Ma’s was always pretty loud on Friday nights with all the spacers partying and getting drunk. I don’t know why they liked to hang out there—the rest of the week, the place was pretty quiet, a place where you could take your kids for the night out. But when Friday rolled around, you could be sure whiskered and grizzled faces would far outnumber the smooth-skinned ones. Sometimes a parent would come in with kids in tow, but usually they’d end up towing them right back out, tsk-tsking as they left.
The spacers were a wild group. They would come in and swap outrageous stories late into the night, each one crazier than the last one, drinking heavily. By closing time, the story tellers no longer even made a pretense of realism—they were too drunk. The listeners were also too drunk to know the difference.
On one typical Friday night, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Douglas, regular customers, were telling the stories. It was still early, and alcohol had not yet had its effect. Roberts was a grizzled space warrior, with tattoos on his arm and an earring in one ear, his long black beard speckled with white. He held a beer in one hand and a pipe in the other, and between stories blew smoke rings to the ceiling. He had a curious way of talking out of the corner of his mouth in such a whispery voice that even those sitting next to him had to strain to hear.
“The bravest thing I ever saw happened about twenty years ago, back when Betelgeuse went supernova,” Roberts was saying. “It happened on the Centauri-Betelgeuse run. A Captain Swattling was taking a cargo of textiles and cosmetics to Betelgeuse when he heard the reports of its impending doom. The scientists predicted the disaster only a few hours before the actual whammo!, so as you probably know, most of the Betelgeusians got killed. Few had warning, and those that did, well, transporting a colony of a hundred thousand or so just can’t be done on the few hours warning they had.”
“Swattling only saw that he stood to lose a fortune if he didn’t get his goods to their market, and get paid in cash. So when he heard on the radio about the coming disaster, he didn’t tell his crew, and went right up to Harvey’s world, the one that held the bulk of the system’s people, and delivered his cargo. He stayed just long enough to collect payment in cash, and then got out of there just in the nick of time, as Betelgeuse blew up. In fact, he wouldn’t have made it except that the explosion was almost a half hour later than predicted. He knew the predicted time—but stayed anyway.”
The group gathered at his table gave their approval to the story, banging their glasses on the table, but Douglas banged his fist on the table as hard as he could, getting everybody’s attention. Shaking his head, he took a huge guzzle of his beer, and leaned back in his chair. His bright red hair and sharp features gave him a devilish look. Unlike Roberts, his voice boomed out, so all could hear.
“Now that Captain Swattling may have been brave, but he wasn’t half as brave as a Major Longsby I once knew,” he began. He was about to continue when he was interrupted by the appearance of an old woman, none other than the owner of Ma’s, known as Ma to most, but as Grandma to those closest to her.
She looked older than the planets her customers explored, with pockmarks and wrinkles on her face to match any planet’s mountains. Her voice was old and ragged, but to the spacemen, she was like a motherly patron. There were rumors that she had been a spacewoman at one time, but for as long as anyone could remember she had owned and operated Ma’s. She often made appearances on Friday night, and was well liked.
“You’re probably about to tell everyone how Longsby saved the fleet back in ‘29 by attacking the Leviton horde single-handed,” she said. “Let me tell you a story, one that hasn’t been told twenty-seven times, about another man who was braver than either Swattling or Longsby.” She sat down at the table and lighted a cigarette. The others in the room moved closer to hear. When Ma told her yarns, everybody listened.
“You all know how our planet New Earth got settled by sleeper ship about fifty years ago, back around 2120,” Ma began. “What you probably don’t know is how close the first group of settlers—all ten thousand of them—came to getting killed.”
“Does this have something to do with Alpha Centauri going nova when the ship arrived here?” Douglas demanded. “We all know about that. It was saved by its shielding.”
“That’s true,” Ma said. She fixed him with a stare. “But then you must also know that they were caught off guard, with shielding down, and the ship was badly damaged as a result. How was it able to crawl away?”
“I assume they still had engine power left, and just flew off,” Douglas answered.
“They didn’t and couldn’t,” Ma said.
“Then how did they survive?” Douglas asked.
-- [End of Preview.]