On deep space voyages things can get pretty strained, but it was the first time I'd had a situation like this.

"I'm afraid he's lost it, Captain," Wheeler was saying. Wheeler is the ship's engineer, a stooped, crabbed individual but good at his job.

"Lost what?" I demanded. I don't have much patience with officers who don't speak directly.

"Lost his mojo." Wheeler's thin lips stretched into a grin.

"You mean--?"

"Yes. Matt can't lock on. Just can't get into it at all, he says."

I looked at Wheeler's face, gnome-like with its ho

oked nose and chin, and suddenly detested him. I work out, keep myself in shape even in space, and I've no time for people who neglect their bodies. Controlling myself, I said, "What do you suggest, Wheeler? I suppose we can't go on auto?"

"Certainly we can't, sir, the manual's clear on that. Anyway, the drive's not built for it -- would take us for ever." He drew up his thin shoulders with relish. "We'll just have to fire Matt up somehow."

"And how do you propose we do that, Wheeler?"

"I don't know, sir. Perhaps the first mate would have some ideas." And his lips twisted again in a malicious grin.

#

Later in my cabin I called Imogen, the first mate. While waiting, I remembered an old captain I'd met in my training days who lamented the passing of the automated drive. The drive was reliable, or if anything went wrong it was repairable. But now! -- the captain threw up his hands -- everything was touchy-feely telekinetic stuff. Of course a drive couldn't take us to the stars, but was it worth it when we got there? All worlds were the same. And did a captain still need to have to have an engineering degree? A stint at magic school more like it!

My generation had grown up with the telekineticists. For me, it did not seem strange that someone with special power like Matt provided the main thrust for our voyage. It's back to nature, in a way. But that didn--'t mean I liked him. Matt -- slim, almost feminine in his soft jumpers -- had his own nature and I had mine; I left him to Wheeler as much as I could. That had worked on the outbound voyage, but now, almost a month into the return, he was not performing. I couldn't avoid the issue any longer.

What did you do with a telekineticist who couldn't perform, who couldn't meld with the ship and accelerate it towards its destination? I'd heard them speak about their work, of course. The one on my last ship used to compare it to fixation on a woman. Without desire you couldn't function, he said: you had to have a hard-on for the planet you were aiming at or you couldn't focus the energy. I never asked how women telekineticists found it.

There was a knock on my cabin door. "Come in," I said.

It was Imogen. A hard-bitten woman, forties, had left a husband on a planetoid somewhere.

But you have to be pretty screwed-up to survive in space. I cleared my throat. "You know Matt's not getting into it?"

"Yes, I know,"Imogen said.

She was hardly more forthcoming than Wheeler. Why did I get officers like this?

I tried again. "So, what do you think we should do?"

"You're the captain." Her lips were pursed.

This wasn't getting us very far. "Imogen," I said.

"Sir?"

"If I may speak directly --" Then I hesitated. How to put it? "You see -- I mean -- it's like this. . . ." I stuttered to a halt.

Imogen was looking at me disdainfully.

I pulled myself together. "You know what it means if Matt can't perform? We're effectively stranded. So we have to -- ah -- refresh him. Unless you feel like taking a quick course in telekinesis yourself?"

Imogen didn't smile.

"So, given that it is an emergency, we have to consider desperate measures," I continued, beginning to sweat. "And I expect you to play your part."

Imogen looked as if I had just offered her a rotten tomato.

I couldn't control myself anymore. "Dammit, woman, you've got to help him get it up!"

#

That broke the floodgates. I was given a five-minute harangue which ranged through terms like 'sexist voyeur' and 'puerile inadequate', and ended with 'pathetic middle-aged fart'.

I let it wash over me. I wouldn't have exactly welcomed the assignment in her place.

Then Imogen suddenly became practical. "Look, George," (the 'Captain' thing had gone) "I'm too old for it. Do you think he wants someone like this?" She held out her thin arms, glanced down at her meagre figure. I stepped back and gave her a frank appraisal. She was lean, almost wiry, not my kind of woman at all, but she had the energy and in her way, if you looked at her through half-closed eyes, she was almost hot. "Imogen, I don't agree," I said. "You've still got it. Really."

Imogen was caught off-guard by the compliment. Recovering, she tried denial.

"No," I insisted, "you absolutely can do it. Just put on something softer, something low-cut. . . ."

Imogen tried again. "Don't you think someone else would do it better? Someone like Freda?"

Freda the comms operator was twenty-five -- big, buxom and brutal. Space doesn't attract the soft submissive type. "No, honestly, I don't think she would," I said.

"And there's another thing, Imogen." I paused for effect. "Leadership. You know what the manual says. ''Don't give an order unless you'd be prepared to carry it out yourself.'"

Imogen's eyes flashed. "Wheeler! The bastard put you up to it. That scrawny-arsed, masturbatory, shrivelled old. . . ."

I let her go on for a while. It was interesting how closely her view of Wheeler matched my own.

Then Imogen tried another tack. "What about porn, George? We've got a good range of holos, and I bet Wheeler has a stash --"

"Let's leave Wheeler out of this."

"We could get the old lizard to make a dummy for him, some sort of fantasy doll. . . ."

"Imogen," I said as patiently as I could, "We're a month out. If porn would help Matt, we'd be on our way already. Everything's been tried. We are at the end of artifice. Only the real thing will do."

Imogen looked at me with hate in her eyes. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"No, I'm just trying to do my job." I couldn't meet her gaze. "You've been around long enough to know how tight things get on long voyages. Remember the Gliese mission -- how the hydroponics failed, and in the end they had to eat each other? The captain called them together and they drew lots -- and he went first. We haven't got to that."

"Thanks for the perspective," Imogen said. She turned to leave.

"Honestly," I said, "I'm sympathetic. But it's a job only a woman can do."

She was already out of the door. "I'll mention it in despatches," I called after her. "In an appropriate manner, of course."

#

I'm getting impatient now, so I go to talk to Matt myself. Yet the soft tones, the jumper, the single earring -- and he even puts a hand on my arm. Creepy! If I had my way, I'd put him and the whole damn crew on calisthenics and cold showers. But you have to humour the telekineticists. I stump out before I say anything I shouldn't. He was even wearing some sort of eye-liner!

So I have to rely on Wheeler. I would keep him out of the whole thing, but somehow he gets on well with Matt, so I have no choice. I tell him to stay out of Imogen's way, and hope for the best.

Wheeler reports that Imogen did visit Matt, 'suitably attired' as he puts it, and stayed in his cabin for a good hour. It sounds enough for a conjugal visit -- if the right things are happening during that hour. But are the right things happening? Or are the two of them just playing cards?

Whatever is happening, there are no results. The ship doesn't shudder in the telekineticist's grip. We don't feel the acceleration as it is flung through the void. There is no breakthrough.

Is Matt malingering? Or is he playing the field? I begin to think again of Freda. Perhaps Matt has a taste for brutality, a sado-masochistic streak? Or perhaps under those soft jumpers there is a demonic nature waiting to be unleashed? And there are other women in the crew. I draw up a list and play around with the order.

After a couple more days, I can't stand it any longer, and call Imogen to my cabin.

"I don't mean to pry, but I must know if you're -- ah -- making progress," I say, as delicately as I can.

Imogen looks at me in a way that I don't quite like. "I was just about to come and report."

"Well, here we are, here we are, let's hear your report then!" I say, trying to quell my irritation. "How is the -- ah -- patient responding to treatment?"

Imogen smiles. She seems to be working out what to say.

"I suppose you are treating him?" I say. "As we discussed?" Imogen nods.

"And is it working?" I can hardly contain myself.

"Oh yes, it's working," Imogen says. She seems almost dreamy.

What on earth is happening? Has she fallen in love with him? Can't anyone on this ship speak directly? "So -- so when will he be able to perform?"

Imogen looks at me again in that not very nice way. "That depends."

"Depends on what?" I exclaim. "Dammit! I mean, please Imogen, be clear!"

"It depends on you," Imogen says calmly.

"On me?"

"Yes," Imogen says. "Matt expressly asked for you, George."

"He asked for me!?"

"Yes, George." She steps back and looks me up and down, and smiles ironically. "He guarantees it will work. You see, Matt is -- well, how shall I put it? I guess he's thinking of a threesome. . . ."

--End--

CONTENTS

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