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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 7: Hard Questions

    Safely in FTL, they finally managed to get their food cooked. The day had been fuller than Joseph had anticipated. He pulled the finished lasagna out of the oven with an anticipatory sigh and took it to the dining room table, where Tyrone had just set out three plates.
    “You can never cook fast enough when it’s already past dinner time.” Tyrone eying the food impatiently. “It was taking so long that I kept wondering if the oven was broken, then I’d realize it had only been a few minutes.”
    Both Joseph and Allison laughed at that, and the group gathered at the table to eat. As they always did when eating together, Tyrone and Joseph bowed their heads and prayed the common table prayer aloud. Allison followed along quietly with the slight awkwardness of one participating in an unfamiliar custom.
    Tyrone sat down and popped the tops off two bottles of the beer he’d purchased, sliding one to Joseph’s place, then looked at Allison. “I know what you said about the drinking age on Temoran, but you aren’t on Temoran now. In the Teton Sector, you’re old enough to have alcohol. Do you want to try one of these? If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it.”
    Allison weighed the options for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll give it a try at least.” Tyrone opened another and handed it to her as she took her seat. She took a sip and made a face, then took another. “It doesn’t seem too bad. My Dad always said it’s an acquired taste.”
    “He’s right.” Joseph took a sip of his, then began cutting and distributing the lasagna. It was probably large enough to feed twice this many.
    “Did you make enough?” Allison echoed his thoughts with cheerful teasing.
    “I hope so.” His reply was mock-serious. “We’ll probably have some of the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. Even though we usually don’t have to do anything in FTL, we don’t like to cook anything that won’t result in leftovers. Preparation for when we have families and need bigger meals I suppose.”
    Joseph sat down and hurried to take his first bite. Melted cheese and meat sauce had never tasted so delicious. The combination of eating late and risking death during the day could do that to a meal. For a moment they all concentrated on nothing but shoveling in the next forkful.
    “You don’t usually carry cargo you have to monitor constantly then?” Allison recovered her interest in her surroundings first.
    “No.” Joseph wasn’t quite at that point yet, and had to swallow before continuing. “Usually the cargo bay is full of shipping containers, and we just take them where they’re supposed to go. We’ll be spending a lot more time than usual in the cargo bay this week.”
    “I’ll be happy to help with that,” Allison offered.
    “That’s good, because we weren’t going to let you out of participating.” Tyrone grinned at her as he shoveled in his next bite, and she laughed.
    Conversation continued along those lines as they ate. They explained for Allison what needed to be done to check on the trees, and decided how they were going to divide up the duty. After that they told her about running the ship and their normal cargo, explaining in response to her questions quite a bit of their operation.
    Eventually they all had as much as they wanted. Tyrone rose and started clearing plates. Joseph found a cover to put on the remaining lasagna and stuck it in the refrigerator.
    “There’s another thing I’m wondering about.” Allison’s face grew grim as Joseph sat back down with the rest of his beer. “You’re risking a lot by helping me. That got more clear with every passing hour today. So why do it?”
    She paused for a moment, but Joseph didn’t have a ready answer to that question. Joseph glanced at Tyrone, but his muscular partner only shrugged and put the plates in the dishwasher. He didn’t have one either. To them the logic was too simple to really bother thinking through. For her it was a complete anathema, something even law enforcement rarely bothered to do.
    Sensing that they weren’t exactly understanding her question, she continued. “You said in the diner that it was enough that it was the right thing to do, and I sort of understood what you meant, but why was it the right thing to do? You didn’t know me and didn’t know what you were getting into, but you stuck your neck out for me anyway.”
    “Well, what else should I have done?” Joseph fiddled with his bottle for a moment and gave Tyrone a warning look. His partner was already giving him the same one. He knew there was a conversation the two of them would need to have soon, but in front of Allison wasn’t the place to have it.
    “Well, I’m glad you did.” Allison took another drink from her own bottle. “It sounds like I was in a lot deeper trouble than I realized. I didn’t know what that pilot said about the mafia deal.”
    Joseph frowned, then remembered. “You were inside when Terrence mentioned it.”
    “I was still busy being excited about all my new clothes.” She rolled her eyes at her own vanity and a brief smile crossed her face. “I still am. But it sounds like a pretty serious problem.”
    “It is,” Tyrone agreed from the counter. “But whether it’s the Temoran Kindred or the Ventalian Mafia, the Teton Sector won’t abide their behavior in our borders. They may still come after you there. I got the impression the Kindred at least don’t know any better. If they come then whatever else might happen they’ll be appropriately discouraged from trying again. Joseph shooting down one fighter will be peanuts by comparison.” 
    Joseph nodded his agreement emphatically. “We’ll make certain the Couradeen Station Police know to watch for them as well.”
    “Thanks. That still doesn’t answer my question though. Why not just leave me to handle my own problems? I’d brought them on myself. Why step in?
    “All kinds of bad stuff could have happened to you. Terrence could have killed you, he’s tried to twice so far. They could have damaged your ship, they could have destroyed your cargo. Now they might try to hunt you down. If they don’t, they’ll at least give killing or hurting you a shot if they find you in the future.”
    Joseph thought about it for a few moments, but just as at the diner that morning he found the idea difficult to express in words. Finally he laughed. “I think if you want a good answer to that question it’s going to be a long conversation. I can’t really give you one beyond ‘it was the right thing to do’ without long explanations. They all come down to that, one way or the other.”
    “You said it would be a week before we reach the station.” Allison shrugged, pushed her plate back and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “We have plenty of time.”
    “That’s true,” Joseph acknowledged.
    “Well, Joseph is a much better philosopher, so I’ll leave you two to discuss it and go watch some TV. Come join me when you’re done.” Tyrone picked up his nearly-empty beer bottle. “I’ll give you the simple answer though. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. What Terrence was going to do to you is wrong. Helping you was right.”
    With that, Tyrone walked out into the corridor. Allison watched him go with a curious expression, and Joseph chuckled. “Correct in the essentials. Tyrone isn’t one to over-think. That’s my job, except when I’m being hotheaded and not thinking at all.”
    “It seems like there’s a little more to it then that. Everyone says you should help others, but most people I know wouldn’t go to the extreme of risking their lives. Why are you?”
    “Well, I’m not exactly afraid of the idea of dying, for one thing. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable risk to run to help somebody.” That, at least, was something Joseph had thought through already. He’d decided long ago that he was okay with dying if it meant someone else would live. He might change his stance a bit when he had a wife and children, but for now he was willing to risk it.
    “But you don’t exactly seem suicidal.” Allison eyed him, looking concerned.
    “No, I’m not. There’s a big difference between being willing to risk dying and actively seeking it.” Joseph leaned back and took a sip of beer, thinking.
    “I suppose it might seem like self-destructive behavior. Maybe sometimes a little bit of it is.” Joseph couldn’t help but make that admission. “I don’t really want to die, but there’s a little part of me that knows dying is easy. And there’s heaven on the other side.
    “Especially with that second one, why shy away when circumstances call for you to put your life on the line? If you succeed, then you did some good in the world, helped someone. That person and maybe a few others involved think of you as a hero. If you fail, you don’t have to worry about how anyone will remember you. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
    “That’s some pretty dark stuff.” Allison hugged herself reflexively.
    “Well, like I said, it isn’t what I want. It’s just what I’m willing to risk. And it didn’t happen, so instead of dying I’m helping you along on your search for a better life. I think it was a good risk to take.”
    “You’ll get no argument from me on that. It just seems strange.” She took another drink and pulled her legs up onto her chair, wrapping her arms around her legs. “Would you have done the same thing for anyone Terrence was arguing with in there?”
    “I’m not sure. You keep asking me questions I don’t have an easy answer for.” He rolled his eyes, smiling so she would know he was teasing, and received a smile in return. He pondered the question, taking another sip from his beer. “Someone like you, yes, but not anyone.”
    “What do you mean? What was different about me?”
    “The way you were reacting to him I suppose, and some of the things you said. He wanted you to do something you didn’t want to do, and you weren’t backing down.” He recalled watching the scene in the diner, and recalled how his own anger had grown. There was no anger now, only satisfaction at having done something about it. “I think that might have been what made him angry, more than anything else. You were dead set against letting him control you, and he’s used to being in control of those around him.
    “You seemed like a young girl who’d been tricked into doing something you didn’t want to do. You were trying to find a way out of it. That offer you made Terrence of getting another job elsewhere and paying him back was perfectly reasonable, and you seemed genuinely surprised that he wouldn’t take it. He couldn’t convince you to do what he wanted, so finally he just gave you an ultimatum and expected that you’d fall in line. What would you have done if I hadn’t shown up anyway? I can’t imagine you’d have gone through with the strip club, at least not for long.”
    “I don’t know.” She shrugged and hugged her knees more tightly. “I was still trying to get back to thinking clearly when you sat down. I’d been trying to hang on to the idea that Terrence wasn’t so bad really, and that everything would turn out okay, and finally I couldn’t anymore.
    “I was sort of vaguely thinking about trying to walk back to my parents’ farm. It would have taken quite a few days. We live over a hundred and fifty miles from Nevarris, but I knew where to go, and I know fairly well what edible things grow wild in between.” 
    “I wouldn’t have put it past you to make it.”
    “Maybe.” She wasn’t finished with her original line of questioning just yet. “So someone else you might not have helped?”
    “Maybe not. If you’d seemed like a lifelong reprobate, maybe I wouldn’t have done anything. I would have been worried you’d cause more trouble for us later, or stolen things from our ship, or had problems like a drug addiction that we just aren’t equipped to cope with. With certain drugs withdraw can kill someone, and if we tried to help them the way we are you they might not even survive the trip to the station. But like I said, you seemed more like you’d been tricked into something. 
    “There’s a Bible verse that says...oh, how does it go exactly.” Joseph looked at the ceiling, trying to recall the words. “‘Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.’ Well, as far as I could tell you deserved it, and it was in my power to act.”
    “That seems a lot like what Tyrone said.”
    “Well, like I said at the beginning, all the answers eventually just come back to ‘it was the right thing to do.’ Have you heard the Good Samaritan story? You knew what to do when we started praying, so I take it you’re at least a little familiar with Christianity.”
    “I am, a little. Some of our neighbors were Christians, and I’ve seen them pray before meals often enough to know what was going on. I went to their church a few times. I actually heard that story from my parents too though.”
    “It’s a story with a fairly wide reach.” Even as Joseph said it he wondered just how wide. It was certainly one of the most well-known Bible stories. “That’s the same mind-set that drives helping you, although the circumstances are very different.”
    “So are you helping me because you want to or because you have to?”
    “Because we want to.”
    “But you wouldn’t necessarily have to?”
    Joseph cocked his head and considered it. “Well, nobody would have accused us of doing anything wrong if we hadn’t. But I would have felt guilty about walking away without at least trying to find out more. We wouldn’t necessarily have to if there was some reason to suspect you’d bring harm to us, but there wasn’t.”
    “But I have brought harm to you, you’ve been attacked twice.” She looked down guiltily, resting her head on her knees.
    “No you have not.” Joseph’s words came out as an emphatic declaration, and she looked up at him in surprise. “Terrence and his friends in the Temoran Kindred have brought harm to us. Actually they haven’t, they’ve only tried.”
    “Your face says otherwise,” she disagreed, pointing to a cut on his cheek from the fight.
    “Well fine, but that’s not the point.” He waved his hand, dismissing the injury. “You aren’t responsible for them. They attacked us, not you, and that’s on them, not you. So don’t go feeling guilty about what they’ve done. You’ve got enough to worry about.” The last few sentences came out a bit more kindly as his agitation subsided.
    “Alright, alright.” She gave a small laugh and held up her hands in mock-surrender. “I’ll try not to.”
    “Good enough for now then. Have I answered your question to your satisfaction?”
    “Good enough for now, I suppose.” She suppressed a giggle for her own cheerful mimicry.
    “Alright.” Joseph rose and picked up his bottle. “Let’s go see what Tyrone’s watching. It’s been a long day.”

Published: February 18 2018

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