"Wow!" Jack exclaimed as he entered engineering and brought the system online. "This is great!" He sighed as he ran a full diagnostic on the FTL and sublight drives. While that was running, he visually inspected the FTL drive and opened the injector manifold and noted that Tiegan hadn't been keeping up with injector maintenance. "I'll get you back in shape, buddy." He smiled.
Two hours later, Jack was sitting at the engineering console when a communications alert went off, displaying that the incoming call was a secured frequency from their main ship. "This is Jack."
"Just checking in," Jack could hear Mitchell's digitally distorted voice. "I figured by now you probably have the FTL drive disassembled, polished, resembled and perfectly tuned. How close am I?"
"Way off," Jack giggled, "Beck was no engineer. He wasn't keeping up with maintenance at all. The FTL drive has cycled through thirty-three of the fifty backup injectors, and they haven't been replaced. The system shows that the last reaction tuning was the one performed when the drive came off the line at the shipyard, the coolant system is way overdue for servicing, the sublight drive has over thirty thousand burn hours, and the maintenance hatch still had the original shipyard seal on it so, it needs servicing as well. Pacer could stomp this ship right now." Jack sighed.
"Disappointing," Mitchell replied. "If you like, I can reach out to Moran. I can arrange for you to have a team ready to get that ship back in order and a bay to do all the work in. Is it safe to make the trip back to the Tova System?"
"Oh yeah," Jack grinned, "I just wouldn't plan to break any speed records. Apparently, he's never pushed the ship to capacity, which is a good thing, and probably kept him from getting stranded somewhere in deep space. His luck was gonna run out soon, though." After a few minutes of silence, Jack continued, "How do we want to play this?"
"It's not ideal but, I'll contact Moran and let him know you are making your way back to his location. You should transmit the diagnostic results to him when you are underway so he can start preparing. Do a full systems analysis while you are at it so any other issues can be knocked out while you have access to his resources. Does the ship need an internal cleaning? Merit says it looked a little too lived in."
Jack looked around the bridge and hummed, "It's not as clean as home."
"Not surprising. I'll have him get his team to clean the rest of the ship, replace the bedding and mattresses and see if we can't get the thing livable again," Mitchell paused, "You should spend some time identifying what should be discarded, what should be kept to be sold, and what you would like to keep aboard. Make sure the captain's quarters suit your liking; I have a feeling you just may have found yourself a challenge to adopt, kid. Make it yours. Anything else before we get moving here?"
"No," Jack thought, bringing Navigation up on the display, "I'm going to need another hour to complete the diagnostic I started. Then I can make way for the Tova System. I'm gonna need to do a shorter, reduced power FTL jump to be safe, so it'll probably take about a day and a half to get there. That should give Moran time to get ready."
"Sounds good. I'll inform him of your situation and let him know this is your project so, he will need to answer to you on this one. Do what you need to and keep me apprised. Once your ship is back in order, I'll make arrangements for you to handle your first solo delivery. Not to worry, it will be in friendly locations. Mitchell out."
About an hour later, Jack was receiving trafficking information for his departure and maneuvered the large ship out of its bay, passing the empty bay that they had docked at when they first arrived, which to Jack just felt weird. In open space, he held his breath as the ship stuttered and shook its way to light speed for the first time, with Jack making adjustments to the FTL drive mixture and containment fields until he was happier with how they were performing. He spent most of the trip, going through everything on the ship, taking inventory of what needed to be removed or kept. He made a list of personal items to have Moran try to sell and apply to the repair costs. Then he made a list of things he needed and another of things he wanted, including refitting a similar firing range to the one aboard the main ship.
After the process of bringing the ship inside what appeared to be an enormous garage with atmosphere and gravity; by setting it into a special cradle that carried the ship inside and set it down, Jack was able to completely power down and exit the ship without using the airlock and a docking collar.
"Welcome back," Moran said as he met Jack when he stepped off the ship. "I hear we have some work to do."
"Yeah," Jack replied as he gave Moran a handheld with the details of everything that he had reported earlier that needed to be done. "He didn't take very good care of it." Jack frowned.
Looking the screen over, Moran just shook his head. "Lazy." He simply stated as he waved two of his workers over. "I want a structural assessment completed while the drives are being addressed."
"Yes, sir." One of the men replied before turning to his team.
Motioning to get the attention of one of the teens in a group near the entryway, Moran entered instructions to begin clearing and cleaning the ship's interior. "Full decontamination protocol. I'd like our friend to be able to eat off the decks if he chooses." He smiled as the teen enthusiastically nodded his agreement and rushed back to his group. "I'm sure you would like to be kept in the loop with the FTL and sublight drives as work progresses?"
"No," Jack replied and crossed his arms. "I'm on the team to get the work done. That's my engine room now."
Moran smiled wide and patted Jack on the shoulder, "Well, alright then. If only there were more people who took as much interest. Ships wouldn't be allowed to get this bad."
Looking back at the handheld, Moran tapped his chin and nodded his head slightly. "I have the injectors on hand and will give you a reserve to keep onboard," He said as he waved to another teen and had him look at the list, "Check to see if we have all of this in stock and if not, we'll need to trade for what we don't have. You arrange the trade if needed, nothing from new stock. Some of the new boys still need a lot of training."
"Yes sir," The boy agreed and accepted the handheld before turning to hurry off.
"I hope this isn't costing you too much," Jack said while watching a group of kids of all ages as they began dragging a seemingly never ending supply of equipment onto the ship.
"Not at all," Moran laughed, "any losses today are always more than made up by your employer."
"That's good," Jack smiled, "If we need to run for anything, I can offer the ship."
"No," Moran shook his head, "That ship goes nowhere until the engines are in much better condition. I monitored your emissions on the way in, and a ship of only six years old should not be running so poorly." He continued as he watched the kids open every external hatch, wasting no time getting started. "Why not go into the station and get a meal? It's going to be at least two hours before we can start."
Jack shrugged his shoulders in response. "I don't really know this station; probably better to just grab something off the ship. The food he had was nasty, but there are still emergency rations. Those aren't too bad."
"Nonsense," Moran laughed. "Let me get you a guide," He laughed, "Ah, someone you know already would be nice, I think." He said as he made a hand gesture toward the group of smaller kids, and one of the smaller boys with long blond hair and looking very much human, pointed to himself and mouthed the word 'Me?' before breaking into a run.
"Seven, you remember Jack," Moran stated more than asked. "I'd like you to show Jack where the good places to eat are and buy him lunch to repay him for his kindness."
"Oh wow." Jack smiled as he recognized the boy. "It's been a long time; how are you."
"Good sir." Seven dug his hands into his pockets and looked at the decking.
"Great. Jack, tell Seven what kind of food you like, and he'll show you the best place to get it." Moran nodded and turned toward the ship, "I'll contact you if we start early."
"Great! Thanks, Moran." Jack said, turning to look back at the young boy. "You don't remember me, do you?"
"No sir, sorry." Seven replied, still not looking up at Jack.
"My name is Jack, not sir." Jack said as he knelt down, "I'd like for you to look me in the eyes." He said, smiling when Seven finally did, and his expression changed.
"Yeah," Seven gasped, "You was nice to me;, I 'emember you."
"There you go." Jack ruffled the smaller boy's hair and stood back up. "Now, what is your favorite food to go get here. I wanna try that."
Seven thought for a minute and smiled wide, "You like pizza?"
"Am I human?" Jack laughed. "I love pizza," He started as they began to walk, "What do you normally get on yours?"
Once they had reached the shop that Seven led them to, they both sat at a table to wait. "Um...Jack?" Seven said and then froze, as if he wasn't supposed to actually use the name.
"Sup?" Jack smiled.
"Did you fly that big ship all alone?" Seven curiously asked, getting a little more confident as he finally relaxed.
"Yup," Jack sat back in his seat. "My boss tells me that I may even be running deliveries on my own once the ship is all fixed up. You ever want to learn to pilot a ship?"
"That'd be cool." The small boy folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on them. "But I'll never learn to be a pilot, 'cept if I'm buyed by a captain."
"Oh yeah," Jack frowned, "I forgot. Moran owns you."
"He's okay." Seven nodded, "I gets good food an' only need to share beds with th' nicer guys."
"I guess that's good," Jack said as a teen came to the table with their pizza and a pitcher of cola and set it down.
"Would you boys like anything else?" He asked as he stepped back.
"No thanks," Jack said as he watched Seven simply stare at the pizza.
"Seven, is there something wrong with the pizza?" Jack questioned.
"No, I's just waitin' for you to get yours first." The boy replied.
Thinking for a moment, Jack stood up and pulled two slices from the pie, putting them on Seven's plate before doing the same for himself. Then as the small boy looked at him in amazement, Jack poured the cola, starting with Seven's cup. "You aren't here as property; you are someone I want to call friend. So, no more treating me like you work for me."
"Okay." Seven sniffled as he picked up a slice, and after pausing for a moment, cautiously took a bite before Jack did, earning a big smile from Jack as he did.
"That's better." Jack giggled as he tackled his own. "Seven, can I ask you a question?"
"Yeah." Seven replied between bites.
"Has your name always been Seven?"
"I gots the name when I got here." The small boy answered before taking a gulp from his glass.
"And all of you kids just have numbers for names?"
"Well, yeah," Seven replied, putting his slice down. "When you gets sold and put in a big group, you gets a number."
"Oh," Jack crossed his arms and sat back in his seat, "Did you have a name before Moran won you?"
"Yeah," Seven answered, still tackling his pizza slice, "Robbie, why?"
Jack watched as the boy never even looked up from his plate, eating like he hadn't for quite a while. Once the boy realized Jack wasn't eating, he put his slice down and looked back toward his lap and sniffled.
"Do you like Seven better?" Jack cautiously asked.
"No," The boy quickly replied. "But when I was winned, I was told not to be Robbie no more."
"Oh," Jack said as he picked up his slice and took a small bite. "Can I call you Robbie?"
The small boy sniffled again as he placed his slice on his plate and tried to hide the fact that tears were struggling to reach the surface. "You don't gotta."
"I know," Jack answered and took a sip from his cup. "Would it be bad if I used your real name?"
The boy looked directly at Jack finally and shrugged his shoulders, "I dunno."
"Okay," Jack sighed, "Would you like it if I used your real name when it's just you and me? Would that be okay?"
The small boy finally lost his battle, and a tear made its way down his cheek to his chin, "Yeah," He replied as he tried to smile.
"Cool," Jack said as he held his hand over the table for his new friend to shake. "Do you have a last name, Robbie? Mine is Page."
"I can't 'emember." He replied as Jack finished his slice and grabbed another from the pan.
"No biggie," Jack smiled.
Once the two boys finished the last of the pizza and cola, Jack used Robbie's communicator to check in with Moran. Once learning that they were still waiting on parts, Jack asked his new friend to show him around. They visited candy shops, stores with clothing, merchants selling mobile tech and weaponry, and even a few that bought and sold items on consignment. Jack enjoyed himself, and talked the small boy into trying on some of the clothing, or trying some of the candy he had bought.
Once they finally made it back to the bay where the ship was, Jack watched as Robbie rushed back to his group and continued watching as he tried to get in line with them when they filed out of the area for the day.
"Looks like we'll be getting a start bright and early tomorrow instead of today," Moran said, startling Jack as the area had become very quiet.
"That's okay," Jack said as Moran offered him a bottle of water, and he opened one of his own.
"Did Seven behave for you?"
"Oh yeah," Jack smiled and took a sip from his bottle. "I like him."
"He's useless," Moran stated simply, surprising Jack.
"Why would you say that?" Jack almost choked out.
"All of those boys are servants. They were bred to be servants from local stock that was born and raised to be servants. Not him. He was born a human resident, and his last owner was happy to be rid of him. He's not motivated, he doesn't serve as he's expected to, and needs to be disciplined way too often." Moran took another sip from his bottle and sat down on a nearby crate. "Can't even rent the little runt out; he cries too much and earns me too many complaints."
"Rent him out?" Jack questioned.
"Well, you might be a little young to know but, some people rent or sell servant stock for pleasure. It's part of how they earn their keep. Except for Seven. I've had to refund the cost to every man ever interested in him." Moran laughed. "The others try to teach him but, he doesn't really get it."
Jack was disgusted at what he was hearing but remembered his talk with Mitchell about Moran and his boys. "He seems like a nice kid, though."
Moran nodded his head and smiled, "That's part of the problem. He's a nice, innocent little kid who had a home once. I may end out having to dump him off somewhere, maybe trade him to someone who can break him. I can't do it."
Jack felt his face getting hot as the man continued to talk about a little boy as if he was livestock, and he didn't care if the culture here made that true. He was so deep in his own thoughts that he didn't realize Moran had asked him a question as he was standing up.
"Yes or no?" Moran paused and asked.
"I'm sorry, what?" Jack snapped out of it. "Was thinking about what I have to get done tonight, sorry.
Moran smiled and shook his head, "I said your ship isn't ready to be lived in yet. Do you want me to book you a room on the station for your stay?"
"That'd be great, thanks," Jack said as he stood up and took a deep breath in hesitation before deciding to just go ahead and ask . "Moran, can I ask a question?"
Moran turned and just nodded his approval.
"Well, while I'm here, I don't really know anyone. It would be nice to have some help sorting through Beck's stuff for things that would be sellable," He nervously got out, not knowing how the question would be taken by the man, "I was wondering if Seven could be a helper. I mean, he and I get along, and you said he's causing you some trouble. Maybe I can teach him some stuff that would make him more useful. I can pay to rent him."
"I don't know, he's a handful, and I have better helpers who would be obedient. If you like, I can loan you Five; he's good with tools and will someday make someone an excellent adult servant. Or maybe 19; he's pretty well socialized. I wouldn't charge you for the use of a helper."
'You mean slave!' Jack thought to himself but continued to force a smile, "Yeah, but they will already be busy with all this work. I like Seven, and he listens to me. I guess I'd just like the company. I miss my brother."
"Oh," Moran nodded, "I can assign him to you if you like then; I didn't think he'd be much of a helper, but you are both human, so I suppose it makes sense. Might be good for him to learn from a boy who works for a living." He said as he reached for his communicator, "Do you want him full time, or would you like me to bed him?"
"Um," Jack replied, stunned that Moran was willing to just loan a boy out, "The company would be cool. He can stay with me."
"Send Seven to bay 15, pack him for about a week off-site." He said into his communicator and smiled, "There, you will have a personal assistant while you are here. Send him back for meals and showers and if you get sick of him, pack him up and drop him here."
Jack thought for a moment before seeing how far he could push, "Cool, but I think I'd like the company for meals. I'll take care of him while I can and only send him back if I need to or if he doesn't want to stay with me."
"Okay, you're the boss," Moran replied as the small boy came in with a sack over his shoulder. "Seven, you are going to be working for Jack for a while. You better be well behaved and do as you are told. Am I clear?"
"Yes, sir." The boy said more to his feet than to Moran.
"Hope you're sure about this. I wouldn't want your boss coming to me with a complaint about me roping you into caring for one of my less useful helpers." Moran said as he turned to leave.
Once he was out of the area, Jack walked over to the small boy and took his sack and set it on the floor, "Robbie, I asked Moran if you could be my assistant while I'm here. I had fun today and really want to spend more time with you. I hope that's okay."
"You wanted me?" The boy asked, once again tearing up but fighting it off bravely, "I'll be really good, I promise!" He continued, "And I'll work real hard, and I won't make no noise or nuthin!"
"You just be you," Jack replied and ruffled the boy's hair. "Let me make one call to my boss, and then we'll go see about getting settled into the room Moran arranges."
"Okay!" Robbie smiled, trying to stand as tall as he could while following Jack onto the ship.
On the bridge, Jack lifted his little helper up into the command seat before going to the main communications console and opening a subspace channel to the main ship.
"How's it working out?" Mitchell's digitally altered voice came over the speaker.
Jack sat down and sighed, "Well, we have a ton of work to do. Moran is having his team going nuts. They're trading for parts, gutting the ship of all of Tiegan's belongings and crap and piling it outside the ship for me to sort through. Testing every circuit, every panel, every system, and cleaning as if they were getting a brand-new ship ready for sale."
"That's what he does." Mitchell's voice replied. "He is used to flipping transports, and since I told him I am adding it to my fleet, that ship will be as good as new when it's done. Do you have a place to stay yet? I'm sure the ship isn't livable right now."
"Not yet; Moran is arranging a room right now," Jack said as he looked back at Robbie, who had a look of awe in his expression as he admired the holographic heads-up display that this newer ship had at the Commander's station in awe. Putting on a headset, Jack cut the speaker and lowered his voice, "I have a personal assistant right now, and I was hoping to ask your advice."
"One of Moran's boys?"
"Yeah," Jack answered at just about a whisper, "The small human he brought aboard the ship when we needed the work done to the cargo bay on our ship a couple of years back. He says the kid is no good as a helper but, I like him. I thought if the boy could learn some stuff from me, maybe Moran would change his mind about him; Moran talked about dumping him off somewhere and called him useless. He loaned him to me as a helper when I asked but tried to talk me out of it. I want to try to teach the the little guy some stuff that might change Moran's mind about him. Do you think that would help the kid's situation?"
"I'm sure it would but, here's an interesting thought; have you considered buying the boy? I mean if he's trainable, it might make doing separate runs a little less solitary and, if you get along well, that would make me feel a little better knowing that you aren't all alone in a huge tin can. You know, talking to yourself and losing your mind."
Jack scratched his head and stared blankly at the communications status display. "I never considered it. He's a boy, not a pet. I don't know if that would be right."
"Well, I believe you should evaluate the child's potential, and if you feel he is worth putting the training into, we can consider buying the boy's freedom. I will leave that decision up to you. He will be your responsibility as your trainee if you decide to go that route. It also means I am authorizing you to make that purchase so, you will discuss this with Moran and make the arrangements if you decide it would be best."
Looking back over his shoulder at the boy, he saw wonder in the boy's eyes and, for the first time, a genuine smile as he adjusted the display to show him the surrounding star systems. "Okay, I'll think about it while we get the work done. If it works out well, I'll discuss it with Moran and see if I can bargain with him."
"No bargaining. If the boy is for sale, ask him his price. Moran is an associate; he will give you the price he would offer me. Whatever he quotes, I approve." Mitchell paused for a moment, and when Jack didn't say anything, continued, "If this purchase happens, we will need to alter your schedule to include a trip to Outpost 10 to get the boy checked out by the Doc. It's not urgent; I know Moran takes good care of his property, but for safety I'd like him to get a tracker and a clean bill of health. The sooner, the better."
"Understood," Jack shook his head in disbelief, "I'll report in when everything is done, and I am ready to depart. Thanks, Mitchell. Oh, say hi to Merit for me."
"Will do, Mitchell out."
Putting the headset down, Jack swiveled in his seat and watched the small boy entertain himself for a minute or two. "You ever travel to any of those stars, Robbie?"
The boy looked over at Jack and shook his head no.
"Maybe we can fix that someday." Jack smiled. Picking up the boy's sack of belongings, Jack motioned for them to leave, "Let's go find out where our room is."
About an hour later, Jack and Robbie opened the hatch to the rented domicile. It was a single bed, with a kitchen area, a small washroom and a communication/entertainment vidscreen. "This works." Jack sighed as they entered the room and allowed the hatch to close. He watched as Robbie grabbed his sack and went to a corner behind one of the room's chairs and tossed his sack of clothes behind it, and began to curl up on the floor, using it as a pillow. "What are you doing?"
"Not this corner?" The boy asked as he quickly went to stand back up. "I'm sorry, should I go under the bed?"
"What?!?" Jack gasped, "No, you aren't sleeping on the floor. There's plenty of room in the bed for both of us."
Robbie looked at the bed and then back at Jack, "Oh, okay." He said, getting quieter as he spoke. "I should wash."
"A shower would feel good." Jack smiled, "You okay to shower and brush your teeth on your own in there?"
"Yes." The small boy replied as Jack went into the washroom and looked around.
"Cool," Jack said as he turned on and checked the water, "You first, and then after I get cleaned up, we should crash. We have a ton of work to do tomorrow."
After his shower, Jack came out of the washroom wearing just his boxer briefs and smiled as Robbie was still wide awake and in the bed waiting for him. "You comfortable?' Jack asked as he pulled the bedding back on his half of the bed and sat down.
"Yeah," Robbie said and swallowed hard, "I'm ready."
Jack turned and looked at the small boy and realized the child was frightened. "Ready?" He questioned, "Ready for what?"
"Ready for you," Robbie said just over a whisper.
Not believing what he was hearing, Jack lifted up the blankets and saw that the little boy was completely naked and shivering in fear. He put the blankets back down and just looked at the boy with his mouth hanging open. "Robbie, you aren't here for that kind of stuff. You're here with me as a friend. I don't know what you expected, but I promise, we're only here to sleep."
"Sleep?" Robbie seemed to relax a little, "Just sleep?"
"Yeah," Jack replied, reaching over and straightening the small child's long blond hair as it was covering his eyes, "Look, I don't know what other people expect from you, but I just want to be your friend. If I can, I'd like to teach you some stuff about ships and space and maybe even go out and get another pizza."
"Really?" Robbie sat up and smiled wide. "No bed stuff?"
"No, " Jack took a deep breath, trying to digest what the little boy was implying, "unless you mean sleep. You are here as my friend, not as whatever it is that you normally have to do in bed with...whoever. Okay?"
"Okay," Robbie smiled, and he reached over and hugged Jack tight before snuggling back into his pillow.
"Do you want to put something on?" Jack asked with a smile, amused at how quickly the boy just relaxed.
"Do I gotta get back up?" The boy asked with a grin. "It's warm!"
"No, you don't gotta do nuthin." Jack giggled, mimicking the boy's cute way of talking. He shrugged his shoulders, turned out the lights and climbed into the bed. "Nite, little guy."
"Nite Jack," The smaller boy replied before snuggling up to Jack's side and relaxing completely.
The next day, Moran was surprised to see the small boy sitting on the floor in engineering with a bunch of tools spread out on the floor. Thinking the boy was alone, he stormed up and smacked the boy in the back of the head. "What are you thinking, making a mess like this. These aren't your tools!" Moran shouted.
"No, they're mine," Jack raised his voice as he slid out from beneath the injector assembly housing. "Do you always hit him before finding out what he's actually doing?" He shot.
"No, you're right. I apologize." The man answered. "How does he know what he's grabbing? The boy doesn't know tools."
"No, but he knows numbers," Jack said as he handed the boy a screwdriver with the number 4 written on it. "I need a 5/8-inch socket, so I need the clicky wrench with a 12 on it." He said, and Robbie grabbed the socket wrench, and picked up the correct socket and attached it before handing it to Jack with a huge smile.
"I'll be damned." Moran scratched his head as he looked at the rest of the tools and saw they all had numbers written on them. "How long did that take to come up with?"
"It's how I was taught," Jack replied as his head disappeared back under the housing. "For a guy who made lots of horrible decisions, my dad was really good when it came to teaching me what I needed to know," he said as he reached out and handed the socket wrench back, "not always the easy way but, I got schooling." He said, watching Robbie put the tool back. "Okay, I need a number 3 and the clicky wrench with the gauge in it with a 16 socket on it."
As the boy handed Jack the tools Jack asked for, Moran crossed his arms and watched. "Well, we're still waiting on coolant and the tanker to dispose of the waste material. The group is sterilizing everything in the living quarters and in the galley. Unless you want anything different, I can load you up with the same order Mitchell just got for the other ship."
"That sounds good, thanks!" Jack replied as he handed the tools back out and climbed out from beneath the housing. "Robbie, could you grab me a rag, please?"
"Here." The boy rushed and handed the one he had ready to him.
"Thanks," Jack smiled. "I should have all of the blown injectors replaced in a couple of hours. Then I'll need to do an alignment sweep and fine-tune the assembly."
"He told you his birth name?" Moran asked, ignoring what Jack had said regarding his progress.
"I asked," Jack said as he wiped the soot off of his face and hands. "I hope that's not a problem. I'm not used to calling another person by a number. If he said he didn't have a real name, I probably would have just given him a nickname." Jack smiled.
"No, no problem. Just unusual." Moran smiled. "Seven, could I speak with Jack for a moment?" He paused as the boy looked over at Jack. "Alone, please?"
"Yes, sir." Robbie frowned and left engineering.
"What's wrong?" Jack questioned as he walked over to the engineering console and sat down.
"The boy remembered his birth name?" Moran shook his head as he took one of the other open seats. "His last owner obtained him when the boy's parents were killed in an accident. He was extremely young and refused to tell anyone what his name was. Eventually, he just got an assignment, and of all the humans I've seen converted, he just accepted it. I always assumed he didn't remember it."
"Maybe he made the name up?" Jack offered.
"No, I have his papers. His name actually is Robbie, well Robert, but he obviously does remember." Moran smiled. "You actually have him working. That's some talent you have there with the younger ones. If you weren't already working for Mitchell, I would offer you a job schooling the little ones."
"Yeah, I'm sure Mitchell wouldn't be thrilled about that." Jack laughed.
"Very true." Moran said as he turned for the hatch, "I'll send the boy back in. Is there anything you need?"
Jack looked around at the tools and the dormant equipment and shrugged his shoulders, "Something to drink, maybe?"
"Done." The man said, and a moment later, Robbie rushed back into the section.
"You ready to get back to work?' Jack asked and laughed when the boy enthusiastically shook his head.
On the third day of work, all the teams were running final tests on the ship's systems. Inside and out, it looked as if the ship had never logged a single hour in space. Jack spent some time and money outfitting the ship with similar equipment as the other ship, including a virtual firing range, fitness gym, and converting one of the living quarters into a library that could double as a virtual classroom. As the last of the crews exited the ship, Jack was left in the open bay just watching with Robbie sitting at his feet, playing with one of the broken injector housings.
"You sure you don't want a permanent job as an engineer? People would kill to have that kind of service." Moran smiled. "We finished a day early because of the work you did yourself. I hope Mitchell knows how lucky he is to have someone like you on his team."
"He does; I keep telling him," Jack laughed. "Moran, before I start to pack it up, could we talk?"
"Sure," The man said with curiosity in his voice, "Want to go into my office?"
"That'd be great." He replied, and looked down at Robbie, "I'll be right back and then we can go pack up the room."
"Okay," the boy said, and he took a sad long deep breath as he continued to play with the spent piece of equipment.
In the office, Moran sat behind his desk, and Jack sat in one of the chairs. Moran put a few things away and then simply sat back in his chair and smiled. "I've enjoyed working with you. Your boss is good to us, and his boys are usually courteous, but you are different. You have been a welcomed guest and an inspiration to our boys who want to become engineers and mechanics and such. I hope we get to work together again."
"So do I; this has been amazing." Jack smiled, "Moran, I'd like to ask you something, and I'm not sure how you will take this."
Moran shrugged his shoulders and grinned, "Then just ask."
"It's about Robbie, actually," Jack began.
"Oh, about that. You spent a lot of effort reaching out to him. I'd like to thank you for that by cutting some of the costs of labor for this job." He said as he scurried to get the actual records together.
"No, it was my choice to spend time with the kid, and I really enjoyed doing it," Jack began, "You see, this was a great start for him but, there's still so much more that should be done for him." Jack paused and tried to get a gauge on Moran's expression. "If you were to sell Robbie, what would you consider fair?"
Moran tilted his head, obviously being taken off guard by the question. "Oh...um...well," he said and scratched his head. "Have you spoken to Mitchell about this already?"
"Yeah," Jack replied. "I'm traveling alone now and really enjoyed his company. I'd love to teach him all I know and be a big brother to him. Besides, Mitchell thinks that if it means that much to me then he wanted me to talk to you about him. Especially since he's not doing the job, you expected from him."
Moran woke up his computer and tapped away for a moment. "As property, I had considered trying to sell the boy since he wasn't bringing anything in. As a rent, he has been difficult, and even though it was nice having a full-blooded human child in the mix, the other rents were beginning to resent him for not carrying his weight." Moran continued speaking as he searched through his files, "I won't ask you for what I would have tried to sell him for to a herder because I owe your boss a world of gratitude for the work he brings and sends our way."
"I don't think Mitchell would want you to short yourself because you are thankful. He knows you are, and it goes both ways." The boy smiled.
"All the same," Moran smiled, "you will be taking an expense off my plate. He was a wager that my records show was for 400 credits. I break even at that amount for initially obtaining him, and that would be fine with me."
Jack tapped his chin and thought about Mitchell's comment. 'No Bargaining' he had said, but he knew he meant to not try to talk the man down because he's an associate. "Okay, out of curiosity, if you were to sell him to someone else, what would you make?"
"That's different," Moran tried to dismiss the question, realizing Jack wasn't going to let him off the hook as he just raised his eyebrows and waited. "I would double the worth to make back some of my losses. But not if you want to purchase the boy." The man said as Jack simply smiled at him.
"Moran, could I make a subspace call from here really quick to just clear the 400 credits to be added to the bill?" Jack smiled with an alternative plan forming in his head.
"Absolutely," Moran smiled and initiated the call.
"This is Mitchell."
"Hi Mitchell, it's Jack with Moran in his office. I wanted to clear the added expense of the purchase of the human child," He paused and looked at Moran, "Do your records have a last name on him?"
"Um..." Moran scurried, "Turner, Robert Adam." He read off the screen.
Jack smiled and nodded, "So, he offered to sell the boy to us for 400 credits."
There was silence on the other end for a moment before the speaker came alive with the altered voice of his boss, "Really? That's a little low for a human child, isn't it?"
"That's what I thought," Jack smiled as Moran rubbed his temples. "He could get 800 from a... I forget what he called them."
"Herder is the term. They buy, sell, and trade children of all races on the black market." Mitchell offered.
"Well, it didn't sound fair to me, so I wanted to meet him halfway maybe, cause he did help us out a lot with the ship. It looks brand new now." Jack gushed.
"I don't doubt that," Mitchell replied, "Reconditioning ships is a bit of a specialty of his."
"I was thinking, 600 credits, so he's at least getting back some of what had been invested." Jack folded his arms.
"That is not necessary." Moran protested.
"No, it's not." Mitchell agreed, "You should not sell your property at a loss, especially since you over-extend yourself every single time I bring in a new job. I will pay 800 credits for the child since the kid here is so invested. It's not such a huge amount and worth it since you have just in three days made it possible for me to double my productivity when the work is available."
"You are negotiating up?" Moran shook his head and laughed.
"I thank you for being such a loyal friend and an asset. So yes, 800 credits on the final bill please; or should we make it 900?" Mitchell said with a laugh. "I'd be willing to consider 1000."
"No, no, no! I'll bill you 800 and hand the boy's papers to your young Commander here as the new owner." Moran shook his head and started tapping away at his keyboard.
"Thanks, Mitchell. I wanted to make sure you knew what Moran was trying to do here." Jack said with a grin.
"It was a good call, Commander. As I've said before, you have absolutely proven yourself to me. Now get your shit and your new assistant and shove off. I'll transmit your orders. Good work, by the way." He laughed as the channel closed.
Moran handed an envelope to Jack and simply shook his head. "I'm really not sure what to say about this."
"You're welcome," Jack giggled. "Now I gotta go get my new assistant, get some clothes and gear for him and then take that ship out and see what it can do."
"Oh, I'd love to be aboard for that," Moran smiled, "If there are any troubles, you come right back."
"Will do," Jack shook the man's hand. "I'll be disembarking in about three hours. If you need the bay, could you have one of your guys dock the ship?"
"Actually, the ship will be on level 2, bay 8. That'll make your departure easier." Moran said as he stood, "Our transport is out, so the bay is open."
"Thanks again Moran, I can't wait to come back," Jack said as he left the office.
Waving to Robbie, Jack led the boy back to the room the two had been sharing. Jack watched as the small boy wordlessly went about the task of gathering his belongings. When he noticed the boy quickly wipe a tear away, he knew he just had to say something. "Robbie, I think we should talk."
"Okay," The small boy replied, putting his bag down and sitting cross-legged on the floor next to it.
Taking a deep breath, Jack nodded his head and smiled. "Look, I've really liked working with you the past couple of days. It's been really fun," Jack said, getting a nod from the small boy, as he continued to stare at the floor in front of himself. "I kinda don't want to leave you behind, you know?"
"Yeah," Robbie sniffled, still not looking up.
With a grin, Jack pulled the envelope out of his pocket and took the papers it was holding out, and unfolded them, "Do you know what these are, Robbie?"
Looking up for a second, Robbie sniffled again and simply said, "No."
"They're papers that say if you want, you can go with me on my ship." Jack paused and waited a few seconds for what he just said to be understood. When Robbie looked up at him in disbelief, he added, "Would that be, okay? I mean, would you want to..." He got out as Robbie quickly stood up and rushed the boy, wrapping him in a tight hug, "So you'd like to go with me then?"
"Please, Jack, can I?" Robbie cried, confirming that he had made the right decision.
"I'd like that," Jack replied, returning the boy's hug. "I mean, I need a crew and, you are one of the best I've ever worked with."
Letting Robbie have a good cry, Jack finally told his new crewmate that there was a lot they needed to do before leaving the station. Mainly, he needed to make sure that the boy had everything he needed. "You up for doing a little shopping before we leave?"
"Okay." The boy smiled finally and they brought the bags to the door to be delivered to the ship once it was docked.
After two hours of shopping to buy the boy new clothes, outerwear, cosmetics, and a few treats and toys, Jack was on the bridge doing his final run down. Once everything checked out, the ship broke from its bay and maneuvered like a dream. He waited until they were clear of the stations regulated space before he checked his orders. He was to make way to Doc Dion first, have the new kid checked out and have his tracking chip installed, and then he was to pick up the first shipment of dry goods that had been ordered by a nearby colony that Mitchell had been hired to deliver. It was at that point that he needed to prepare his new traveling companion.
After setting the auto pilot, Jack turned in his seat and faced a smiling little blond kid sitting at the weapons station. "Okay, we need to talk." Jack started, giving Robbie a worried look.
"Am I in trouble?" The boy asked, his blue eyes wide as saucers.
"No, not at all." Jack laughed. "You've never made the jump to light speed before, have you?"
"No." Robbie whispered as he shook his head. "Is that bad?"
Jack screwed up his face and then smiled, "No, but everyone reacts differently their first couple of times." He continued as he hopped out of the Commander's seat and knelt down in front of the boy. "Okay, there's no real good way to describe it," He thought for a moment, "Have you ever slid down an air shaft, just for fun?"
"Yeah, lotsa times." Robbie smiled.
"Well, it's like that only, pretend that the whole way, your feet are going faster than your head. They get to the bottom way before the rest of you and in a flash, your head speeds up and catches up. It doesn't hurt. But it really messes up your head for a few seconds if you aren't used to it." Jack said and laughed at the baffled look on the boy's face. "See the ship feels like it stretches out and everything inside stretches out with it, including us. Then when it's over, the back end catches up and in a flash, everything is normal again, like an elastic band that you stretch out and then suddenly let go of one end, letting it snap back."
Robbie looked like he was already turning green when Jack stood up. "Is it scary?"
Jack thought for a moment and then nodded his head, "At first, when you don't know what to expect, yeah, maybe a little. Then when we drop out of FTL, it feels like you are being pulled back up the shaft; it's the same thing in reverse. After you get used to it, it just isn't a big deal anymore," Jack motioned for Robbie to sit in the seat at Navigation and strapped the boy in. Then after thinking for a moment, he went to the first aid station and pulled out an envelope which opened up into a medium-sized bag, and he put it in the boy's hand.
"What I do with this?" Robbie asked, looking up at Jack.
"That's in case you can't stomach it at first," Jack said as he ruffled the boy's hair.
"I might barf?" Robbie asked as Jack hopped back into the command chair and giggled.
"I hope not." Jack replied as he entered the coordinates, "Do you want a count down, or should I just do it?"
"Um..." Robbie got nervous, "Count down...no! Just do...maybe...um...if you..." He raced to get out as Jack shrugged his shoulders and initiated the jump to light speed, cutting the boy off.
The moment the jump had been made, Robbie turned in his seat and smiled weakly at Jack, giving a thumbs up, then turned green and promptly heaved into the bag.
"That was cheap." Robbie groaned when his stomach stopped retching, feeling much better very quickly.
"You do get used to it; I promise." He said as he went over his readouts. "The ship is doing amazing." He beamed as Robbie sat in his chair and held on to the straps that held him in. "You can walk around normally now. We're gonna be running FTL for a couple of days now."
"Testing out his legs, the boy slowly made his way to a refuse disposal to get rid of his bag, then he walked over to the main viewport and looked outside in awe. "It's pretty!" Robbie almost squealed as he watched the streaks of light all around the ship give off different colors as the light from distant stars was being warped as a result of the ship's speed.
"Yeah, it really is." Jack agreed as he set navigation to autopilot and hopped down to join the boy. "Did you ever think you'd have the chance to see all this from the bridge of a ship?"
"No way!" The boy said in awe before looking at the command chair and back at Jack, "Who's drivin'?"
"The ship can drive itself after you tell it where you're going." Jack smiled.
"Wow," Robbie smiled and looked back at the stars, "I din'ent know it was smart."
Later that evening, after the boys grabbed something to eat, Jack sent Robbie to his quarters as he checked the bridge. He knew if anything more than a minor correction needed to be made, the computer would set off an alarm that was loud enough to wake the dead in the cold of space but, he wanted to double-check that all the repairs and adjustments were working as planned. Once he had taken a moment to make a couple of small adjustments, he went back to the quarters that Robbie was assigned to.
"Can I come in?" Jack asked through the opened hatch.
"Yeah," Robbie responded as he was sitting on his bunk playing with a toy model of a similar ship to what they were currently manning.
"So, you know where my quarters are, and I'll keep my hatch closed but not locked; you should always keep your hatch closed."
"Why?" Robbie asked, tilting his head.
"It's a safety feature of the ship," Jack replied.
"For what?" Robbie asked again with a grin.
"Well," Jack thought for a moment, "So, imagine there is an external hatch that loses its seal for whatever reason. If your hatch is closed, your quarters will be isolated from the drop in pressure. It'll keep you safe until the outer hatch can be recycled and the corridor repressurized."
"Have you ever seen that happen?" The boy asked seriously.
"Nope," Jack smiled, "But someone told me it's better to be safe than sorry and out in space. That's always the best way to go." Jack smiled and watched as the small boy pulled his shirt off over his head. "You gonna be comfortable?"
Robbie's tongue poked out the side of his mouth as he pulled off each of his new sneakers and socks. "Can you sleep in here wit me?"
"No," Jack sighed, "I have to sleep in my quarters. If the ship needs me, I can access the command from the console in there." He said as the boy looked around the room, making him remember how happy he was to have been sharing bunks with Merit when he first came aboard. "Tell you what, You can sleep in the captain's quarters with me. How's that?"
"Really?" Robbie smiled wide as Jack came over to his bunk, waited until he had stripped down to his underwear, and grabbed a stuffed animal he had picked out at one of the shops.
"Ready?" Jack asked, and when the boy nodded, Jack sat on the bunk, "Hop on, piggyback." Robbie wrapped his arms and legs around his new protector and Jack carried him to his quarters.
Setting the boy down on the much bigger bed, Robbie was in awe of the room. "You get ta sleep in here?"
"Have to." Jack smiled as he brought up the display to show the boy, "The ship can pilot itself and can steer to avoid stuff that might get in the way but, sometimes the computer isn't sure what it should do, so it would wake me up to ask."
"How's it do that?" Robbie asked as Jack was pulling off his shirt.
"By sounding an alarm," Jack said as he sat down in the chair at the desk and began taking off his sneakers.
"Is it loud?" Robbie asked, and jumped when Jack triggered the alert and two short blasts of the klaxon could be heard throughout the ship. "Wow." The boy said as he looked around the room.
"Loud enough," Jack grinned as he finished undressing and pulled the blankets back so they both could climb in.
"Thank you, Jack." Robbie almost sang as the boy hopped in with Jack right behind him.
"Nite, little guy," Jack said, kissing the small boy on the back of his head and saying a small prayer that he would always be safe from now on.
The next morning, it took Jack a few minutes to remember that he had many new responsibilities, and one of them was attached to him like a smaller ship docked with a larger one. He enjoyed the warmth the boy was giving off a little longer before carefully slipping out of his grip and quietly climbing out of bed without waking the boy. That done, he pulled his pants on and sat down at his new desk to put his socks and shoes on, checking the ship's condition briefly as he sat there. Once he was happy that all was well, he pulled on a shirt and quietly left the quarters to head to the galley to grab some breakfast. Then he went to the bridge and began doing a check of all systems.
An hour had passed when Robbie finally stumbled onto the bridge, still only dressed in his underwear with his teddy bear in a headlock. "Morning Robbie," Jack smiled as the boy stepped up next to the command chair and looked up at Jack, "You sleep okay?"
"Yeah," Robbie said as he rubbed his eyes, "I thought I was dreamin' I was here 'til I woke up."
"It's no dream, you really are here," Jack giggled, "and you really are half-naked, Aren't you cold?"
"No," Robbie yawned, "The station is always cold; this ain't too bad. Do I gotta get dressed?"
"I guess not," Jack shrugged and smiled, "Do you want to go down to the galley and grab your breakfast? I left a meal in the warmer for when you woke up, and there's plenty of juice in the cooler."
"Okay," Robbie said as he sleepily stumbled for the hatch.
"You okay grabbing breakfast on your own?" Jack asked as the boy paused before closing the hatch and giving a thumbs up, then closing the hatch. "Alright then," he laughed before bringing up communications and calling up Doc Dion.
"You have reached Dr. Charles Dion's office; how can I help you?" A woman's voice on the other end droned.
"My name is Jack Page; I'm a patient of Doc's, and I am transporting a new patient for him to see. I wanted to confirm my arrival in just under 48 hours and to find out if there is anything I need to do to prepare his new patient for his first visit." Jack said, trying to be as official sounding as he could.
"One moment, and I will see if the doctor is free to speak with you," The woman dryly replied and placed the call on hold.
A few minutes later, Jack was startled as a voice suddenly broke the silence, "This is Charles Dion; how can I help you?"
"Hi Doc, it's Jack Page, Mitchell's youngest." Jack smiled.
"Jack! I've been told that you are commanding your own ship now. What are you now, 13?" The man almost bubbled. "Very impressive."
"I am Doc, and no one could be more surprised either," Jack laughed. "Doc, I was calling because of the new boy that I kinda adopted. He's human, and looks like he was pretty well taken care of. I just wanted to know if there were any special instructions I need to follow before we get there, like no food or stuff,"
"No, nothing like that." The man replied, "Just a quick physical assessment to get started, and we'll put his tracker in for protection. Is he complaining of any issues, or is there anything that you are concerned about?"
"Not really Doc," Jack answered as he thought, "He looks pretty healthy, his schooling is a little behind but I already planned to have him start holo classes like I used to take."
"Good man," Doc replied, "While I'm aboard, I'll be checking on you both so, be ready for a physical yourself."
Jack sighed, "Oh yay." He said sarcastically, getting a laugh from the doctor.
"I'll give both of you a lollipop if you're good."
"It better be a red one this time, or I bite the thermometer again." Jack laughed. "I'll be ready, Doc, thanks."
"Great, looking forward to seeing you, travel safe. Dion out."
As Jack sat back in the command chair, a blip on his display caught his eye, "Hmmm..." He hummed as he watched for it again; seeing it barely register once more, Jack strapped into his seat and hit the intercom. "Robbie, the ride may get a little bumpy for a few minutes. Strap in, okay?" Jack said and waited for the boy to reply.
"Okay, I did like you showed me." Robbie proclaimed proudly while Jack noted the position of the blip again, confirming it was closing on their position and attempting to conceal its presence in the ship's exhaust wake.
"Good man, hold on to your breakfast," Jack said as he quickly increased their speed, the newly serviced FTL drive performing as he had never experienced. "Now you see me..." He mumbled as the object on the scanner struggled to keep up, "Now you don't." He said as he dropped out of FTL for a split second, and the object overshot their location. Once the ship jumped again, he was now trailing the object, and able to see that it was a small scout class ship, so he quickly targeted it.
"Unidentified Scout Class Vessel, Identify yourself and explain why you were pursuing my ship. While you are at it, verify that I have a lock on your position and will open fire if your response is not received or if you make any threatening moves. Respond."
"My name is Ryce, Commander of this vessel, and I demand an audience with your Commander, child."
"I am the Commander of this vessel," Jack replied as he watched the smaller ship attempt to change course. A maneuver that was much easier for the newer ship to execute. "I'll ask again, why were you pursuing my ship?"
"Tiegan Beck commands that transport. He owes me money for a shipment I lined up for him. You better tell him that I collect my debts."
Jack shook his head and closed the distance between the two ships, "I will be unable to deliver that message as Beck's boss terminated his employment and reclaimed the ship that you were following. You are familiar with Beck's boss?"
Silence was the only response Jack got before his sensors showed the smaller ship was targeting him. "That was a mistake." Jack simply said and fired on the smaller ship. Not a fully charged photonic torpedo but one at 30% power, enough to disrupt the ship's overtaxed engine and drop him to sublight speed. Jack quickly dropped to sublight and circled back to the now crippled ship. "Next shot won't be intended to disable."
"Okay, okay... I'm standing down." The man replied, and Jack watched as his display showed the other ship's weapon readiness was, in fact, terminating. "If you intend to send your men over, we will fight."
"Stand by Commander Ryce," Jack said as he silenced his end and quickly signaled for Mitchell.
Once relaying to Mitchell that he had just fired on a ship that had been trailing him, Jack simply waited as Mitchell contacted the other ship. While he waited, Robbie came onto the bridge, not looking very happy. "Hey Robbie, strap in at the nav station in case we need to take off quick."
"I barfed in my breakfast," Robbie complained as he sat down and strapped in. "You didn't say nothing bout lightnin speed."
"Sorry buddy, we had someone chasing us," Jack replied, pointing to the other ship they were sitting nose to nose with.
"Are they gonna blow us up?" Robbie gasped.
"No," Jack said as he stared at his display, waiting to make his next move, "they don't have anything on their ship that would do any real damage to us."
"Oh," Robbie replied as he simply sat at the station and watched.
Just then, communications indicated Mitchell wanted Jack to rejoin the channel they were speaking on. "Jack here."
"Well Kid, you have a choice to make here." Mitchell's distorted voice announced, "Commander Ryce apparently was responsible for completing the last delivery Beck had been hired to handle. Evidently, He never paid the Commander for the service. Since he engaged your ship, it's up to you how we handle this."
Jack shook his head and sighed, "Your suggestion?"
"It's simple really, either we make good on Beck's promise to the man, or you open fire and finish the man's ship off. Either way, the debt will be settled. Inform me of your decision once you are back on route to the doctor. Mitchell out."
Hearing the entire conversation, Robbie turned in his seat to face Jack, who was simply tapping the arm of his chair and slowly shaking his head. "Okay, this is how we play this game..." Jack mumbled as he hurriedly tapped away on the command console without another word spoken.
"Commander Ryce, This is what is going to happen..." He got out, taking a very deep breath before looking at Robbie and winking...