Bruce was almost relieved when the Ruport Murdoch slammed its interstellar drive into reverse. He didn’t know why the ship had stopped light-years from Earth, but at least it got him out of another pointless argument with his wife. Since boarding the star ship five years ago it seemed like Bruce and Tammy were always bickering about the pizzeria they ran with Bruce’s brother, Rusty.
With his faded Red Sox cap turned backwards Rusty leaned against the bulkhead as the ship shook. He laughed. “Man, that was amazing.”
Six months pregnant, Tammy rested in a chair. She glared at Rusty. “Glad you’re having fun. You ever think the drive might be blown?”
Rusty shrugged. “Ain’t no use in worrying.”
Bruce steadied himself against the kitchen counter while the vibrations slowed. “What the hell happened?”
As if in response the ship’s P.A. crackled to life. “The interstellar drive is fine. We stopped, because another Earth ship contacted us.”
The P.A. explained that with the time dilation the new ship, the Donald Trump, had left Earth twenty five years after the Rupert Murdoch with an improved interstellar drive. The Trump could reach the colony in three months, instead of five more years. It could take some colonists from the Rupert Murdoch. More details were coming.
Tammy’s eyes had a faraway look. “Only three more months.”
Bruce didn’t believe it was that straight forward. Nothing in a corporation controlled galaxy was free. “They didn’t say we could all go.”
Tammy rolled her eyes. “You’re so damned pessimistic.” She marched into the pizzeria’s tiny dining area. She joined a group of physicists and a man Bruce didn’t recognize.
The stranger wore a goofy grin, like a tourist gawking at big city skyscrapers. He must be a stiff, one of the fat cats who escaped the tedium of a long space voyage by spending most of the trip in suspended animation.
Bruce hated the stiffs. The beautiful people.
Rusty’s girlfriend, Lori, sat at the only other table that hadn’t cleared after the announcement. Lori stood up. “Rusty, I have to go. They’ll need me in Cryo.”
Rusty grinned and grabbed her arm. “You can be late.”
She jerked free. “No, I can’t. The lab’s probably going to thaw out everybody. Do you have any idea how complicated that is?” She rushed to the air lock.
“You think we should start making pizzas for the stiffs?” Bruce asked Rusty. Those in suspended animation had prepaid to have various things waiting for them when they awoke. A surprisingly large number craved pizza. “Maybe your girlfriend knows if the stiffs want their orders.”
Rusty was quick to correct him. “Lori’s not my girlfriend. She doesn’t like me calling her at work.” Rusty changed the subject. “You hear about that stiff who thawed out a few months ago and demanded lobster and champagne.”
And even though Bruce couldn’t afford lobster on Earth, much less at inflated prices an interstellar flight, he knew the stiff had gotten everything he wanted. “Some of them bastards even got their pets frozen with them.”
An HVAC grunt stepped through the air lock and fiddled with the room’s temperature controls.
Bruce approached the worker. He half expected the grunt to hit him up for a bribe. Stuck on a company town of a ship for ten years meant many ship workers relied on payoffs to get by. “Are the guys in the deep freeze waking up?”
The man sneered. “I don’t care. We don’t get to leave early. Maintenance goes down with the ship, man.”
“Thanks,” Bruce mumbled. He should have known better than to expect a straight answer. Low men on the ship totem pole, ship workers resented him, because he had his own business. Bruce could afford some of the Murdoch’s extras, like a multi room apartment and time in the exercise quadrant.
Tammy walked up wheezing from the exertion. Her pregnancy was slowing her down. “Did you call the Cryo Lab and see when they’re waking the stiffs?”
Tammy sighed. “Do I have to do everything?” She pointed to Rusty who was now laughing with the HVAC guy. “Why doesn’t your brother call his girlfriend?”
“He doesn’t want to.”
Tammy’s voice cracked. “You need to get us off this ship. We can’t raise a child here.”
* * *
Bruce got the Cryo Lab on the holo screen. Lori muttered a halfhearted hello. She kept looking about as workers in lab coats rushed about furiously in the background. She said she had no idea if the clients wanted their damned pizza and hung up.
Bruce decided to prepare the stiffs’ orders. If he was going to get to the colony with something to show for the long trip, he couldn’t afford to make anyone angry. Maybe he’d squirrel away enough money to outbid the stiffs for one of the best properties.
Tammy diced onions on the galley kitchen’s narrow counter. Unlike Bruce, the stresses of the trip rarely got to her. Some passengers couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without taking anxiety medication.
Rusty flipped through channels on the holovision and nursed a beer. His Red Sox cap sat on the table. He never came to work without it, despite Tammy’s constant comments that it did not look professional.
The airlock opened. A man wearing a strange uniform entered. The stranger flashed a salesman’s smile and held out his hand. “I’m Ensign Luis Deville from the Donald Trump.”
Bruce wiped his hands on his apron and shook Deville’s hand. He introduced Tammy and Rusty. “Has it really been twenty five years since we left?”
Deville nodded. “Bruce, it’s been at least that long.”
Rusty jumped up. “Hey, how my Red Sox doing? They won the Series yet?”
“They won it about ten years ago. But the last few years nobody’s beaten Tokyo, not even Mexico City,” Deville said.
“When I left they were talking about bull dozing Fenway,” Rusty said.
“Fenway’s still there,” Deville said.
“Can we talk about something a bit more relevant?” Tammy snapped.
“Hey, want some pizza, bossman?” Rusty asked Deville.
Deville’s smile almost seemed genuine. “You got pepperoni, Rusty?”
“I’ll fix you right up.” Rusty began shaping a doughball.
Turning so Deville couldn’t see, Tammy rolled her eyes.
Deville set a comp cube on a table. “The first thing you need to understand is that we’re not a United Nations ship. I work for Interstellar Rescue. We save colonists.”
Bruce knew Deville’s kind. The new ship wasn’t on a humanitarian mission. It was here seeking corporate profit. This wasn’t a rescue. It was a hold up.
“Save colonists from what?” Bruce asked.
“Boredom. Wasting their lives. We’ll get you to the colony years faster that a piece of garbage like the Murdoch.”
Rusty sat down and handed Deville a beer.
Deville took a long sip. “Our ship is much smaller than yours.” He gestured about the room. “They don’t make big old cruise ships like this anymore.” He took another sip. “We get reimbursed by the U.N. for some passengers and after we meet our quota we’re allowed to charge additional passengers.”
Tammy glared. “It’s going to cost us to go to the colony?”
Deville shook his head. “It won’t cost everybody.”
Rusty stood. “Gotta get that pie.”
Rusty brought the pizza and sliced it on the table. He slipped a plate in front of Deville.
Deville shoved a slice into his mouth with plump fingers. Sauce splattered on his shirt. “Lord, this almost makes me want to switch ships.”
“Can we go on the Trump?” Tammy asked.
Deville swallowed. “I need some information first, Tammy. How are you guys related?”
Tammy’s eyes narrowed and she focused on Deville. “Bruce and I are married. Rusty is Bruce’s brother.”
Deville nodded. “Got it. Here’s the deal, Tammy. Rusty gets to go as part of the U.N. quota. One of you two also gets to go. One adult from each family. You and Bruce count as a family. Rusty is a second family.”
Tammy made no effort to hide her sarcasm. “Thank God we haven’t had our child yet. Or we might have to leave the baby behind.”
Deville put down his pizza. “Tammy, even then you’d be okay. The first two children in each family get free passage.”
“Your policy doesn’t make any sense,” Bruce said.
“I agree, Bruce. I wish we could take everybody for free. But, what can I do? It’s a United Nations mandate.”
Bruce snorted. “Like a U.N. mandate means anything.” The corporations had the U.N. in their back pockets.
Deville put down his beer. “The Trump doesn’t have to be here at all. We could have let you coast into the colony in your rusty antique while the new ships whiz past you. If your ship makes it at all.”
“Why wouldn’t our ship make it?” Bruce asked.
“Your drive has a history of breaking down. And when that happens a ship is on its own.”
Deville’s eyes darted as his retinal muscles activated the comp cube. The United Nation’s Space Agency’s holographic logo hovered over the table. Deville blinked as his eye movement triggered a virtual floating keyboard that only he could see. “Watch this. It explains things better than I can.” He slumped in his chair and let the comp cube continue the sales pitch.
“Ortiz Drive Death Trap,” boomed a voice. An image of rescue ships in deep space. “These ships arrived too late to save the UNSA interstellar Transport John D. Rockefeller. Another victim of the Ortiz drive.”
For the next few minutes Bruce watched a rapid fire montage of star ships in various stages of damage. The Stephen Jobs. The Sam Walton. The Ray Kroc.
Bruce’s stomach lurched. They had almost booked passage on the Kroc, but switched to the Murdoch when the Kroc wouldn’t let them open a restaurant.
Bruce wondered how many times Deville had sat through the holofilm or if the holofilm was even telling the truth. Interstellar Rescue’s claims about the drive might be an elaborate corporate con game to bilk an interstellar ship’s captive market.
Bruce felt a headache coming on. “How much will it cost for me to go on the Trump too?”
Deville waved his hand over the comp cube again. He pointed to the screen. “There’s the figure.”
Bruce’s headache worsened. “We can’t afford that.”
Deville took another sip of beer. “Bruce, when the Murdoch gets to the colony years after the Trump, it’ll be nothing better than scrap. If it makes it at all. The people who designed it are dead. Your ship could arrive in five years or twenty or thirty or never. It all depends on the drive and the relativity effect. You’d be taking a huge chance. I wish you could see that I’m trying to help you.”
Deville turned off the comp cube. “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but the tickets are first come first serve. The U.N. mandated slots are guaranteed, but once we run out of paid slots, they’re gone. You need to buy a ticket. You owe it to your kid, Bruce.”
Bruce massaged his temples. He had two impossible choices. Go early and arrive owing money or stay on a ship with no customers and get there years late. He could pay for the trip if he cleaned out their savings. Hell, that still wouldn’t be enough. He’d have to borrow a third of it from Rusty.
“We can provide financing,” Deville said. “The terms are quite reasonable.”
* * *
After Deville left Bruce took a deep breath. “I’ll stay,” he said to Tammy.
Tammy stared at him. “And miss your kid growing up? No big deal, I guess.”
“Of course it’s a big deal. You think this is easy for me?” Bruce snapped.
Rusty stood up. “Time for a break.” He pulled out a joint and stepped into the utility hallway.
“Have you lost your mind?” Tammy asked.
Bruce closed his eyes. “I’m a businessman. We need money to survive on the colony.”
“Your child needs a Dad.”
Bruce put his arm around Tammy. “If I have to buy a ticket, we’ll arrive there in debt. My way we got money and a business.”
Tammy pulled away. “All you care about is money.”
“That’s not true.”
“What if the Murdoch’s drive breaks?” Her eyes pleaded. “If you stay, I could be years older than you when we see each other again. Your son or daughter could be grown. You might not even make it.”
“I know that,” Bruce mumbled.
Tammy sniffled. “I’m going to pack.” She stood up and walked to the air lock. She stopped and turned around. “Are you coming?”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Why can’t you leave now, Bruce? What could you possibly have to think about?”
Bruce did not know what to say. When he did not respond Tammy walked out of the restaurant.
As the air lock slid shut behind her Bruce knew that she would have slammed a door shut if she could.
• * *
While Bruce filled the stiffs’ orders he obsessed over the cost of a ticket on the Trump. But no matter how many times he ran through the numbers he still couldn’t make it to the colony without borrowing money.
When Rusty returned, Bruce wondered if he had seen Lori. Knowing Rusty he might have hooked up with some new girl. It was about time for his brother to screw things up again.
Rusty laughed. “Why you messing with those pies? You know there ain’t no pleasing a stiff.”
Bruce ladled sauce. “You gonna help?”
“She’s been helping,” Bruce grunted. “She’s pregnant, you idiot. She’s tired.”
Rusty opened the oven. Hot air rushed out. He rotated the pies so they would cook evenly. “These are almost finished baking.”
Bruce sprinkled mozzarella. “If you’re not too busy to do your job, could you take them out when they’re done and box them?”
Rusty closed the oven and leaned against the bulkhead. “You serious? You really gonna stay?”
Bruce scooped out a big handful of pepperoni and spread it on a pie. “What choice do I got?”
Rusty clasped Bruce’s shoulder. “Bossman, listen to me. Lori says the stiffs are buying all the extra seats to the colony. The Trump’s gonna sell out.”
“Why the hell don’t the god-damned stiffs just stay in the deep freeze?”
“Because they get whatever they want. You know that.”
“The stiffs have been sleeping for five years, doing nothing and they still get special treatment. What the hell have I been working for?”
“Bossman, you got to go on the Trump.”
“It’ll bankrupt us.” Bruce looked at the boxed pizzas and was at once overcome with rage.
At Interstellar Rescue. At the stiffs. But mainly at himself for not figuring out how to get to the colony without blowing all their savings.
The game was fixed. He couldn’t win. Hell, the cruise line probably owned Interstellar Rescue.
Bruce slammed his fist into the teetering stacks of pizza boxes and knocked them off the counter. Pizzas slid out and hot cheese oozed onto the floor. Tomato sauce mixed with grime and dust.
A rat sized sanibot scurried out of its cubbyhole to clean up the mess.
“Leave it alone!” Bruce barked.
With an indignant beep the sanibot slunk away.
Rusty grinned. “I guess you’re not finishing the orders.’
Bruce panted. “No, I’m not finishing the order. I got to take out a friggin’ loan.”
* * *
Deville tore off a jagged chunk of pizza. “Good stuff,” he said through a mouthful of food. He pointed to the mess on the kitchen floor. “What happened in there?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bruce said.
“I told you the ship was breaking down. Even the sanibots are busted,” Deville said.
“I told it not to clean up the mess.” Bruce ran his fingers through his hair, a nervous habit he usually reserved for arguments with Tammy. “My wife and I have talked about your proposal. I need to take out a loan.”
Deville smiled. “You won’t regret it, Bruce.”
Rusty took a seat at the table. “So, you get a commission, right?” Rusty asked Deville.
“I do.” Deville’s eyes fluttered as he worked a virtual keyboard.
Rusty jotted a figure on a napkin. “Is it this much?”
“What are you doing?” Bruce asked.
Rusty spoke in a casual tone, as if he were offering to pick up a check at dinner. “Bossman, let me do something for you for once. Relax.”
Bruce was tired. He was in no hurry to hear about how much a loan would cost. He leaned back in his chair and listened to Rusty and Deville.
Deville’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your point?”
“Let’s skip the company’s fee. I’ll give you that much if you let my brother on that ship.”
Deville’s eyes lingered on the napkin. “It doesn’t matter if you pay me ten times the fee. Nobody extra goes on the Trump.”
Rusty smiled. “You’re not gettin’ my meaning. I’m not talking about anybody extra’s going. I pay you that and you let my brother go instead of me.”
“Sure you can. Say there was a mix up. What are they going to do? Come back and get me?”
“Why are you doing this?” Bruce asked Rusty.
Rusty shrugged. “I got to stay.”
Bruce wondered if Lori was pregnant. Or maybe like the HVAC guy she wasn’t allowed to leave the Murdoch.
“You know what’s funny?” Rusty asked Deville. “I figure Interstellar Rescue might be doing to you what you’re doing to us.”
Deville’s smile vanished. “I’ll do all right. I get along fine with Corporate.”
“Yeah, but by the time you get back to Earth the folks you know will be gone and a whole new group will be there.” Rusty smirked. “I reckon you’ll do fine. Interstellar Rescue’s putting your money away for you and it’s gonna be waiting for you when you get back. Because Interstellar Rescue’s all about helping people.”
“Shut up,” Deville said.
“I’m just trying to give you a little nest egg in case things don’t work out.” Rusty reached for the napkin. “But, you don’t need to worry about anything, I guess. You don’t need my money.”
Deville folded the napkin and put it in his pocket. “I want the money tonight. And if you change your mind, you’re not getting it back.”
Bruce was giddy at the thought of seeing Rusty for the first time in eleven years. Today was the day the Ruport Murdoch finally arrived at the colony. He glanced at the clock. “Hurry up, honey.“
Tammy bounced their daughter, April, in her arms. “We got plenty of time.”
Russell, their ten year old son walked in the kitchen. “Do I have to go?”
Bruce picked up his son and hugged him. “You’re going to meet your uncle today. You’ll love him. He tells great stories and he loves sports. I bet he’ll go out to the recreation fields and play baseball with you.”
Tammy gave Russell a mother’s stern look. “Go clean up. We need to leave.”
It seemed like a lifetime ago that Bruce and Tammy boarded the Donald Trump. Bruce did not like thinking about the three month trip. From armed sentries preventing people without tickets from boarding to substandard living conditions the trip had been a nightmare. Interstellar Rescue had given them the bare minimum- a mat to sleep on, water and stale corporate rations. Everything else cost extra. Even medical care for pregnant women.
Bruce was surprised that he actually enjoyed the time away from his brother. But after the relief wore off he began to miss Rusty. When the Murdoch didn’t arrive on time he fell into a deep depression for almost a year. The colony assumed the Ortiz drive had claimed another ship.
Two weeks ago the colony received the first transmission from the Rupert Murdoch. Limping home with a damaged engine, the ship was almost at the colony.
“You got someone to cover the restaurant,” Tammy whispered as she put April in the bassinet.
Bruce grinned. Nothing was going to ruin his mood today. “Of course.” Their pizza place was thriving. Colonists appreciated having an alternative to the corporate restaurants that littered the city. He and Tammy were very lucky when an Earth chain had pulled out of the colony and offered its fixtures for sale dirt cheap.
Bruce drove through Prime Insurance City. Lord only knew how much the insurance conglomerate had paid for the naming rights. By the time Bruce and Tammy arrived, another improvement in the star drive had made the Donald Trump obsolete, and the city was already half built. Instead of being among the first colonists to settle the planet, Bruce and Tammy landed at a functioning starport that saw half a dozen ships a year.
The family stood in a crowd and watched the Rupert Murdoch appear over the tops of the towering trees that flanked Prime Insurance City. The ship slowly descended on the tarmac.
The gangway creaked to the ground. Hundreds of people spilled out. The crowd rushed to meet them.
Lori and Rusty walked down the gangway. Rusty looked good, about the same age as when the Trump left. Lori looked like hell. Her face was wrinkled and she had gray hair and easily appeared twice Rusty’s age.
Bruce ran up to meet his brother. “Rusty!”
Rusty gave him a blank look. “That’s my Dad. My name is Mike.”
Bruce stared at Rusty’s son. Yes, it wasn’t Rusty, but the family resemblance was strong. “I’m your Uncle Bruce.” He hugged his nephew.
Mike gawked at the sky. “This is huge. So much space.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Lori said. “It’s beautiful here.”
Mike turned his head back to the Trump. “I don’t know,” he muttered.
“Where’s Rusty?” Bruce asked Lori.
“The Trump left almost thirty years ago,“ Lori said. “Rusty and I had Mike five years after.” She sighed. “Rusty passed away two years ago.”
Bruce fought back tears, “How?”
Lori showed a sad little smile. “He died of colon cancer. After we lost the restaurant we couldn’t afford anything, but basic medical treatment.”
Tammy stood behind Bruce. She put her arm around him. “I’m so sorry, honey,” she whispered.
Bruce could think of nothing to say.
“Bruce, I loved your brother,” Lori said. “He was a screw up. I’m still not sure how he ran the restaurant into the ground, but I loved him.”
“He shouldn’t have given me his ticket,” Bruce said.
Lori shook her head. “Bruce, you’re wrong. That’s the one thing he did right. If he had gone on the Trump, I wouldn’t have had Mike.” She pointed to April and Russell who were standing behind Tammy. “And, those must be your kids. They’re beautiful children.”
“I could have bought a ticket,” Bruce muttered.
“I wasn’t allowed to go on the Trump,” Lori said. “Even all the stiffs together couldn’t have bribed my way out of my work contract.” She sat a small duffel bag down on the tarmac and reached inside. She pulled out a small object. “Rusty wanted you to have this.”
Bruce stared at Rusty’s battered baseball cap. His voice cracked. “I never saw him without it.”
“He wore it through Chemo,” Lori said. “He said the hat should go to somebody who had seen the Red Sox play.”
“Rusty dragged me to a few games.”
“He said he wanted it to go to family.”
Bruce put on the cap. It fit snug. “Thanks.” He stepped over to his children and picked up Russell. “Lori, I’d like you to meet my family.”
I am an attorney in Raleigh, NC. I have been a science fiction fan since falling in the love with the original Star Trek in the 1970s. My favorite writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Margaret Atwood and Ernest Hemingway. I have had stories published in Bull Spec, Enounters, Stupefying Stories, Ray Gun Revival, Interstellar Fiction, Bards and Sages and Every Day Fiction