Short Story: Desperate Measures
I wrote this over a year ago and very shortly after that ran out of decently paying markets that might accept it, so I’m not sure why I haven’t posted it yet.
Anyway, the idea for this one come from me getting ticked at a character being stupid in something I was reading and amusing myself with how Jake would’ve handled a similar situation.
If you like this, especially if you like Jake, he’s the main character in Jake’s Last Mission, which should be free at every major ebook retailer except Nook. (If anyone wants it from there, remind me to fix that in the comments, please.) Though a longer version will be available soon-ish, so if you want to wait for it, that’s cool too. If you want to beta read the longer version, that would be fucking awesome, so please let me know.
Gerard and I were enjoying a game of tyol when the alarm klaxon sounded. We were both on our feet and headed out of my quarters before we were consciously aware of it. “What’s going on?” I asked Zardel — the officer of the deck — as soon as her face appeared on the comm.
“There was a small explosion in engineering. The damage doesn’t seem to be significant, but none of the crew down there are responding. I’ve already dispatched a security and medical team to investigate.”
I nodded. “Gerard, head to the bridge. I’ll go see what’s going on.”
“Jake . . .”
I interrupted my first officer. “This gonna be the speech about how it’s your job to keep me from risking my neck needlessly again?” I don’t know why he kept trying it. After all those years you’d figure he would’ve realized it was pointless.
“Save it.” I pretended not to hear the curse he muttered as I left the room. My chief engineer wasn’t answering his comm. That worried me. Normally Timil would’ve contacted me already, either to tell me he had the situation in hand, or to explain why he didn’t.
Halfway to engineering, my comm chimed. Instead of Timil, it was Martina, the recently promoted first assistant engineer. “Sir,” the tiny blonde woman said, “all entrances to engineering are locked. I haven’t been able to override them to get in, and Timil isn’t answering.” I was proud of the little lady. This was the first crisis we’d faced since she’d been in a position of authority, yet she still sounded managed to sound perfectly calm. Her face showed a little fear, but my own probably did right then too. An explosion in engineering and a missing chief engineer is not a combination you want thousands of light years from home. Hell, just an explosion in engineering ain’t a problem you want thousands of light years from home!
“Do you know who was in there when the explosion happened?” I asked, hoping her answer might give me some clue what was going on.
“Vemis was the officer of the watch, but beyond that, no. No one should’ve been doing anything that could’ve led to an explosion, though.”
“What do you think . . .”
“Not now,” I interrupted her. “I’m almost there. We can talk as we work together to figure this shit out.”
My comm chimed again when I was nearly to engineering. I immediately recognized the face on the other end. There was only one Zilvat on my crew, a verlot who worked in engineering.
“Mithoska,” Tal’xygiva said, pronouncing the Galfarran word pretty well for a guy who’d only learned the language a couple of years before.
“Hello, Tal’xygiva,” I said, doing my damnedest to sound perfectly neutral as I tried to pronounce that damned name properly. You’d think that after all these years as spacefaring races Zilvats and Kivanians would give some consideration to naming people things that can be pronounced by those of us without ridiculously complicated vocal cords. “Is there something you want?” What can a Zilvat survive that a Human can’t? I asked myself, wracking my brain for an answer.
“Yes. You command the whole Fleet, yes?”
I nodded. In theory I did. In practice . . . I was pretty sure I could disappear and no one would notice for a few days unless there was some sort of huge crisis. The Fleet pretty much ran itself, which is exactly as it should be.
“Then you have some impact on the Council, yes?”
I almost smiled. That misconception was common among people who’d originally come from more hierarchical societies. “Less than you probably think. If this is about our mining of the Xanthas system asteroid belt, Zilvax’s government agreed to give us fifty percent rights to it since no one could conclusively prove which of us discovered it first.”
While I was talking I’d caught up with Martina. She jumped when I put a hand on her shoulder, but quickly calmed back down. The security and medical teams were nearby, looking ready to run in as soon as she got the door opened. I smiled approvingly at my crew.
The young Zilvat, sounding threatening, said, “Promise me you’ll make the Council return full control of that belt to us . . . to Zilvax, or you’ll regret it!”
“I’m sorry, son, but I really don’t have that kind of power. The Council listens to me when it comes to Fleet related matters because I’m in charge of the damned thing. In anything else, I’ve only got as much influence as any Sweytzian.” Some people have a really hard time grasping how a truly direct democracy works, even after living in one for a while.
While I was talking, Martina had given up on overriding the lock and removed a nearby panel. I wasn’t sure quite what she was up to, but I hoped it worked. I was starting to get concerned about the lack of word from inside engineering . . . aside from Tal’xygiva, of course, and he wasn’t exactly making me feel reassured that neither my crew nor my ship had come to any harm.
The view from my comm abruptly changed. It panned around engineering, showing everyone in there laying on the floor. Kid, you should’ve thought this through better, I thought as I sighed deeply. You’re gonna regret this. The comm’s view continued to pan, showing Timil, looking pretty damned battered, tied up near the maneuver drives with a blaster to his head. I clenched my fist and fought the urge to try to beat the door down and deal with the traitor personally.
The view switched again to the kid’s face. He said, in tones that made his previous threat sound downright pleasant, “Reconsider your answer, or he dies.”
I said a quick, silent prayer to the spirits of space and friendship, ending it with, Forgive me if I screw this up, Timil. “What will you gain by killing my chief engineer? You’ve already hurt whatever point you’re trying to make by gassing my crew. Tasalim so you could breathe it with no ill effects? I guess Timil came in just long enough afterwards to not be affected. Then you screwed up the doors so no one else could get in.”
Martina signaled to me that she’d finally dealt with the lock. I shook my head slightly. My priorities had changed. If we charged in there right then, Timil would die.
“Actually, the door locks were damaged when . . . ow!” Tal’xygiva solidly punched Timil in the gut, causing my engineer to double over in pain.
“I didn’t tell you to talk!”
I sighed. This kid was proving impossible to deal with. And my patience was getting thin. “I’ve got the general idea now, anyway. Answer my question: What will you gain by killing my chief engineer?”
“The explosion, the unconscious people, even Timil, they’re all just tools to get your attention! Now, promise me, or,” he clicked the safety off, “he dies. Trust me, Mithoska, you don’t want to see what I have planned next. I suggest you give in now.”
“Give me five saenead to talk to the vabrez. He actually does have this kind of influence,” I lied. Quirino Evans actually had no more influence than any other respected citizen in non-military matters, but so far Tal’xygiva didn’t seem to understand how the government worked, so I was counting on the lie buying us some time.
“You have two.”
Thank you, spirits, I prayed, touching the charm of the spirit of spaceflight I wore at my neck. “Who’s your best marksman?” I asked my security team the moment the young Zilvat disconnected. I didn’t like the next part of my plan. I didn’t like it one bit. But I really couldn’t see any other way.
“I am, sir,” a very young man with a serious look in his eyes said.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Galvas, come here and listen to my plan. And you can leave off a few of the ‘sirs’.”
One saen and fifty piclanid after the young Zilvat said I could have two saenead, Martina opened the door and Galvas put a blaster bolt straight through the traitor’s head.
“I almost pissed myself when that kid shot at Tal’xygiva, Jake! What would you have done if he’d hit me instead?” was how Timil greeted me when I went to visit him in sickbay later that evening.
“Knowing your husband, probably have died myself as soon as we got back to Sweytz,” I said with a slight grin as I sat down. “I checked the duty roster. You weren’t due back in engineering for most of a day, yet to have gotten in before the locks were engaged you must’ve been on your way before the explosion, why?”
“Tal had asked me some odd questions when we ran into each other in the gym earlier. I was a bit concerned, so I went to check on the kid. His well-being was weighing on my mind.”
“What kind of questions?”
“If I feared death and other stuff like that. I thought he was suicidal, not . . . Dammit, Jake! He was a good kid! And just a kid, barely old enough to enlist!” Timil’s eyes were filling with tears. So far I’d managed not to cry over what I’d had to order done, but I was pretty sure I’d break down later while telling my wife about it.
“The moment he acted against my crew and ship, everything else about him stopped mattering,” I said softly. “I regret what had to be done, but I really didn’t see a choice. If Galvas had just injured him, he still could’ve killed you. He’d already caused some damage to engineering — nothing major,” I hastened to add, seeing Timil ready to get up and go investigate for himself, “and knocked out several of the crew. He had to be stopped.”
“I know that. I’m just . . .”
“You’re upset, shocked, and a whole bunch of other shit like that,” I interrupted, patting him on the shoulder. “You concentrate on getting better. I’ve got what’s sure to be one hell of an awkward call to make. His parents are miners. They’d just moved to Xanthas when the decision was made. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does explain his motive. I wish he would’ve pled his case before the Council instead of this, but . . . anyway, you get better. I need you to keep this thing flying.”
He nodded. I squeezed his shoulder and then headed off to make what was sure to be one of the most painful calls of my career.