by Walt Staples -
“Captain to the bridge! Captain to the bridge!” Chris Nakamura tried to ignore the canned announcement as he watched the target slowly cross the plotting board. He heard the hatch dilate and sensed Meg, his wife and captain, dropping into her command seat.
“What have we got, Chris?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Not sure, hon. It’s on a closing course and masses about 80 kilos.”
She cupped her chin in a Meg pose of furious thought as she read the target’s changing coordinates. “What’s it squawk?”
He shook his head. “No reaction to interrogation. It must be natural.”
“Do we need to shift orbit?” There were few things merchant captains hated more than expending reaction mass to change from their optimum economy orbit. One would think the credits came out of their personal accounts. In the case of the family-owned tanker Tau Ceti Maru, this was literally true.
Chris tapped on the data plate set into his seat’s arm and answered, “George says no, dear.”
The redhead smiled sweetly at him. “Be a pussy cat and run the numbers anyway; you know how much I trust that computer.”
He mock-scowled at her. “You, woman, are either a Luddite or Captain Bligh.”
A chuckle behind them was followed by a gravel voice, “I’d say a mixture of the two; though, considering the captain’s open boat voyage, there are worse things a spacer could be called.” Uncle Onslow strolled forward, scratching his hairy belly. It was agreed among spacers in Avenir’s system that Onslow was someone’s uncle—it was just that no one admitted kinship. It was also agreed that he was a very fine, if unorthodox, ship’s engineer. The fact that he passed up a number of sweeter offers to sign on the tanker was put down to his natural contrariness.
Meg eyed his wet hair and beard. “I take it we disturbed you at a bad time?”
The fat man grinned down at her. “Three days sweating over that devil-spawned auxiliary burner and just as I gets into the mister, I hears, ‘Captain to the bridge”—oh, aye, lass, ye might, maybe, say that.” He hitched the towel a bit more securely around his waist. “But more yer’s problem; I’m used to the stink.”
Chris asked, “Any ideas, Unc?”
“I don’t suppose ye’ve looked at it?”
Chris frowned, “Look?”
Again the chuckle. “Aye. Look, see, open a window and stick yer head out and feel the vacuum blowing through yer hair, lad. Otherwise that over-expensive optical telescope is so much ballast.”
Chris colored. He hated it when he got a case of the “dumbs.” He powered up the instrument. Twenty seconds later a red and blue strobe appeared against the star field.
Meg asked, “How close will it pass?”
“Actually, considering our velocity, it’s more like how close we’ll pass.”
Meg reached over and gently bapped Chris on the back of the head. “Whichever, husband.”
“George and I both say about point-two-eight klicks. It’s in our shadow.”
Onslow snorted. “Close enough to wave to him as he goes by; though…I doubts he’ll be in a mood to wave back.”
Chris looked around at him. “Who?”
The old man grinned and tousled the younger man’s blond hair. “As a regimental color sergeant I had the honor of decking and drinking with often said, ‘Wait for it, lad.’”
Minutes later, the target moved into the sunlight. Husband and wife both gasped as the human figure appeared. Oddly, though it sported the red and blue strobe, it didn’t display the bulk one would expect with an environment suit.
Onslow rumbled, “Kinder, meet Beach Ranks. Say hello, Beach.’”
Chris and Meg looked at each other. Meg broke the silence, “Ranks? You mean the Deck 14 cannibal?”
The big man’s voice was grim, “That be him, all right. I strapped the reaction unit and strobe on his back me self.”
Cris asked in a hushed tone, “And then you spaced him?”
Uncle Onslow slowly shook his head. “Nay, not me. The peacekeeper in charge of the investigation. It be hair-splitting I know, but…there ye be.”
Meg looked back at the screen. “Isn’t there supposed to be a transponder?”
The chief engineer nodded. “Aye, supposed to be. Must be on the fritz. Ye’ll want to report it as a hazard to navigation.”
Chris quietly asked, “When was he—was it done?”
Onslow thought for a moment, then answered, “Thirty-three standard years ago he left planetary orbit. Another half century, he’ll reach the sun.”
Meg shivered. “A long flight.”
The other scratched his belly once more. “Aye. But then, he’s got all the time in the cosmos.”