Yeah, the vastness of space is scary, but the vastness of death…is scarier.
I thought I’d have far more profound thoughts at the moment of my death.
Something the crew could quote to each other after I was gone. Something I could have Tackle record before I no longer had the strength to speak.
Maybe I would have, if I were dying of something more peaceful than an accidental-on-purpose laser blast to the gut. Maybe I would have, if it was only my life I was afraid for. Maybe I would have if I’d—
Laser blasts everywhere. Screaming and yelling. Distracting me. I was lying behind the bar now. Artificial gravity was glitching. Liquor was floating, dripping, and splashing everywhere. Glass was smashing and crashing.
Maze and Tackle were flanking me. They’d put their stunners away. But they still had weapons? They still had their shields on, but the indicator lights on their belts kept blinking between red and blue.
Off and on.
“How’s she doing, Bloom?” Tackle asked.
Bloom was kneeling next to me. She had one hand adjusting the controls on her communicator and the other on a field scanner that she was waving over my stomach. She had to keep putting the communicator down and trying to hold me in place without hurting me whenever gravity failed.
The communicator fritzed in and out. Chip’s voice came through, faded, dropped off altogether. I couldn’t make out what she was saying. Something about the ordinary matter transport.
So, Chip was trying to desperately slip through the bar’s shield and perform a dodgy ordinary matter transport to save my life.
“Massive particle fluctuations,” Chip said. And that was all before her voice dropped out again.
Ah, so that was why there was constant weapons fire. The malfunctions weren’t hitting us all at the same time.
I saw a glint of light above me, on the ceiling. It was growing brighter.
Was that the tunnel of the light I was supposed to travel when I left my mortal body?
But what about the rest of the crew?
How could I get them out of this?
How did I get them into it?
My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Only my latest assignment. Our assignment. Not mine alone.
I had dragged four other people into it, after all.
It had seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. A profitable idea.
We had taken assignments with minimal background information before. This one was different in two ways: the distance we had to travel, and the fact that there was more background information available than what was given to us.
Actually, there was a third thing. The criminal aspect.
That was too many things. But I went ahead anyway. I convinced my crew.
We were supposed to repossess something extremely precious from an elusive thief, something so precious that we wouldn’t be told what it was until we had proven that we could even find this thief.
We were give a list of his old aliases, last known appearance, and last known location. That’s where we would start, a little city in a distant sector.
He would be long gone, of course. Or that’s what was expected.
But in my experience, most sentient folks had some variation of an emotion or sentiment that was like nostalgia. So just in case we actually found the owner there, of whatever it was we were supposed to repossess, I planned to be ready.
We’d be traveling for almost three standard months. That was enough time to make plans, and back-up plans, and emergency plans. To run through scenarios, and try to “break” or “ruin” our plans.
By the time there was only a week or so left in our journey, we were in good shape. It had even stopped bothering me that we didn’t have all of the available information. Or that we might be traveling all that way, only to find out our quarry was closer to home.
I was starting to get antsy, and Tackle was the first to see it.
He suggested we rummage through some of the items that were in the black section of our repossession log. That meant the timeframe of reclamation had lapsed. We were free to sell, use, or scrap those items.
We usually tried to restore the items to their rightful owners anyway. It helped to build a good reputation, and good will with people who might help us out sometime. Sometimes the rightful owner had nothing to offer us but their thanks. But it still felt good to help someone recover something precious to them.
But…if we really couldn’t restore an item for some reason, we would typically keep it.
“I’ve been noticing the signs,” Tackle said, as we stood in the vault area of the aft cargo bay. “Of RCS.”
“Restless Captain Syndrome. This ship has a particularly bad case of it.”
I chuckled and slapped his elbow. He checked the manifest and found the compartment he was looking for.
Based on his background and expertise, I had fully expected Tackle to present me with some kind of strange sculpture with a profound meaning, or a drinking vessel from any ancient culture (although, he usually kept those for himself.)
So when he pulled out a device that looked like a shoulder strap, and another thing that looked like an emergency tool kit, I was surprised and intrigued.
Then he told me what it was.
“It’s an auto-massager and rejuvenation kit,” he said. “The perfect way for you to relax. It sparks a little—probably the reason it had to be repossessed, because it was recalled. But I think it’s safe enough to use if you’re careful.”
“Have you used it?”
Before he could answer, the ship jolted and then shuddered.
Ship communications beeped on, and Chip’s voice came over the speakers.
“Sorry about that, crew!”
Our engineer was apparently “testing something out.”
I needed her to be more specific than that, so I headed to engineering, shadowed by Tackle, who kept insisting that he would handle it.
I promised him that I would try the rejuvenation kit—but not the faulty massager—after I had a brief chat with Chip.
But I couldn’t shake him.
Not only did he follow me to engineering. But he told Chip about how I needed to relax.
So instead of telling her captain what she was doing with our ship, Chip joined in on the fun of suggesting various objects from our hoard of repossessed items that had caught her attention.
There was the packet of desiccated miniature organisms that she referred to as “sea monkeys,” a meditation crystal that could sing different songs, a boredom box, which was designed to quiet an overactive mind, a folded compact thing that looked like a mirror but seemed to be some kind of treatment device for the eyes…
If I didn’t stop her, she would have gone on and on. The saddest part of the job for Chip was when repossessed items had to be handed over. Most of them fascinated her, even simple crystals that weren’t grown on purpose.
Tackle chased me out of engineering with a lie that I chose to believe.
Apparently, Bloom was looking for me?
“No, I don’t have anything to report,” Bloom said.
I complained about Tackle’s attempts to get me to rest.
Bloom didn’t recommend that I tamper with the so-called “sea monkeys.” I was inclined to agree with our resident lifeforms expert. She suggested that I take long and slow meals. At our last stop, we stocked up on a variety of fresh and frozen items that were almost used up.
“We are still in our moments of luxury,” Bloom said. “But between now and our next destination, there are no supply stations—major, minor, rundown, out-of-the-way, you name it.”
That’s when I noticed something bubbling out of one of the five sample discs that were incubating in a suspension chamber against the far wall. Bloom had her back turned to it.
“What’s that?” I asked. “Bloom, is the quarantine protocol in place?”
“It is.” She turned around.
“When’s the last time you reviewed it? Tested it?”
I turned to the nearest console to help her look up the protocols. But that was when Tackle walked in and pulled me out of Bloom’s hair, assuring me that she had things under control.
Tackle bet me his wages for our current assignment that I wouldn’t be able to go to my quarters and just do nothing.
“I am quite capable of doing nothing,” I said.
“Not when you get like this. You’re in ‘priority assignment mode.’ It’s an intense—too intense—version of regular assignment mode.”
“I thought I had Restless Captain Syndrome.”
Tackle put a heavy arm around my shoulders. “No, it’s the ship that has the syndrome. You have ‘priority assignment mode’…condition. So, PAMC.”
“I’ll be happy to do nothing on our way back home, while the four of your run the ship for two months.”
Maze happened to walk by then. She’d been trying to get me to start taking walks too. Around the ship. Ours wasn’t a cramped ship, but it also wasn’t some kind of sprawling trawler. We were lucky we had ceilings tall enough for Tackle’s head to clear them. She started telling me about some exercise device in our repossession hold that generated virtual environments. The helmet even generated signals to the brain that could simulate any sensation.
“And I do mean any sensation,” Maze said with a wink.
Sadly for Tackle, Maze really did have something to show me.
Our cartographer had spotted some potential obstacles along our route that we hadn’t detected when we were farther away.
We’d already passed through several sectors that we were unfamiliar with, even through reports, and even through rumors. Didn’t mean those areas were dangerous. Just that they were unknown.
Mostly our route was empty space.
At one point we thought we were being chased, but it was a misunderstanding. When I decided to try talking to the other ship, they responded, and we cleared things up. It doesn’t always work, talking. But I wonder how much grief could be avoided if sentient people could just find a way to talk to each other reasonably.
We later traveled through a sector that looked pretty swanky. We checked the open repossession assignments. No such luck. We didn’t have authorization to handle that sector, or even to know what kind of business there was to be had there.
It turned out the obstacles that Maze identified weren’t a problem. One was an abandoned station. The other was an errant beacon.
Before we knew it, we were in the sector where our thief was last seen. A crowded sector with a few nice spots.
After a week of searching, we found our quarry.
He was a barkeep, as it turned out, of a pretty decent place near the edge of the sector, called the Cinna-bar. He’d changed his appearance again. He looked a bit like an outer Betelgeusian, only with thicker whiskers. But we confirmed enough physio-psychical parameters to identify him. So we sent the proof that we found him, and received the second part of our assignment, the information about what we were supposed to repossess.
I avoided telling the crew at first, but they knew I was expecting the message. I had to tell them. I had to tell them I’d make a huge mistake, and they would be paying for it.
That night, after dinner, we had a meeting, and we discussed, well, we argued over our next move. It wasn’t what we did. There had to be some ethical violation we could report as cause of non-completion. Some way for us to recoup the considerable costs of our journey to the sector.
“What are we supposed to do, take him prisoner?” Bloom asked. “We’re not prisoner transport.”
“We repossess objects,” Maze added, turning to Bloom, “and sometimes non-sentient lifeforms.”
But we’d come so far and used up so many resources under the promise of a rich payday. I was ready to abandon the mission and take the losses on myself. If I only kept what I needed for the basic necessities, I’d be done paying the crew back in a few standard years.
“They should have told us,” Tackle said, his fist balled up and resting on the table. “They should have told us everything before we made the choice to take the assignment.”
“That was my fault,” I said. “I made a mistake by taking that risk. My guess is that they’d been honest with other teams, and they’d been refused.”
“Or maybe the only ones who would take such a job, knowing all the details, were…unsavory types,” Bloom said.
Tackle unclenched his fist and leaned toward me. “There are some things we don’t have the right to repossess.”
Chip got up and started pacing. “Maybe this guy is a really terrible person, a war criminal or something.”
“All the more reason they should have told us.” Maze sighed. “We’re just a bunch of regular folks. We can’t go up against someone like that.”
We eventually agreed to do something, something other than completing or abandoning the assignment. We agreed to go in and gather more information. We’d been watching. But we’d never entered the bar. We’d never talked to the barkeep or the bar patrons, or even anyone who seemed to be passing through.
We were deviating from the plan, and the back-up plan, and the emergency plan.
So we made a new plan. The new plan was simple. Gather information, and don’t be noticed.
“The bar doesn’t ban arms,” Tackle said, as I docked the ship a short ways outside the bar. “We’ll each take a stunner, just in case.”
We went into the bar in twos. I was with Bloom. We went up to the bar, got drinks, and did a pretty good job of playing it cool. I was proud of Bloom. She refrained from commenting on whatever variety of mold was growing on the crackers set out at intervals along the bar. Well, she refrained from saying anything to anyone else.
“Maybe that’s just the way they’re prepared,” I said.
She whispered back. “If you value the integrity of your intestinal tract, I suggest you refrain from indulging.”
Tackle and Maze came in after us. Chip remained aboard the ship. There was a shield around the bar that blocked ordinary matter transport. Ironically, it was meant for theft-prevention.
We knew the barkeep was on duty that shift. I saw him and smiled, but said nothing. Bloom was the one who struck up a conversation with him, asking about the crackers (but not the mold). She told him that she was new to the sector, exploring an option for a new job—close enough to the truth, especially in casual conversation.
Things seemed to be going well.
I heard a crash behind me. My heart leapt. Tackle and Maze were behind me somewhere. Turning to them might give us all away. I turned instead to the source of the sound, and saw it was nowhere near where my other crewmates were.
Two patrons had risen from their chairs. I hadn’t heard any arguments, but it had been loud in the bar before that moment. But within that moment, a ripple of silence spread out from those two people, who were now face to face. There was a platter of food upturned on the ground between them. It lay in a puddle of some kind of dark ale. Friends tried to hold them back, but the angry patrons only got angrier, fast. I’d seen guards when we first came in, but they seemed to be gone.
I swiveled away, turning to the barkeep, and I asked if he could call for help. The barkeep’s whiskers were twitching erratically. His hands trembled. But he nodded, and reached for the bar’s primary communicator.
A high-pitched burst made my heart leap again. Something shattered.
More shots were fired—and not all of them from stunners. I could hear the sharp pitch of a killing beam.
Chaos broke loose. Screams and crashing and clattering. Some people ran or rolled or zoomed away. Some pulled out their own weapons.
Before I could grab Bloom and pull her down to the ground, an alarm starts blaring.
The bar computer’s voice rotated through various common languages, warning about disruptions to the shield.
Bloom and I fell to our knees. We turned on our shields. They wouldn’t last long. I scanned the crowd for Tackle and Maze.
“Captain! We should try to get the barkeep to safety,” Bloom said. “Maybe he’ll talk to us if we help him.”
I grabbed her arm. “I don’t think so.” The indicator on her belt was red. Her shield wasn’t on. Mine was still blue.
I turned to find an opening, and I saw him standing in front of us.
The barkeep didn’t seem to be worried about all the weapons fire behind and around him. I saw the blinking blue light on his belt. He was shielded.
And he was holding a weapon on us.
Gravity failed. I felt myself stomach drop as I started to float up.
The barkeep kept his footing.
Bloom saw him now too.
“Repossessors, right?” he said. “I recognized you as soon as you walked into my bar. I will not give up a single thing.”
“Sure,” I said, keeping my hands in view. Gravity resumed, and I dropped to the floor. “We’ll leave you alone. No repossession is worth our lives.”
“It’s too late. You’ve seen me. I never wanted to leave. I like running this place, but now you’ve got me on the run. You’ve taken my life. And for that, I have to take yours.”
He turned his weapon to Bloom. She wasn’t shielded. I was. I threw myself in front of Bloom. Gravity failed again.
My shield failed.
I saw a bright glow.
And then I saw Tackle with his arms around the barkeep. Maze wrenched the barkeep’s weapon away.
Tackle let go, and the barkeep slipped away. Something was wrong with Tackle. He was holding his arms up, straight in front of him, stiff, like a doll.
Random weapons fire. Crashing glass.
He’d been hit by a stunner. That was lucky.
I had not been hit by a stunner.
“Report,” I said. I didn’t hear my own word.
But Bloom did. Her face was above mine, only sideways. “Thank the universe! She’s conscious.”
Maze knelt beside me. “Barkeep got away. I swear I hit him, but—”
“You did hit him,” Tackle said. He was kneeling behind Maze. His arms weren’t stiff anymore. I must have slipped away for a moment. “The stunner didn’t work on him.”
“Shield,” I offered.
“Yes, he has a shield, and his shield is working continuously.”
“Gravity disengaged again, and we were swept off our feet,” Maze added. “It came back on. We all dropped. We lost sight of him.”
Maze and Tackle explained to Bloom and to me that they saw what happened. That bar fight was no sudden spontaneous burst. It was on purpose, as if it were planned. And the shield and gravity fluctuations would only happen if the stabilizer tower and its back-up had both been destroyed or disabled. There was no way that could happen through random weapons fire from the bar.
“This must be his escape plan,” Tackle said. “These are distractions. So he could get away.”
“After killing us, and hiding our murders with the bar fight,” Bloom said.
“I see a few people out there keeping the fight going, keeping some of us trapped in here,” Tackle said.
Bloom, Tackle, and Maze were gathered around me. Bloom was tending to my wound, which was probably very bad, because I didn’t feel anything, and I couldn’t seem to move.
Tackle and Maze had put their stunners away. But they still had weapons? Simpler weapons. A small hammer for Maze, and a dagger for Tackle.
And they still had their shields active, but the indicator lights on their belts kept blinking between red and blue.
Off and on.
“How’s she doing, Bloom?” Tackle asked.
Chip’s voice came through the communicator that Bloom had just set down.
“Massive particle fluctuations,” Chip said. Then her voice dropped out.
I saw a glint of light on the ceiling above.
“We’re trying to get Chip to transport us out of here, starting with you,” Tackle said to me. “She says there have been no calls for the authorities coming out of the bar. She sent one, but there was no confirmation response. She set it to resend automatically while she works on the transportation.”
“You know why the ordinary matter transport isn’t working?” I said.
“Captain, it’s alright.” Maze put a hand on my shoulder. I saw it, but couldn’t feel it. “Let Chip handle it.”
I tried a smile. “Because we’re made of extraordinary matter.”
There was a pause, then Maze grinned down at me.
“Hell yeah, Captain.”
Bloom nodded. “Well said.”
Tackle only smiled a fake smile, a mouth-but-not-eyes smile.
That glint of light on the ceiling was growing brighter. Was that the tunnel of the light I was supposed to travel when I left my mortal body?
It wasn’t. There was no glow of light. It was a reflection. On the surface of a weapon. From the one place the others weren’t looking.
“Capture,” I said. I’d used up all my energy on a joke. They had all looked so worried.
I had a back-up plan. Something that I planned to do without consulting my crew, so they wouldn’t have to feel guilty. But at the last minute, I’d told them about it. Because not telling them meant that I didn’t trust them, and that I trusted myself too much. Not telling them meant it wasn’t a plan, but a secret.
“No!” I cried, when I saw the barkeep appear, above us, from an opening in the ceiling. He looked right down at me, knowing that the others hadn’t heard my weak cry above the crashing, smashing, blasting sounds of the bar fight. He aimed his weapon. I couldn’t move my limbs.
Something dark moved into my field of vision.
My back-up plan.
Not a weapon. But a trap.
A harmless thing. A laughable thing.
One of my crew was holding up the boredom box, another was orienting it, and the third turned it on.
I saw the look of surprise on the barkeep’s face. A face that went slack and blank.
Someone pulled me away, and I closed my eyes against the glittering of particles in friction.
I felt a groan wanting to happen, but I was too tired to make sounds. I opened my sticky eyelids and blinked a few times. I frowned, just a little. I felt woozy. I was hesitant to turn my head. So I just rolled my eyes around and confirmed that I was in our medical bay.
I heard the soft beeping of a non-urgent priority alert.
Bloom walked over and turned it off. She smiled down at me. “She lives.”
I didn’t have the energy to smile back. Not with my whole face. I told my lips to move and they twitched weakly.
Bloom alerted the others. And in the moments it took them to make their way over, I woke up.
Maze and Chip just wanted to know how I was feeling. Tackle must have seen that I was ready to find out what they’d been up to while I was unconscious.
He assured me that he and the rest of the crew were all well. None of them had gotten injured before Chip activated the transport.
They had all transported to the ship, only wanting to get me to the medical bay at first. But Tackle ordered that we stayed docked in orbit around the bar. They were worried that the barkeep might hunt us down. So once Bloom and I were back aboard, Tackle and Maze went back and secured the barkeep. He had dropped to the floor, mesmerized by the boredom box, clutching it and frowning, as if in a daze that he wanted to break but couldn’t.
We had successfully repossessed the barkeep’s freedom.
With me out of action, Tackle reported to our bosses, asking for further guidance, and reporting that I was in critical condition thanks to that assignment. The bar fight was stopped when the sector’s authorities finally arrived. But even as they were arriving, an executive repossession ship appeared, and they took the barkeep into custody with a “well done” for Tackle to pass on to the rest of his crew.
He threatened to log a complaint for not being given adequate warning about the dangers of the assignment. They gave him a device to put on our ship to indicate that we had diplomatic immunity on our way back home, and access to any resources we needed to get me back on my feet.
“It’s going to take a few months,” Bloom said. “But I’m hopeful you will get back on your feet.”
“Just happy to be alive,” I said. “And not in too much pain.”
“I’m going to see how far I can milk it,” Tackle said. “I think I can get us a hefty bonus.”
I sighed and sat up a little. “I’m glad the rest of you didn’t pay for my mistake. No more jobs without knowing all the details.”
“Maybe we should just break off and form our own company,” Maze said.
“Except now you all probably think that shooting me is the only way to get me to rest. Trust me, it isn’t.”
Tackle smiled, a real smile, a using-his-whole-face smile.
“Then what other way is there?” Chip asked.
“There are many. This is one of them.” I was feeling more awake by the minute, and starting to feel a persistent ache in my side. “Gather round, kids. Tackle isn’t the only one who’s going to milk it. As long as I’m in this sickbed, you all have no good choice but to spend time bonding with me, eating snacks, and watching the scariest movies I can summon up from our database.”
Tackle’s smile vanished. He glanced at the medical console and asked Bloom if he could give me more sedatives. But I didn’t need any. I would rest easy.
I had questions stirring in my mind. I always did. But the most important one was answered when my whole crew, alive and well, piled into the room where I was mending, also alive and on my way to well.
And ready to face the vastness of space.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel