Her hair was a brilliant green. So was her spectacularly filled halter. So were her tight short-shorts, her lipstick, and the lacquer on her finger-and toe-nails. As she strolled into the Main of the starship, followed hesitantly by the other girl, she drove a mental probe at the black-haired, powerfully-built man seated at the instrument-banked console.
Then at the other, slenderer man who was rising to his feet from the pilot's bucket seat. His guard was partially down; he was telepathing a pleasant, if somewhat reserved greeting to both newcomers.
She turned to her companion and spoke aloud. "So these are the system's best." The emphasis was somewhere between condescension and sneer. "Not much to choose between, I'd say ... 'port me a tenth-piece, Clee? Heads, I take the tow-head."
She flipped the coin dexterously. "Heads it is, Lola, so I get Jim--James James James the Ninth himself. You have the honor of pairing with Clee--or should I say His Learnedness Right the Honorable Director Doctor Cleander Simmsworth Garlock, Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Science, Prime Operator, President and First Fellow of the Galaxian Society, First Fellow of the Gunther Society, Fellow of the Institute of Paraphysics, of the Institute of Nuclear Physics, of the College of Mathematics, of the Congress of Psionicists, and of all the other top-bracket brain-gangs you ever heard of? Also, for your information, his men have given him a couple of informal degrees--P.D.Q. and S.O.B."
The big psionicist's expression of saturnine, almost contemptuous amusement had not changed; his voice came flat and cold. "The less you say, Doctor Bellamy, the better. Obstinate, swell-headed women give me an acute rectal pain. Pitching your curves over all the vizzies in space got you aboard, but it won't get you a thing from here on. And for your information, Doctor Bellamy, one more crack like that and I take you over my knee and blister your fanny."
"Try it, you big, clumsy, muscle-bound gorilla!" she jeered. "That I want to see! Any time you want to get both arms broken at the elbows, just try it!"
"Now's as good a time as any. I like your spirit, babe, but I can't say a thing for your judgment." He got up and started purposefully toward her, but both non-combatants came between.
"Jet back, Clee!" James protested, both hands against the heavier man's chest. "What the hell kind of show is that to put on?" And, simultaneously:
"Belle! Shame on you! Picking a fight already, and with nobody knows how many million people looking on! You know as well as I do that we may have to spend the rest of our lives together, so act like civilized beings--please--both of you! And don't...."
"Nobody's watching this but us," Garlock interrupted. "When pussy there started using her claws I cut the gun."
"That's what you think," James said sharply, "but Fatso and his number one girl friend are coming in on the tight beam."
"Oh?" Garlock whirled toward the hitherto dark and silent three-dimensional communications instrument. The face of a bossy-looking woman was already bright.
"Garlock! How dare you try to cut Chancellor Ferber off?" she demanded. Her voice was deep-pitched, blatant with authority. "Here you are, sir."
The woman's face shifted to one side and a man's appeared--a face to justify in full the nickname "Fatso."
"'Fatso', eh?" Chancellor Ferber snarled. Pale eyes glared from the fat face. "That costs you exactly one thousand credits, James."
"How much will this cost me, Fatso?" Garlock asked.
"Five thousand--and, since nobody can call me that deliberately, demotion three grades and probation for three years. Make a note, Miss Foster."
"Still sure we aren't going anywhere," Garlock said. "What a brain!"
"Sure I'm sure!" Ferber gloated. "In a couple of hours I'm going to buy your precious starship in as junk. In the meantime, whether you like it or not, I'm going to watch your expression while you push all those pretty buttons and nothing happens."
"The trouble with you, Fatso," Garlock said dispassionately, as he opened a drawer and took out a pair of cutting pliers, "is that all your strength is in your glands and none in your alleged brain. There are a lot of things--including a lot of tests--you know nothing about. How much will you see after I've cut one wire?"
"You wouldn't dare!" the fat man shouted. "I'd fire you--blacklist you all over the sys...."
Voice and images died away and Garlock turned to the two women in the Main. He began to smile, but his mental shield did not weaken.
"You've got a point there, Lola," he said, going on as though Ferber's interruption had not occurred. "Not that I blame either Belle or myself. If anything was ever calculated to drive a man nuts, this farce was. As the only female Prime in the system, Belle should have been in automatically--she had no competition. And to anybody with three brain cells working the other place lay between you, Lola, and the other three female Ops in the age group.
"But no. Ferber and the rest of the Board--stupidity uber alles!--think all us Ops and Primes are psycho and that the ship will never even lift. So they made a Grand Circus of it. But they succeeded in one thing--with such abysmal stupidity so rampant I'm getting more and more reconciled to the idea of our not getting back--at least, for a long, long time."
"Why, they said we had a very good chance...." Lola began.
"Yeah, and they said a lot of even bigger damn lies than that one. Have you read any of my papers?"
"I'm sorry. I'm not a mathematician."
"Our motion will be purely at random. If it isn't, I'll eat this whole ship. We won't get back until Jim and I work out something to steer us with. But they must be wondering no end, outside, what the score is, so I'm willing to call it a draw--temporarily--and let 'em in again. How about it, Belle?"
"A draw it is--temporarily." Neither, however, even offered to shake hands.
"Smile pretty, everybody," Garlock said, and pressed a stud.
"... the matter? What's the matter? Oh...." the worried voice of the System's ace newscaster came in. "Power failure already?"
"No," Garlock replied. "I figured we had a couple of minutes of privacy coming, if you can understand the meaning of the word. Now all four of us tell everybody who is watching or listening au revoir or good-bye, whichever it may turn out to be." He reached for the switch.
"Wait a minute!" the newscaster demanded. "Leave it on until the last poss...." His voice broke off sharply.
"Turn it back on!" Belle ordered.
"Scared?" she sneered.
"You chirped it, bird-brain. I'm scared purple. So would you be, if you had three brain cells working in that glory-hound's head of yours. Get set, everybody, and we'll take off."
"Stop it, both of you!" Lola exclaimed. "Where do you want us to sit, and do we strap down?"
"You sit here; Belle at that plate beside Jim. Yes, strap down. There probably won't be any shock, and we should land right side up, but there's no sense in taking chances. Sure your stuff's all aboard?"
"Yes, it's in our rooms."
The four secured themselves; the two men checked, for the dozenth time, their instruments. The pilot donned his scanner. The ship lifted effortlessly, noiselessly. Through the atmosphere; through and far beyond the stratosphere. It stopped.
"Ready, Clee?" James licked his lips.
"As ready as I ever will be, I guess. Shoot!"
The pilot's right hand, forefinger outstretched, moved unenthusiastically toward a red button on his panel ... slowed ... stopped. He stared into his scanner at the Earth so far below.
"Hit it, Jim!" Garlock snapped. "Hit it, for goodness sake, before we all lose our nerve!"
James stabbed convulsively at the button, and in the very instant of contact--instantaneously; without a fractional microsecond of time-lapse--their familiar surroundings disappeared. Or, rather, and without any sensation of motion, of displacement, or of the passage of any time whatsoever, the planet beneath them was no longer their familiar Earth. The plates showed no familiar stars nor patterns of heavenly bodies. The brightly-shining sun was very evidently not their familiar Sol.
"Well--we went somewhere ... but not to Alpha Centauri, not much to our surprise." James gulped twice; then went on, speaking almost jauntily now that the attempt had been made and had failed. "So now it's up to you, Clee, as Director of Project Gunther and captain of the good ship Pleiades, to boss the more-or-less simple--more, I hope--job of getting us back to Tellus."
Science, both physical and paraphysical, had done its best. Gunther's Theorems, which define the electromagnetic and electrogravitic parameters pertaining to the annihilation of distance, had been studied, tested, and applied to the full. So had the Psionic Corollaries; which, while not having the status of paraphysical laws, do allow computation of the qualities and magnitudes of the stresses required for any given application of the Gunther Effect.
The planning of the starship Pleiades had been difficult in the extreme; its construction almost impossible. While it was practically a foregone conclusion that any man of the requisite caliber would already be a member of the Galaxian Society, the three planets and eight satellites were screened, psionicist by psionicist, to select the two strongest and most versatile of their breed.
These two, Garlock and James, were heads of departments of, and under iron-clad contract to, vast Solar System Enterprises, Inc., the only concern able and willing to attempt the building of the first starship.
Alonzo P. Ferber, Chancellor of SSE, however, would not risk a tenth-piece of the company's money on such a bird-brained scheme. Himself a Gunther First, he believed implicitly that Firsts were in fact tops in Gunther ability; that these few self-styled "Operators" and "Prime Operators" were either charlatans or self-deluded crackpots. Since he could not feel that so-called "Operator Field," no such thing did or could exist. No Gunther starship could ever, possibly, work.
He did loan Garlock and James to the Galaxians, but that was as far as he would go. For salaries and for labor, for research and material, for trials and for errors; the Society paid and paid and paid.
Thus the starship Pleiades had cost the Galaxian Society almost a thousand million credits.
Garlock and James had worked on the ship since its inception. They were to be of the crew; for over a year it had been taken for granted that would be its only crew.
As the Pleiades neared completion, however, it became clearer and clearer that the displacement-control presented an unsolved, and quite possibly an insoluble, problem. It was mathematically certain that, when the Gunther field went on, the ship would be displaced instantaneously to some location in space having precisely the Gunther coordinates required by that particular field. One impeccably rigorous analysis showed that the ship would shift into the nearest solar system possessing an Earth-type planet; which was believed to be Alpha Centauri and which was close enough to Sol so that orientation would be automatic and the return to Earth a simple matter.
Since the Gunther Effect did in fact annihilate distance, however, another group of mathematicians, led by Garlock and James, proved with equal rigor that the point of destination was no more likely to be any one given Gunther point than any other one of the myriads of billions of equiguntherial points undoubtedly existent throughout the length, breadth, and thickness of our entire normal space-time continuum.
The two men would go anyway, of course. Carefully-calculated pressures would make them go. It was neither necessary nor desirable, however, for them to go alone.
Wherefore the planets and satellites were combed again; this time to select two women--the two most highly-gifted psionicists in the eighteen-to-twenty-five age group. Thus, if the Pleiades returned successfully to Earth, well and good. If she did not, the four selectees would found, upon some far-off world, a race much abler than the humanity of Earth; since eighty-three percent of Earth's dwellers had psionic grades lower than Four.
This search, with its attendant fanfare and studiedly blatant publicity, was so planned and engineered that two selected women did not arrive at the spaceport until a bare fifteen minutes before the scheduled time of take-off. Thus it made no difference whether the women liked the men or not, or vice versa; or whether or not any of them really wanted to make the trip. Pressures were such that each of them had to go, whether he or she wanted to or not.
"Cut the rope, Jim, and let the old bucket drop," Garlock said. "Not too close. Before we make any kind of contact we'll have to do some organizing. These instruments," he waved at his console, "show that ours is the only Operator Field in this whole region of space. Hence, there are no Operators and no Primes. That means that from now until we get back to Tellus...."
"If we get back to Tellus," Belle corrected, sweetly.
"Until we get back to Tellus there will be no Gunthering aboard this ship...."
"What?" Belle broke in again. "Have you lost your mind?"
"There will be little if any lepping, and nothing else at all. At the table, if we want sugar, we will reach for it or have it passed. We will pick up things, such as cigarettes, with our fingers. We will carry lighters and use them. When we go from place to place, we will walk. Is that clear?"
"You seem to be talking English," Belle sneered, "but the words don't make sense."
"I didn't think you were that stupid." Eyes locked and held. Then Garlock grinned savagely. "Okay. You tell her, Lola, in words of as few syllables as possible."
"Why, to get used to it, of course," Lola explained, while Belle glared at Garlock in frustrated anger. "So as not to reveal anything we don't have to."
"Thank you, Miss Montandon, you may go to the head of the class. All monosyllables except two. That should make it clear, even to Miss Bellamy."
"You ... you beast!" Belle drove a tight-beamed thought. "I was never so insulted in my life!"
"You asked for it. Keep on asking for it and you'll keep on getting it." Then, aloud, to all three, "In emergencies, of course, anything goes. We will now proceed with business." He paused, then went on, bitingly, "If possible."
"One minute, please!" Belle snapped. "Just why, Captain Garlock, are you insisting on oral communication, when lepping is so much faster and better? It's stupid--reactionary. Don't you ever lep?"
"With Jim, on business, yes; with women, no more than I have to. What I think is nobody's business but mine."
"What a way to run a ship! Or a project!"
"Running this project is my business, not yours; and if there's any one thing in the entire universe it does not need, it's a female exhibitionist. Besides your obvious qualifications to be one of the Eves in case of Ultimate Contingency...." he broke off and stared at her, his contemptuous gaze traveling slowly, dissectingly, from her toes to the topmost wave of her hair-do.
"Forty-two, twenty, forty?" he sneered.
"You flatter me." Her glare was an almost tangible force; her voice was controlled fury.
"Thirty-nine, twenty-two, thirty-five. Five seven. One thirty-five. If any of it's any of your business, which it isn't. You should be discussing brains and ability, not vital statistics."
"Brains? You? No, I'll take that back. As a Prime, you have got a brain--one that really works. What do you think you're good for on this project? What can you do?"
"I can do anything any man ever born can do, and do it better!"
"Okay. Compute a Gunther field that will put us two hundred thousand feet directly above the peak of that mountain."
"That isn't fair--not that I expected fairness from you--and you know it. That doesn't take either brains or ability...."
"No. Merely highly specialized training that you know I haven't had. Give me a five-tape course on it and I'll come closer than either you or James; for a hundred credits a shot."
"I'll do just that. Something you are supposed to know, then. How would you go about making first contact?"
"Well, I wouldn't do it the way you would--by knocking down the first native I saw, putting my foot on his face, and yelling 'Bow down, you stupid, ignorant beasts, and worship me, the Supreme God of the Macrocosmic Universe'!"
"Try again, Belle, that one missed me by...."
"Hold it, both of you!" James broke in. "What the hell are you trying to prove? How about cutting out this cat-and-dog act and getting some work done?"
"You've got a point there," Garlock admitted, holding his temper by a visible effort. "Sorry, Jim. Belle, what were you briefed for?"
"To understudy you." She, too, fought her temper down. "To learn everything about Project Gunther. I have a whole box of tapes in my room, including advanced Gunther math and first-contact techniques. I'm to study them during all my on-watch time unless you assign other duties."
"No matter what your duties may be, you'll have to have time to study. If you don't find what you want in your own tapes--and you probably won't, since Ferber and his Miss Foster ran the selections--use our library. It's good--designed to carry on our civilization. Miss Montandon? No, that's silly, the way we're fixed. Lola?"
"I'm to learn how to be Doctor James'...."
"Jim, please, Lola," James said. "And call him Clee."
"I'd like that." She smiled winningly. "And my friends call me 'Brownie'."
"I see why they would. It fits like a coat of lacquer."
It did. Her hair was a dark, lustrous brown, as were her eyebrows. Her eyes were brown. Her skin, too--her dark red playsuit left little to the imagination--was a rich and even brown. Originally fairly dark, it had been tanned to a more-than-fashionable depth of color by naked sun-bathing and by practically-naked outdoor sports. A couple of inches shorter than the green-haired girl, she too had a figure to make any sculptor drool.