Planet of Freedom
Chapter Fourteen - The Asteroids and More
"Oh, Don. Doesnít the Earth look beautiful from space?" Judy asked. They were working together on the control board, testing each connection and checking readouts.
"Yeah," Don replied tersely. Bent over the panel, he was oblivious to the scene outside the window. "Check the stabilizer switch, would you?"
Judy leaned forward and reached for the switch, noticing how much more difficult it was becoming to do so. She decided that despite what Scott had said, this child was at least ten pounds and still going.
"Did you try it yet," Don said testily.
"No, dear, it takes a bit more effort to do so now. My stomach has grown but my arms havenít," she said, a bit disturbed by his irritability.
"Iíll do it then," he said reaching across her and flipping the switch in question. Judy leaned back in the chair and looked at her husband carefully. "I think that maybe it would be better if I went below and helped Mom. You are about as pleasant to be around as an old bear."
"Go ahead," he said shortly, ignoring her second comment.
"Don, whatís bothering you? Youíve been irritable ever since we got here." Judy asked softly, her feelings a bit hurt by his brusqueness.
"Nothing. Why donít you go ahead and help your mother?" His voice sounded a bit more pleasant, but Judy knew it was forced.
Walking stiffly in mounting irritation, Judy entered the elevator and went down to their living quarters. Don sighed and continued working, wishing he knew how to deal with these feelings that kept him in turmoil. He sighed again, having seen the hurt in Judyís eyes.
"Oh, Josh, letís go to the zero G section of the station," Penny said brightly, turning from the observation window of the space station and looking at her companion.
"Why would you want to do that?" he asked. That was one thing that he had not totally gotten used to. He felt helpless floating in zero gravity.
"Itís more fun than swimming, and besides, the flutter-dragons like it," she replied.
The one thing that Josh enjoyed about Penny was her exuberance. There was something else about her too. Some would say she was naive, but he didnít think that was it, although it was obvious that she hadnít been around people much. He felt it was more like the simple outlook she had. What he saw was exactly what he got. Most of the girls her age on Earth were putting on fronts, pretending to be something they werenít. Josh had dealt with many girls who had only been attracted to him because of his Ďstatus,í as the co-captain of the basketball team. Now Josh was finding himself liking Penny Robinson because of her honesty and openness. And she was very pretty as well.
"Sure," he finally said. Artificial gravity was maintained by the spin of the station as well as by other means that he didnít understand, but as soon as they entered the threshold of the room, gravity ceased and he began to float. A slight surge of panic rose in him and he began thrashing around.
Penny giggled. "Josh, just pretend youíre swimming or better yet, just stop moving and float." The flutter-dragons floated by her upside down, their gossamer wings catching the air and propelling them along in slow-motion dances. They squeaked their pleasure.
Josh stopped moving and watched them when his slow spinning motion would allow him to. "They are wonderful creatures, arenít they?" he asked; then his eyes lit on Penny gracefully Ďswimmingí across the room. His eyes continued to follow her as she somersaulted in mid-air, her hair a waterfall cascade. Her momentum took her to the ceiling where she pushed off easily and floated gently to the floor. Pushing off again, Penny began a zero gravity game of tag. Laughing she latched onto Joshís arm and then let go as soon as her impetus had started him floating in another direction.
Josh soon got his space legs in order and at the first opportunity, pushed off from the wall and launched himself towards his companion. Unable to propel herself out of his way, Penny soon found herself caught by the leg and dragged down to him. Grabbing her by the waist, he spun with her in free flight. All the while, the lizards floated by in a parody of the tag the humans were playing, tweaking each otherís tails and legs.
Pennyís close proximity to him caused Joshís heart to beat faster. Looking deeply into her large hazel eyes, Josh found himself holding his breath. He wanted to kiss her so badly that his chest hurt, but somehow he knew that wasnít the right thing to do at this time.
Pausing slightly, Penny looked into Joshís bright blue eyes, never having noticed before how intensely blue they really were. Then she smiled and pushed off from him, making them float off in opposite directions. "You won that round, Josh. I thought you said you had never been into space before."
"I havenít," he replied, bemused, still pondering how close he had come to kissing her. "But youíve been a most excellent teacher."
"You did what?" Don asked, his voice rising in agitation.
"When I was told that a certified physician was to be aboard during all operations in the asteroids, I chose Scott. The choice was approved," John repeated, looking carefully at Don. Except for his brief probing of Esther on the shuttle, John had made it a point to not pry into othersí thoughts and feelings. In fact, he had practiced the shielding techniques to avoid all of the stray emotions that came with proximity to others. However, he was well aware that something had been bothering Don ever since their arrival at the space station. He didnít need telepathy to figure that out.
"Whatís worrying you, Don?" he asked quietly.
Glaring at him, Don replied irritably, "Youíre the telepath, you tell me." Jimmy sat on top of the Robotís dome and squeaked testily at his companion. Silverado chirped and ducked his head.
John took that as an invitation and with Silveradoís help, picked up some of the emotions that Don had been carrying around for the past week. "No wonder Scott has acted strangely," John said in surprise.
"He even kissed her. I managed to get that through the lizards," the pilot said in exasperation.
"Don, let me ask you something. Why did you marry my daughter?"
The eyes that stared into Johnís said ĎDumb question,í but Don answered nevertheless. "Because I love her."
"And why did she marry you?"
"She loves me."
"And you still love her, right?" John asked.
"Of course I do; thatís a stupid question," Don said with great emotion.
"Iím hearing several things. You love Judy deeply. You feel she loves you, but her doctor apparently has feelings for her. And you donít trust her to stay loyal to her marriage vows," John pointed out bluntly.
"Now wait a minute, John...."
"Don, think carefully. Do you doubt Judyís fidelity to you right now?" John persisted.
Don thought back over the past few days and realized that her actions had not changed. Sheepishly, he looked at his father-in-law. "No, John, I donít. I trust Judy and I suppose that I havenít been fair to her," the pilot said softly. John nodded. "But I guarantee that if Dr. Barlow does anything, Iíll knock his lights out," he added vehemently.
"I suppose thatís fair enough," John said with a chuckle. "When I have the opportunity, Iíll talk with Scott. For what itís worth, I trust him, too. I donít know why he feels the way he does about Judy, but I believe Scott is an honorable man."
"Thanks, John. This has been very hard to deal with. Iím so afraid of losing Judy. I want her with me forever," he said fervently. "I suppose that I need to go and make up to her for my nasty behavior this past week."
"Thatís probably a good idea. Maureen said she was unhappy this morning and wouldnít say why. I imagine that your foul temperament was the reason," he said with a slight smile. "Iíll finish the diagnostic here. Thereís not much to do since weíve been keeping the systems up all along."
Before he left, Don asked, "John, something else has been bothering me lately. What is it between you and our explosives expert? She struts around here like sheís in command and you let her. You know the Joint Chiefs gave you full command here."
"Our task is to stop the Graxod, not to have a debate over whoís in command. If sharing command duties with Col. Black enables us to do that, then Iíll share command duties," John said simply. "And besides, she is a good commander." Don just shrugged and turned to go below.
As Don was leaving, Col. Black left the elevator and approached John. "Is this ship ready to leave on a mine laying operation?"
"Yes, Colonel, the Jupiter II is ready anytime the explosives are," John answered evenly.
"Good, weíll leave at 1530 hours. That gives us ninety minutes to prepare," she told him.
An hour and a half later, the Robinsons were in their flight suits and in position. Esther looked at the Ďcrewí and shook her head in wonder. One member was so pregnant that her suit was tight around her middle. One was so short that he could barely see over the navigational computer and one was a naive looking girl with four pet lizards trying to cling to her flight suit.
"Letís go," Esther said. She noticed Maureen Robinsonís stare, but ignored it. She also noticed her sonís unabashed admiration of the youngest Robinson girl, but she would handle that later.
Josh really couldnít keep his eyes off Penny. Once when they had shared lunch in Station Deltaís cafeteria, he felt as though he could swim in her eyes. They had bantered about everything and anything. He had taught her tennis in the recreation area, gone in the zero gravity room several times with her, and let her take him on a tour of the Jupiter II, but even after all that, Josh felt that Penny looked to him as just a friend. Nothing more. He had to admit, though, the silver flight suit did nothing but enhance her looks.
Josh sighed and went below when his mother told him to. Dr. Barlow accompanied him.
Penny had felt his scrutiny and glanced behind her as the two got into the elevator. She wondered about the doctor, whom she liked, and the young man, who had been so nice to her this past week. Josh had been a wonderful friend to her at a time when she needed a friend, but as he left, she wondered if maybe he was more than a friend. She also wondered about Scott. Confused, Penny turned back to the long-range scanners that her mother was in charge of.
"How do you get a girl to like you?" Josh asked the doctor as they headed for the galley.
"Good question, Josh. You just try to be natural and not pushy, and maybe sheíll realize that youíre alive," he said, with a sigh. "I assume you are referring to Penny."
"Yeah. Even her flutter-dragons seem to like me more than she does," he said sadly. Josh had noticed lately that the little red lizard had taken a liking to lying on his shoulder.
"Don, jump coordinates are entered and ready," John said.
"We are cleared for disengagement from Docking Bay 5," Maureen informed them.
"Disengaged," Don reported as he skillfully guided the spacecraft away from Station Delta. "Two hundred kilometers away." The Jupiter II soared away from the space station and then with ever increasing speed shot around the moon.
"Hyper jump sequence initiated. Will, on my command.... engage now," John told him. Will pulled the activator switch and the coalescing, congealing band of starlight formed outside the observation window.
"This must be the ultimate speed thrill for a college boy. Better than a sports car," Esther commented. John flushed and shot an intensely irritated glance at her before turning his attention back to the navigational computer. Esther was aware of the scrutiny of the rest of the Robinson family and figured she had hit a sore spot with the family, and then fleetingly wondered what possessed her to go that far.
"Iím sorry. I was just joking," she said quickly and then got her mind back on business.
The actual laying of the devices took a day and a half of tiny hyper jumps, delicate maneuvering, and some space walking. There was little time for anything else except short naps and hurried meals. When they were done, Esther was pleased. "I believe that weíve done this in excellent time, people. Weíll head back to the space station and after a good nightís sleep, pick up the rest of the explosives and get them in place."
"Will," John said. "Load up the hyperdrive coordinates in the navigational computer and check the figures." The professor, if he had been inclined to do so, could probably have counted on both hands the number of times that he had spoken directly to Col. Black during the whole operation.
"Theyíre in, Dad."
John checked Willís figures. "Very good, son. Coordinate the jump with Don." John stood back and watched his son. Will followed the procedure, and soon the ship was in hyperspace. "Excellent, Will," he said, laying his hand on his sonís shoulder, squeezing it slightly. Will looked up at him, obviously well pleased with his fatherís praise.
Glancing over his shoulder, he informed Esther, "I will be down below in the cargo area for a short time. When we come out of hyperspace, the Jupiter II will be in the capable hands of Major West." Turning on his heel, he stalked to the access ladder, and was soon out of sight. Don and Judy looked after him curiously, while Maureen appeared ready to spit nails, which is the way she had looked during most of the trip in the asteroid belt.
"Colonel Black, may I speak privately with you? Major West really doesnít need our help right now, and there is something that I feel we need to discuss," Maureen told her. Nodding, Esther followed Maureen to the elevator and down to the next level.