pair of folded ladders. He rubbed his throbbing head with one hand and glowered sullenly at his father.

“How many times do I have to tell you to be careful?” Victor demanded. “Do you have any idea of how many megavolts are in those circuits?”

“Twenty-two point six,” Theo muttered. “You’ve told me often enough.”

Victor offered a hand to his son and helped to pull him out of the recess. “I’ll handle it,” he said, climbing down to where the teenager had been.

“Yeah. Right,” said Theo, thinking he knew what his father had left unsaid: Never send a boy to do a man’s job.

Nearly an hour later Victor clambered out of the recess and hunched beneath the low overhead alongside Theo.

“That ought to hold until we get back to Ceres,” he said. “Come on, Thee, help me put the deck plates back in place.”

Theo skinned his knuckles wrestling with the heavy deck plates, but he avoided mashing his fingers, as he’d done once before. The fingernail on his left ring finger was still black from that one. They finished and crabbed out into the passageway, where they could at last stand erect. Theo stretched to his full height, several centimeters taller than his father. While Victor was thickset and bullnecked, his once-trim midsection had spread, stretching the fabric of his coveralls. Theo was tall and slender, but youthfully awkward, all gangling arms and legs. Victor’s hair was jet black and thickly curled; Theo’s was a light sandy brown, like his mother’s.

“How’s your head?” Victor asked gruffly as they started back toward the living quarters.

Theo rubbed the spot he had whacked. “No lump,” he said. He flexed the fingers where he’d skinned his knuckles; the hand stung, but not badly.

“This old vessel needs a lot of tender loving care,” Victor said, more to himself than to his son. “We’ve got to nurse her along until we put in at Ceres for a major overhaul.”

Theo started to reply, but his mouth went dry. He knew what he wanted to say, but found that it wasn’t easy to speak the words. At last, working up his courage, he tried, “Dad, when we get to Ceres…” But the words dried up in his throat.

His father’s expression turned hard. “What about when we get back to Ceres?”

Theo blurted, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life taking care of this rust bucket.”

“Neither do I, son. I thought we’d spend a year or two out here in the Belt and then cash in. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The years just seem to slip past.”

Theo had heard the sad story many times before. “I don’t want to be a rock rat all my life,” he said.

“You don’t want to be like me, is that it?” Victor asked, his voice suddenly sharp.

Feeling miserable, Theo replied, “It’s not that, Dad. It’s… jeeze, there’s got to be more to life than running around the Belt picking up ores and delivering them to Ceres, for cripes sake.”

“Don’t let your mother hear that kind of language. She expects you to be a gentleman.”

“Yeah, I know,” Theo sighed.

More softly Victor said, “Theo, this ship is our home. It’s our whole life—”

“Your life,” Theo muttered. “I want something more.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m getting good grades in my science classes.”

“High school classes over the ednet are a far cry from real science, Thee.”

“The guidance program says my test scores are good enough for a scholarship.”

“Scholarships pay tuition. Who’s going to pay all the other expenses?”

“I can work, support myself. Selene University scholarships include transportation, at least.”

“Selene?” Victor stopped in the middle of the passageway, forcing Theo to stop and turn to face him. “You want to go to the Moon?”

“Just long enough to get a degree in biology.”

“And then what?”

“Maybe I could go to the research station at Jupiter. They need biologists to study the life forms there.”

“Jupiter,” Victor murmured, shaking his head. He clutched at his son’s arm hard enough almost to hurt. “A biologist. At the Jupiter station.”

“If I’m good enough to make it.”

“You’ll have to be pretty damned good,” Victor told his son. Then he chuckled and added, “If you don’t kill yourself first trying to keep this ship going.”

Theo did not laugh.

ORE SHIP SYRACUSE:

GALLEY

“Let’s face it, Mom,” Theo mumbled into his bowl of yogurt and honey, “Dad doesn’t trust me. He thinks I’m still a kid.”

His mother, Pauline, stood at the one microwave oven that was still functioning and smiled understandingly at her son.

“I don’t think that’s true, Theo,” she said gently.

“I’m fifteen!” Theo burst. “Almost sixteen! And he still doesn’t trust me with anything.”

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