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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 31: Troubled Reflection

    There wasn’t any discernable movement in the bright glow of the universe ahead of a ship traveling over the speed of light. It didn’t pulse or shift, only sat there, steady and constant. If the windshield didn’t darken to filter it out, the intensity would be blinding.
    Despite that, Joseph found himself standing between the stations in the cockpit, leaning on a railing as he sipped coffee and contemplated that bright void. Ever since his first FTL flight, Joseph found that glow oddly comforting. It was a little reminder from God that no matter how empty space seemed there was plenty in it, emitting or reflecting light.
    It was early, and he should not have been awake yet. Tyrone was still sound asleep, and would be for at least a couple more hours. Joseph had not been sleeping well in the week since the battle with the pirates, waking frequently. Today he woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so the logical course of action was to get up and start in on the coffee.
    Garden Variety Animal had been involved in two battles in two weeks. That was a circumstance all but unheard of for a freighter, but that wasn’t what was bothering him. Observations about himself those events had brought to him were what he was chewing on, alone in the cockpit in the hours that on a planet would be predawn darkness.
    During both battles the possibility of his own death had crossed his mind, only to be rather casually dismissed. It had been Allison, Tyrone and the crew of the Comet about whom he was concerned. Guilt was what he felt most strongly about both instances, mainly for dragging Tyrone into danger.
    True, that applied more to the situation on Temorran than the battle with the pirates. Neither of them was more or less responsible for the latter, but he knew he could have made better decisions. If the last fighter hadn’t run out of ammunition when it did, their ship would have been badly torn up or even destroyed as a result of Joseph’s bad call. There’d been no good reason to stop Tyrone from dropping to the surface of the dwarf planet where there was cover.
    Danger was inherent in life, and certainly in the business of operating a star freighter. Dying in some accident was always a possibility, but Joseph had realized he was making a habit of getting them into trouble. Temorran wasn’t the first example of that, just the most severe. Behavior like that didn’t only affect his own future, but Tyrone and his family’s as well. If he made a decision that hurt him, that was one thing, but he’d never forgive himself for one that hurt them.
    It was just as well that they would be separating soon, really. Once Joseph was on a different ship, there was a limit to the damage his lack of restraint could do to Tyrone and Justine. Anyone he angered so much that they wanted to kill him would at least be chasing his ship, instead of theirs.
    And yet, that wasn’t going to solve the problem either. The new ship was going to be a bulk ore and metal hauler, and with it they would be serving remote asteroid mining operations. Bulk haulers were large, and the new vessel would have easily ten times the total volume of Garden Variety Animal. Operating it alone would be impossible, Joseph would have a crew of six others. The consequences of his recklessness would be even worse; the only thing changing was the people involved.
    Operating without regard for their well being would be no more acceptable than when he did it to Tyrone, and would trouble his conscience no less. He already knew who several members of that crew would be, long time friends and associates of his and Tyrone’s. Joseph was bound to make wrong choices from time to time, but they couldn’t be irresponsible ones. His life wouldn’t be the only one he endangered. 
    Fringe systems and the asteroid mines in them were even more dangerous territory to traverse than unaffiliated systems. If they were settled, it was only just, and their deserted state sometimes made them a haven for pirates and any other variety of criminal. Chances for him to make irresponsible decisions were only going to get more plentiful there. He absolutely had to master his impulse to intervene any time he saw a bad situation.
    Why he cared so little about his own well being wasn’t entirely clear to Joseph. Certainly it was good to be self-sacrificing, but that didn’t seem to be his state of mind. Self-disregard seemed like a more apt description. Once he thought about it in those terms, the cavalier attitude toward himself didn’t seem very appropriate either. Even selfish, in some ways. He didn’t have a wife who would mourn him like Tyrone, and his parents had other sons to continue the family line, but an unexpected death was hard on a family regardless of those things. Particularly that of a member who should have lived many years yet.
    Tired of standing, Joseph flopped into the pilot’s chair and banged his coffee mug down on the console more forcefully than he’d intended. Fortunately it was less than half full now, and only a little of the liquid sloshed over the rim. He watched it run down the side of the mug for a moment, then picked it up and wiped console and cup with his sleeve.
    Were these impulses a thing he could master? Did he even want to? Allison wasn’t the only one they had ultimately helped over the years. The questions were related, or even the same.
    If he wanted to master them, chances were good he could do so, but one glaring flaw marred that plan. Those impulses had power to compel him to act existed because it was the right thing to do. Holding them back would, by extension, feel less than honorable. More extreme instances would even feel like a sin of omission, doing wrong by inaction.
    Joseph wasn’t watching the clock very carefully, so he didn’t know how long he spent dwelling on that idea, but it was a long time. He drained his coffee mug, went to the kitchen for a refill, and returned to his seat without making any progress. 
    It was the same conflict that arose, if only for a split second, when he actually observed one of these situations. Terrence and Allison arguing in the diner, for example. If he acted, those he cared about could come to harm. If he didn’t, others would come to harm. For some it was an easy choice; protect the people that matter to you. For Joseph, it wasn’t that simple to walk away. He’d feel just as guilty no matter which choice he made.
    Well, that couldn’t be correct. If he really would feel just as guilty either way, this wouldn’t be as hard as he expected. Next time he saw something wrong and didn’t intervene, the guilt over letting it happen would be no worse than the guilt over putting Tyrone in danger. He quickly dismissed that perception as clearly wrong. It would be too easy.
    Recalling things he’d said to Allison weeks ago, Joseph realized he didn’t actually impulsively act every time he noticed something wrong. Stepping in only felt mandatory if he actually believed he could do something about it. Terrence forcing Allison into a business she wanted nothing to do with was something he could stop. It never occurred to him to try and make that starport stop letting the gangster land ships there, even though he knew exactly what it would stop. He had no chance of success.
    Perhaps he was approaching this from the wrong angle. Maybe it wasn’t that he needed to master these impulses themselves, but how he acted them out in the world. A little more prudence and consideration in how he responded would keep him from getting into serious trouble as effectively as not acting at all. After all, he and Tyrone realized in hindsight that there was a lot they could have done to prevent the Temorran Kindred from finding out where Allison had gone.
    Leaning back in the pilot’s chair, Joseph sipped at the mug that was already half empty again. One way or another, he was going to have to change how he approached things. Not an easy task to accomplish, but it was absolutely necessary. Captains were supposed to think first of the safety of their crew. He couldn’t live with being the kind of captain that brought avoidable disasters on his.
    Such responsible thought brought him neatly back to the other irresponsible impulse he had observed in himself that needed controlling. He’d been avoiding thinking about it since the battle, but eventually it had to be examined. He should have told Tyrone to head for cover on the dwarf planet the moment they hit orbit. He had no legitimate excuse for holding off, it was perfectly clear by then what direction that battle was headed.
    Worst was the reasoning behind Joseph’s decision. He knew how strong their shields were, and by then he also knew how powerful the fighters’ guns were and how often they were hitting. Looking back, it should have been a no brainer to realize their shields wouldn’t hold out long enough. Tyrone had trusted him to analyze it and make the right decision, and he blew it. God had thrown him a bone there. He could easily have gotten his partner killed.
    Under pressure, he’d convinced himself he could take out the three fighters before it mattered. He’d been very wrong about that, and the only reason he’d thought it in the first place boiled down to arrogance. Exactly the same thing behind the pirate captain’s poor decisions, which led to his death and the corvette’s destruction.
    Hubris didn’t only affect pirates, as it turned out. Joseph didn’t like having anything in common with the man, least of all his shortcomings, but it was a fact. Joseph’s pride could have brought similar consequences to his own ship.
    Pride-induced decision making was not something Joseph could allow to continue. That was especially true when it involved variables beyond his control, like hostile figters. He’d placed a bet on them being unskilled, which was a stupid thing to do even if he had reason to believe them so. He would have to be very careful about that kind of mistake in the future. Firsthand observation had show him how bad the outcome could be. He didn’t want to experience it himself, and wanted even less to lead others into it with him.
    “Lost in thought?” a voice asked from behind him.
    Joseph jerked in the chair, looking at the clock. “Yeah. I didn’t realize how long I’d been up here.”
    “I noticed the coffee was already half-gone,” Tyrone commented, moving into Joseph’s field of vision holding his own cup. “When did you get up?”
    “About three, I guess. I couldn’t manage to fall back asleep.”
    “That’s pretty early. Were you lost in deep thoughts or ones about silly garbage?”
    “Deep thoughts. I was trying to figure out how to stop doing stupid things that drag the people around me into danger before I’m captaining a ship. Wondering if I even can stop, and whether I should be captaining a crewed ship at all.”
    Tyrone didn’t respond immediately. He set his coffee on the copilot’s station and settled into the chair. “Weighty things to be thinking about. I noticed you left getting yourself into danger out of that list.”
    “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that too.”
    “Hmm. I don’t suppose you squeezed in any morning system checks with that?”
    “Not a one.” Joseph turned guiltily to the computers, wishing he’d thought of that sooner. At least he would have had something productive to show for waking up at three in the morning.
    “Did you get anything figured out?” Tyrone asked as they worked. “If I really thought you couldn’t control yourself enough to look out for a crew, I would have said something by now.”
    “That I need to be more careful of what I involve myself in, and how,” Joseph grunted. That I need to take care not to make arrogant mistakes like that pirate captain, too. I tend to be a danger magnet, and the cause is down to my own behavior.”
    Both worked in silence for several minutes while Tyrone formulated a response. “Well, you do have a tendency to seek danger, and it would be for the best if you got that under control. It hadn’t actually caused any problems for us until recently though, and there were other factors involved there. I’d also point out that without that quality, you never would have had the idea to run a bulk ore hauler in barely-patrolled space, and neither of us would have been willing to risk it.”
    “Yeah, I suppose not. When I first hear about it, it sounded like an exciting way to make a lot of money. It still does, honestly.”
    “More importantly, it’s a good idea. I knew it was when you first started talking about it. You know it took us three years of trips to unaffiliated space to pay off Garden Variety Animal and earn the money to buy an ore hauler. By the end of its first year in operation, that ship will earn us enough money to buy two more just like it, even with the higher cost to operate it. Of course, I honestly never thought we’d get to the point of buying one.”
    Joseph’s eyebrows lifted. All the numbers were old news, they had gone over those a dozen times before, but the last bit was something Tyrone had never mentioned. “Why not?”
    Tyrone laughed. “I figured you would meet a girl by then and decide you didn’t want to be quite that adventuresome. It seemed like it would be just that easy in those days. That was only eight months or so after I met Justine.”
    The reminder made Joseph laugh too. Justine had brought some major changes to their plans. “Well, I did meet a few girls, but none were quite what I was looking for.”
    “Nope.” Tyrone sat in silence for a moment, reliving memories, then shook his head a bit as he returned to the present. “Well, this is your call. You’ve got some time to think it over too. We have more than enough cash now to buy another ship like this, but the cost of replacing the missiles is going to push the ore hauler back another trip. I won’t give you any grief whatever choice you make, but for what its worth I still think you can handle it. You’re definitely right that you’d be wise to be more careful what you stick your nose into. You’ll already be taking on more risky territory, you don’t need to add any more threats to that.”
    The checks were all completed now, and Tyrone rose to go make more coffee. Joseph remained sitting in the cockpit, with just as much to think about as he had at three a.m.

Published: August 13 2018

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