Subtle Differences

 


            Zachary Smith did not know what to make of John Robinson and Don West. On the one hand, they appeared fair-minded and reasonable, especially Robinson. On the other hand, they seemed quite up to punching his lights out, and threatened to do so on a regular basis. Smith had suffered a near miss with that unpleasant possibility shortly after the crash onto Priplanus. Aware that Smith had tried to kill him by tampering with the parajets, Robinson had taken aggressive strides toward Smith immediately upon reentering the Jupiter II. Only West's warning that Smith controlled the Robot stopped Robinson. West stopping Robinson: that was ironic, since time and additional incidents had convinced Smith that the reverse was the more standard occurrence. And now, only a few weeks after the crash, days after the abortive attempt of the space raft, Smith was watching his own worst nightmare come true for someone else.

            The rather annoying humanoid alien, Zelar, had gone beyond his naturally quarrelsome style, and had reached the point of openly challenging Robinson and West. As Smith watched tensely, the two men responded in kind, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. Robinson's and West's angry tones were making Smith distinctly nervous, even though he knew they were directed at someone other than him. He stood off to one side, determined to keep well out of the fray. As the two men's tempers rose, so did Smith's anxiety.

            At last, Zelar made one obnoxious remark too many, and Smith instinctively knew that it was a toss-up as to which of his two comrades would throw the first punch. Just a random fraction faster than his companion, Robinson drew back and struck the furious, foolish visitor, knocking him flat. Zelar was no fighter, and, realizing now that he was in over his head, made no further provocational moves.

            Almost unconsciously, Smith flinched at the sharp cracking blow that Robinson had delivered to Zelar. Taking one self-conscious step back, Smith slid his wincing, frowning eyes from Zelar's misery on the ground, to Robinson's flashing eyes and bulging muscles. Despite Robinson's steadily enraged stare locked on Zelar, and his complete oblivion toward Smith, the latter experienced pronounced discomfort.

            But West was not oblivious to Smith, just the opposite. He was studying him. And he was interpreting Smith's uncomfortable feelings with great accuracy. A slow grin spread across his face. He chuckled softly.

            The spell broken by the sound, Robinson turned to look a question at West, with brows raised. Then he followed West's gaze to Smith.

            "What's the matter, Smith?" West teased. "You don't like seeing that?" To Robinson, West explained, "It frightens Smith to see somebody get what he knows he himself deserves." He stepped over to Smith, and tauntingly plucked at his arm. "Did that make you just a little bit nervous, uh?"

            Smith endured West's tormenting without a word of protest, intimidated as he was. He resented it, but he dared not show his resentment lest the major really get angry with him as well. But as he stood there placidly staring at the ground, Smith wistfully suspected that if the situation had been reversed: if the major had struck Zelar, and if the professor had seen Smith's unplanned reaction, Smith would not have been tormented.

            Suddenly, with a start, Smith remembered the gadget that he had swindled out of another alien one day earlier. It was still in his pocket. A device which allowed its possessor to explore "the road not taken." One had only to program it for a specific alternate possibility, and one would have the opportunity to experience the results of said change. Of course, the operator had to return the setting to "null" afterward, to return to the real time-line that had actually transpired.

            Without meeting West's eyes, Smith pulled non-belligerently out of the major's non-restraining grasp, and wandered away from him. Apparently satisfied, at least for a time, with his effect on Smith, the younger man let him go.

            Carefully keeping his back to the men, Smith eased out the gadget, set the new condition, and pressed the button.

            Instantly, Smith once again faced the argumentative ruckus of the three men. Quickly, he became distinctly uneasy with the shouting again, just as he had before, despite his best efforts to remain calm.

            Presently, Zelar repeated his foolish remark. Just a random fraction faster than his companion, West drew back, and slammed his fist into Zelar, knocking him flat. Wisely, the alien stayed on the ground.

            Unable to resist the overpowering impulse to let his eyes slide, wincing, from Zelar's hurt form to West's flaring eyes and formidable muscles, Smith relived his anxious, miserable previous response, even stepping irresistibly backward just as hed done the first time.

            Then he forced his eyes away from West, to look at Robinson. Sure enough, the professor was totally aware of Smith's feelings; he was watching him openly. As he saw Smith look back at him, he favored Smith with a wry smile. Like West, Robinson could appreciate the ironic humor in Smith's fearful reaction. But then his eyes softened in an expression of unmistakable sympathy and pity and tolerance. And when Robinson's eyes returned to West, they were cleared of all expression, and were once again neutral and businesslike. The matter of Smith was not even mentioned.

            Shortly thereafter, alone with Robinson in the control room, Smith said, "I want to thank you."

            "For what?" Robinson asked, although he suspected that he knew.

            "For not telling Major West that I was afraid. That I was taking his attack on Zelar entirely too personally."

            "That's quite all right, Smith." Robinson glanced up from his seat at navigation.

            "I knew you were a man of honor, Sir." Smith spoke from his position near the hatch.

            "I just wanted to keep the peace. If Don had seen your display, he would have tormented you." The professor's brows rose in emphasis.

            "I'm sure he would have," Smith stressed, with conviction beyond any the professor could possess. Then Smith went on, "But he was busy. Hurting our adversary," he finished with disdain.

            "Well, you may not approve of the method, Smith," Robinson countered, "but it gets the job done. I've done it myself many times."

            With ironic certainty, Smith replied, "Indeed you have."

            Robinson went on, "If Don hadn't hit Zelar, I would have."

            "Yes, you would have; I know. But the major likes to rub it in that I have been spared, by both of you. So far. Shall I always be?" Smith couldn't keep his voice from trembling at the end.

            "I don't know, Smith," Robinson admitted, "If you ever push us too far, I can't even predict which one of us will throw the first punch."

            Smith gulped. "Neither can I." He knew that, for obvious reasons, he would not care to replay that possible future scene for its alternate possibility, no matter how curious he might be. He eyed the professor pleadingly. "But its my fervent wish that we'll never find out."

            "For your sake, I hope not, too," Robinson replied evenly.

            "Do you have even the slightest idea how terrified I am?"  Smith's fingers fidgeted.

            "Yes. I think I have some idea." Robinson nodded as he made a few notes on a pad.

            "To the major, it's all just a game. But I would do absolutely anything to get out of it. I take this very seriously, you know."

            "I know you do. So do I." Robinson's eyes rose again from his work, to meet Smith's.

            "I know that you do, Professor. And I'm very grateful for that. If you two were to beat me," he stumbled slightly on the words, "it would not be a laughing matter."

            "No. It wouldn't be." Robinson put the pad down and turned in his chair to fully face the older man.

            Smith took a step forward, "Tell me that you wouldn't beat me."

            "I can't do that," Robinson answered softly.

            "Then, reassure me that you won't let the major do so." Smith pleaded.

            "I can't promise that, either." Robinson shook his head firmly.

            "Oh," Smith whispered.

"But I will join you in hoping that it does not happen."

            "Thank you."

            Smith went back outside, and with a sigh of regret, pushed the "null" button. Before he'd even turned, he knew instinctively that behind him Zelar would be writhing on the ground, that Robinson would be standing over him, and that not far from them would be a greatly-amused West leering at Smith, enjoying his teasing-triumph over the older man.  Smith turned reluctantly, and sadly confirmed all three normal-time conditions.  But then he did something that he had not managed to do the first time around, while West was taunting him: he looked straight at Robinson for his reaction to Smith's torment at West's hands.

            And there it was, unmistakably, in this time-line, too: sympathy, pity, patience, tolerance, even tenderness in Robinson's eyes.

            Smith's heart was warmed.       

 


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