The Captain And The Kid
by Marta Randall
The captain's taken to looking sneaky again. Usually, when she pretends to help around the farm, she stands leaning against a rake or staring out at the ridge of mountains to the west. But lately she's made a show of looking down the valley toward town, or out along the stretch of lake. I know the signs by now, but there's nothing to be done. It comes around like clockwork, I put up with it, it goes away for another eleven months. I used to tell her that she should make an effort, work the land, make the best of things, but I gave that up long ago.
Sure enough, this evening after supper she starts pacing around the slap-dash kitchen, then stalks out into the yard. She walks different, outside. Not disdainful, not up-nosed. Just hates the earth, is all. She'd rather be upstairs.
Course, so would I, but at least I'm graceful about it.
"Not fair!" the captain shouts. Down comes the mug. Break, splatter, mess. No great loss, ugly mug anyway. Second evening of the sneaky-time, and I'm prepared with mop, bucket, towels, broom, soap. I start to clean up.
"I ran that ship for them centuries, centuries, while they were all asleep. D'you hear me, kid? You think they care I got them off and got them back again? You think they even think about it, kid? Do you?"
"Don't know," I say. Wring out the towel. "Expect not."
"Course not! They don't give a damn, no respect, no consideration. I've done my share, damn it. Took 'em up, brought 'em down. Ought to be left alone. Hate farming. Not fair."
"Could make an effort," I say. "Home again, new beginning. Everyone's labor needed. Important."
The captain makes a skeptical noise in her throat. "No sense of history. Hate growing things. Pigsty. Unfair to make me do it."
"I do it."
"Different, kid. Menial. Negligible."
"Menial!" I shout. Throw broken crockery in the fire. She's gone too damn far, this time. "Twenty-five years upstairs! Negligible!"
"I saved your life!" the captain roars, flings a bowl of stew against the stove. "Broken creche-box, got you out, raised you up, taught you all you know. Saved your life, kid!"
"And I saved yours! Leaky suit, shorted vanes, went out and pulled you back. Sometimes wonder why."
"Don't give me any backfire!"
"Yeah? Then clean up your own damned mess."
And with as much dignity as I can muster, I stomp out of the kitchen, up the rickety stairs, into my room, slam the door. The top leather hinge snaps. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. Blast.
Been at this for twenty years exactly, year in, year out, ever since we landed the ship in the valley west of here, in the foothills, and unfroze everyone. They looked damn odd, stumbling around in sunshine, clapping each other on the back, making cheerful noises. We stood at the top of the ramp and watched them. I hadn't seen people for twenty-five years, didn't remember them at all. Thought everyone looked like the captain. She hadn't seen them for fifty years, but at least she remembered.
They all recognized the place. This was just another planet, running in circles around a stupid little star– no big thing, not a big enough thing to land for. I'd seen better. But they got busy, built buildings, bred animals from the banks. Two thousand years gone, and they acted like they'd never even left, or like they cleaned it up themselves. Silly dirters.
Green stuff allover the place, growing wherever the hell it wanted. Blue upstairs instead of black; hardly enough stars to count. Hunk of yellow rock overhead. Twittery dumb things in the bushes and the trees. Unpleasant place. Wished I were upstairs again, where it's clean, but at least I made the effort. Tried to blend in. Built this falling-down house, farmed like they said to. Planted orchard. Captain didn't help at all. Just stormed around being grieved. Bitching. I agree with her, mostly, but what's to do?
Captain's gone in the morning. Stew all over the stove. I clean up, make tea, make breakfast, start to eat. She wants to go hungry, that's her business.
Half hour after sunrise, the Jansen kid comes over.
"Captain's coming into town with us," he says, not looking at me. Sneaky little monster.
"Mom says maybe you should come along."
"She might get into trouble."
"Nobody's going to like this," he warns.
"Tough." I put down the mug and give him the kid-scare double-whammy, and he beats it. I used to like kids, until the Council said I couldn't have any. Too much radiation. Didn't want to mess up the genes of the future. Shipdreck.
Course, this kid's worse than most, I figure. Used to be a family at the Jansen place, before the Jansens moved in. Rosenwassers. Decent bunch. Used to bring over cakes and stuff, help around the orchard. Double handful of kids, liked to listen to the captain talk. None of this slithering around after dark peering in the windows, checking up on us, making nasty remarks over the back fence. Rosenwassers moved out about, what, three years ago? Four? Got the feeling they didn't want to go, but what the Council says, the Council does. Damned Jansens moved in afterward. Rosenwassers came to visit once or twice, and the Jansens always came along to spy. Looking through our shopping. Shipdreck.
Shopping list's on the wall; I think about taking it to the captain before they leave. Next market day won't be for a month, but the hell with it. Captain's fault, should have remembered. She'll have to eat squash for the next month; serves her right.
I get the pruning shears and go into the orchard. Goddamned plums. Suckin' apples. Idiot pears. I kick the trees for a few minutes before getting down to work. Hate farming.
Captain's blind drunk when they bring her home, but so am I. Hit the apple wine before dinner, been on it steady since. Past midnight now, I guess.
Two sets of neighbors haul her in the door, some holding her feet, some holding her arms. They sure don't look happy. Kids peer in, excited. People breed like rabbits. Look like weasels now, though, or windmills. Waving arms, talking all over each other, frowning. Must have been some show. Old Jansen tells me that she disgraced herself. Made speeches. Interrupted Council meeting. Stole bottles of wine. Urped over their damned wagon. Mess.
"So report it," I say, nasty as I can.
"You can be sure that I already have," says Jansen, righteous as a preacher in a whorehouse. They dump the captain on the couch and go home.
I get her out of her clothes, sponge her off. She wakes in the middle of it, thinks she's aboard ship, thinks she's in the wagon, thinks she's in the Council rooms, discovers she's at home and starts crying.
"Tried to tell them about it," she sobs. "Wouldn't listen. Won't give me my ship back. Don't care. All I've done for them."
"Nothing new," I say. I pull the lumpy gray blanket around her; no use trying to get her upstairs. But she sits up, gray hair all wild and spiky, skinny arms waving.
"I'm getting old, kid! Old, I'm dying, I want to go home again, don't want to be here! I'm tired. I want my ship back, I want my stars back! I don't like this place! I want to go home!"
What's to say to that? Truth, truth, truth. I lay down and put my arms around her, and we cry into each other's hair.
All the next day the captain won't talk, just lies on the couch staring out the window, looking deep. Never seen her this way before; it's got me worried. She won't even get mad at me. Eats squash for dinner like it was something else. Goes to sleep on the couch. I don't want to leave her, don't know what's happening. Take an extra blanket and stretch out by the fireplace. The captain snores.
Something wakes me up. I lie still and listen carefully, and it comes again, like someone trying the door. I get up, grab a stick, and sneak over to the door. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing. But if it's that damned Jansen brat, I'll cheese him.
Not the brat. I lower the stick. "Who's there?"
"It's me, Ike Rosenwasser. Let me in."
"Hot damn," I say, and Ike makes hissing, be-quiet noises until I open the door.
"Don't light anything," he says. "I snuck in."
"What do you mean, what for? Last few times we tried to visit, the Jansens ran us off." He's got on a black jacket, black pants, black boots, black scarf around his head. He takes the scarf off and hangs it over a chair. Might just be the dim light, but he looks different. Older. We're all older. "Surely you know about that."
"Folk have been trying to visit you and the captain; they always get chased away. You didn't think we'd just desert you, did you? You know us better than that."
"Don't know anyone," I say. The captain mumbles and thrashes around, but doesn't wake up.
"We heard about what happened in town, couple of days ago. Came to see if we could help."
"What's to help? Captain got drunk and yelled a lot."
"But the Council– "
"Offended dignity. They'll get over it."
"But that's the trouble, kid. They won't." Ike paces around, raises his voice. I wave at him and he stops, starts to whisper. "They say they've had enough. Say that you two aren't pulling your own weight. That something's got to be done."
"Easy." It's the captain. She sits up on the couch and looks at us. "Changes."
"That's what– " Ike says eagerly.
"Changes," the captain says again. "Go away, Ike. I want to sleep."
"Damn it, Captain– "
"Beat it, Rosenwasser." She lies down again and puts the pillow over her head.
"Kid," Ike says, pleading.
"You heard the captain," I say. It's late, I'm so tired my eyes feel dirty. "Go on home, Ike. We don't need help."
"That's what you think," says Ike Rosenwasser. He ties the scarf around his face again, hesitates at the door, then slides into the night. I shake my head. Some of our neighbors are mean crazy and some are kind crazy, but it's crazy all the same. All of them trying to run our lives. I lock the door, tuck in the captain, and go back to sleep.
Scrungy dawn, all pink and pale. The blanket's on the floor, kitchen's full of dirty dishes, and the captain's outside, hacking at the dirt with a hoe. I rub my eyes, then go out to her.
She's got her hair combed, boots on, hat on, pile of mangled vegetables around her. Sweat on her face. She grabs some of the green stuff and shoves it at me.
"Carrot," I say.
"Oh. Thought it was a weed."
She starts hacking again, between the rows this time. "What're you looking at?"
"Stop it. Go make breakfast. Go fix the roof. Place is a mess. Got to change things."
She stoops down and touches a green stalk. Her fingers are long and gnarled.
"Carrot," she mutters. "New leaf."
I go back inside, stand by the window, watch her. She really means it, she's really working on it. Changes. By hot, sweet damn, the captain's finally home.
By dinner the garden's all weeded, there's some new shingles on the roof, kitchen's swept and clean. The captain draws water, cursing at the pump, and I cook, and we both clean up after. Then sit around the kitchen table, mending things. Firelight from the wood stove. End of dusk outside. Feels pretty good to me. But I don't really trust it until the captain gets up without saying anything, goes outside, comes back with an armload of wood. This makes it all real.
"Might as well," she says, and dumps the wood in the bin. She stands taller, lighter. "Can't live without it, might as well live with it. Getting too old and tired to yell."
All for the best, I suppose. Life will be duller, but that's the price. We're both old.
A buggy comes up the drive. We look at each other; the Captain raises her bushy eyebrows. After a minute or so, somebody knocks at the door. I go open it, not knowing what to expect.
It's the Council, or part of it. A short one, a fat one, a tall one, wearing Council ribbons, holding their hats in their hands. Serious expressions. They look so official that the captain gets courtly and dignified, invites them in, offers tea, takes their hats and jackets.
"I'm glad you dropped by," she says, bending forward, serious. "I was out in the garden today, working, and I noticed these little bugs all over the, urn, what in hell were those things, kid?"
"Right. Cabbages. Little white buggers, about so long, eating every goddamned thing in sight," says the captain, very serious, very courtly. "Got any idea what they are? I tried squishing them, but there's forty billion of the suckers. You gentlepeople have any suggestions?"
"Well, uh. Captain, uh," says the tall one, " we didn't actually, what I mean to say is– "
"What he means to say," says the short one, "is that we didn't come all the way out here to discuss squishing bugs."
The tall one bobs his head and scalds his mouth on the tea. The captain raises her eyebrows.
"The village is growing," the fat one says. The others nod. Population expanding. Need for more room. Need for more growing space. Yakkata yakkata. The captain sits and sips and looks grave and interested. I try not to look suspicious.
The Council is pleased that we understand, says the short one. Understand what? She doesn't give me a chance to ask. Re-populating the homeworld, she says. Greater glory of humanity. All working together. The captain nods again, all reformed.
Seeing as how we're so sympathetic, the tall one says, they're sure we'll understand and agree. The captain assures them that we definitely want to help. I start feeling abandoned.
Well, then, the Fukikos will be expecting us tomorrow, and they'll send over a cart and Old Jelly, the mule.
Fukikos? Cart? Mule? Tomorrow? The captain starts frowning.
Our visitors look nervous. A cart to move things in, they explain. Surely we'll want to move our old stuff to our new home.
Of course. We're not farming the land productively. That's obvious. Our orchards are in terrible condition, precious resources going to waste. The farm needs young people, willing to work. Good arable land we've got here and the Council has set up a nice young couple to take it all over tomorrow. They might even use our house. And the Fukikos have a cabin at the far eastern end of their fields, just the place for us. We'll like it there. They promise.
"But there's no running water there," says the captain, still reasonable.
"You can dig a well," says the tall one.
"If we're too damned old to farm, how are we young enough to dig a well?"
"Besides," says the short one, "it's private."
"Private!" I shout. "It's damn near forty kilometers from town and seven from the road! It's out in the suckin' wilderness!"
"And it's got a lovely view," says Fatty.
"But– " I say, and stop. But you can't see the mountains from the eastern end of the settlement. You can't see Ship's Valley. The captain can't have her ship, but at least she can see the place where it landed. If the captain can't see Ship's Valley, the captain's going to die.
Maybe that's what they have in mind.
"And the land will be just perfect for you," says the tall one.
"It's full of stones and trees," says the captain, rather quiet.
"Well, uh, I mean, uh – "
"You trying to starve us to death?" Still quiet.
Well, of course, we understand that people have to pull their own loads, that's obvious, stated policy of the colony since return. We can't expect to be fed for free, now, can we?
"Get the suckin' hell off my ship!" the captain yells, and they jump up fast. They'll send someone over with the cart tomorrow, they say, edging toward the door. Captain tells them where to put their cart, says we're not moving. They reach the door, say they'll send people to move us, whether we want to or not. Needs of the colony. The captain grabs a big stick and chases them into the yard.
"You can't do this to me!" she howls as they rush to the buggy. "I'm a goddamned historical monument!"
The buggy bangs away so fast it sounds like it's coming apart; the captain stands at the door cursing and shaking her stick. After a while, she stops. After another while, I take the stick away and close the door. The captain looks at me like death itself, and I go fetch the apple wine.
The captain's all trim and vigor the next morning, has tea made by the time I get up. I've got a headache and my eyes are red. Captain squats by the fire while I stagger around trying to keep my head on, and finally I see what she's doing.
"Hey, that's – "
"Burning the Gold Watch," she says smugly. I go over to see.
The Gold Watch is a piece of paper the Council gave us, about fifteen years ago, after the captain's first performance. Thick paper, creamy-colored, with black ink. IN DEEP APPRECIATION, it says, OF A JOB WELL DONE. And a bunch of autographs. Supposed to show us that we were thought of highly. Piece of shipdreck. They made a ceremony of it, two or three of them brought it around, had a glass of wine, made a speech, hurried off.
"Thanks for the goddamned Gold Watch," the captain shouted after them, but they didn't get it. Neither did I, until she explained it to me.
So far, three signatures have burned. It's tough paper.
"Think you ought to do that?"
"Sure. All it's good for."
LL DONE, up in smoke.
"It's all we've got."
"You're pretty cheerful," I mutter. She's grinning and bouncing on her heels. I can barely see.
"I've got a plan," says the captain, and since she says it sort of crazy, I take her seriously. It's when she says things sober that you've got to watch it.
The captain holds the Gold Watch until the last scrap singes her fingers. She stands up, wipes her hands on the seat of her pants, and goes to pour tea.
"I've got a plan," she says again, and for the first time I notice she's in uniform.
Some of them had wanted to dismantle the ship, some hadn't. Some said the ship was a relic of the terrible, polluting past, and we shouldn't keep it around. Bad karma, maybe. Others said it was our only escape and only defense, should we ever need it. The argument got pretty hot for a while before they compromised. The first set put signs all over the ship telling about what a terrible place home had been before, and how it got that way, and stuff like that. The second set kept the ship cleaned and in good condition, just in case. Neither group would let us near it. We tried once, ten years back, after they told me I couldn't have kids. We damn near got through the guards before they caught us and hauled us away.
This time we do it differently. Cart, mule, and neighbor arrive in the morning, and the captain's got a pile of junk sitting by the door. Tells the neighbor that we can cart the stuff ourselves and chases him with a stick until he beats it. Then we unhitch Old Jelly and head for the mountains. Takes us most of the morning, going through the bushes, having to kick Old Jelly when he decides he's had enough. We reach the valley by noon, have a bite to eat, and go down to spy on our ship.
They've got her chained down now, the idiots. Poor old lady, battered along her sides, burns slashed up her fins, craters and pocks and pings and dents, and chains round and up and down and about, leading to rocks, trees, the hut, every damned thing. She sits there like some old monarch come on evil.
Two guards nearby, to keep kids from screwing on the acceleration couches. They sit against trees, batons across their knees, not talking to each other. Looks good. The captain tugs Old Jelly up, then makes her lips all straight and thin and kicks Jelly in the right places. Jelly hollers and takes off down the slope toward the guards, and they scramble up and chase him. Captain and I run down through the trees and get behind them, Jelly's howling and kicking, guards are shouting, captain and I sneak up and whap them with their own batons, and they go down like lumps. We truss them up and drag them over the hill out of blast range. Then we pelt up the ramp and slam the locks, and we're safe.
Captain heads into the bridge to start check-down, and I take a quick look-through. Someone's taken good care of our ship: galley's stocked, locks tight, reactors all engaged; it's easy to slip the cores into place and cinch them.
God, she's pretty inside. Curved corridors with handholds all around for freefall, big bright screens in the forward cabins, the patches on seats that I made myself, circling one star or another. Grease stains in the engine rooms and smudges on the controls – my smudges, and they still fit my hands. The sound of my footsteps echoing in the corridors. The bright, even lights. I love her, I love her, I hadn't realized that I missed her so much. Ship. Home. Stars.
The engines start humming, then the captain yells through the com and I head up toward the bridge, double time. I'm panting when I get there. The captain points her chin at the down-screen and keeps working the controls. I walk over and take a look.
The valley's filling with dirters, tens of them, some of them carrying bundles and babies, and they wave their arms at us and move their mouths, and I can't hear a word of it. More of them every minute, too. Must be near fifty, sixty of them down there, all in blast range, jumping up and down.
"What do they want?" I say.
"To stop us," says the captain. She slaps a set of toggles and the engines hum louder.
I look out again. The people have backed off, and someone's pushing through the crowd.
"Three minutes," says the captain. "Get webbed."
"Wait," I say. "That's Ike, and Tisha. Hold off a minute."
"Come on, Captain. I want to hear him." The captain grumbles and slaps a knob, and the bridge is filled with voices. Then Ike waves his arms hard until everyone shuts up, and turns and hollers at the ship.
"Captain! Kid! Want to talk with you!"
"About what?" I say into the mike.
"Are you taking off? Are you leaving?"
"No business of yours."
"Yes it is," he says. Old Ike looks pretty nervous himself, and people keep glancing down the road into town. Waiting for help, probably.
"Get clear or we'll blast you," says the captain.
"Listen to me! We want to come along!"
"Dreck," says the captain. "You want to hold us up until the rest of them get here. Clear out!"
"Goddamn it!" Ike yells. First time I've ever heard Ike curse like that. "Listen up, you selfish old cow. You're not the only one pissed off! We are too, and we've waited pretty damned long for you to get off it and get us the hell out of here."
"What did you call me?" the captain shouts.
"Fukiko came into town three hours ago and said you'd chased him off, and we figured you were making a break for it. So did the Council – if you don't let us aboard they'll be here in no time, and we'll all be in for it, and it will be your own damned foolish fault. So open up that crate and let us aboard, hear?"
"Let 'em in," I say. I turn toward the main corridor, to open the lock.
"I'm not letting anyone in my ship calls me a cow!" the captain shouts. "I'm the captain, you understand?"
"Come on – "
"I'm the suckin' captain and I run this suckin' ship and nobody gets aboard until every damned one of you understands! Hear me?"
"Yes," the people shout.
"So what in hell am I?"
"And who runs this suckin' ship?"
" And who gives the orders around here?"
"And who's Rosenwasser?'.
"SELFISH OLD COW!"
"Then get off ‘em and haul ‘em aboard," the captain says. "Think we've got all day?"
Made it just in time, too. They scramble up the ramp and into the lock. I get them stowed in the sleep couches and make it to the navigator's couch just as the Council and their dirters come spilling over the hill. The captain gives them a good warning roar of the engines. They hit the dirt and we pull up and out, and out, and out until Ship's Valley and the village and the farms are patches of brown and green on a bigger patch of land by a bigger patch of ocean on a patch of planet in a patch of space. And the sky is filled with seventy zillion stars.
I unweb and float off the couch, turn a couple of cartwheels in the air, grab a handhold. and grin at the captain upside down.
"Well, Captain? Where do we go from here?"
She stretches her arms above her head and grins.
"Nice little planet, off by Centauri. Green and blue and kind of pretty-looking. We can drop them off there."
"Sounds good. Think they'll like it?"
"They'll like it."
"Dunno. Ever seen the Coalsack. close up?"
The captain grins again, all wrinkles and glee, and pushes the ship
around toward the stars.
copyright 1979, 2002 by Marta Randall