For Story Sunday, I give you a mild-mannered space opera/space fantasy, about a space ship captain who takes his duty seriously. (Science fiction fans be warned, we don't need no stinkin' science in this story....)
The Captain's Solution
by Camille LaGuire
THE, UH, INCIDENT occurred when I was mate on the North Current. And, of course, there was more to it than ever came out at the competency hearing. Even the court knew that. It really started when we were rotated from our usual patrol to temporary escort duty. It was a reward. We had a good record of dealing with the Galactic Commerce Authority with neutrality and diplomacy.
We ended up on Iria, a little backwater planet that held the distinction of being home to the only humanoid non-humans anybody'd ever heard of. I mean, the Irians seemed human to me, but they claimed not. They evolved on that planet, they said, from some goddess and a tree, I think. Or maybe a grape vine. They insisted they couldn't be related to us, and they were stubborn about it, even though it would have been more convenient for them if they gave up on it. If they were human, they'd have some rights.
We were in a bar on Iria, drinking Irian wine, which is so much tastier than our Peschian seaweed beer. Captain Arkeesh had been gazing into his glass for nearly an hour. He was always a quiet one. Always watching, always listening, always thinking. People like that usually make me uneasy, but not him. I think it's his sad eyes and droopy mustache. Whatever it is he sees and hears and thinks seems to weigh heavily on him. It gives him an air of responsibility. He was gloomy just now because we had been approached by an illegal wine merchant who had two cases to sell. They were not supposed to approach officers. Officers are under strict orders to turn them in, and the captain takes his duty seriously.
"I'm not going to report him," he said suddenly. No need to explain who he meant. "We are, after all, representatives of a neutral planet. We shouldn't enforce Commerce Authority rules. Nor should we consider ourselves subject to them." That meant we should buy the wine. I nodded in agreement. A quiet voice came from behind us.
"You don't fight them either."
A woman was standing at the captain's elbow. Whether she'd been listening or just walking by, I don't know. The captain turned to her, looking even sadder than usual.
"No," he said. "We don't fight at all. We don't think killing is a good thing."
"So you accept the killing that goes on around you."
"Killing on both sides."
The woman slipped in between us, and shoved me off my stool. She was a small, wiry woman in mechanic's overalls, who was attractive enough that I let her have my seat, and I bumped Kallos off his. Kallos grumbled and bumped a drunk Tertian pilot off his seat. The Tertian dropped to the floor and stayed there.
"You are a Planetary Guardsman." She pointed to the insignia on the captain's sleeve. "Wouldn't you kill to defend your planet? Self-defense?"
The captain sat back and studied her a second. He gave her a slow, cautious nod. She sat back, mimicking him.
"You have such high ideals," she said flatly. The captain simply shrugged, took a drink and waited for her to go on. "You say you're against war," she continued. "Yet you allow CommAt slave ships through your space every day."
"We allow no aggressive actions, no weapons shipments, or prisoners-of-war...."
"Slaves are prisoners of war."
The captain paused, looked into his drink, and then looked up again squinting a little.
"You cannot make war on animals."
He watched the woman closely, and just as she gathered herself for a reply, he raised one finger for emphasis.
"And as long as the Irians insist that they evolved here, then they can't be Human and they are legally accepted as animals. If we Peschians claim otherwise, we damage our neutrality."
"Your precious neutrality."
"It is our self-defense."
"You are using their twisted logic."
"No. We are used by their twisted logic. We don't like it, but we don't have much choice. The Authority nations are strong, and they surround us. The only reason they haven't swallowed us up yet, is that it isn't popular, and it isn't popular because their people see us as neutral."
"I know." The woman leaned on the bar and kept looking at him.
"We can't take chances."
"But you do take chances. Not as a nation, but as individuals. Underground."
"Not underground," said the captain, shaking his head. "We're Fisherfolk. We go underwater."
"All right. Underwater, then. Everyone knows that a slave is safe on Pescha. And that you planetary guardsmen are the chief smugglers of Irian wine. And you can do anything you want on your planet if you bribe the right official."
"An outsider can't fish. No bribe will get you that."
"But it will get people to look the other way from political activity. The official stance is neutrality, but individuals can and do take sides."
"Don't say 'we," say 'I.' What do you think about Irian slavery?"
"I'm against any slavery. Including the conscription of soldiers into your army."
"It's not necessarily my army."
"Still, you call them allies."
"Some do, but I don't," she said crossly. "I don't think the people fighting my enemy are necessarily friends. Sometimes we are closer to those who aren't fighting our enemies."
"Maybe so. Maybe not." He turned to face his drink. He was still looking at her sidelong, however.
"A friend of mine was at last year's Captain's conference on Pescha," she said conversationally. "She pointed you out to me. You spoke up in support of the bill to redefine 'humanity.'"
"What do you want?" He was still looking at his drink, but now he spoke very quietly. She lowered her voice too.
"We think we can get a few dozen of the Irians out of the enclosure, but we need a way to get them safely out of the area."
The captain let out a moan of pain and shook his head.
"An ordinary ship would be shot out of the air immediately," she went on quickly. "They've got the sky too well covered. But a Peschian ship is submersible."
"We'd slip right into the ocean, and they'd never be able to track us, because nobody uses submersibles here."
"We would be spotted."
"It will be at night, and we will be making a very quick get away."
"Then you might get the Irians into the ship, and you might make it to the water. But we're bound to be recognized as a Peshian Guard ship. You are not asking us to help you. You're asking us to join you. You haven't thought this out yet, have you?"
"No," she admitted. "The idea occurred to me when I saw you come in."
"I have had escort duty to this port many times. I can tell you, mass escapes from those enclosures are always bloody and pointless. Your submersible idea might work, but you don't have a ship. And you can't have mine." He paused to tug at his mustache. "On the other hand, small escapes happen all the time. If you can bring me one, at the most two, adults. I'll put them in uniform and try to pass them off as crew members."
"We don't want to get them to Pescha; we want to get them home. And we want to get more than one or two out."
"They'd be safer on Pescha, and it doesn't seem to me you have a choice."
"And why adults, anyway? If we had to choose, I'd rather get out children."
"I can't pass a child off as a crew member."
The woman chewed her lip and looked at the captain for a moment. The captain gave her a helpless shrug. I was still leaning over her shoulder to listen, and she shoved me away.
"Thank you anyway," she mumbled, and barged off.
We waited for the woman to show up again, a pair of confused Irians in tow. We were sure she wouldn't bring one if she could bring two, and they'd probably be straight out of the Irian forest, not knowing the first thing about a ship. We hoped she would think to bring men, since Fisherfolk do not have women in the guard. Our women do just about everything, whether we want them to or not, but they do not fight.
The captain scanned local news constantly. He was probably looking for news of an escape, or a failed one. The woman never came, however. We lifted off with our assigned freighter, two crates of wine and a feeling of relief. We thought we'd never see her again.
We were wrong.
About three months later we were back at our usual patrol duty. We came across a small ship, drifting at our perimeter. Its identification markings were smaller than standard, and partly obscured by what looked like rust. When we hailed them, they moved off quickly, but before the captain could give orders to pursue them, they slowed, and answered us.
The woman met us at the docking bay.
"When I saw the North Current, I hoped it was you," she said quickly. Behind her stood the crew, three men and four women, heavily armed, but not threatening. Their expressions were uneasy, but determined.
"Put away those weapons."
"Listen to me. A slave ship will be coming out of lightspeed to go through Peschian space at any time now. We're going to stop it."
"No you're not. Put the weapons away."
The woman started to argue, but their captain, a large woman with gray hair and yellow eyes, put the butt of her rifle on the deck, and the others holstered and otherwise put aside what they carried.
"This is Peschian space. Any aggressive action is a violation of our neutrality."
"Not if you consider it a theft of cargo."
"Then it's a criminal action. We have strict piracy laws here."
"But it isn't really a criminal action, is it? Slaves are not really cargo. They're people. You just call it piracy so no one will accuse you of taking sides."
The captain took a breath and studied her for a minute. He shook his head.
"You like to argue, don't you?"
"I like people to recognize when I'm right." The captain wiped his hand over his face and looked at the deck, shaking his head again. The woman went on, ducking to get into his line of view. "Captain Arkeesh, the slaves aboard that ship are all children." When the captain didn't answer, she added hopefully. "They are headed for Tertia."
"Slave barges are very well armed."
"What if they sell them to perverts?"
"You'll just get them killed. And yourselves, and the crew of the barge, and probably us too."
"We don't need you to help us. All you have to do is go away. Pretend you never saw us."
He shook his head slowly and pulled at his mustache, so she continued, leaning in closer.
"You don't have to worry about it being an armed slave barge. It's an ordinary freighter carrying wine and lumber. They just happen to have twenty-five children aboard."
"All Commat ships are armed. You'll never even get aboard," the captain said absently. "No. We'll meet the ship when it comes out of lightspeed. Just as usual. You'll come later."
"No. We're just going to do our job." The captain's mustache twitched, which was as close to a smile as he ever got. Then he immediately sighed and looked as if another planet-size weight was put on his back. "I don't like this."
When the freighter came out of lightspeed, we called it to stand to and boarded for a quick inspection, which is not all that uncommon. Usually, when a ship is not destined to land on Pescha, the captain just glances over the manifest, asks a few questions and gives a few warnings.
As we boarded the ship, Captain Arkeesh straightened and frowned. Instead of his usual politeness, he growled his demand to see the manifest. When they showed him to the screen, he squinted at it and examined it as if it were a contract he was supposed to sign. He questioned the volume of the wine, the weight of the lumber, where they had come from, where they were going, whether the proper papers had been filed. When he came to the slaves, he grunted.
"That's right," said their captain impatiently. "We have twenty-five Irians."
"What does it mean by 'immature?'"
"They are all under sixteen standard years."
"How much under? Are they old enough to be away from their mothers?"
"It isn't really your business, is it? We have a treaty. You can't interfere with our trade."
"I want to take...."
At this point their communications officer interrupted. Our ship was calling Captain Arkeesh.
"Sir," came Kallos' voice. "We have a small private craft approaching. They have a serious medical emergency aboard."
"Have them dock at the port bay, and send the medic aboard," snapped Captain Arkeesh, as if he were annoyed at the interruption.
"You've seen our manifest," said the captain of the CommAt ship. "Perhaps you had better shove off and see to the emergency."
"My medical officer will see to that. I want to inspect your Irians."
"We have a right to carry our cargo through your space."
"It is my duty to see that they really are Irians. They could be prisoners of war."
They went on arguing for a few minutes, our captain saying whatever officious thing would most irritate their captain. The argument had the attention of everyone present. Then several armed, masked figures entered carrying laser rifles, it took everyone by surprise.
Their captain started to call for an alert, but one of the masked figures shoved a rifle in his chest, while another threatened the communications officer.
"You won't get away with this," declared Captain Arkeesh. "This is a violation of our neutrality!"
"Shut up," said the bandit leader. She addressed their captain. "You have wine aboard? And prime Irians?" Their captain didn't answer. "Don't worry. We'll find them."
She left one man to watch us. Captain Arkeesh grumbled about neutrality, and gave the evil eye to the man guarding us. The freighter's captain was giving the evil eye to Arkeesh.
"They came through your ship."
"They won't get away with an act of war in our space."
"They're pirates, you idiot!"
"Then we'll drown them."
When the "pirates" were through, they called their man from guarding us, and slipped off through our ship to their own. We started to move after them.
"Hurry up and shove off so we can give chase," snapped their captain.
"No!" said Captain Arkeesh, stopping to lecture him. "You stand to. We give chase."
"You've messed this up enough. I'm not leaving it to you."
"This is neutral space...."
"Your neutrality be damned!"
"...we will not let a Commerce Authority ship go armed after an enemy."
"Then shove the hell off and chase 'em yourself!"
Their captain had recognized that the argument was giving the pirates time to escape. Arkeesh couldn't justify staying any longer. We hurried without hurrying back to our ship and uncoupled from their hull. We sped ahead, as if in chase. The CommAt freighter, as we all expected, did not stay put.
"Down and to starboard," said the captain, as we came up to the bow of the now moving freighter.
"What?" said Kallos.
"Down and to starboard. Now."
Kallos took a deep breath and down we went, right across the freighter's bow. We could argue later that it was, at least, the right direction to chase the bandits. The freighter kept coming, and we slid along their hull with a jar and a screech.
"Get the hell out of our way," called their captain.
"Stay the hell put," our captain replied. Then he added to Kallos, "Stay in their way." We stayed in their way. Kallos did a masterful job of stupid piloting, while Captain Arkeesh argued with their captain. He aggravated the man enough that they stayed pretty much in our way too. Over all, I thought it was a convincing display of incompetence. The bandits made lightspeed, and the chase was over.
"They'll have us back on the water for this," said Kallos.
"I like the water," said the captain. "It's where a man belongs."
"They left us the wine, you know."
"Twenty cases. They only took it so they'd look like pirates."
"That's all we need," said the captain, shaking his head. "If we are caught with that wine...."
"They'll think it's a bribe."
"They'll have us back in the water."
"Don't worry, captain," said Kallos. "We'll sneak it off before anybody knows anything."
"Well, it'll be good to be home with the women," I said. Everyone seemed to be in general agreement with that.
"We should have women in our guard," said Kallos. "Their captain seemed competent."
The captain was gazing at the spot on the viewscreen where the bandit ship was last seen.
"I hope so," he said. "Or that other one will get them killed."
I could see he was going to worry about that. He'd worry until he'd figured out a solution, which wasn't going to be likely, down on the water. On the other hand, with our Captain, you never know. That worries me a little.
In tomorrow's story notes, I'll talk about how I don't write science fiction. I write something else.