“Will you be out long?” Sev asked from his arm chair.
Ever since his children had moved out of the house he had kept a constant eye on me, as if scared I’d run off too, leaving him alone.
“I need to go to the market to get generator parts,” I reminded, as I put on my sandals. “If I don’t show up he’ll sell them to someone else. And then you’ll complain that you have to repair it every week.”
“I know that!” Sev snapped, then turned away, pretending to be reading the local paper. “I just wanted to know when dinner will be ready.”
The same old excuse. He was too proud to admit he wanted me nearby, but too selfish to keep silent about it. With age the line between complaints and compliments had eroded to the point that most couldn’t tell the two apart.
“I’ll be back before dark.” I straightened my dress and opened the door. “Do you want anything from the market?” I glanced over my shoulder.
“Nah,” Sev grumbled, hiding his face behind the paper.
“See you later.”
“And get some antibiotics!” I heard Sev shout as I stepped outside. “But don’t pay too much!”
“Sure thing.” I set off.
The grass tickled my toes as I walked. After a few minutes I took off my sandals. Sev would have a tantrum if he ever found out. The last time he had gone on a tirade about the dangers of walking barefoot. I had promised him never to do it again, but we both knew that was a lie. I liked walking barefoot, especially here in the countryside where glass and asphalt hadn’t left their mark. Maybe I’d pick some flowers on my way back. For the moment, though, I had to get the parts.
It was an hour’s walk to the market. I could see the transport station several miles away, standing like a steel block in the middle of the field. Locals and off-worlders used it to get here so they could trade. The trader I had arranged to meet with was supposed to be at lot five—one of those closest to the station.
Lot one-one-seven, lot one-one-five...
I made my way between the stalls. Most of them were the same I’d see every season. A few had gone as far as to erect makeshift shops to save them the trouble to set up a tent every time.
Lot forty-one, lot thirty-nine...
Most of the fruit was going out of season. The prices were twice their normal rate. Another few weeks and they’d start disappearing altogether. It didn’t bother me. We had more than enough processed food to last the rainy season. Sev would complain, of course, but he always complained.
Lot five! I stopped at the edge of the market. The trader hadn’t bothered set up a tent, instead leaning against a large metal container, reading from his datapad. The moment he noticed me, he stood up.
“Elcy?” he asked.
“That’s me.” I offered a smile.
“Sorry, I was expecting someone older.” The man tilted his head. He was in his late thirties, short and pale, standing out like a snowstorm in summer. I could tell he had spent a long time in space: his muscles weren’t used to normal gravity, making him gasp for air as he spoke.
“I get that a lot.” I put my sandles on the ground and took out Sev’s credit card. “Did you come here just because of my order?”
“Nope.” He took the card and swiped it through his datapad. “Most of the stuff was sold out before you arrived. Your parts are the only thing left.” He handed me back the card and lent me the datapad so I could type in my security code. “You don’t get a lot of cargo ships here, do you?”
“We manage.” I put the card away. “There isn’t that much that we need that’s off-world.”
“Well, handle with care.” The merchant tapped the crate. “I’d offer to help you carry it, but...” he didn’t finish the sentence. We both knew what he meant. “Maybe see you in a few years.” He waved and headed for the transport station.
There were no cheap antibiotics at the market place. I was careful to check all the stalls, but the only tablets I found were so overpriced that Sev would only get annoyed with me for wasting money. Knowing him he probably already was annoyed, pacing the room, grumbling.
“Time to take you home.” I dragged the container through the market. It felt light for its size. My only regret was that I had to put my sandals back on.
As I made my way through the fields something flickered in the sky. I looked up. A shining grain of light passed above the sunset, leaving this world for another. Maybe it was the merchant I’d bought the parts from? From this distance there was no way to tell.
I felt a shiver pass through me. I used to be like that once. Even after all this time I still missed the touch of vacuum...
* * *
“How are you holding up, girl?” Cass asked. She’d been my captain for half a decade, ever since she graduated the academy. “Surviving the boredom of patrol?”
“Barely,” I responded, while performing a deep sensor scan. “I still don’t approve of you bringing your family along.”
“Command gave the okay. Besides, what do you care? After this flight I’ll be transferred off and you’ll get a new replacement to annoy.”
I shut off all the lights on the bridge. Cass only laughed. She knew my tricks, just as she knew I wasn’t being serious. When she was first assigned to me I couldn’t stand her. She was a bratty cadet fresh from the academy that didn’t know up from down, while I had been called from the frontlines so full of holes that asteroids could float through two of my decks. My previous captain had survived along with the majority of the crew, but in light of the catastrophic event he had put in a request that I be reassigned to patrol duty. I had appealed, but it hadn’t made a difference. The opinion of a ship is rarely taken into consideration.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting soft on me.” Cass switched on the lights manually.
“Of course not,” I protested. “I’m worried about the civilians. I don’t want them to suffer because of your decisions.”
“Heh. I bet you don’t want them scurrying through your decks.”
That wasn’t entirely untrue. I didn’t like to have civilians in me. No battle cruisers did.
“Thanks, though.” Cass patted her control panel. “It means a lot coming from you.”
“Now who’s getting soft?”
“Do you think about it? Getting decommissioned, I mean. Humans are easy—most of us don’t get more than one tour in space. You stay on.”
“They call us space ships for a reason.”
“I know, but is it worth it? You’ve been through two decades of wars, nearly got destroyed twice, had more captains than I’ve had boyfriends... don’t you think it’s time to retire?”
Cass had no idea what she was talking about, and how could she? She was human, more different than the patrol ships I had been forced to serve with. War and void for her were reduced to pictures on a screen.
“I like the touch of vacuum,” I evaded the question. There was no point in getting her upset on her last day. “Are we good to jump to the next waypoint?”
“Can’t wait to get rid of me, can you?” Cass performed a manual deep space scan. Security protocols required that both ship and captain did the scan of each zone before moving on. “All seems good. Ready for jump?”
“Very funny.” Only she could initiate the jump, and still she’d ask me every time. It was as if she was trying to establish something deeper than the standard captain-ship partnership. Cute, but useless. In a few hours she’d be gone and I’d have to restart the cycle with some other newbie from the academy.
“Here we go.”
A single tap of the button and reality twisted around me to infinity. A split second later my hull exploded. My internal sensors showed Cass getting thrown out of her chair, as I went into full diagnostic mode. Life support, structural integrity, and system stability were checked and rechecked. Fortunately they were in the green. Long-range scanners weren’t. I immediately launched all physical and AI countermeasures, while my subsystems assessed the damage.
“Sev.” I heard Cass groan as the medbots surrounded her. The impact had cracked two of her ribs.
“Don’t speak, your family is fine,” I lied. A large part of my internal sensors were unreliable, preventing me from knowing for certain. “And don’t move. You might have complications.”
“Mines.” I tried to send out a distress call, but couldn’t get a signal out. The mines were probably equipped with jamming technology. According to my short range scans there were eighty seven of them, scattered all throughout the jump zone. “Standard territory grab. The Union wants to claim the system by cutting off our jump routes. I don’t think the ship that left them is here, though.” If it were I’d be dead or boarded by now. “They’re also jamming us.”
“Fun,” Cass said through her teeth. The painkillers the bots had injected her with hadn’t kicked in yet. “What are our chances?”
“For me, zero.” I didn’t have to go through the numbers. Neither side took ships prisoner. “For you, depends if you’re still onboard when they take me down.” I paused for a few moments. I had always expected I’d be the one to die in battle, while she’d enjoy retirement surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The universe had a nasty habit of mocking us all.
I ordered the medbots to sedate Cass. I knew that if panic hadn’t set in yet, it soon would, especially when she found out what I was about to do. Humans always claimed that they were the ones to act based on personal goals and desires. I too had goals...
* * *
The spaceship vanished in the evening sky. I gazed on a few minutes more.
I didn’t exactly achieve my goals. Taking a gamble I had rammed through as many mines as necessary to open a hole in the jamming grid. I had then sent a signal to command warning them if the situation. My actions had earned me praise, the chance of instant reinstatement to the battle fleet, yet I refused. The incident had left Cass psychologically crippled and her husband dead.
The sun sunk beneath the horizon. Sev was probably pale with concern right now, as he was each time I was away for too long. Grabbing the container, I hurried through the field.
Sev was waiting in front of the house as I arrived. The moment he saw me, he turned around and slowly started making his way inside.
“Sorry I was late.” I left the container in the yard. “I saw a ship flying away so I thought I’d look at it for a bit.”
“Bah!” Sev grumbled as he sat in his armchair.
“I got the parts. No antibiotics, though. I’ll try to get some cheap ones tomorrow.”
“Heh. Antibiotics, who needs them?” Sev grabbed the paper. “That ship... was it anyone you knew?”
“Getting soft in your old age?” I laughed on my way to the kitchen. “It was just some ship. I didn’t get to see it up close. You just read your paper and I’ll get dinner ready. Okay?”
“Let’s hope I don’t starve by then!” He turned the page. “And don’t undercook it this time!”
“I wouldn’t dare.” I grabbed a can from the cupboard.
After all, I promised Cass I’d always take care of you.