Captain Bob Presents:
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Nick Drake stood on the bridge of the Queenfish. Twenty years had passed since he last saw Captain Bob, but he still kept a small token with him everywhere he went. The small lead vial contained something the captain said he had found when he was just a boy. The contents had changed Nick’s life.
The vial was designed with a special little window. A push of a button revealed the strangest red glow. Or was it orange? Or yellow? Nick never could figure out exactly what color it was. Even the grown-ups who saw it would jerk their head to an odd angle, push the button several times, then hand it back to Nick with a smile. “That’s a nice flashlight you have there, son.” But Nick could tell. The odd light puzzled them as much as him.
When Captain Bob handed it to him, he pointed to the sky. “I have been there, Nick. It was many years ago, but I have been there. I want you to make me a promise. Don’t stop believing until the light in this little container goes out.”
Nick pulled the vial from his pocket and clicked the button. It glowed. Of course he now knew what it was. A short distance from the planet Carel, in the brutal center of the Milky Way where star clusters still battled and raged for dominance, lay fields of rich fissionable fuel. Mined properly, with the reaction already underway, it was priceless; Carel had enough to power an entire galaxy.
But there was a problem. The Carelians, the only intelligent life in this part of the galaxy, held it a crime to mine fission fuel. Where the Carelians lived, the stability of planets could not be taken for granted. Life here required rigid adherence to a specific set of rules. Everyone was assigned a position at birth and was expected to do their duty to the very letter of the law. Any infraction meant death.
The Carelians had determined the mining and transport of fission fuel too much of a risk for them to bear. Only one mistake, the smallest mistake, and their entire culture would end in a measureless flash of infinitesimal time.
When Nick first found the Carelians, he doubted them to be an intelligent life form. Their pontificating upon his arrival had amused him; these small, powerless creatures demanding he follow their rules. Politics being what they were, other forces obliged him to obey.
Yet Nick Drake’s luck surpassed any captain who ever flew this quadrant. He knew how to steer a space ship, and he learned how to navigate around the rules. He returned the vial to his pocket, his good luck ritual complete, and signaled to the helmsman. “Take her by.”
Ben Manson nodded, and pressed gently forward on the lever under his right hand — the only right hand Nick trusted. Only his friendship with Ben had survived these many years. The bulky freighter objected to the tender caresses, but finally conceded to the laws of physics and began a clumsy, rumbling slide past the planet.
If people could just steal fission fuel, they would. Unfortunately, Carel lay on the only navigable path in and out of the star clusters. As soon as someone found another way in, or found another cluster capable of mining, Carel would be out of business.
A light began to blink on the panel before Nick. He looked down at the console to watch the clock. At the proper moment, he opened the radio channel. “Queenfish requesting permission to pass.”
“Who rides the Queenfish?”
It didn’t matter who worked the controls on Carel’s surface. Everyone knew the captain of the Queenfish. Nick sighed, tired of performing this ritual for... he quickly did some counting on his fingers... for the six-hundred and thirty-third time.
“This is Captain Nick Drake.”
“Are all quadrants secure, Captain Drake?”
“All quadrants secure.”
“Any passengers, Captain Drake?”
“Yes. One.” He looked to his right where a Taelar wrapped blue tentacles around nervous eye stalks. “Slethos of Taelarot.”
“Please provide proper credentials.”
Nick operated his computer to transmit a copy of the Taelar deed. While it may be illegal to transport fission fuel, it was not illegal to rent sections of the star clusters so entrepreneurs could engage in ‘tourism’. The Carelians made a nice profit from the rent, and they hired Nick as the sole pilot authorized to carry tourists and their guides in and out of the clusters.
“Any souvenirs, Captain Drake?”
“None.” It was a lie. In the hold of the Queenfish lay three tons of fission fuel. The foul creature whose slimy skin ate at the leather on Nick’s deck chairs shook pathetically because he knew it was a lie.
Nick remained calm, because the Carelians knew it was a lie as well. Or, at least a few of them did. Whoever operated the radio from the planet’s surface knew. He would scan the Queenfish, and find no traces of illegal substances. He had never been asked to scan the Queenfish for a lead hull. He was not asked to deduce what a lead hull might be hiding. Like a good Carelian, he knew his place, and he only did what he was asked to do.
If Nick chose to lie, his conscience must bear the guilt. Carelian morals applied only to Carelians.
“You have permission to pass.”
The Taelar skin transpired into a pathetic yellow as his body flowed down into the chair, releasing a horrible stench.
“Ahh,” Ben objected. He turned to Nick. “I told you not to schedule me for flights with this walking bowl of jello.”
Nick smiled and shrugged.
The Queenfish shuddered.
“What was that?” The Taelar shot up in his chair, turning a fiery red.
“What was that?” Nick repeated the question to Ben as an undulating alarm filled the ship with a chest rattling buzz.
Ben scanned his gages, then turned to look at Nick, his face white as a sheet.
“I believe it was an asteroid,” Ben explained. “We’ve taken a hit in the aft quarter panel. We’re leaking.”
“Leaking!” Nick left his station, hurrying to Ben’s side. “Leaking what?”
“Fuel,” Ben answered.
Nick made his own quick assessment, and found Ben’s one word to summarize it all. They were leaking ship fuel at an astronomical rate. It would all be gone before they could repair the ship in flight. Asteroid hits were common in the star clusters, but they were not common to Nick Drake. His luck never gave out. Never.
“I don’t believe it!” He slammed a fist down onto the panel.
“Are we going to crash?” The alien’s warbling voice barely passed a whisper.
“Of course not,” Nick growled. “What kind of a captain do you think I am? We can set down on Carel for repairs.”
“So?” The creature chose his most obnoxious color.
“We’re leaking fuel.” Nick slapped the console, then pointed a finger at the Taelar. “Your fuel.”
* * *
Ben would be released. The Taelar would be released, though his deed would be revoked. Nick was the captain of the Queenfish, and he alone would bear the punishment. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the vial, and clicked the button. It glowed that strange reddish, orangeish... Nick heaved the vial against the wall.
“What is that blasted color?” Maybe the Taelar could describe it.
He dropped his head into his hands, trying to wipe away the anguish. He was going to die. It sounded so simple — so easy. The Carelians would figure something out. They didn’t need him. Maybe they would ask Ben to fly the repaired freighter back into the star cluster and replace the stolen, toxic material. They would have a new captain, and the galaxy would go on without a single notice that Nick Drake ever existed. No one cared. No one had ever cared. His worth didn’t last any longer than his access to the star clusters.
He was crying. He couldn’t believe he was crying. The pain in his chest grew and grew until he couldn’t bear it any longer. The small vial lay neglected in a corner. Maybe now was the time. Before releasing the container into Nick’s care, Captain Bob had made him promise never to break the little window. It didn’t matter now. Better to end it sooner than later.
Someone else was in the room. Nick’s head shot up. He quickly wiped away the tears to see an old, gray Carelian leaning on a walking stick. He was huge. At least, he was huge for a Carelian. He had to stoop to avoid the ceiling.
The old creature shuffled forward, his kind face fixed on Nick the whole time. “I told you never to puncture the window in that vial, or the results would be disastrous.”
“Captain Bob?” Nick couldn’t believe he was saying that name. It couldn’t be him. It simply couldn’t.
“Yes,” Captain Bob nodded. “I’m a Carelian. I told you my time on Earth was like foster care. Look at how tall I am. Too tall to live here. Too short to live there. No one ever found me a place. A Carelian with no plan to live by is... nothing.”
“I... What...? How did you get here?”
“I’m here to set you free,” Captain Bob said.
Nick shook his head. “They’ll never agree to it,” he said. “You should know that. Someone has to die for this crime.”
“Yes,” Captain Bob nodded, rubbing his beard. “This is quite a mess, and someone has to clean it up. Someone has to die. I’m here to pay your debts.”
Copyright © 2008 by Resha Caner