End of the Line


B. H. Marks

Galactic Starlines Express Flight 2261 to Aurora was right on time, and I was in the left seat. Yup, captain of a bright green GSE StarLiner. I'm Dale Carruthers, and I've been working for GSE for about 10 years.

My assigned copilot for the trip was a friend of mine, Maganakh RiConza. He's from Tenonia, but the War's been over for forty years now - we're all friends, and Mag's a good right seater.

I finished up the preflight and looked over to Mag. "What's the load look like, Mag?" I asked.

Mag reached over for a datapad. "Ninety passengers, a dozen tons of 'miscellaneous luxury goods', an express delivery, stuff like that. The usual run."

I looked out the side window. The sun was rising over the edge of old planet Earth. Partly cloudy over the Pacific Northwest, and a typhoon in the Pacific. "Nothing dangerous?" I asked.

"Nope," Mag replied.

The chief flight attendant for the trip looked in the cabin. "We're about ready to go," Linda Rianne smiled. "Can I get you boys anything?" she asked.

Linda was from Procyon, and despite all the jokes about girls from the Dog Star, she was a long way from ugly. Half of GSE was trying to go steady with her...the other half knew better. From past experience. "Sure, Linda," I smiled. "Why don't you come over here and show me some lovin'? Mag here can take the wheel," I drawled, grinning.

She laughed. "What would your wife say, Dale?" With a swish of her long blonde hair she turned and strode back towards the passenger area.

"You'll learn," Mag observed, scratching one of his dozen tattoos.

"I was only kidding, Mag," I laughed. "Besides, I got a wife at home."

"I know you do," Mag pointed out.

A chime sounded, and a blue light lit up on the control board. "We're all buttoned up, Dale," Linda's voice came. "Your turn."

"Plot us a course and lift us off, Mag," I said, and pushed one of the buttons on the board. A microphone flipped up out of a recess, and I picked it up. Mag lifted the ship off, smooth as silk, and I started my little speech. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. My name is Dale Carruthers, and I'd like to give you some instructions for our flight." I went into the bit about seat belts, accident prevention, alien invasion, and emergency instructions. Most GSE pilots use the company video, but I like talking to the passengers. Let 'em know that there are real people up front, y'know?

"...this concludes the pre-jump announcement. On behalf of GSE, I'd like to thank you for choosing Galactic. Enjoy the movie." With that, I put the mic back in its slot.

"Coming up on first jump," Mag said. "Shame we can't use the new hypergate," he commented, not for the first time.

"Well, we don't work for Micro Space, do we now?" I smiled, also not for the first time. "I'll take this one."

"Dale?" Both our heads turned. It was Linda. "Got a second?"

"Is there a problem?" I asked.

Mu'Linda shook her head. "No, it's just that one of the passengers is an ex-space captain, and he wanted to know if he could sit in the company jumpseat. For old times' sake, he said,"

"Well, what do you think?" I inquired.

"He seems nice enough," Linda anwered. "Like a lonely old grandpa or something."

I thought for a minute. Company policy left it pretty much to the captain's discretion whether to admit non-company personnel to the bridge. But GSE stewardesses were known as good judges of character, and Linda was as good as they come.

"Sure, bring him in," I said. "Bring him some coffee, too, ok?"

"Will do," Linda said, flashing me one of those 'special' smiles. It wasn't a smile that promised some of 'that'...just a smile that let you know you'd done a nice thing.

Mag grinned quietly. "Stop that," I told him. But I smiled too.

Mu'Linda strode in, followed by an older man. "Captain Carruthers, this is Captain Deke Waters, retired." She ushered him in gracefully.

I stood up and turned to face him. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain Waters," I said. "I'm Captain Carruthers. Won't you have a seat, please?" I pointed at the jumpseat. He was medium sized, wearing a good suit, with gray-white hair surrounding a wrinkled face. Linda was right. He did look like someone's old, wise grandfather. He didn't look like a typical space captain. Of course, all that really meant was that he didn't look like the 5D action hero guy in that new movie.

He shook my hand as his eyes swept over the control boards. For the briefest instant they paused at the empty left seat, then he smiled. "Thanks for letting me in," he began in a rough voice, then sat on the indicated chair. "I don't travel as much as I used to - but it's nice to see a shipshape bridge."

Mag reached a hand over. "Maganakh RiConza," he said. "Call me Mag."

"Call me Deep," Waters replied. I had to grin at that.

"Like what you see?" I asked, getting back into my seat.

"I surely do," Captain Waters said. "I sat left seat for more than thirty years - and I loved it, every jump I did."

"When did you retire?" I asked.

"'Bout 15 years ago," Deep replied. "A body can only take so much intensive jumping - so I opened an import-export company on Rymonthia."

Mag blinked at that. "You're certainly out of the way, sir," he said. "I don't think you could find a more distant world!"

Waters smiled fondly. "I've been to Roaring Station, Mag - back then that was the end of the line, and how."

"What company did you work for?" I asked, calling up the jump computer.

Deep smiled sadly. "I used to be part of a vanished profession, Captain," he said. "I was a tramp freighter captain. My ship was my own, and I went where I wanted to."

"Born rich?" Mag smiled.

"Heck no," Captain Waters laughed. "I started small. Bought a used shuttle on payments, and worked my way up to an old Grym-class. I liked it fine, so there I stayed."

"So, you ever make it big?" I asked.

"Big enough to retire," Waters admitted. "But it could have turned out better. I stayed too long, and that's the truth."

The Starliner flashed into hyperspace. A 'day' later, we flashed into the next jump point.

"What do you mean, you stayed too long?" I asked.

Captain Waters laughed. "You're getting me down memory lane, boy ... you'll be sorry."

We both shared a chuckle at that.

"Anyway, well, it wasn't a golden age by any means. We took our cargo, we took the passengers. And it was the middle of a war. Flying was expensive, 'cause it was hellish dangerous. You got paid ten thousand creds for flying three jumps with a few tons of scrap metal."

"Yeah, I read about that," Mag said. "Wild times, eh?"

"Civil war's a bitch, Mag," Deep said. "We worked for that money. Friends of mine paid big for it too. Some of them are still out there -- once upon a time, they made one jump too many."

"So what happened?" I asked.

"For a while, we made out like pirates," Waters smiled. "Heck, some of us made out as pirates. 'Course, the Association, or the Guild, or the feds, or whatever, eventually got them. I never met an old pirate. And that's the truth."

"So you got rich," I said.

"And then the War ended," Waters pointed out simply.

We flashed through to Alphara while I thought about that one. "So?" I asked. "More people want to trade. More money."

"Look out the window," Waters said. "What do you see?"

"Spacedock," I answered. "Some Sigma ships, some GSE and TGS vessels, a Whale-class freighter. What?"

Deep shook his head. "I don't remember how many times I flew through here, Cap'n," he said. "And I don't remember one time when someone wasn't shooting someone else. Tenonians killing Feds, or Feds shooting Tenonians -- rail guns, fusion shot, missiles were always on the loose. It's easy to get caught in the crossfire."

"Well, it's good that some things change, eh,?" I smiled.

"Put it this way. Do you see any missions these days for ten thou?" Waters asked.

"Nope," I admitted.

Wittera flashed into existence a moment later. "The War ended," Waters repeated. "The only boys who could afford to ship cargo and passengers were the big lines and a bunch of start-ups. Sort of like deregulation. They squeezed the old-time space captains out of business."

"That sucks," Mag admitted.

"Oh, it wasn't all at once," Deep continued. "For a while, you're right - there was money for everyone, and cargo for everyone too. But then the bottom fell out. People weren't paying 5 grand anymore, and they wanted in-flight entertainment, too. Not many movie theaters on a beat up ol' Grym."

His eyes clouded over, remembering. "I tried to stick it out ... tried to persuade myself that it was just a blip, a depression. We borrowed, we financed, we begged -- hell, we stole too. But there's no sorrier sight than a desperate freighter captain. Our time was over, and that's the truth. Now the best I can do is stay one step ahead of civilization."

I looked at the old spacer. "You didn't really quit because of your health, did you?" I asked.

"No," Waters replied. "I couldn't stand it anymore. I couldn't stand to see my way of life dying by inches. The smart ones left early -- the other ones died too. Me, I had enough. All my life I'd wondered what a cowboy felt like when the railroad came to town. And as God is my witness, I'm sorry I had to live to see it."

Now, I'm not really an emotional guy, and in fact, I'm not too clear on what 'cowboys' and 'railroads' are - but you could see this guy Waters was hurting. Sort of put a little lump in my throat, too.

"You could have stayed on," Mag suggested, pushing the jump button again. "Got a job with GSE or something. You didn't have to quit."

Waters shook his head slowly as another system flashed into view. "It wouldn't have been the same. No, I gave the Star Dancer to my nephew - he uses her to haul his family around and go places. He can't fly to save his skin, but he loves her, and that's all that counts." He stayed quiet for a long moment.

It was enough for me. I stood up. "Captain Waters?" I asked. "Would you care to trade seats?"

He looked up at me and nearly cried right there. "You sure that's okay with 'company policy'?" he asked.

"You let me deal with that, sir," I told him, and guided him into the seat. "You have the next jump."

Now, I was just behind him in the jumpseat, and you can bet Mag was keeping an eye on instruments, but Waters knew his business. He reached forward and took the control wheel, and flew that Starliner like it was part of him. If it wasn't for that tear trickling down his cheek, you'd think it was just another day at the office.

"Approaching jump point," Mag said.

Waters blinked damply and smiled. "What do you call this ship?" he asked.

"Starliner 48782," I said, shrugging.

"What you're doing means a great deal to an old, played out space captain," he said. "But can I ask one last favor? Not for me, for your ship."

"Sure," I smiled. "What?"

"Please," Captain Deke Waters said. "Just give her a name."


2006 by B. H. Marks

B.H. Marks is a veterinary student somewhere in Central Europe. Marks has had one story published in Aphelion, and dreams of getting published in Analog someday. Just once. (B.H. Marks is a pseudonym. The other details? Well, Enter the Dragon did appear in the October 2005 Aphelion ...)

E-mail: B. H. Marks

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