Orbitsville
by 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.”

Garamond looked doubtfully at the boy whose attention seemed absorbed by a group of metal statues further along the terrace. “Has he any flair for mathematics?”

“He isn’t expected to qualify for a master’s papers this afternoon.” Humboldt laughed drily. “Simply encourage his interest, Captain. I know admirals who would give their right arms for such a public token of the President’s trust. Now I must return to the board-room.”

“You’re leaving me alone with him?”

“Yes — Liz has a high regard for you, Captain Garamond. Is it the responsibility… ?”

“No. I’ve looked after children before now.” Garamond thought of his own six-year-old son who had shaken his fist rather than wave goodbye, expressing his sense of loss and resentment over having a father who left him in answer to greater demands. This extra delay the President had announced meant that he had left home four hours too early, time in which he might have been able to heal the boy’s tear-bruised eyes. On top of that, there were the reports of the ion wind failing, fading away to the level of spatial background activity, while he stood uselessly on an ornate terrace and played nursemaid to a child who might be as neurosis-ridden as his mother. Garamond tried to smile as the Vice-President withdrew, but he had a feeling he had not made a convincing job of it.

“Well, Harald,” he said, turning to the silver-and-pearl boy, “you want to ride a flickerwing, do you?”

Harald examined him coolly. “Starflight employees of less than Board status usually address me as Master Lindstrom.”

Garamond raised his eyebrows. “I’ll tell you something about space-flying, Harald. Up there the most minor technician is more important than all your Admincom executives put together. Do you understand that, Harald? Harry?” I’m more of a child than he is, he thought in amazement.

Unexpectedly, Harald smiled. “I’m not interested in space-flying.”

“But I thought…”

“I told them that because they wanted to hear it, but I don’t have to pretend with you, do I?”

“No, you don’t have to pretend with me, son. What are we going to do for the next two hours, though?”

“I’d like to run,” Harald said with a sudden eagerness which — in Garamond’s mind — restored him to full membership of the brotherhood of small boys.

“You want to run?” Garamond managed a genuine smile. “That’s a modest ambition.”

“I’m not allowed to run or climb in case I hurt myself. My mother has forbidden it, and everybody else around here is so afraid of her that they hardly let me blink, but…” Harald looked up at Garamond, triumphantly ingenuous, “…you’re a flickerwing commander.”

Garamond realized belatedly that the boy had been manoeuvring him into a corner from the second they met, but he felt no annoyance. “That’s right — I am. Now let’s see how quickly you can make it from here to those statues and back.” “Right!”

“Well, don’t stand around. Go!” Garamond watched with a mixture of amusement and concern as Harald set off in a lopsided, clopping run, elbows pumping rapidly. He rounded the bronze statues and returned to Garamond at the same pace, with his eyes shining like lamps.

“Again?”

“As many times as you want.” As Harald resumed his inefficient expenditure of energy Garamond went back to the stone balustrade of the terrace and stared down across the gardens. In spite of the late afternoon sunshine, the Atlantic was charcoal grey and tendrils of mist from it were wreathing the belvederes and waterfalls in sadness. A lone gull twinkled like a star in its distant flight.

I don’t want to go, he thought. It’s as simple as that.

In the early days he had been sustained by the conviction that he, Vance Garamond, would be the one who would find the third world. But interstellar flight was almost a century old now and Man’s empire still included only one habitable planet apart from Earth, and all of Garamond’s enthusiasm and certitude had achieved nothing. If he could accept that he would never reach a habitable new planet then he would be far better to do as Aileen wanted, to take a commission on the shuttle run and be sure of some time at home every month. Ferrying shiploads of colonists to Terranova would be dull, but safe and convenient. The ion winds were fairly predictable along that route and the well-established chain of weather stations had eliminated any possibility of being becalmed…

“Look at me!”

Garamond turned, for an instant was unable to locate Harald, then saw him perched dangerously high on the shoulders of one of the statues. The boy waved eagerly.

“You’d better come down from there.” Garamond tried to find a diplomatic way to hide his concern over the way in which Harald had increased his demands — emotional blackmailers used the same techniques as ordinary criminals — from permission to run on the terrace to the right to make risky climbs, thus putting Garamond in a difficult position with the President. Difficult? It occurred to Garamond that his career would be ended if Harald were to so much as sprain an ankle.

“But I’m a good climber. Watch.” Harald threw his leg across a patient bronze face as he reached for the statue’s upraised arm.

“I know you can climb, but don’t go any higher till I get there.” Garamond began to walk towards the statues, moving casually but adding inches to each stride by thrusting from the back foot. His alarm increased. Elizabeth Lindstrom, whose title of President was derived from her inherited ownership of the greatest financial and industrial empire ever known, was the most important person alive. Her son was destined to inherit Starflight from her, to control all construction of starships and all movement between Earth and the one other world available to Man. And he, Vance Garamond, an insignificant flickerwing captain, had put himself in a position where he was almost certain to incur the anger of one or the other.

“Up we go,” Harald called.

“Don’t!” Garamond broke into an undisguised run. “Please, don’t.”

He surged forward through maliciously thick air which seemed to congeal around him like resin. Harald laughed delightedly and scrambled towards the upright column of metal which was the statue’s arm, but he lost his grip and tilted backwards. One of his feet lodged momentarily in the sculpted collar, acting as a pivot, turning him upside down. Garamond, trapped in a different continuum, saw the event on a leisurely timescale, like the slow blossoming of a spiral nebula. He saw the first fatal millimetre of daylight open up between Harald’s fingers and the metal construction. He saw the boy seemingly hanging in the air, then gathering speed in the fall. He saw and heard the brutal impact with which Harald’s head struck the base of the statuary group.

Garamond dropped to his knees beside the small body and knew, on the instant, that Harald was dead. His skull was crushed, driven inwards on the brain.

“You’re not a good climber,” Garamond whispered numbly, accusingly, to the immobile face which was still dewed with perspiration. “You’ve killed us both. And my family as well.”

He stood up and looked towards the entrance of the main building, preparing to face the officials and domestics who would come running. The terrace remained quiet but for the murmur of its fountains. High in the stratosphere an invisible aircraft drew a slow, silent wake across the sky. Each passing second was a massive hammer-blow on the anvil of Garamond’s mind, and he had been standing perfectly still for perhaps a minute before accepting that the accident had not been noticed by others.

Breaking out of the stasis, he gathered up Harald’s body, marvelling at its lightness, and carried it to a clump of flowering shrubs. The dark green foliage clattered like metal foil as he lowered the dead child into a place of concealment.