Call me Pops. Everyone does.
They say we was criminals, but that ain’t true. Worst thing I ever done was steal the Company’s money, and I figure they take ours all the time, so that’s only justice. The real crook is the Company and always has been. It’s them that got reaction drives outlawed when water’s free, dammit. They only done it so we’d have to buy fusion fuel at a thousand percent markup. Most of us so-called pirates were just freelance miners that couldn’t afford the new engines.
When I was with Black Jack Kenneally’s crew, we only ever hit Company skiffs. It was smart business; an owner-operator will fight for what’s his, but all a Company man stands to lose is bonus money. That ain’t worth dying for.
After a time, it almost got to be a game. We’d swoop in, put one shot across their bows, they’d heave to, and we did our looting like gentlemen. As for the miners, I never saw one make trouble. In almost ninety raids, the only man I ever killed was one of our own.
His name was Corey Wickett, but people called him Buck. He was marking time at Chelsea Station, an old Company mining base repurposed as a smelter and hydro farm. He said he’d shipped with Hendricks back before they went under. We sounded him out, then Jack took him aside and had The Talk. Next trip out, Buck was with us.
Jack assigned young Buck to me to show the ropes. He was nervous, natural with a new crew. After a while, though, he come to trust me. “I’ll see you clear, son, don’t worry none,” I’d say, and show him where he’d gone wrong or maybe a new way to do things. Our first run went fine, and he was promoted to the boarding party.
We hit two Company skiffs, Minnie and Ragged Sue, cleaned them out and sent them back toward Ceres on slow-burn reaction rockets Jack stocked special for the purpose. See, old Jack didn’t believe in hurting people unless he had to. We had access to the Company junkyard so the hardware didn’t cost nothing, and the nuke fuel we stole in exchange weren’t cheap.
Trouble was, Buck wasn’t really one of us, just an inner worlder psycho. His idea of a joke was to sneak igniters into the fuel tanks, timed to detonate just as the ships got within sensor range of Ceres. I caught him at it on the third job, but by then it was too late. There were already two ships heading for disaster and no way to stop ’em.
That didn’t stop Jack from trying, though. Fast as thought, he had us back aboard and sent the Company ship to rescue the much closer Sue. We went after the Minnie, engines on max drive, broadcasting a warning on all bands.
Now, Buck was shook by all the activity. I figure he honestly didn’t see anything wrong with what he’d done; some folks is born morally blind like that. But he was convinced we was gonna turn on him. I tried to explain that Jack don’t like to kill people, and the worst he’d get was set ashore at Chelsea, but he just couldn’t get his head round the idea. After a while I give up trying to persuade him and just said, “Hold fast. I’ll see you clear.” That calmed him down, and I could concentrate on my job again. Honest to Pete I kinda wished I hadn’t, cause my job right then was watching gauges and they was all redlined.
To this day I don’t know how Black Jack managed it, but somehow he over-cranked those old drives so hard we caught up with Minnie in under two hours. Had the devil of a time convincing them to jettison their engines, much less take a tow from us, but they did. By gum you bet they stared some when the drives cooked off a few hundred meters from their skiff.
Well, we towed Minnie in close to Ceres as we dared and cut her loose, then turned back toward Chelsea to refuel. After an hour, the captain come back to where we were gathered in the mess and give us the news.
“Minnie‘s been picked up. Ragged Sue didn’t make it. Lost with all hands,” he said. I never saw Black Jack Kenneally look more downcast in my life. After that nobody felt much like talking. We set the automatics and went to our bunks. More than one of the boys brought a bottle.
I got maybe an hour and couldn’t sleep no more. After a time I got up and went down for coffee, figuring since I was up anyway I might’s well stand watch. I know computers fly better than human reflexes, but it feels good to have someone in the chair anyway.
I got to the mess and saw Buck at the table, just shaking and staring. There was a bloody knife in front of him, and his hands dripped red.
“Oh now, what did you go and do, Buck?” I asked, horrorstruck.
He looked up at me. “I killed ’em, Pops,” he said. “They was gonna dump me out an airlock, I knew it, you was just being kind saying otherwise. I didn’t mean nothing by it but they was gonna kill me. You can see that, right?”
“Oh Lord, boy,” I said. I was some shook. “You sit right there, I’ll be back.”
I went and looked and wished I hadn’t. They was all dead in their bunks. I stood and stared at Captain Jack the longest, then I went back to the mess. Buck was still at the table. He didn’t look up.
“You can see I didn’t have no choice, right, Pops?”
“I see, Buck. It’s all right, I’ll see you clear.”
I shot him and put him out the airlock along with the rest. Said a few words, but, really, what can you say?
It musta took me a week to get the ship clean, and even when I was done I knew it could never be the same. ‘Sides, I know my limits. Black Jack Kenneally I ain’t.
I headed for Ceres with half a mind to turn myself in, and the other half… I don’t know what. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight, you understand. Time I got there, seemed there was a big reward now on Black Jack Kenneally, and I figured the only thing I could do to hurt the Company was take their cash. So that’s what I did. More money than I ever saw before or since, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend it.
After a while I got to thinking, and I used the reward money to set up my own little radioactives refinery. Nowadays I run a discount fueling station off Chelsea North. I charge Company ships top rates but everyone else pays half if they sell me their fuel ore. My first year in business I figure I cost the Company more than Jack did his whole career.
I like to think he’d be happy with that.
J. Millard Simpson is a former used bookseller who started writing full-time in order to actually make money for a change. He has written for and edited the VGAPlanets fanzine, Planets Magazine, for over a decade under the Gnerphk cognomen. His fiction can also be found at SciFi Shorts, Short Édition kiosks everywhere, and at Twi... uh, X... uh, TwiX @Gnerphk. He eats ramen, drinks weak tea, and hasn't starved yet but still might succumb to scurvy. PlanetsMagazine.com and TheNotFakeNews.com