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By the fourth day on the Francis Mueller, Tyler had taken to carrying a tranquilizer injector with him at all times. He wasn't sure if that was to use it on other crewmen, or himself.

But he had it, and a straitjacket, with him when he was called to the bridge on second Day Watch.

"Taylor, you need to sedate Petty Officer Kyle," the captain said, pointing to a PO in the tactical section. The petty officer was rocking in his chair, playing with himself.

"Hah, hah! Planet! Missed the planet! Hah, hah," Petty Officer Kyle was clearly enjoying himself.

"Yes, Sir," Tyler said, walking over and hitting the PO in the shoulder with the injector. The sedative worked quickly and in a few moments the petty officer slid bonelessly out of his chair and hit the deck with a thump.

"Sir," the XO said, appearing again behind the captain.

"AAAH! Sweet Merciful Tester, Greene, wear a bell on your boot or something."

"Yes, sir," the XO replied, seriously. "Sir, I think that PO Kyle needs to go before the Mast."

"I don't," the captain replied. "He was clearly driven around the bend by Lieutenant Wilson's announcement that the fault in his calculations was that he forgot to account for Blackbird's mass as well as all of her moons! It turns out that if we hadn't had that forty minute delay when we were trying to get the course adjusted on the way in, we would have hit the planet."

Tyler unfolded the straitjacket and started to load the tactical PO in as he kept one ear on the conversation behind him.

"Well, at least we know where we are, Sir," Lieutenant Wilson said. "And I've got a course laid in for Grayson."

"Are you sure?" the captain asked. "And are you sure there's nothing in the way?"

"Yes, Sir," the communication officer said. "We sent a ping to them. They replied asking where we've been for the last few days."

"I think the best response was that we were lying doggo, under communications silence, in case anyone was trying to sneak into the system," the captain said, rubbing his chin. "The less mentioned about the last week, the better."

"Masterful response, sir," the XO said. "Com, fire that off right away."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

"We've got two weeks before we're due in the yards," the captain said. "We're supposed to be doing workups, but with the crew in the shape it is, I don't think that's a good idea. We're already as worked up as any crew I've ever seen."

"We can do them, Sir," the XO protested. "All the crew needs is a little firm discipline. If you'd just see your way clear to giving me a free hand . . ."

"We don't have any thumbscrews, Greene," the captain said, shaking his head. "No, what they need is some down time: a day off. Bosun!"

"Yes, Sir?" The senior enlisted person on the ship was heavyset, with thinning hair and a bulbous, red nose that indicated he probably was in Siberia for the same reason as Doc Kearns.

"Adjust Axial One to a forty-five degree, one gee, gravitational cone," the captain snapped. He keyed the enunciator and cleared his throat. "All off duty watch, report to Axial One, and BREAK OUT THE POTATO SACKS!"

Axial One was a large "tube" running down the spine of the ship. Normally, it was set to low gravity and used for movement of personnel and equipment. Under the low G personnel could move materials quickly and efficiently. Or, alternatively, crewmen who thought they were "salty" could move like a bat out of hell down the tube, bounding along under the .2 G field at speeds of up to forty kilometers per hour or moving huge loads like missiles or pallets of explosive bolts at only somewhat slower velocities.

Of course, the law of conservation of mass applied, so all those salty crewmen eventually had to decelerate or dodge other crewmen who were moving down the corridor at speeds far in excess of sense. And since the human eye and mind are not designed to calculate automatically what is "too fast" a closing speed, quite a few of those crewmen ended up impacting on some other sailor, or his large and occasionally deadly load, sometimes at closing speeds that would do for a small air-car wreck.

Axial One produced about fifteen percent of the total "incidental casualties" on the ship.

Of course, "speeds in excess of forty kilometers per hour" had never made it into official reports, even in the Manticoran service. It would take a real jerk, like Hard-Ass Harrington or somebody, to report what actually went on in Axial One, but for some strange reason newer ships didn't have anything like it. Of course, BuShips said that was because Axial One was a structural danger. On the other hand, the admirals at BuShips had served on the companion ships of the Francis Mueller. It was a statistical likelihood approaching certainty that some of them had been involved in an "incidental casualty" report. Which was a much better explanation for removing Axial One, in Sean's medical opinion, than "structural anomalies."

Sean considered all this gloomily as he looked "up" the corridor towards the bow of the ship and wondered if it was one of those idiots who had invented Potato-Sack Tobogganing.

The "floor" of the circular corridor was normally scratched and scuffed alloy. But one strip of it, a U-shaped section about twenty meters across the chord and the full length of the corridor, had been quickly polished and waxed. At the same time, the gravitational pull in the corridor had been set to a forty-five degree "cone." That is, instead of pulling straight "down" or towards the exterior of the ship, the artificial gravity was pulling "sideways" at a forty-five degree angle. Combined with the slickness of the waxed portion, the tendency was to cause a person to slip, and keep slipping. Towards the after end of the corridor the gravity had been adjusted in the other direction. It was an artificial hillside with a catchment at the base.

"Down" which a succession of screaming spacers were now sliding at, literally, break-neck speed.

The potato sacks on which they slid were of a strange, rough material that had been identified for Tyler as "burlap." They were not, apparently, used for carrying potatoes anymore but were kept for the sole purpose of this highly idiotic sport. They also stank to high heaven. The nature of the "sport" tended to cause flatulence and storing them between times was best described as "marinating"; they smelled worse than any latrine Sean had ever encountered. But this was supposedly "fun."

At the bow end of the corridor the captain could faintly be seen, holding onto a stanchion and shouting encouragement. He was apparently a big advocate of "crew quality time" and considered it team-building for everyone in the ship's company to risk their necks in a suicidal game of "find the nearest stanchion with my head."

Now Sean crouched in a small aid station set off the corridor (BuShips was slow, not stupid) and watched as sailor after sailor slid past on fecal-smelling bags—some yelling, others with expressions of quiet, fear-filled, desperation—and considered his orders from the warrant.

"When somebody gets hurt in your area, triage them. If they're just contused or have a surface cut or abrasion, slap a dressing on it and send them on. If they break a bone immobilize it, give 'em a shot to keep 'em quiet and hold them at the station; we'll set them all later. If they sustain a head-wound or spinal damage, send them down to me."

"You mean if somebody gets hurt."

"No, I mean when."

He currently had four of the crew stretched out at the back of the aid station, two with broken legs, one with a broken wrist and one with multiple breaks and contusions. The reason for the damage became apparent as he watched the next contestant.

One of the crew, Kopp, one of the senior missile techs, was just starting down the artificial "slope." He was one of the "face frozen in determination" crowd and it was well earned. Kopp had a reputation for being a hard-luck case, so naturally he didn't make it all the way to the braking field. Instead, he tried to fit in and "surf."

Although the corridor was curved, the artificial gravity drew on it equally across the surface so it "felt" flat. What that meant was that using the weight of the buttocks it was possible, with care and skill, to slide back and forth on the waxed portion and "slalom" down the corridor. The operative words were "care" and "skill." Failure to use either sent the tobogganer into what pilots euphemistically refer to as an "out of control" situation.

Kopp only made it about a third of the way down before he lost it. He had just started to slalom when he went too far to the side and hit the unwaxed portion. This slowed his left buttock abruptly and following the laws of Newtonian physics his right buttock, and most of the rest of his body, continued in the direction they were going. This, first, induced flatulence, as his anus responded to the conflicting forces, then a scream as the first pain hit, and last a pinwheeling figure, bouncing down the corridor, his potato sack spinning off in one direction and his shrieking body, spinning faster, in another.

The yelling stopped, or at least changed tone to low groans, as he hit the coaming of one of the corridor exits. Tyler worked his way out of the first-aid station and laboriously climbed "up" the gravity well on the unwaxed portion, dragging two bags of supplies with him, until he reached the injured missile tech.

Kopp was holding on to the coaming with one hand while cradling the other arm and trying to tilt his head to keep blood from pouring into his eyes.

Tyler felt his cradled arm and shook his head at an in-drawn breath. "Broken, probably a green-stick fracture." He slapped a bandage on the bleeding head wound, attached a splint to the arm and put on a cervical collar for good measure.

"HE'S GOING TO BE OKAY!" he yelled up to the captain.


* * *

"This is the quality of sailor we get these days!" the captain grumped.

"Sir," the exec said, apporting in behind him. "There are Regulations governing making oneself unavailable for duty through negligence."

"I'm not going to Captain's Mast Kopp for wiping out," the captain replied, stepping down off his perch and leaning sideways against the gradient. "But what this crew needs is a lesson in how to ride potato sacks. Not enough veterans in this crew, not enough instructors. It's up to the officers to pick up the slack!"

"Uh, Captain," the bosun said uncomfortably as the commander held out his hand for one of the sacks.

"It's up to us to set an example, Boats," Zemet said, snatching the square of cloth out of his resisting hand. "PREPARE FOR A DEMONSTRATION OF HOW TO RIDE A POTATO SACK!" the captain yelled. "PREPARE TO WATCH . . . A PROFESSIONAL!"

"Well, Astro is pretty sure we're on course for Grayson, but we got so well lost first that it's a four day run." Doc dropped into his chair and pulled out his bladder of whiskey, holding it away from his mouth and taking a hard squirt out of the neck. "How's the Captain?" he coughed.

"He's breathing," Sean replied. "Just looks like a standard coma, no evidence of subdural cerebral hematoma."

"Can you just say 'brain bruise' for Tester's Sake?" the warrant grunted. "Four days under the Exec."

There didn't seem to be much else to be said.

"Bosun," the XO said, standing on the bridge looking at the navigational readouts, "we have a problem."

"Yes, Sir?" the Bosun said, faintly.

"That problem," the XO intoned, "is slackness."

"Yes, Sir."

"The Captain scheduled his little game in the interests of jollying people up, but the root problem was slackness. They've all been slacking. Well, we're not going to have any slackness when I'm in command."

"No, Sir."

"I've got a work-up schedule," the XO continued, turning to face the NCO. Deep in his eyes, a little fire seemed to burn. As far as the Bosun was concerned, it was burning his retirement papers. "And we're all going to follow it. To the letter." He turned back to contemplating the Astro display.

"Yes, Sir," the Bosun replied.

"We're not going to have any slackness," the XO repeated. "We'll show the fleet that slackness doesn't happen on the Francis Mueller. Whatever it takes."

"But, Sir," the bosun said, regretting the words even before they left his mouth, "we don't have any thumbscrews."

"That, Bosun," the XO replied in a low, mad whisper, "is why they give us machine shops!"

"Tester, spare us this day from your Tests. It's been nearly a day, Tester, with the Captain in a coma, and the Exec is preparing capital charges for a quarter of the crew. Based on simple statistics, Tester, no one is going to be alive when we reach Grayson. The ship will be a tomb, drifting helplessly in the grip of gravity wells and the solar wind . . ."

"Doc, I've got a problem," the bosun said, slipping into the sickbay after a cautious look around.

"Don't we all," the medic snapped, looking up from the captain's recumbent figure.

"I don't suppose the dwarf's come around yet?"

"No," Kearns replied.

The bosun looked up as Tyler slid through the door.

"I'm not going out there," Tyler said. "It's a zoo."

"The crew's ready to mutiny," the bosun went on. "They agree with the Chaplain; if we let the Exec get away with spacing a quarter of us every day, there won't be any of us left by the time we get to Grayson."

"That's an ugly word," Doc said. "Mutiny."

"Yeah, but it's better than 'explosive decompression,' " Sean pointed out.

"That's not a word, it's a phrase," Doc replied.

"They're both going to be phrases we'll all get accustomed to if we don't figure something out!" the bosun muttered.

"Well, Manticore doesn't generally use the death penalty," Tyler pointed out, rubbing his chin in thought. "And if they do, they generally wait until the ship gets to a major port where a court-martial can take place with due process. Why not try to . . . Never mind."

"Yeah, he'd never go for that," the bosun said. "If we even brought it up we'd be added to the list."

"Is he talking about just spacing them?" Kearns asked. "I mean, not even a bullet in the back of the head or anything?"

"No," the Bosun replied with a grimace. "He wants to either shoot them or give them a lethal shot and then . . . Hey!"

"Yeah," Kearns said with a narrowed glance. "Now all we have to do is convince him not to space the bodies."

"Decent burial," Tyler said after a moment. "I mean, you're all religious nuts, right? Surely it would only be proper to return them to the cool green hills of Grayson or something."

The warrant looked at the senior NCO and the SBA for a moment and then narrowed his eyes.

"Okay, what we're talking about here is conspiracy to mutiny by circumventing direct orders of a superior." He looked them both in the eye. "And the penalty for that is death."

"I'll take my chance on a court-martial on Grayson," the bosun responded.

"Me too," Tyler said. "Hell, I'd prefer Peep justice to this friggin' nut-case."

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