It was very clearly not going well, though he couldn’t pinpoint precisely where he’d gone wrong — aside from getting out of bed that morning, and on a more existential level, being born at all. Sebastian felt that he should be forgiven the self-pitying turn of his thoughts since he was very likely going to die when his spacesuit ran out of power to keep him warm and breathing. It was definitely a time to be pondering the larger questions — except that he was still spinning and on the verge of throwing up.
“Shit,” he said. Which as a last word was a bit obvious. “Fuck me to the end of time,” he managed to sputter out. A little better.
He should have been able to arrest his spin with the mini vents that lined the spacesuit. A couple of well-timed bursts of gas would change his direction, but the jets in his suit had been knocked out, most likely by the same tiny meteors that had sent him spiraling out into space.
It was supposed to have been a simple salvage job of an old and broken satellite left to drift in a wide orbit around a destroyed lunar outpost. It had probably been cleaned out by scavengers years ago, but pickings had been slim for Sebastian and his crew lately. Some scrap metal and maybe a few electronic components might bring in enough to keep his ship, The Wayward Prince, flying for another day, so it seemed worth stopping and suiting up for a space walk to check it out.
The ship! Sebastian had heard nothing from the crew other than a brief squawk of warning just as the meteors had struck. It had been abruptly cut off, so he assumed his comms had been knocked out along with everything else. The meteoroids had been too small to be detected by their scans, and Sebastian had to hope that that meant they were also too small to do any damage to the ship. He, on the other hand, had taken a half dozen hits from the thumb-sized rocks — the suit’s automatic sealing systems had kicked in right away, though he didn’t know how long that would hold. He supposed he was lucky the rocks hadn’t torn right through him.
Sebastian didn’t feel lucky. He felt fatalistic, with an emphasis on the fatal part. That, and nauseous.
He was going to die out here in the dark silence of space. Which sounded terribly romantic until one factored in the likelihood of dying with a helmet full of vomit. He just wished—
He blinked. Hearing a voice before dying wasn’t something he’d expected — he’d never been a religious man — but then this voice was familiar.
“Jaime.” The voice was coming not from his imagination or the supernatural, but from the comm in his ear. “I—” He had to stop to choke down bile.
“Okay, Sebastian, I’ve got you. Can you stop your spin?”
Sebastian would have liked to make a sarcastic reply, but he didn’t dare open his mouth.
“Oh, I guess you can’t,” Jaime said. “Let me see what I can do.”
There was a brief jarring sensation as the suit surrounding his body switched from manual control to the control of Jaime’s mind. Jaime was what people these days called a wizard — when they weren’t calling him a freak, a mutant, or something even ruder. There was no magic to it, just the altered genes passed down from several generations that allowed him to communicate with and manipulate computers, and other electronic systems, telepathically. It was a rare gift, except humans nowadays had an uneasy relationship with technology — understandably, on account of the AIs that had wiped out most of the population around a hundred and fifty years ago.
Sebastian congratulated himself on his open-mindedness in making Jaime a member of his crew, especially when his spinning mercifully slowed and then stopped.
“Thank you,” Sebastian said sincerely. Now he was simply hanging there in the black, which for some wouldn’t ease their panic, but Sebastian had been traveling in space long enough to find the emptiness a challenge rather than a terror.
“Wow, your suit’s a mess,” Jaime said in his ear. “I don’t think there’s enough propellant left to get you back to the ship.”
“So perhaps the spaceship we live in could be used to, say, come and get me?” As the nausea receded, so did the sincerity.
“That’s the other problem. We were trying to cover you and got hit with some larger meteors.”
Sebastian’s focus sharpened immediately. “How bad?”
“It’s okay,” Jaime said, perhaps too quickly to be reassuring. “We’re not in any danger, but we’re also not moving at the moment.”
“How many moments until it is moving?”
“Uh… it’s probably not going to work with your timeline,” Jaime said, and Sebastian wanted to congratulate him on euphemistically making it clear what all the red lights on his suit were telling him. “But don’t worry, Sebastian, we’re going to figure something out. Just hang in there.”
“I have every confidence in you,” he said, because it never hurt to be nice to someone working to avoid one’s imminent death, even if hang in there struck him as especially trite.
“I’m just going to talk to the others,” Jaime said. “I’ll tell you the plan as soon as we, uh, come up with it.”
“Great.” Sebastian couldn’t keep the hollowness out of his voice on that one. “Jaime, wait. Could you … turn me to face the other way?”
“You really need to conserve—”
“Just so I can see the ship.” His voice was a whisper. “Please.”
“We’re getting you back,” Jaime said firmly. But there was a soft exhale from a vent on the suit, around his elbow, just enough to begin a slight turn, and then another gentle push from the other side to keep him still. Sebastian looked through the wide visor of his helmet to where, across a daunting distance and against the darkness, the ship hung. His ship.
Sebastian didn’t know about last words, but as last sights went, this was all he’d ever wanted.
Then it got boring.
Sebastian had no idea how long he’d been out there. Jaime had thoughtfully shut off the alarms so Sebastian wouldn’t have a countdown to his suffocation, and the chronometer wasn’t working. He didn’t want to waste air by asking for status updates, but a little communication from the Prince would be nice. Maybe some music. Because after staring soulfully at the ship for a while there really wasn’t much else to do. Well, except for gloomily reflecting on his life, but Sebastian found that was best accompanied by a glass or two of wine.
The Wayward Prince was his home and his heart, but right now he so fucking wished it was big and fancy enough to carry a shuttle.
In his childhood, Sebastian had been constantly told not to wish for things he didn’t have, but to be grateful for what he did have. Sebastian had grown up on a small, muddy planet where people patiently raised sheep and repressed every emotion. Dreaming of something more was the only pastime.
Once, Sebastian would have claimed that kind of dreaming as his greatest strength. After all, it had got him off his planet, got him to become a pilot and then the captain of his own ship. Some might point out that what Sebastian had achieved involved a lot of lying, cheating, and stealing, but those were mostly disgruntled exes and various law enforcement officials. Of course, now Sebastian had to agree with them and his parents, because, as predicted, Sebastian was well on his way to dying alone and unmourned, except by his small crew of smugglers and misfits.
He really wanted that wine now. He would have sighed loudly but didn’t want to mess up his CO2 levels.
Sebastian squinted toward the ship. It seemed like there was something small and white hurtling toward him. He didn’t recall stocking any missiles on board, and whatever it was seemed too small to offer much in the way of rescue.
While the object was coming at him with some speed, it definitely wasn’t missile velocity. After a few seconds Sebastian could see it was another spacesuit, trailing vapor behind it as it propelled forward. It was getting closer and looking much bigger; Sebastian hoped whoever was in it knew what they were doing because it wasn’t like he could get out of the way.
Really close now and not slowing or turning—
There was a bone-shaking thud, a loss of perspective as the view outside his visor tilted and began to spin again, and Sebastian found himself wrapped in strong arms that he couldn’t exactly feel through the suit, but that were still comforting in their presence.
“What the fuck, Rylan!” Because of everyone on board he was the tallest and most likely to crash into someone he was presumably rescuing.
“Sorry, Captain. Not like there’s brakes on these things.” There was a brief plume of vapor from Rylan’s suit as he stilled their wild tumble.
“You could have warned me,” Sebastian grumbled. Rylan Slate was a large, muscled, and generally stoic presence, doing most of the literal heavy lifting on board and providing security off the ship. Which was a bit of an irony, since when Sebastian had first met him he’d been an undercover government agent luring the crew into a trap. Right now, Sebastian was ridiculously glad to see him.
“I tried, but your comm doesn’t have the range. And we’re past Jaime’s reach by now.”
“But you’re going to take us back, right?”
“That’s the thing.” Even through the comm Sebastian could hear the hesitation in his voice, which got him alarmed all over again. “I used up most of this suit’s juice to get to you. I’m going to aim us back at the ship and fire off the rest, but that won’t get us there fast enough before we both run out of power.”
“Please tell me this isn’t the plan you’ve spent all this time coming up with.”
“The idea is to crank up the power on the ship’s magnetic grapples,” Rylan said. “Between the metal in the suits and my arm it should be enough to pull us in real quick.”
Rylan’s right arm was artificial, coated with flesh and blood but containing metal alloys and computer circuitry. It made him very useful for opening jars and things, and now apparently saving Sebastian’s life.
“Excellent,” Sebastian said. “Solid planning effort. I approve. Now let’s get on with it.”
“Yeah…” Hesitation again, wonderful. “Simi and Jaime are working on the calculations to make sure my arm doesn’t get ripped off when they turn on the magnet. Could be a little while longer.”
“And arm being torn off as a possibility was something you signed off on?”
Rylan didn’t sound particularly ruffled. “Simi’s a great engineer, and I trust Jaime with my life. We’ll be fine. I promise you, Captain.”
Rylan was probably the only person on the ship who called him captain sincerely and not just when he wanted something or was in trouble, so Sebastian swallowed a dozen questions and doubts. He wasn’t the one potentially getting his arm ripped off after all.
“I admit,” he said instead, “that I’m starting to question the value of these salvage missions.”
Rylan gave a low, rumbling chuckle. “We’ll get a better job soon. We’re due for some luck.”
“Oh, I have plenty of luck. All bad.”
They generally survived on hauling cargo — sometimes legal, mostly not — between the scattered remaining human colonies. Some places were large and prosperous — almost like old Earth in the stories — others were tiny outposts living off of subsistence farming and the charity of the Commonwealth, the coalition of governments that tried to keep humanity from slipping into another Dark Age or dying out altogether. Sebastian had his problems with the Commonwealth — they were strict in enforcing trade laws and never hesitated to levy a fine for any minor infraction — but he would have kissed a grim-faced agent on the lips if one of their rescue ships had shown up right now.
Speaking of. “You know it’s been six months,” he said to Rylan.
“You being on shit duty.” Rylan had been stuck with the worst cleaning and maintenance jobs on board, a punishment for the not-inconsequential matter of him betraying the crew to fulfil a mission for the Commonwealth. “Maybe it’s time for that to end.”
“That would great, Captain. I appreciate it… wait. You’re not just saying that because I came out here to get you, are you?”
“It has left me feeling rather magnanimous.”
Rylan started to shake his head but stopped when his helmet clunked against Sebastian’s. “I can take any punishment for as long as you see fit. That’s not why I’m out here.”
“Why then?” His breathing was as shallow as he could make it, but Sebastian was starting to hear the wheeze in his voice.
“Because you’re my captain, Captain.” Something shifted. “Can you feel that? We’re speeding up. The ship’s close.”
The form of the ship was competing with the dark spots dancing across his eyes, but Sebastian tried to focus on it. That ship was his whole world, but like everything else, it was something Sebastian hadn’t acquired honestly and that he had hurt someone important to get. One more thing he didn’t deserve.
“Sebastian. Hold on.”
There was Rylan’s voice in his ear, and Jaime’s too, but also more distantly, his father’s telling him to go, his mama pleading with him to stay, and distant stars and planets swirling all around until his body was jerked and caught in a suffocating weight.
“We’re on board, Captain. The hold’s re-pressurizing — just a few more seconds.”
Sebastian came back to awareness long enough to register the familiar surroundings of the Prince’s cargo hold, but from an odd angle. They were dangling off the floor in their suits, Rylan stuck by one arm to the large shape of the grapple, his other holding onto Sebastian, but the gravity of the ship making his position precarious. It was completely absurd, and Sebastian would have laughed except there was no air for that, no air for anything, so that he flailed and gasped uselessly.
“Hurry,” Rylan snarled. “Turn off the damned magnet, I’m losing my grip on him—”
Everything went gray and then black and then the airless helmet was off his head. Sebastian was lying on the floor, and people were surrounding him. He tried to suck in more air, but a mask was jammed over his nose and mouth. He clawed at it.
“It’s okay, it’s oxygen.” He recognized Lydia, the ship’s doctor — recognized but couldn’t quite get his body to believe her and tried to twist away.
“Sebastian!” A clear voice cut through everything and then Mags’s face was above him, lined and tired, but with eyes of unrelenting blue. “Stop fighting and just breathe.”
It was good advice, like she always gave him, so Sebastian closed his eyes and followed it.
Sebastian was sitting up in his bed. It wasn’t because he was still unwell or feeling particularly slothful — there was simply no other space in his quarters. He might have a double-sized cabin, but the bed took up most of the space, and one chair was buried in papers and clothes, while the only other chair was occupied by Mags.
Her short gray hair was ruffled and her deceptively kindly face set in exasperated lines. The look she was giving him could have been about the mess of his quarters, his state of semi-undress, or even his recent brush with death. But Mags was used to dealing with all those things from him.
“Do you want the status report or not?” She took her role as second-in-command seriously. More seriously that Sebastian took his command.
“Didn’t Dr. Stevenson say that I wasn’t to be unduly stressed?”
“Lydia said no such thing. She said you were perfectly healthy.”
“I think she was being overly optimistic. But go on.”
“First up, Rylan’s fine.”
Sebastian frowned. “What’s wrong with Rylan?”
“He used up almost all his air and power getting you back yesterday. He had hypoxia too, Sebastian, just not as severely as you.”
He waved a hand. “Rylan’s built like an ox. Same disposition. Of course he’s all right.”
Mags sighed. “Not all of us grew up around live animals, so I’ll assume that was meant as a compliment. Next is the ship.”
Sebastian winced preemptively. “How bad?”
“Not horrible. Simi has everyone who’s able” — she gave the reclining Sebastian a pointed look — “working on the engines. We should be underway in another six hours.”
“Excellent.” That was better than he’d expected.
“It’s a patch job. Just enough to get us to the nearest outpost. We need parts.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Expensive parts?”
“Are there any other kind? Which brings us to an ongoing status item — no one’s been paid in months.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“It’s possible. I don’t see you making much headway with the accounts.” She glanced at the stacks of papers on the other chair. It really was ridiculous that Sebastian had to deal with so much paperwork, but one of the downsides of living in a post technology-driven apocalypse was that everyone wanted hard copies of things. AIs wiping out most of human knowledge, along with most humans, will do that.
“You know, Bo and I have money stashed away,” Mags said, her voice softening. “Credits that I can access at most ports. And if you need a larger loan, plenty of people would be glad to pay me hush money—”
Sebastian was both touched and embarrassed by her offer to do blackmail for him. She and her husband Bo Chen had done rather unsavory and secretive work for both the Commonwealth and more criminal elements before they’d given it up to join his crew. “Mags, no, that’s sweet, really, but it hasn’t come to that.”
“Are you sure? Because once we pay for parts and supplies there’s not going to be much left. Simi gets job offers every time we put into port, so does Kaz — good engineers and pilots are always in demand. Jaime could make a fortune if he hired himself out to the right people.”
“Or be killed if he found the wrong people,” Sebastian said. “And Kaz loves the ship more than I do. She wouldn’t leave; same with Simi. They’re loyal.”
“No one’s questioning loyalty, Sebastian, but general morale would improve if we got a job that paid.”
“Then I’m going to get us one.” He was seized with a sudden energy and jumped out of bed, not caring that he was only wearing a shirt and that it didn’t do much to cover his lower half. All that fear and loneliness he’d experienced yesterday had a purpose after all, because what had saved him? His crew and his ship. Now it was his turn to save them, to be the captain. He’d been drifting, but now he knew what to do.
“Next port, I’m going to charm anyone I can find into hiring us. We have a reputation. This is the best ship, the best crew, in the galaxy for honest and slightly dishonest work. We should be the envy of every other smuggler out there, and if they don’t know it, then damn it, I’m going to remind them.”
Mags didn’t blink; she just handed him a pair of pants.
Sebastian’s fire carried him through the several days it took to patch the ship and limp it into a space station outpost. It filled him with enough confidence that he was actually surprised at his bad luck when, after heading to the station’s bar to drum up business, he had exactly one drink and promptly passed out, waking up with his hands bound and a blindfold over his eyes and the realization that he’d been kidnapped.