This story was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2001, and reprinted in the June/July 2014 issue.
Colin’s peaceful sleep was shattered by the irritating buzz of his alarm. He reached out from under the warmth of the bed covers and slapped at the offensive device. On the third try he located the switch and silenced it. Rolling over, he relaxed to go back to sleep.
The door to his quarters opened, and he heard the familiar step of his roommate.
The room exploded in a harsh brightness. Colin quickly pulled the sheet over his head. Under the protection of the sheet the glare was bearable, and the scout quickly returned to his peaceful slumber.
“Colinashaar! Wake up!” Startled by the loud call of his roommate and annoyed by her use of his formal name, Colin pulled the sheet from over his head and glared through squinted eyes at the woman standing before him.
Narra was already dressed and ready for her duty shift. Her uniform was pressed and nearly perfect, as always. He knew her morning routine. She’d spent the last two hours lifting weights, running, eating breakfast, and getting ready for her shift while he still slept. Colin couldn’t figure how someone could be so eager to get out of bed before they absolutely had to, much less just to lift weights.
“Get moving Colin, you have less than a half an hour to get ready for your shift.” She snatched the sheet from him. “I cannot imagine why you are so willing to sleep until the last minute like this. You have to rush every morning to keep from being late. This kind of laziness reflects poorly on the honor of your family.”
Colin frowned as he rubbed his face, and ran his hands through his sleep-matted short blond hair. Narra’s speeches about family honor always baffled him. She might have been raised in the middle of an Aslan colony, but he hadn’t; Colin could never understand what honor could possibly have to do with sleeping. He perked up as he detected the familiar aroma of his favorite morning beverage. “You brought me some caf!” Colin couldn’t begin a workday without the aid of caffeine in a beverage.
“Yes, I grabbed a cup for you as well. Get in the fresher, it will still be hot when you get out.”
Rubbing his eyes, he slowly stood to his feet and stretched. A hot cup of caf could forgive nearly any speech Narra made, as far as Colin was concerned.
It wasn’t until he was nearly dressed twenty minutes later that he realized that his muscle bound roommate had completely avoided mentioning the significance of this day. It was his last day in the scout service, and he would officially be a civilian this time tomorrow. He knew she was disappointed that he was leaving the service, but she wouldn’t admit it to him. It wouldn’t fit in that strange sense of honor and personal discipline she had. He liked Narra, and she’d been like an older sister to him from the moment he’d arrived and been assigned to share the room with her. He’d never shared his quarters with a woman before in the entire six years he’d been in the scouts, but he drew her as his roommate when he arrived. He didn’t mind, really. It was nice that she wasn’t his type of woman. She stood a half a head taller than Colin, easily outweighed him by several kilos, and acted more Aslan than human at times. They’d gotten to be friends fairly quickly, and living so close made it easier to see her as a sister. A really big sister.
Colin was finally dressed and ready for his duty shift. He checked his watch. He had four minutes to get to his post. Taking careful sips from his steaming cup of caf, he walked down the light gray metal corridors of the asteroid base known officially as Imperial Interstellar Scout Service Way Station 86. He remembered coming to work here two years ago. Most of the scouts here called it Dead End Station. Everyone knew that the administrators who were assigned here were those who were waiting out the last few years before retirement. None of those ever assigned here had spectacular careers, and typically it made for an unpleasant assignment for the field scouts. Nobody wanted this assignment, and most of the scouts here grumbled about the boredom. He thought it funny that he had requested this post. It was a great way to shock the new arrivals.
Passing another scout in the hallway, Colin stopped sipping from his cup long enough to nod in silent greeting to the Droyne. Colin understood how to relate to most of the sophonts assigned here, and could talk to nearly all of the major races without difficulty, but he had difficulty with the Droyne. They just weren’t very talkative. Something about that caste system, he guessed. Being assigned a specific role in society that would be the same for your entire life seemed like it took away all the surprises. He didn’t understand how they could stand it. He unlocked an access hatch on a maintenance area, ducked inside and closed it quickly. This was one of his favorite shortcuts to save time getting to his duty station, as it avoided the lifts crowded with people changing work shifts. Climbing down the metal ladder into the pipe filled chamber, Colin saw a tech from the night duty shift finishing up some work on the waste processing system. Poor soph’, the guy was covered in black goo. Colin hated those assignments; the station’s processors always smelled terrible and usually took much longer to clean than nearly other repair. Knowing the fumes would still be fairly strong, he closed the lid on his drink, held his breath, and walked by quickly. His eyes watered as he reached the fumes, but he was through them and into the next corridor in mere seconds. Once in the hall, he exhaled heavily and wiped the tears from his eyes. He looked at his half full cup of caf, then decided against it. He tossed it into a wall-mounted trash chute and continued on. He’d get a second cup once he’d picked up his tools and received his first assignment of the day.
Reaching the door of his duty station, Colin tapped the door’s OPEN button on the panel, and nothing happened. Muttering to himself about the poor quality of technicians on the station, he tapped it harder. Nothing. Finally, on the fourth try, it clicked and the door slid quietly open. Colin glanced at his watch as he stepped into the room.
The somewhat raspy voice of his supervisor called out, “Blackwell, you’re late. Again.”
Colin paused, and couldn't decide which was more annoying; the fact that in fact this time he really wasn’t late, (thirty-three seconds didn’t count), or that his superior still didn’t turn around to speak to him. Dabrick was like that all the time; the man reveled in his authority, and in the keen ability he had to annoy people while doing his job. It was probably the reason he’d been assigned here last year. The man had the diplomacy skills of a groat herder.
Colin made a mental vow to avoid getting into another argument with this man. He would not have it ruin his last day in the service. “I’m here, Dabrick. What’s on the list?”
“I’ve got a Sulieman that just arrived in Bay Eight. It needs a few minor adjustments. Since you’re on ship support this week, you handle it.” The man keyed a few instructions into his computer console, and the datapad on Colin’s belt chimed to confirm receipt of a new file. “It needs the air filters scrubbed and treated.”
Colin thought he detected the faint suggestion of a smile on the side of the man’s face, but he couldn’t be sure. The guy was probably expecting an argument. The special cleaning chemicals the filters required smelled almost as bad as the waste disposal work. No one wanted that duty if they could avoid it. Colin opened a locker with his thumbprint, and picked up a command code passkey from the rack inside. The electronics inside that little white plastic card would allow him to access any scout vessel assigned to his station. He also grabbed a set of work coveralls and his tool belt.
“Okay. Sounds like it might take a while. I’ll let you know when I’m done.” Dropping the card into his uniform pocket, he headed for the door.
“Blackwell,” The man coughed in a feeble attempt to hide his amusement. “You’ve got eight work orders today. Let’s not have any last day lagging about, or complaints about the jobs, eh lad?”
Colin reminded himself he wasn’t going to get into an argument. Twice. Forcing himself to keep a pleasant tone, he replied with a simple “Affirmative.” When the door slid quietly closed behind him, he realized that was the first time he’d ever gotten the last word with Dabrick. Interesting. This might still be a good day after all. He headed toward the mess hall to get a fresh cup of caf.
Walking out into the huge natural rock cavern that had been converted into a sealed docking bay, Colin admired the sparkles of light coming from the veins of ore in the walls. He strode toward the old vessel parked on the far side. The 100-ton Sulieman scout/courier was one of the most common ship designs in the Imperium, and the one he was most familiar with of all of the scout vessels in service. He slowed as he approached, enjoying the sight. He loved flying these little ships whenever he got the chance. He walked slowly toward the wedge-shaped vessel, heading for the airlock back by engineering. Colin admired the sleek lines of the craft, appreciating both the appearance and the capabilities of such a small starship. He smiled to himself. If everything went as he expected tonight, he would be getting one of these ships for his personal use.
The Imperial Scout Service had a most unusual custom that dated back nearly a thousand years. The ships had changed a great deal over those years, but the tradition still remained. When accountants decided a courier vessel had reached the end of its operational cycle, it wasn’t destroyed; it was retired, so to speak. Any sophont electing to leave the scout service at the end of his term had the opportunity to enter the Lottery, which was a chance to win the use of one of these ships as a personal craft on Detached Duty. All scouts were trained in flying the ships as part of basic training, so any scout could enter the Lottery. The winner would be free to roam the Imperium in the vessel at his leisure, enjoying the ability to explore and travel to his heart’s content. He’d even receive free fuel and maintenance at any scout base any time the ship needed it. They were subject to recall, of course, should the need arise, but that rarely happened. Since most scouts spent two thirds of their service time in space, it seemed only fair in Colin’s mind to try to spare some of them the drudgery of spending the remaining part of their life after retirement stuck on some planet.
The greatest thing about this tradition was that you didn’t have to be retiring to take advantage of it. Any scout had a chance to win. Colin had signed his mustering papers the second he was offered the chance. He knew he had good odds to win. That’s why he’d volunteered for this remote location to serve for the last two years. He had checked the files, and knew that several ships would be coming up for the lottery here during the year, and he wanted to be here to get one. Once he did, it would be the start of the good life. He had lots of ideas on that…
“You going to work on my ship or stand there staring at it all day?” A woman’s voice interrupted Colin’s thoughts.
“Huh? Umm, yeah, I’m here to work on it.” He looked over at the approaching scout. She was human, a slender woman with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore the typical scout service uniform, and had a bright smile. Colin noted the communications branch patch on her uniform with the field operations insignia below it. The woman carried a sealed courier data pack under her arm, and a vacc suit storage bag slung over the opposite shoulder. He didn’t recognize her as having previously visited the station, and her bag’s strap blocked her uniform’s name patch. She had beautiful long black hair, bright green eyes, and a pretty smile. Colin was sure he would have remembered her.
She glanced at his name patch. “Hi, Blackwell.” She paused, then smiled. “Wait, you’re Colinashaar Blackwell?”
He nodded in reply, slightly puzzled, as his only his last name was on his uniform. “I go by Colin. Only my mother and my roommate call me Colinashaar.”
She nodded. “I’m Leese, Leese Kavid. Your mustering out party is tonight, right?”
Now he understood. An informal notice was posted weeks in advance of any event; scouts loved any excuse to have a party. A mustering out ceremony was a really good excuse for a celebration. “Yep, this is my last duty shift. I’ll be flying out tomorrow, if all goes well.”
She gave him a knowing smile, “You’re going for the Lottery?”
He grinned back, “Of course. Who wouldn’t? See you at the party tonight?”
She nodded with a friendly smile. “I should be there. If the reply to this data isn’t urgent, I’ll be leaving during tomorrow’s night cycle. If it is, I'll need the ship ready to go ASAP.”
Colin checked his datapad. “The work order is short, so it should be ready before lunch. Just the filters and a few little adjustments, right?”
“Yes, that’s all for now. Good luck tonight, in either case.”
“Thanks.” Colin headed off toward the rear of the ship. He glanced back toward Leese for another chance to look at her, only to see her doing the same thing. Her eyes widened slightly and she turned away quickly. Ooops.
Slightly embarrassed and flattered at the same time, he climbed up the narrow metal ladder and entered the small ship. He figured cleaning the filters shouldn’t take too long if he put some effort into it, and then he could get changed in time for lunch. He wondered if he’d run into to Leese in the mess hall. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying on his part. He keyed a note on his pad to make sure he verified the ship was fully fuelled before she left. It’d be a nice touch, and wouldn’t take much longer.
Dropping a spanner into the tool kit, Colin wiped his forehead with his jumpsuit sleeve, and checked his watch. The end of the duty shift had finally arrived, and he was relieved. He had finally finished making several adjustments to the jump governor on an X-boat, and his shoulders were tired from crawling around in the narrow maintenance access ports. He closed the maintenance hatch carefully and reactivated the seals. He was tired, hungry, and ready to call it a day.
Dabrick had assigned him eight work orders today, apparently in celebration of his last work shift in the service. Colin had been determined to get them finished before the end of the day. He wasn’t sure why, except maybe down deep inside he figured that letting his work slip today might somehow impact the drawing tonight. He didn’t want to risk anything that might bring him bad luck. He had missed his lunch hour completely, only stopping to grab a protein snack bar from the vending machine in the tech support office about two hours from the end of his work shift. He’d hated losing the chance to talk to Leese again, but he hoped he would see her at the party. Colin gathered his tools together and headed back to the tech support office. The asteroid station’s night cycle was about to begin, and the party would start an hour after that.
Colin was tired, but anticipation of the Lottery kept him going. Entering the large room, he saw several of the other techs had already returned and dumped their tool packs on the workbench. Dabrick was the only man in the room, still hunched over his computer console. He was most likely studying efficiency reports. Colin keyed the locker, replaced the command code passkey in its rack, closed it back and then dropped his tool kit on the bench with the others for use by the techs on the next shift.
Dabrick’s rough voice called out softly. “Hey Blackwell.” Colin turned and looked at his supervisor, wondering what last parting shot the man had been saving until now. The older man still faced his console, but had stopped working.
The man turned slightly, looking at the wall near Colin’s head. “You did good today. Worked real hard. Good luck tonight.”
Stunned, Colin was at a total loss for words. Uncertain of exactly what to say in reply, he finally nodded in thanks and headed for the door.
The party had already started when Colin arrived. He wasn’t really late, but no scout he knew was going to wait for the guests to show up before they started having fun. He spotted a few of the technicians he worked with on a regular basis, many mixed with a number of sophs he didn’t recognize at all. Narra was there, talking to Leese of all people. Colin wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not, so he hurried over to say hello and see how much damage control this conversation might need.
As he arrived, Narra looked over at him. “Hello Colin. Well, it appears that one of our guests of honor has finally arrived,” Narra grinned playfully as she looked at Colin’s wary expression. “Is there some kind of problem?”
This was very different and out of character for normally reserved Narra. He chose a cautious reply. “Umm, no. Don’t think so. You?” She shook her head negatively, and smiled with that same predatory gleam in her eye. It was the same one she wore when sparring in the gym, and that always meant he was in for some pain.
Leese smiled brightly. “Hi, Colin, good to see you again.”
“Yeah, you too,” he replied, his eyes still watching Narra. When he turned to Leese, she was staring at him curiously. He shrugged. “Sorry, I’m not used to seeing my roommate so, well…”
“Happy?” Narra interrupted, “Hey, this is a party. Everyone can cut loose tonight, right?”
Colin looked into Narra’s bright green eyes, but saw nothing that made him suspicious. She was still smirking, and he shook his head. “Sure. I’m getting a drink, I’ll be right back.” He took a step toward the bar, then turned back to Leese. “Sorry, can I get you something?”
Both of the ladies laughed at something that was apparently just out of Colin’s perception. Puzzled, he decided to leave it alone for the moment and headed for the bar. After waiting for a few minutes at the counter to place his order, and shaking the hands of a few scouts who wished him well, Colin managed to acquire his drink. Before he could make it back to Narra and Leese, the chime rang twice, indicating time to begin the ceremony had arrived.
The tall and lean form of Administrator Varuk appeared on the room’s small dais and motioned for quiet. Stage lights flared to life, and the man blinked and then raised his hands again. When the chattering fell to a reasonable level, he cleared his throat.
“Greetings Gentles, I hope you are having a good time.” This brought a chorus of cheers. “Glad to see it. Well, I want to get the formalities over with quickly so you can get back to having fun. We are here this evening to bid two scouts farewell; Madrin Lun and Colin Blackwell. Madrin has served with the scout service for thirty-two years, and is finally retiring. He has been offered a position as technical consultant in General Products’ Engineering Division. He will be missed, but we know he’ll finally get his chance to buy a house and stay in it for a while.” Sporadic laughter followed, as the older man’s friends obviously knew the inside joke.
“We know that Field Scout Mandrin Lun’s vast knowledge and experience will be missed here. Come up here, Mandie.” The administrator shook the man’s hand, and Colin saw the quiet engineer shifting from foot to foot nervously trying to hide his embarrassment. Varuk looked at his wristwatch. “In six hours your service will officially be over, you will have retired from the service, and will be free to go to your new position.” More cheers followed.
Colin clapped politely. He was glad to see the old engineer treated so well. He also hoped he wouldn’t be entering the Lottery. If the old man did so, Colin’s chances of winning would be low. Each four year term of service purchased a scout a token in the drawing. Colin had two to his credit, but Mandrin would have eight. Eight to two odds were not good, but Colin had a feeling the man didn’t want a ship. A lot of old timers wanted to settle down, and Colin hoped the engineer was one of them. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple. If he didn’t want the ship, Colin had it. There was no one else in his way. He wiped the sweat from his temple, waiting for the decision.
“The datapad contains your transfer papers, as well as a small gift of appreciation from the staff. Since you have elected not to participate in the Lottery, we have purchased a high passage ticket for you to travel to your next destination in style. The booking agents have placed you on the Emerald Dawn, one of the nicest passenger cruise liners this side of Core. Enjoy this, Mandie, you’ve earned it.” The room nearly exploded in applause and shouts of encouragement, and the older man flushed bright red. The administrator smiled and clapped for a moment, and then called out, “Somebody get this man a drink!”
Colin blinked and realized he’d stopped breathing. With a sigh of relief, he laughed. He’d done it. Mandrin, bless his heart, had given him the ship. Colin cheered and clapped in appreciation of the older scout, particularly in his Lottery choice. He hadn’t really known the old man, but he knew generosity when he saw it.
Narra appeared as if by magic at his side, poking him playfully in the ribs, making him jump. “You’re next, you know.” Colin nodded. She grinned. He realized Leese was nowhere to be seen. Before he could ask Narra about her, Varuk continued.
The administrator shielded his eyes from the bright lights on the stage and peered into the crowd. “Where is Colin Blackwell?”
Narra elbowed his roommate. “Get up there, what are you waiting for?”
He looked up at the tall woman, and into her knowing gaze. She had that smile still. She knew something he didn’t. His stomach rolled, and he hesitated. She playfully pushed him forward. “Go on…”
“Blackwell? Oh, here he comes.” The lean man adjusted his work uniform and smiled. “You know, I was not surprised when this young man was on the muster list. Field Scout Colinashaar Blackwell, known by most as Colin, is also known to others by less favorable names.” The man smiled broadly and laughter followed.
“Colin, come on up here.”
Reaching the dais, he stepped up and into the spotlight. He stood next to the administrator of the station, a man with whom he’d shared only a few conversations, some of which had not been positive. Colin really didn’t like him much, but that wouldn’t matter after the night cycle ended. Varuk had a gleam in his eye, and it echoed the expression he’d seen on Narra’s face. This did not bode well.
“Young man, I am not surprised to find you here. I know you’ve been looking to win the Lottery for a long time, and even requested a transfer to this outpost over two years ago in planning for that very event.” The young scout smiled nervously, the bright lights of the stage blocking his view of most of the people in the station’s small auditorium. He nodded in reply, a bit too nervous to actually say anything.
Varuk continued. “Colin, even though you’ve been a thorn in my side at times in the past, I never like delivering bad news to anyone. When Field Scout Nagharush returned from her courier run, the vessel she was piloting suffered a static charge overload when exiting jump space. The vessel blew out several major power relays and had to be towed back into port.” He glanced at the card in his hand. “Scout/Courier XJ5-29B-16349, affectionately known to many as Wombat, was the only vessel scheduled to be rotated from active to detached duty. It would have been on the table for the Lottery. I’m sad to say that Wombat is sitting in docking bay twelve with several burned out power relays in her maneuver drive. Sorry to have to tell you this, Colin, but there will not be a Lottery tonight.”
Colin froze. The room was silent, all eyes were on the young man who’d gambled everything on this chance and lost. He didn’t know what to do. He had never contemplated losing the Lottery. Everything he’d planned for the past four years had just slipped through his fingers, and now he was out of the service. No ship, and now not even a job. Unsure of what to say, he looked back at the Administrator, and saw the man was smirking. He knew that Varuk disliked him, but he didn’t think the administrator would be pleased to see Colin fail to get the ship he’d hoped to acquire. He thought furiously, desperately seeking a way to escape this unexpected twist of fate.
“Gentles, there is no Lottery tonight. Colinashaar Blackwell will rotate to detached duty at midnight. The Wombat is off the flight line, and thereby ineligible for the Lottery.” Varuk paused, and then smiled at Colin. “The only way that this young man can have his ship is if she returned to flight capable status before he is transferred to detached duty.” He held up a little white plastic card; a technician’s command code passkey. He tossed it to Colin, who barely managed to catch it. Varuk grinned. “You’ve got six hours to get that ship operational, Mister Blackwell, I’d suggest you get moving.”
Sprinting down the corridor with his engineering tool belt and a fresh pair of coveralls in his arms, Colin entered Bay Twelve and spotted the Wombat sitting in the corner of the docking bay. A small stack of brand new repair parts sat next to the vessel. Beside it stood Leese, wearing a matching set of work coveralls and unwrapping a spool of power cable. Colin slid to a stop in surprised shock.
The attractive young woman grinned at him. “You going to stand there all night, or are you going to give me a hand fixing this thing?”