Read Captain Future xx - The Death of Captain Future (October 1995) Online
Authors: Allen Steele
Copyright ©1995 by Allen M. Steele
First published in Asimov's, October 1995
The name of Captain Future, the supreme foe of all evil and evildoers, was known to every inhabitant of the Solar System.
That tall, cheerful, red-haired young adventurer of ready laugh and flying fists was the implacable Nemesis of all oppressors and exploiters of the System's human and planetary races. Combining a gay audacity with an unswervable purposefulness and an unparalleled mastery of science, he had blazed a brilliant trail across the nine worlds in defense of the right.
Captain Future And The Space Emperor
This is the true story of how Captain Future died.
We were crossing the inner belt, coasting toward our scheduled rendezvous with Ceres, when the message was received by the ship's comlink.
"Rohr...? Rohr, wake up, please."
The voice coming from the ceiling was tall, dark, and handsome, sampled from one of the old Hercules vids in the captain's collection. It penetrated the darkness of my quarters on the mid-deck where I lay asleep after standing an eight-hour watch on the bridge.
I turned my head to squint at the computer terminal next to my bunk. Lines of alphanumeric code scrolled down the screen, displaying the routine systems-checks and updates that, as second officer, I was supposed to be monitoring at all times, even when I was off-duty and dead to the world. No red-bordered emergency messages, though; at first glance, everything looked copasetic.
Except the time. It was 0335 Zulu, the middle of the goddamn night.
The voice was a little louder now.
"Mister Furland? Please wake up..."
I groaned and rolled over. “Okay, okay, I'm awake. What'dya want, Brain?”
The Brain. It was bad enough that the ship's AI sounded like Steve Reeves; it also had to have a stupid name like The Brain. On every vessel on which I had served, crewmembers had given their AIs human names—Rudy, Beth, Kim, George, Stan, Lisa, dubbed after friends or family members or deceased shipmates—or nicknames, either clever or overused: Boswell, Isaac, Slim, Flash, Ramrod, plus the usual Hals and Datas from the nostalgia buffs. I once held down a gig on a lunar tug where the AI was called Fughead—as in
Hey, Fughead, gimme the traffic grid for Tycho Station
—but no one but a bonehead would give their AI a silly-ass moniker like The Brain.
No one but Captain Future, that is ... and I still hadn't decided whether or not my current boss was a bonehead, or just insane.
"The captain asked me to awaken you,"
The Brain said.
"He wants you on the bridge at once. He says that it's urgent."
I checked the screen again. “I don't see anything urgent.”
"Captain's orders, Mr. Furland."
The ceiling florescents began to slowly brighten behind their cracked and dusty panes, causing me to squint and clap my hand over my eyes.
"If you don't report to the bridge in ten minutes, you'll be docked one hour time-lost and a mark will be entered on your union card."
Threats like that usually don't faze me—everyone loses a few hours or gains a few marks during a long voyage—but I couldn't afford a bad service report now. In two more days the
would reach Ceres, where I was scheduled to join up with the
, outbound for Callisto. I had been lucky to get this far, and I didn't want my next CO to ground me just because of a bad report from my previous captain.
“Okay,” I muttered. “Tell ‘em I'm on my way.”
I swung my legs over the side and felt around for where I had dropped my clothes on the deck. I could have used a rinse, a shave, and a nice long meditation in the head, not to mention a mug of coffee and a muffin from the galley, but it was obvious that I wasn't going to get that.
Music began to float from the walls, an orchestral overture that gradually rose in volume. I paused, my calves halfway into the trouser legs, as the strings soared upward, gathering heroic strength. German opera. Wagner.
The Flight of The Valkyries
, for God's sake...
“Cut it out, Brain,” I said.
The music stopped in mid-chord.
"The captain thought it would help rouse you."
“I'm roused.” I stood up and pulled my trousers the rest of the way on. In the dim light, I glimpsed a small motion near the corner of my compartment beside the locker; one moment it was there, then it was gone. “There's a cockroach in here,” I said. “Wanna do something about it?”
"I'm sorry, Rohr. I have tried to disinfect the vessel, but so far I have been unable to locate all the nests. If you'll leave your cabin door unlocked while you're gone, I'll send a drone inside to..."
“Never mind.” I zipped up my pants, pulled on a sweatshirt and looked around for my stikshoes. They were kicked under my bunk; I knelt down on the threadbare carpet and pulled them out. “I'll take care of it myself.”
The Brain meant nothing by that comment; it was only trying to get rid of another pest which had found its way aboard the
before the freighter had departed from LaGrange Four. Cockroaches, fleas, ants, even the occasional mouse; they managed to get into any vessel which regularly rendezvoused with near-Earth spaceports, but I had never been on any ship so infested as the
. Yet I wasn't about to leave my cabin door unlocked. One of the few inviolable union rules I still enjoyed aboard this ship was the ability to seal my cabin, and I didn't want to give the captain a chance to go poking through my stuff. He was convinced that I was carrying contraband with me to Ceres Station, and even though he was right—two fifths of lunar mash whiskey, a traditional coming-aboard present for my next commanding officer—I didn't want him pouring good liquor down the sink because of Association regulations no one else bothered to observe.
I pulled on my shoes, fastened a utility belt around my waist and left the cabin, carefully locking the door behind me with my thumbprint. A short, upward-curving corridor took me past the closed doors of two other crew cabins, marked CAPTAIN and FIRST OFFICER. The captain was already on the bridge, and I assumed that Jeri was with him.
A manhole led to the central access shaft and the carousel. Before I went up to the bridge, though, I stopped by the wardroom to fill a squeezebulb with coffee from the pot. The wardroom was a disaster: a dinner tray had been left on the table, discarded food wrappers lay on the floor, and small spider-like robot waded in the galley's sink, waging solitary battle against the crusty cookware that had been abandoned there. The captain had been here recently; I was surprised that he hadn't summoned me to clean up after him. At least there was some hot coffee left in the carafe, although judging from its odor and viscosity it was probably at least ten hours old; I toned it down with sugar and half-sour milk from the fridge before I poured it into a squeezebulb.
As always, the pictures on the wardroom walls caught my eye: framed reproductions of covers from ancient pulp magazines well over a hundred years old. The magazines themselves, crumbling and priceless, were bagged and hermetically sealed within a locker in the Captain's quarters. Lurid paintings of fishbowl-helmeted spacemen fighting improbable alien monsters and mad scientists which, in turn, menaced buxom young women in see-through outfits. The adolescent fantasies of the last century—“Planets In Peril,” “Quest Beyond The Stars,” “Star Trail To Glory”—and above them all, printed in a bold swath across the top of each cover, a title...
Man Of Tomorrow
At that moment, my reverie was broken by a harsh voice coming from the ceiling:
"Furland! Where are you?"
“In the wardroom, Captain.” I pinched off the lip of the squeezebulb and sealed it with a catheter, then clipped it to my belt. “Just grabbing some coffee. I'll be up there in a minute.”
"You got sixty seconds to find your duty station or I'll dock your pay for your last shift! Now hustle your lazy butt up here!"
“Coming right now...” I walked out of the wardroom, heading up the corridor toward the shaft. “Toad,” I whispered under my breath when I was through the hatch and out of earshot from the ship's comnet. Who's calling who lazy?
Captain Future, Man of Tomorrow. God help us if that were true.
Ten minutes later a small ship shaped like an elongated tear-drop rose from an underground hangar on the lunar surface. It was the
, super-swift craft of the Futuremen, known far and wide through the System as the swiftest ship in space.
Calling Captain Future
My name's Rohr Furland. For better or worse, I'm a spacer, just like my father and his mother before him.
Call it family tradition. Grandma was one of the original beamjacks who helped build the first powersat in Earth orbit before she immigrated to the Moon, where she conceived my dad as the result of one-night stand with some nameless moondog who was killed in a blowout only two days later. Dad grew up as an unwanted child in Descartes Station; he ran away at eighteen and stowed away aboard a Skycorp freighter to Earth, where he lived like a stray dog in Memphis before he got homesick and signed up with a Russian company looking for native-born selenians. Dad got home in time to see Grandma through her last years, fight in the Moon War on the side of the Pax Astra and, not incidentally, meet my mother, who was a geologist at Tycho Station.
I was born in the luxury of a two-room apartment beneath Tycho on the first anniversary of the Pax's independence. I'm told that my dad celebrated my arrival by getting drunk on cheap luna wine and balling the midwife who had delivered me. It's remarkable that my parents stayed together long enough for me to graduate from suit camp. Mom went back to Earth while Dad and I stayed on the Moon to receive the benefits of full citizenship in the Pax: Class A oxygen cards, good for air even if we were unemployed and dead broke. Which was quite often, in Dad's case.
All of which makes me a mutt, a true son of a bastard, suckled on air bottles and moonwalking before I was out of my diapers. On my sixteenth birthday, I was given my union card and told to get a job; two weeks before my eighteenth birthday, the LEO shuttle which had just hired me as a cargo handler touched down on a landing strip in Galveston, and with the aid of an exoskeleton I walked for the first time on Earth. I spent one week there, long enough for me to break my right arm by falling on a Dallas sidewalk, lose my virginity to an El Paso whore, and get one hell of a case of agoraphobia from all that wide-open Texas landscape. Fuck the cradle of humanity and the horse it rode in on; I caught the next boat back to the Moon and turned eighteen with a birthday cake that had no candles.
Twelve years later, I had handled almost every union job someone with my qualifications could hold—dock slob, cargo grunt, navigator, life support chief, even a couple of second-mate assignments—on more vessels than I could count, ranging from orbital tugs and lunar freighters to passenger shuttles and Apollo-class ore haulers. None of these gigs had ever lasted much longer than a year; in order to guarantee equal opportunity for all its members, the union shifted people from ship to ship, allowing only captains and first-mates to remain with their vessels for longer than eighteen months. It was a hell of a system; by the time you became accustomed to one ship and its captain, you were transferred to another ship and had to learn all over again. Or, worse, you went without work for several months at a time, which meant hanging around some spacer bar at Tycho Station or Descartes City, waiting for the local union rep to throw some other guy out of his present assignment and give you his job.
It was a life, but it wasn't much of a living. I was thirty years old and still possessed all my fingers and toes, but had precious little money in the bank. After fifteen years of hard work, the nearest thing I had to a permanent address was the storage locker in Tycho where I kept my few belongings. Between jobs, I lived in union hostels on the Moon or the el-fives, usually occupying a bunk barely large enough to swing either a cat or a call-girl. Even the whores lived better than I did; sometimes I'd pay them just to let me sleep in a decent bed for a change, and never mind the sex.
To make matters worse, I was bored out of my wits. Except for one cycleship run out to Mars when I was twenty-five, I had spent my entire career—hell, my entire life—running between LEO and the Moon. It's not a bad existence, but it's not a great one either. There's no shortage of sad old farts hanging around the union halls, telling big lies to anyone who'll listen about their glory days as beamjacks or moondogs while drinking away their pensions. I was damned if I would end up like them, but I knew that if I didn't get off the Moon real soon, I would schlepping LOX tanks for the rest of my life.