Captain Guff and the Girl from Alazan

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Captain Finnius Mortimer Guff knew a thing or two about smugglers. He’d traded with them in the filthy back alleys of spaceports. He’d negotiated with them in shady antigravity bars while drunk on Mercurian ale (a most terrible draft that would sneak up on you, always at the most crucial moment during a transaction). He even made a deal once with the Taurusian governor’s duplicitous wife in the parliament building on the dismal world of Taurus while parliament was in session. He’d bargained, connived and debated with the best (and worst) of them. They were all vile in one way or another, and as a smuggler himself, Guff imagined he wasn’t the exception. But the vilest by far was Marcus Orthosias Bergins, seated across from Guff at this very moment.

“I wouldn’t move your piece there,” Bergins said, getting drunk off the pricey helium whiskey Guff had procured just for the occasion.

They were in a private cardroom on the dingy colony outpost of Otts 4, playing Chintzy while two of Bergins’ hooligans watched them with half-lidded eyes. Anyone with a scoundrel bent to their personality, who drank and gambled, enjoyed the silly boardgame. Guff was losing on purpose, and he figured Bergins was too drunk to tell. Bergins had underestimated Guff for decades, and that was exactly how Guff preferred it. Bergins would sing a different tune when he sobered up.

Guff took his finger off the bead he’d placed on an empty square, committing the move. “I’m a risktaker, Bergins. You should know that by now.”

Bergins seized Guff’s bead with a wobbly hand, replacing it with one of his own. He slurred as he spoke. “A fool of a rishtaker.” He swayed to the left, then righted himself. “Guff, you ought to play more often. You’re rusty.”

Guff feigned a look of surprise at the loss of his piece. “I suppose I am.” He moved another bead into a precarious position. To a sober player, it would look like he was throwing the game. Guff considered retracting his move, but Bergins laughed, and his hand froze.

“I know what you’re up to, Guff.”

Guff tensed as if Bergins had caught him in the act. “You do?”

“You’re trying to win back that Globu-globula. What was it?”

“The globula ring?”

“Yesh! That stupid ring. Am I right?”

The ring had cost Guff a fortune. He was younger then, more gullible. Plus, Bergins had forced him to hand it over at gunpoint, a small detail Bergins apparently forgot. Their rivalry ran back to their Navy days at Fleet, almost twenty years earlier, but their “friendship” had grown steadily more strained since they’d both been booted out.

“You have me there, old boy,” Guff said, playing into Bergins’ impaired train of thought. “You’ve always been the smarter of us.”

“Actually,” Bergins said, putting on a fiendish smile, “you don’t want the ring.”

“I don’t?”

“No. You want the map.”

Guff pretended like Bergins hadn’t hit the proverbial nail on the head. “Why would I care about that?”

“Because.” Bergins lifted a crooked finger. “Because I know you want it. You and that fraud, Yates.”

Guff felt his plan unraveling. Bergins was intoxicated, but he wasn’t stupid. “You already told me where the artifact was. I don’t need a map. Besides, it’s a myth. Nobody believes the artifact exists. I certainly don’t.” Guff swallowed, unsure Bergins was buying his story. “Do you?”

Bergins studied him with bloodshot eyes. The alien artifact in question wasn’t a mere tchotchke to place on a shelf. It was a book, but a book unlike any other. The Book of the Kai was a compendium of secrets, written by an ancient race of cosmic wayfarers whose disappearance was as mysterious as the location of their fabled text. Immortality, invisibility, the ability to travel the galaxy without the use of stargates—these were some of the secrets rumored to be housed in the Book of the Kai. Of course, the artifact was the stuff of legend, and no one but the most diehard treasure seekers believed it existed. Guff believed in its existence—he had dreamed of finding it since he was a boy—but he doubted dimwitted Bergins did, even if the cutthroat supposedly had stolen a star map with its location.

Guff worried Bergins would see through him. He waited out the painful seconds as Bergins stared at him. Guff was about to blink when Bergins brandished a mouthful of discolored teeth. He unfurled a horrific smile and dove into an unnerving fit of mad laughter.

“Of course not,” Bergins said after he was done cackling. He slapped his bead over Guff’s for the win and hooted like the hoodlum he was. “Game! Now pay up. Thirty thoushand credits.”

Relieved that Bergins had let the matter of the map go, Captain Guff displayed a shocked look of disappointment and placed his palms face up in surrender. He didn’t have thirty-thousand credits, nor had he planned on paying Bergins anything. But he did have something for this ungainly scalawag, something symbolic that Bergins would comprehend when he finally came to his senses.

Guff reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, leather-bound volume. He cleared the beads and slid it across the gameboard. The leather binding was cracked, but the embossed lettering on the cover was pristine. Although hardly worth thirty-thousand credits, and certainly not an alien artifact, the book was valuable for its rarity and its contents.

Bergins frowned. “What’s thissh?”

“Your payment. It’s two of Earth’s most beloved tales in one volume, and two of my favorites, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Have you heard of them?”

Bergins’ brow furrowed and his bottom lip drooped. Of course he hadn’t. What did he know about classic literature?

“If you haven’t, don’t worry. When you read them, they will open up new horizons, you’ll see.”

Bergins wouldn’t appreciate the book, nor would he consider it as payment. He’d see it as a ruse, perhaps throw it away, and that irked Guff. Books were more than mere words. They were the most valuable commodity in the universe: an act of creation, like the birth of a star. The Kai had it right.

Bergins’ eyes went buggy as the sedative in his drink took effect. He made an attempt to stand but fell over, striking the table with a hearty thunk. His men were already slumped in their seats, out cold.

“And that, old boy, is that.” Guff got up and dusted the sleeves of his jacket. “Yates, tell me you downloaded the star map.”

Captain Guff’s first mate, an artificial intelligence program embedded on a microchip implanted into his skull, spoke as if he were standing beside him. “Aye, Captain, but I told you earlier that this was a bad idea.”

“Did I ask for your opinion? It was a brilliant idea! Besides, Bergins and his men are perfectly fine. The sedative in the whiskey I brought was mild. It’s not my fault they decided to drink like sailors.” He held up the near-empty bottle of helium whiskey. He had pretended to drink his share but spilled most of it on the sly, one of several tricks he’d picked up over the years. “They’ll be awake in a day, two at the most.”

“When they do,” Yates said, “they’ll come after us.”

“But they won’t catch us. Now stop ruining my mood and show me the map.”

Yates projected the map in front of Guff’s field of vision, a bloom of stars that superimposed themselves over the unconscious men in the room. Guff inhaled a magical breath. The map was perhaps the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. It showed their current position in the galaxy and plotted a route to a neighboring solar system. It then expanded, showing the seven planets orbiting the star of that system. The fourth glowed; their destination planet. “Romulus Centauri? Bergins had claimed it was Sigma-Nine. That crook was trying to throw me off the trail, wasn’t he?”

“Aye, Captain, he was.”

“Prepare our ship for departure. Set a course for Romulus at once.”

“What do you want to do about Bergins?”

Bergins was passed out over the table, leaving a trail of slobber on the gameboard. Pathetic, drunk, miscalculating Bergins. He was a has-been and a trickster. A man like Bergins didn’t deserve to go to Romulus Centauri. He probably didn’t even understand the value of the alien artifact that was waiting there. But Guff did, and he wasn’t about to squander the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Leave him,” Guff said. “By the time he wakes up, we’ll be on Romulus and the prize will be ours.”

#

Captain Guff hated space. He hated every part of it.

He hated jumping the stargates and the way they made his stomach lurch. He hated artificial gravity and how it never felt like real gravity. He hated the cotton candy spread of nebulae, looking so cheery with their hot, ionized gasses. More often than not, he hated his starship too, the HMS Mercy, a tin box of a galleon, with its glitchy flight system, rickety captain’s chair, and patched-together cargo hold that reeked of old oranges, even though it had never seen an orange in its life.

Captain Guff hated a lot of things.

But most of all, he hated the even keel nature of his first mate, Yates, who never seemed bothered (or excited) by anything.

Although Yates was invisible to the naked eye, he was a constant presence, like a sliver of glass that had been jammed deep into Guff’s head. Implanting Yates wasn’t the smartest move Guff had made in his twenty-year career as a smuggler. Then again, he’d put his trust in the “licensed professional” who’d installed it. When Guff had realized his mistake and sought an actual specialist to have it removed, he found out that it was medically impossible to remove the device without causing irreparable damage to the old noggin. And so, as Captain Guff lamented, Yates became a permanent—and whether he wanted to admit it, personal—member of his crew, one composed solely of Captain Guff and, well, Yates.

The one thing Guff liked, the one thing that arrested his perpetual scowl, the one thing in the seven seas of space that made him actually smile was treasure. Or, more precisely, someone else’s treasure. Glorious, glorious treasure. Contraband, loot from other worlds, alien artifacts like the one that awaited on Romulus Centauri, precious metals mined from asteroids . . . the list went on. Anything of value to one stellar race or another was fair game in the “free trade” spacefaring business.

Guff disliked the terms “thieving” or “stealing” or “plundering.” His face shriveled at that most heinous word, “pirating.” The worst of them all, however, was the trendy phrase, “bounty nabbing” (whoever came up with such a thing?).

No. This was “reclaiming.” Anything that didn’t already belong to you was fair game.

Even more than his treasure hunts, Captain Guff enjoyed his solitude. He reveled in his quiet time, insulated among his books: actual, physical books collected over many years, stuffed into his library wall behind his captain’s chair. True Earth classics from the likes of Shakespeare, Verne, Dickens, Tolkien, and, as Bergins would find out when he roused and licked his wounds, Homer. The leathery smell of an old binding, the satiny feel of running his fingers over the paper, the crisp rustle of turning a page—they reduced the otherwise persistent frown deeply incised upon Guff’s brow. Here, undisturbed and surrounded by the works of the greatest authors of humankind, he was at peace, one with the cosmos without nagging minions or demanding superiors. He was Captain Guff of the HMS Mercy, and that meant he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, without being bothered. One. Little. Bit.

Except . . .

Except . . .

There was Yates. Upstanding, politically correct Yates. He was the stowaway Guff couldn’t get rid of, and even though he’d made his first mate adhere to deliciously prolonged silences, Yates had a knack for interrupting Guff at the wrong moment.

Like now, when Guff had just upped the speed on the ship’s squeaky—and only—treadmill.

“Captain, might I have a word, please?”

Guff wiped the sweat from his brow and lowered the speed to a walk. “I’m right in the middle of a workout, Yates. Can’t it wait?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve picked up a distress beacon from asteroid N4839 in the Cassini-Shepard asteroid belt.”

“So?”

“So we’re the closest vessel, sir. As such, I’ve steered the Mercy toward the belt.”

“You what? We’re supposed to be heading to Romulus Centauri. We can’t allow Bergins to get there first. Or did you forget that small detail?”

“I haven’t forgotten, but this takes precedence.”

What in blazes was more important than Romulus Centauri? Bergins wasn’t going to be his usual revolting self when he woke up and found out his star map had been stolen. He was going to be beset by rage . . . and purpose.

“Why are you diverting us from Romulus?”

“Maritime protocol requires that the nearest vessel in spacetime must respond to a distress beacon,” Yates said. “As such, we have a duty to follow protocol.”

“We?” Guff stopped the treadmill altogether. Beads of sweat dribbled onto the faux rubber tread. “Are we on a boat, sailing the Indian Ocean on Earth, Yates? There is no maritime protocol here. We’re not beholden to the same laws as Fleet. We’re entrepreneurs, Yates, not Navy deck swabbers!”

“We’re smugglers, sir.”

“Same difference.” The Captain wanted to pluck the annoying sliver of a microchip from his head, but he couldn’t, and that meant he’d have to deal with his first mate as a captain was supposed to do. “I’m ordering you right now to reverse course.”

“I’m sorry, Captain, but I can’t do that.”

“Can’t?” Guff thought he heard his first mate wrong. “Did you just say ‘can’t’?”

“Aye, Captain, that is what I said.”

Guff looked around the donut-shaped room, with its buckling sidewall panels, but there wasn’t anyone to yell at. “Distress beacon, you say?”

“Yes.”

“But—but it’s an asteroid. How can an asteroid issue a distress signal? It’s a rock!”

“The beacon isn’t coming from the asteroid. It’s coming from a ship in orbit around the asteroid.”

“What sort of ship?”

“I can’t say at this range, but we should know within the hour. Would you like to resume your workout in the meantime?”

Captain Guff very well couldn’t greet the crew of a distressed ship looking like a perspiring mess. “No, I must make myself presentable. Alert me when we’re within proximity of the vessel.”

The ship turned out to be a small shuttle. Yates maneuvered the Mercy to match the velocity and rotation of the two-thousand-meter, peanut-shaped planetoid, and its newest satellite.

Guff squinted at the shuttle on his viewer. “She’s smaller than I imagined.”

“The shuttle has room for only one occupant. The parent craft is the SS Zanzibar. That means the occupant would be human. Docking now.”

The captain waited just outside the airlock, dressed in a wrinkly old Navy uniform he’d purchased well over a decade earlier. Whenever he wore it, it reminded him of himself as a young Fleet officer when he’d served in the Navy, epaulets and all. He combed his shoulder-length hair with his fingers and smoothed his funnel of a beard. He would present himself as the captain of his ship.

The HMS Mercy made contact with the shuttle with a thump, followed by the sound of the airlock pressurizing.

“Docking complete,” Yates announced.

The captain stood stiffly, back straight. He might be a smuggler, but he had manners.

The hatch to the shuttle opened. He expected to see a grown man or woman strapped inside, but instead he saw a most unexpected sight.

A teenage girl.

And she didn’t look happy.

#

Her name was Anastasia Pavlova. She was eighteen years old.

It took less than thirty seconds for Guff to tell that she didn’t know anything about shuttles, that she was a spoiled brat, and a liar too. “You were headed to see your aunt on Orion 498? Do you even know how far that is?”

“Duh, of course I do. I just ran out of fuel is all. Do you have any food on this clinker?”

“Clinker?”

“Yeah, your ship.”

She wore a starched flight suit, had braided purple hair, and reeked of privilege. Guff was at a loss. What should he do with her? He had no experience with teenagers, and certainly not precocious, bossy teenagers.

“I will have my first mate, Yates, prepare something for you.”

Guff watched her from across the ship’s tiny galley while she ate a cheese sandwich, dipping it in a bowl of tomato soup that Yates had programmed into the Mercy’s autofood generator.

“I’ve read the data on the shuttle’s recorder,” Yates told the captain, who continued to watch the girl eat. “She launched the shuttle twelve hours ago from the SS Zanzibar but didn’t program her route correctly. Assuming her destination was Orion 498, the shipboard system would have disallowed her flight path, due to distance. She launched without proper authorization.”

“Tell me about the Zanzibar.”

“The Fleet manifest lists it as a two-hundred-passenger Sylvian-class luxury cruiser. Her father is the commander, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.”

“‘Iron Ivan’? As in the heir to the Pavlov Shipping dynasty?”

“Yes, the same.”

That would explain the girl’s privileged upbringing. Guff knew the father only by reputation. He was a shipping magnate who had built an empire on the trade of goods between worlds. His cruiser would be nothing more than a mega-yacht designed to entertain the ultra-wealthy.

“Ivan Pavlov will be looking for his daughter,” Yates said. “We should contact Fleet and rendezvous at a rally point of their choosing.”

“Rendezvous? Now? We have a mission to complete, Yates.”

“Our duty is to contact Fleet. There will be other opportunities for us.”

“Other opportunities? Other opportunities? Do you have any clue what’s on that star map, Yates?”

“I’m well aware, Captain.”

“It’s the bounty of bounties! Bergins can’t be allowed to get to it first. He can’t!” Guff had to get the HMS Mercy back on course. Anastasia might be the daughter of a very powerful man, but she would listen to reason. “I’m going to talk to Anastasia about going with us to Romulus.”

“I would advise against that, Captain.”

“Duly noted.”

Captain Guff walked up to the small table where Anastasia was seated. She was done with her meal. “May I join you?”

Anastasia shrugged. The captain sat across from her.

“How’s the food?”

“Pretty decent.”

“Yates programs the best meals. I should know.” The captain patted his hearty belly. “Would you like to meet our chef, my first mate, Yates?”

“You have a first mate?” Anastasia looked around. “I don’t see anyone.”

“That’s because he’s in here.” Guff tapped the side of his head. “He’s an AI assistant. You know, ship on a chip?”

“Oh, one of those. Sure, why not.”

“Yates, say hello to Anastasia.”

Yates’ upbeat voice piped through the ship’s speakers. “Hello, Anastasia, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Anastasia’s blue eyes lit up. “Well, hello there.”

“I take it the food was fair,” Yates said.

“Actually, the soup-and-sandwich combo is one of my favorites. Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome. Can I make you anything else?”

“No, that was perfect, thanks.”

“If you need anything else,” Yates said, “don’t hesitate to ask.”

Guff harrumphed. Overfriendly Yates was stealing his show. He had important business to discuss with their guest. “Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about your predicament, Anastasia. From my understanding, you launched without permission. Care to explain?”

Anastasia’s smile disappeared. “I didn’t steal the shuttle! I simply borrowed it.” She glared at him.

“No one accused you of stealing. You know, I was a bit of a rebel myself at your age.” When he saw she didn’t believe him, he added, “I was a book thief.”

“A book thief?” She made it sound like he’d invented the term. “What did you steal?”

“Hardcover books, first editions mainly. Sure, I could afford mass-produced copies. But the originals? The ones where the authors penned notes in the margins with their own hand? No, those were priceless. I was a brash young man, but later on, I saw the folly of my actions. I donated my collection to the Galactic Library on Odonius. The ones on the shelves behind my captain’s chair were purchased with my own money.” He didn’t need to tell her how he’d earned his money, but what he said about donating his collection was true, and the universe was better off because of it. “So why did you ‘borrow’ your shuttle? Was it really to visit your aunt?”

She looked at her empty bowl. “No.”

“Then why?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

She sighed and leaned back in her chair. “His name is Chance Lee. He was a porter on my father’s ship. His parents were stewards. They were forced to leave because of me, and I . . .” She shook her head. “What does it matter anyway?”

Guff got the picture. “You liked this young man.”

Anastasia turned away.

She didn’t just like him; she loved him. “Where did he go?”

“Alazan, my homeworld. My father dismissed his parents because of me, because of my feelings for Chance. They were hard workers, good people. They didn’t deserve to lose their positions. Chance had nothing to do with it. It was all me.”

“You blame yourself.”

She looked at Guff with her hard, blue eyes. “I have to make it right, you understand?”

Captain Guff had succumbed to puppy love when he was Anastasia’s age, falling for a young woman whose parents thought he was beneath their station. On this level, he could relate to her. “Sneaking off to Alazan isn’t going to get them their jobs back. It’ll only anger your father.”

She tossed him a scalding gaze. “Then let him be angry! He’s mean and selfish and thinks he can do whatever he wants because of who he is. He’s a tyrant, and I don’t want anything to do with him!”

“You say that now, but he’s your father.”

“Are you going to contact him?” Anastasia’s voice was laced with worry.

“Should I?”

“He’d reward you handsomely for returning his ungrateful daughter. He enjoys buying people.”

Guff’s ears perked when he heard “reward.” He could live comfortably for a year, maybe longer, on such a payment. Yet he couldn’t hand Anastasia in for a reward anyway. When he looked at her blue eyes, he didn’t just see a stranger; he saw his baby sister, Celia, young and full of promise. Odd that he thought of her now. He’d not only disgraced himself by getting booted out of the Navy, but he’d distanced himself from his family. Celia had looked up to him. He’d let her down by lying about his exit from the Navy. She never forgave him.

Guff needed to squash the bitter memories and bring the conversation around to where it should have gone in the first place. “Let’s say I hold off on contacting your father. I was planning on making a stop anyway.”

“Where?”

“Romulus Centauri.”

“That heap of nothingness? It’s a wasteworld, out in the middle of nowhere. Why would you go there?”

He could have kept it to himself, or ordered Yates to lock her in his stateroom until after he left Romulus. But he wanted to tell her. No lies, no stories, just the truth.

He moved her bowl out of the way. “Yates, show her the star map.”

A celestial map of blue light projected onto the table. Guff zoomed in, and Romulus Centauri came into view, the fourth planet from its host star. He zoomed in further, and the world became an uninhabited mass of lava fields, barren plains and pitted mountains. Set into the side of one of the mountains was the ruins of an ancient stone temple.

“This is the lost Temple of Malamar, a sacred temple built by a race called the Kai, long gone from the cosmos. Legend has it they scribed the secrets of the universe into a single book, which they hid in their temple.”

Anastasia ran a slender finger over the rendering of broken pillars. “You’re after a book?”

“Yes. Perhaps the most important book ever written!” He lifted out of his seat in excitement, then sat back down. “But there’s a wrinkle. You see, I ‘borrowed’ this map, and the man I borrowed it from is a bit of a—how should I say?—‘criminal.’ He’s most likely on his way to Romulus Centauri as we speak.”

“If he gets there first . . .”

“Exactly! And you don’t want someone like Marcus Orthosias Bergins to possess a book like that.” He let Bergins’ vile reputation speak for itself.

“What if I wanted to go home instead?”

“Then I will contact your father,” Guff said reluctantly. “We’ll both be miserable, and that hound Bergins will be victorious.”

Anastasia took on a sad look, mirroring the captain’s souring mood. “I don’t want to go back to my ship.”

Guff didn’t want to take her there either. As much as he tried to believe he didn’t like Anastasia’s company, she was beginning to grow on him. Yates was a companion, yes, but it was still empty without the company of another human being, despite Guff’s love of solitude. Anastasia was refreshing, different, but there was also that glimmer of his sister, and that he missed immensely. Maybe he could make Anastasia and himself both happy. “I have a proposal. Come with me to Romulus and I’ll take you to Alazan right after. You have my word as Captain of the HMS Mercy.”

Anastasia tapped a finger against her cheek, serious and thoughtful. Guff was worried she would make him contact her father, but instead, she brightened and held out her hand. “You have yourself a deal, Captain Guff.”

For the first time in ages, Guff smiled. They shook on it.

#

Captain Guff disliked many things, but he disliked the desolate wasteworld of Romulus Centauri more than most. Rocky, toxic, and a blend of unending iron-rich browns and reds, with a sky tainted like a smudge of dirty laundry, it was very much the “heap of nothingness” Anastasia had called it.

The HMS Mercy landed on a rocky plane at the foot of the mountain of the Temple of Malamar. They wore spacesuits with clear visors and bounded their way through low gravity. Guff led them up the mountain along a narrow path. Anastasia followed.

“May I ask you something?” Anastasia said through her commlink. “Why is this book so important? Are you planning on adding it to your private collection or selling it?”

“Neither,” Guff said truthfully, jumping over a protruding lump of stone. “It’s too important for any one person to possess. It’s meant to be shared among the races of the free worlds. Bergins would keep it for himself.”

“But aren’t you—”

“—a smuggler? Yes.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “But books are what keep the civilized universe civil, Miss Anastasia. Bergins could never fathom such a concept with his primordial brain.”

“You despise him,” Anastasia said.

“He and I share a contentious history, from back when we were in the Navy together, young officers at Fleet. It’s because of him I got kicked out.”

“Why?”

Guff searched the sky overhead, expecting at any moment to see the streak of Bergins’ craft breach the atmosphere. Yates had confirmed Bergins wasn’t in the sector when they’d arrived, and no ships had come up on long scan, nor inbound at the nearest jump point.

“Because I was a fool,” Guff said, gritting his teeth. “In truth, Bergins and I were cohorts on an underground trade business with the settlers from Cygnus Minor, selling spent ammunition from our Navy destroyer. It was an absurd venture, but Bergins got greedy. He sold me out, and I was court-martialed and ousted from Fleet. My father, a Navy veteran, stopped talking to me, and who could blame him? I even lied about it to my sister, Celia, and I’ve regretted that moment a thousand times over. I’ve shamed our family and pushed everyone I cared about away. It’s why I ended up alone.” Guff bounded ahead, filled with angry memories.

Anastasia kept up. “Not completely alone. You have Yates.”

Yes, there was tried-and-true Yates.

“I like him,” she said. “He’s good for you.”

“Thank you, Anastasia,” Yates said through their shared comm.

While Captain Guff often complained about Yates, his first mate was always there for him, through thick and thin. “He’s the better of us, I’ll admit that.”

“What happened to Bergins?” Anastasia asked.

“The idiot got caught and they tossed him out. He became a drunkard and a swindler. He’s been a thorn in my side for the better part of two decades. When I learned he’d found the star map, I knew I had to wrest it from him. And I did!”

Yates chimed. “Captain, you’re approaching the temple.”

They crested the incline to a flattened area carved into the cliff face, where the ancient ruins of the Temple of Malamar lay. The builders had created a portico of rock, whose pillars were now crumbled, butted up against a rectangular cave entrance. Guff picked out spiraling runes in the rock, protrusions that might have been wings, ghostly alien faces in the stone, faded with time. “In there,” he told Anastasia.

He flicked on his helmet light and Anastasia did the same. Captain Guff couldn’t help but smile. This was the culmination of a lifelong love affair with the learned word. What secrets would the Book of the Kai offer? He’d dreamed of keeping the secrets for himself, of knowing what no one else could possibly know. But then he thought back to the first editions he’d absconded, of how he’d robbed booklovers of the pleasure of discovering the original copy of a masterwork. No, the ancient Book of the Kai was too important to squirrel away in his library. It should be shared!

Their headlamps cut through the dark opening with swaths of bright white beams. The cave interior was a giant antechamber dug from the bedrock. Were they the first humans to explore this wondrous place?

They made their way into the next chamber. The walls bore reliefs of faint blue glyphs and billowy humanoid figures shaded into the stone, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, glittering in the light. They reminded Guff of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics on Earth.

“Beautiful,” Anastasia said.

Yates chimed. “Captain, according to the star map, the sanctuary lies straight ahead. The book is most likely hidden there.”

Spurred on by the information, Guff forged ahead, Anastasia right behind. This was it! This was the moment he made history.

“Captain,” Yates said. “I’m picking up a disturbance. There’s an odd shift in air density. You might want to—”

Before Yates could finish, Guff was through the carved archway, into a massive sanctuary. Spotlights kicked on. He stopped, at a loss for how there could be any artificial light, until he saw Bergins in a grimy spacesuit, sitting on a raised altar of stone in the center. A four-man crew gathered around him, disrupter pistols aimed at the newcomers.

Guff squeezed his fists. “Bergins!”

Bergins wore a self-satisfied look on his ugly face. “Hello, Guff. Looking for this?” He held up a thin tablet of stone. It contained iridescent symbols that swirled with light.

The Book of the Kai. And Bergins got to it first!

Bergins had bested him yet again. That wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that his life and Anastasia’s were now in the hands of the most despicable man the universe had ever known.

#

“How?”

Bergins slid off the altar. “Thought I drank too much to know you stole the map? Thought you’d drug me and get away with it? Thought I wouldn’t find my way here? Guess again, Guff! Here’s your petty book back. I like mine much better.” He tossed the leather-bound book Guff had given him. It glided to the stone ground, then splayed open into a leering smile. “I see you brought company. What’s your name, sweetheart?”

Guff put himself between Bergins and Anastasia. “Leave her out of this.”

“Since when has the self-absorbed Guff thought of anyone but himself? I take it trusty Yates is with you, that thief!”

“I am,” Yates said coolly through the shared comm. He offered no rebuttal to the insult.

Bergins grinned. “Of course you are! Guff, you’re not the only one with an AI chip, old friend. We have them too.” He pointed to his helmet. His crew gave a round of nods in agreement. “Handy buggers. Good for navigating when you’re missing a map. Except ours are better navigators than yours. You’re slipping, Guff.”

Captain Guff couldn’t believe Yates hadn’t detected Bergins’ landing. Yates had checked their approach, verified an all-clear before landing. Yet here Bergins was, grubby hands on the prize!

Bergins held the book up so Guff could get a better look. “She’s a beauty, ain’t she? Worth more than an entire solar system, I’ve been told.” He turned to Anastasia. “What’s your part in all of this?”

“I’m his business partner,” Anastasia said defiantly.

“And what exactly do you do, ‘business partner’?”

“I can get that book sold for you,” she said.

“Why would I need that? The book can sell itself.”

“Not with Fleet and the galactic council looking the other way. I can make that happen. My father has powerful connections.”

Bergins laughed. “I think I’ll do just fine on my own, thank you very much. And who said anything about selling anyway? Guff, where did you find this one? She’s priceless.”

Captain Guff knew what was coming next. “Promise me, you’ll let her go.”

Bergins tapped the book with a gloved finger, thoughtful, creating dimples of light. He smiled. “Sure.”

Bergins was lying. Bergins would kill them both. Anastasia knew it too. “It’ll be all right,” Guff told her.

“Enough chitchatting. Let’s go.” Bergins motioned for the pair to head out.

Guff nodded to Anastasia and started toward the entrance, followed by an arrogant Bergins and his armed crew. In a few minutes, Guff would be dead. That he could accept. But not Anastasia!

How could he convince Bergins not to harm her? Her father was one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy. If Ivan Pavlov loved his daughter, he’d do anything for her. Bergins had to understand that.

Guff held up his hands as he turned around. “Bergins, hear me out. The girl was right: her father has powerful connections, connections you need. He’s Ivan Pavlov. Iron Ivan, Bergins! Do you know what that means?”

“It means he’s one of us,” Bergins said, unimpressed. “Except, richer. Sorry, not interested. Now, turn around please, or I’ll have my men shoot you right here.”

“Bergins, you’re not thinking this through. Put aside our differences for once! It’s me you want. I’m yours. Release the girl.”

“Now, Guff!”

The captain slowly turned back toward the cave exit. He found it difficult to move, as if the gravity had quadrupled. In a minute, they’d be outside, and once they were outside . . .

Yates chimed on a private channel. “Captain?”

“Yates, I’d like to formally apologize. I’ve been unnecessarily mean to you.” It was true, and it made Guff sad. Their fates were intertwined. If he died, Yates would too.

“Captain, I appreciate the sentiment, but—”

“I’m serious, Yates. You’re the best first mate a captain could ask for.”

“Captain Guff, stop talking! I might have found a way to save your lives.”

#

“The answer is no, and that’s an order,” Guff said as the tunnel exit grew painfully close.

“It’s our best shot,” Yates said.

“No, it’s not. I can negotiate with Bergins. He’s not thinking clearly. Once we’re outside, in the daylight, he’ll—”

“—kill you and Anastasia.”

“What you’re proposing is too dangerous. If you try to overload their AI chips, you might overload yourself. You said so yourself. I won’t allow you to risk your life.”

“I’m artificial; you’re not. If I don’t try, you’ll both die.”

Guff hated that Yates was right. He was always the more sensible one. Damn Yates!

“It’ll be fine, Captain. I’ve already informed Anastasia on a separate channel.”

Brown daylight awaited them, as heavy and oppressive as Guff’s heart. They exited onto the stone-littered portico. When they were all outside, Bergins had them stop and turn around.

Bergins borrowed a disruptor from one of his men and examined the silvered curves of the pistol. “Funny, I never pictured using one of these on you.”

“Yes, you have. You’ve always had it in for me,” Guff said, wondering if they could have ever found a middle ground. “But it doesn’t have to end this way. We can all walk out of here, alive. Let me call Anastasia’s father. Let’s end this civilly.”

“Sorry, Guff,” Bergins said, greed and fire returned to his eyes. “Not today.” He raised the disruptor’s muzzle toward the captain.

No sooner did the weapon come level than he arched backward painfully and dropped to the ground. His men also went rigid, falling and thrashing about liked possessed demons, and clawing the sides of their helmets.

And then . . .

And then it was over.

The five lay still, the sacred Book of the Kai inches from Bergins’ outstretched hand.

Guff checked on Anastasia. She had a hand over the mouthpiece of her helmet, stunned. He then checked on Yates. “Yates, are you there?” He listened for his first mate, for the calm, unperturbed voice. “Yates?” Still no response. “Yates, damn it, stop playing games!”

But Yates wasn’t playing a game, Guff realized. When he tried to connect to his first mate, he was met with the word offline. “Yates!”

Anastasia looked at him. “Is he . . . ?”

Guff couldn’t say the word. He couldn’t say that he’d just allowed his first mate to die. A captain wasn’t supposed to let anything happen to his crew!

Guff looked at the casualties, the strewn bodies. It was all senseless. This was Bergins’ fault. But it was also his. Yates had overloaded the AI chips of Bergins’ crew, and in doing so, sacrificed himself. “I should have stopped him. Why didn’t I stop him?”

Anastasia didn’t answer. She lowered her head respectfully.

Captain Guff began to shake, Yates’ death finally registering. Guff had complained that he wanted silence more than anything, but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true at all! “I—I can’t hear him, Anastasia. It’s so quiet.”

She took Guff by his gloved hand. “I’m so sorry.”

Guff nodded, then stifled the pain in his heart the best he could. He had to get Anastasia off this tomb of a world. Her safety was his priority. “Let’s take you home.”

#

Alazan’s port city of Lazarus greeted them with its lively metropolis and burgeoning trade industry. Guff and Anastasia sat patiently in the busy space terminal, waiting, Guff preoccupied with the hurtful silence in his head, despite the noise around him. The Book of the Kai was stowed aboard the Mercy, locked in the safe behind his library. He had bested Bergins, but at what cost?

A tall, young man in a loose-fitted tunic strode toward them, accompanied by two older adults Guff presumed to be his parents.

Anastasia jumped up. “Chance! Mr. and Mrs. Lee!”

Chance smiled at her. “Anastasia, I’m so glad you made it.” To Guff he said, “I’m told I have you to thank.”

“It was nothing, really,” Guff said with genuine humility.

Anastasia greeted Chance’s parents. They were friendly toward her, but Guff could tell there was work to be done to patch up the hurt of their dismissal from her father’s employ. Could they forgive her? He couldn’t help but swell with hope for this second chance for Anastasia. He could tell how much she cared for Chance by how her blue eyes sparkled. Chance also had feelings for her, measured by the warmth of his smile. Maybe this new opportunity could blossom into something more: happiness, fulfillment, love? Guff hoped so. Anastasia’s father would demand she return to their ship. Anastasia would refuse, but Iron Ivan wouldn’t let it go. Anastasia was an adult; she could choose her own destiny. She could choose to stay on Alazan if she wanted. When Guff thought about it, she truly was home. Perhaps she and her father could agree on that.

After Anastasia introduced Guff to the Lee family, she excused herself and Guff. Once alone, she gave the captain a big hug. “Thank you for everything.”

Guff bowed deeply. “Captain Finnius Mortimer Guff at your service.”

“Where will you go now?”

Guff was tired of his old smuggler ways. Without Yates to guide him, he was worried he’d become lost. But he could hear his first mate’s voice in his head, steering him back on course as he always did. In a way, Guff would never be lost.

The captain knew where he must go, and it filled him with purpose. “The Galactic Library on Odonius. To give them a certain gift.”

“Yates would be proud of you for doing the right thing.”

“I believe he would,” Guff said, finding weight in his words. “Take care, Anastasia of Alazan, and good luck.”

Captain Guff headed toward the HMS Mercy to embark on one final voyage, the most important voyage of his life.

 

THE END


Submitted: May 10, 2021

© Copyright 2021 steve pantazis. All rights reserved.

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