"Happy Birthday Jack!" Merit said as he entered their shared quarters with a wrapped gift in his hand.
"You didn't need to get me anything." Jack smiled as he took the gift and they both sat on his bed. "It's really light, what is it?"
"Bonehead. Just open it and find out." Merit laughed as the boy shook the box and examined it. "Or just keep it in the box until you turn 11 and I won't need to buy you anything then. That works too."
Knowing that it drove the older boy nuts, Jack carefully peeled the tape off of the colorful wrapping and painfully slowly opened the paper, smoothing it as he went. After finally removing the paper, keeping it completely intact, he folded it and set it on the bed. He smiled when he looked up at the older boy who simply shook his head and sighed. "You are such a weirdo. You know, that right?"
"Yup." He giggled looking over the plain white box. "So, what is it?"
"A box." Merit laughed. "I thought that much would be obvious ya dork."
Squinting his eyes, Jack grinned and looked at it even more closely. "It's been opened already so, it could be another prank."
"Oh my god!" Merit groaned and laid back on the bed. "Open it ya goof!"
"It's really, really light. Did you buy me air again?" He laughed as Merit swiped the box and ripped it open, exposing a slip of paper with handwriting on it. "You ruined my process."
"Too bad." Merit laughed as he grabbed the paper out of the box and thrust it toward the younger boy. "Read it."
Tilting his head, he unfolded the piece of paper and after reading it twice, squinted his eyes again in question. "The airlock?"
"That's what it says." Merit grinned. "Go find out."
Moments later, the two boys were in the airlock opening the weapons locker. "No way!" Jack gasped as he pulled out a brand new Terran made, Glock 19. "It's just like yours!" he stated in awe as he checked its magazine and cleared the chamber. "Where did you find it?"
Merit smiled as he reached into the locker and produced a custom-made shoulder holster for his undersized companion, grinning when the boy froze and his mouth fell open. "I've been planning this since last year. Mitchell called in a couple of favors for me and had it shipped in from the Sol system directly. The hardest part was getting the measurements to get the holster you wanted without you knowing."
"This is the best Merit, thanks." He said pulling the teen into a tight hug.
"Can't have you carrying that old pea shooter anymore. Just embarrassing being seen in public with you carrying that thing." Merit laughed as Jack adjusted the holster and put his denim jacket on, reaching in and adjusting a couple of times before he looked satisfied. "Not sure why you like the shoulder holster better but, now you have one."
"How do I look?" Jack asked straightening his jacket and letting the butt of the handgun slightly poke out.
"Like a goofy kid with a new toy." He laughed as the smile on Jack's face was replaced with an impatient scowl. "Seriously though, nothing like the little kid we brought aboard last year buddy. Totally badass!"
After drawing the weapon a few times, Jack sighed and stowed the gun, leaving his holster on. "Thanks, Merit, I wish you were my brother."
"What's wrong with you?" Merit laughed as he grabbed the boy in a headlock. "I am your brother you dope."
Just as Merit was securing the inner hatch to the airlock, the intercom came to life. "Gentleman, we will be docking at Station 32 soon. Kid, I believe this is a familiar stop for you."
Jack grinned from ear to ear as he broke out in a run toward the bridge with Merit following at a slower pace.
"I knew that would get your attention." Mitchell laughed as the boy crashed onto the bridge. "How about you and Merit get us docked and then go visit some old friends."
"Do we have business here or is this for my birthday?" Jack asked as he took a seat in command and began preparing the ship's systems to dock.
"Is today your birthday?" Mitchell asked with a smirk aimed more at Merit as the teen walked onto the bridge, "I had no idea."
"Oh," Jack replied, a little deflated as he focused even harder on his display. "Well, it's cool to be here anyway."
Mitchell patted the boy on the head and smiled as Merit took a seat at the nav station and began to busy himself. "I guess I'll have to do something special for you then," He crossed his arms and smiled. "After the ship is secured, I have some business to attend to. Merit, I need you to pay our friend Mr. Souza a visit regarding the shipment he's holding for me. Kid, you get the day off. See me before you leave the ship so I can give you your present." And he turned to leave the bridge.
"Thanks, Mitchell." Jack smiled just before the hatch sealed. "Merit, if you need my help today, I don't mind."
The teen laughed and spun his seat to face the boy, "No way. It's your birthday. Go visit with your old friends and show off your new toy."
After the ship was docked and the bridge secured, Jack stuck with Merit as the teen opened the airlock and retrieved his sidearm from the weapons locker and holstered it. "I'll catch you later on." He said and opened the outer hatch and left the ship. Jack watched as the hatch closed and turned to head to Mitchell's quarters.
"There you are," Mitchell smiled as he sat down at the desk in his office area, "I was just about to page you, have a seat." He said and waited until the boy was seated and paying attention. "You are becoming one hell of an officer kid, I'm impressed."
"Thanks." Jack smiled.
"No thanks needed, this past year you have proven yourself to be responsible and capable. Those two traits are very important in this line of work," Mitchell paused as he finished what he was doing on his terminal then turned to face the boy. "Ten years old right?" He asked getting a smile and nod from Jack. "I've decided to raise your security level aboard the ship to match Merit's. You have proven that we don't need to approve your access to the ship's systems or any part of the computer. You have access to the entire ship now. Let me be clear about one thing though, you are not to enter the cargo area without permission while we are loaded, even in an emergency. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir," Jack said as he puffed up his chest a little.
"Good." Mitchell nodded as he picked up an envelope that was sitting on his desk. "Now, in this envelope is your birthday present. You are not to open it," He said as he handed the envelope to the boy, who looked confused. "I want you to bring this to the person on this station who you consider your best friend. I don't care who that person is as long as it is someone you consider a good friend. And here," he continued, "take some spending cash and enjoy your birthday."
Jack held the envelope in one hand and the wad of cash in the other for a moment before looking at Mitchell with a confused expression. "For my birthday I have to give someone this envelope?"
"Yes." Mitchell simply stated as he turned back toward his terminal and began to type.
Jack giggled and stuffed it and the money in his pocket and stood to leave. "Thanks, Mitchell, for this and just, everything."
"You sir are very welcome. Now beat it, I have work to do." The man laughed as Jack left the room.
Jack stood outside the door and pulled the envelope out of his pocket. It was thick and heavy and well-sealed. After pondering what it might be, he simply gave up on guessing and stuffed it back into his pocket. On his way off the ship, Jack smiled as he loaded and holstered the sidearm Merit had given him. Deciding he didn't want it anymore, he took his father's old revolver and the reloads he had readied and tucked it all into the inner pocket of his jacket, intending to sell it.
The station was busy as it always seemed to be whenever he and his father first arrived. Jack remembered thinking to himself how chaotic it felt being among all these people after spending so much time alone on the ship. But things were different now, people knew him and respected him.
"Hi, Jack." One of the station's workers said as he passed. Which again made him smile. "Always great to see you." He said as he continued to walk past.
It took no thought at all who he wanted to visit first and in no time, the familiar doorway into the darkened cantina came into view.
"Well, look at you!" Tony the bartender exclaimed with a smile, "It's almost beyond belief how tall you're getting."
"Thanks, Tony," Jack beamed as he took a seat at the bar.
"Can I get you something to drink? Maybe some lunch, I have a stew here that rivals the best made back in the Sol system. Food from the homeworld my friend."
Jack smiled wide as he pulled the envelope out of his pocket. "That sounds awesome and yes, I do want to try your stew but first, I need to give you something." He said as he put the envelope down on the bar.
"What's this?" Tony asked as he picked it up and put down his bar rag.
"I don't know," Jack answered honestly. "Mitchell told me for my birthday I was to give that to my best friend," Jack smiled as Tony's face became unreadable. "That's you."
"Really?" Tony said as he suddenly became choked up. "Not sure what to say here."
"Nothing just open it. I wanna know what it is too." Jack laughed.
"Okay then," Tony said as he tore the envelope open and pulled out a very thick stack of cash wrapped in a note. "Oh my..." He said as he looked at the money and read the note outloud.
"Ahem, To whoever finds themselves reading this, you are either a valued friend of the kid's which I am very appreciative of or, you just robbed my associate and will find yourself dead before the end of the day.
"If he has handed this envelope to you of his own free will, then let this serve as my way of saying thank you on his behalf for your friendship. If he handed you this envelope under duress, I hope he let you read the note before putting a bullet in your head, as I know how good of a shot he is. Besides, if he didn't, I promise you his family will.
"Be well and if ever you are in need, I want to know. ~ Mitchell"
Jack rested his elbows on the bar and smiled as Tony simply looked at the stack of money he had set down. "Tony, put that away. I don't want to have to shoot anyone."
"That's too much." Tony sighed as Jack slid the stack closer to his friend.
"No, it's not. It's for my birthday so it's just enough," Jack smiled. "Best present I ever got," He said before remembering the brand-new gun at his side, "Well, it's tied for first place." He giggled.
Tony carefully folded the stack of money before placing it in his pocket. "Lunch is on the house then as my birthday present to you."
"You don't need to give me anything Tony," Jack laughed. "You've always been nice to me, so every visit has been a birthday present."
Tony grabbed a bowl and just smiled, "Well, prepare yourself for the next one."
A few minutes later, Jack sat at the bar with an empty bowl and a huge smile. "That was the best." He sighed, "I need to go there someday."
"Did your dad ever talk to you about where your family comes from?"
Jack screwed up his expression in thought before shaking his head. "Nope. Just that his parents actually lived on Earth all their lives and that we are full-blooded Terrans." He got out as another man stepped up to the bar and sat down, “After I was born, we left, and I guess they never went back.”
"Whiskey and ale," The man grumbled cutting into the conversation, setting a gun on the counter and grinning, "you can pour them right after you take the days earnings and put them right in here." He added as he put a silver bag on the counter.
Knowing the man hadn't even so much as looked at him, Jack slowly unclipped the safety strap on his holster and prepared to draw his weapon. He watched as Tony carefully did as the man requested so as to not set him off. Jack knew that the man couldn't have had much of a plan as the moment he left the cantina, Tony could call the authorities, who would catch up before this guy could get clearance to leave. So, he just carefully watched Tony place the now full bag on the counter and proceed to make the drinks.
Tony nervously set the two glasses on the bar next to the full bag and stepped back with his hands out and open at his sides. "It...it's real whiskey. Not that cynthahol crap."
"Good." The man snarled, then he downed the shot and shuddered as he set the glass down hard. With a smile, he emptied half of his ale and nodded as he set it down as well. He stood up, still ignoring the 10-year-old to his left, and stuffed the bag into his pocket. "Oh, and before you go hitting the panic button..." He said as he quickly picked up his gun, but freezing as the loud crack of Jack's brand new gun made everyone in the room jump. The stunned look on the man's face didn't change as he crashed to the floor.
Tony's eyes got wide as he watched the man drop and looked over just in time to see Jack holster his weapon. "I thought I was about to buy it there." He said with a sigh.
"Not today," Jack said as he approached the would-be robber and pulled the bag of cash back out of the man's pocket, as well as the man's wallet. "You still have surveillance working, right?" He asked as he placed the bag on the counter and opened the wallet.
"I do," Tony replied. "Never much need for it on a base though. How this guy thought he was going to kill someone and just walk out; I have no idea."
As Jack pulled a communicator out of his pocket, he simply shook his head. "Just stupid maybe." He replied. "Mitchell, Jack here."
"Go ahead, kid." The altered voice of Mitchell returned.
"I am at the Cantina where I just downed one, um," he started as he opened the wallet again and looked at the ID inside, "...Timothy R. Miller. Guy was dumb enough to try to take a shot at a friend. Please advise." He finished as he tossed the wallet on the bar.
"Your friend injured?" The voice questioned.
Jack smiled at Tony as he answered, "What do you think?"
"Good boy," the voice replied. "The body will be dealt with by the authorities. Have the proprietor of the Cantina contact them and leave my calling card on the body. Mitchell out."
Tony nodded his head and went to call the station's security as Jack took a card out of his pocket and set it on the body. He then grabbed the wallet off the counter and pulled out enough money to pay for the man's drinks and put the wallet back into the man's pocket. "He almost forgot to pay you," Jack said as he placed the cash next to the bag. "There should be a good size tip there too. He looked like a big tipper to me." He grinned.
Looking a little pale, Tony shook his head and leaned on the counter. "There've been a few failed robbery attempts in the past couple of months on the station. I may need to start carrying a gun again." He sighed before looking at the couple of stunned customers that sat at their tables. "Please, finish your drinks on the house until security gets here. We will need to answer some questions and then we're closing for the day."
"You don't carry a weapon anymore?" Jack questioned as he sat back at the bar.
"No, sold it a few months ago," Tony said as came around to the customer's side of the bar and sat next to Jack. "I haven't needed it in years and really needed the money. Maybe I'll buy one with the money you gave me."
"No, you won't," Jack said as he pulled his father's revolver and the reloads out of his pocket, "You'll take this and keep it on you, and I'll check too. Every time I visit so, you better not sell it."
"I won't I promise." Tony smiled as Jack handed him the weapon. "It's small, easy to conceal, and has gotten me out of a couple of bad situations."
After the authorities came and interviewed the patrons and the owner, the body was removed, and Jack was thanked for his assistance. The last of the customers finished their drinks while Tony began to close up shop. Jack enjoyed one more bowl of stew before he walked with Tony to make sure he made it back to his living assignment safely, stopping at a couple shops along on the way.
"Jack, do you know how long you are here this time?" Tony asked as he used his handprint to open his door.
"Not long, I think we're leaving soon cause I know we're shipping something. That stuff is usually all rush, rush." Jack sighed. "You gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine thanks to you, my friend. I think I'm going to take tomorrow off and stay closed. I'm long overdue for a day off." Tony said as Jack nodded his head in agreement and pulled him into a tight hug.
"Good." Jack smiled as he took a step back. "You know how to reach me if you need to."
"I do," Tony replied. "You be safe, okay?"
"I will," Jack said as he turned to walk away, "You better do the same."
Hearing his friend chuckle in response made Jack happy as always. Now that he was sure everything would be okay, he took some time to visit some of the people and shops that he used to visit when his father was here on 'business'. Although now he was able to spend some money at each visit, which he knew was helping them in return. A few hours later, his communicator chirped.
"Jack here." He said as he turned a corner, heading back toward the ship with a heavy sack over his shoulder.
"Jack, we're loaded and preparing to depart. Time to bring it home bro." Merit's voice echoed in the open corridor.
"I was on my way back already, just be a minute," Jack replied. "I grabbed you some of those jellybeans you like and a really sweet sweatshirt. I knew you wouldn't have time to go out."
"Look at you being the sweet little brother." Merit laughed. "But it's your birthday twirp. You were supposed to buy stuff for yourself today."
Jack looked at his communicator and shook his head, "No, I was supposed to buy stuff that made me happy. That's what I did."
"I really don't know about you. Anyway, get your skinny little ass back here. Mitchell is already prepping to leave."
"On my way, Jack out," Jack said stopping to look out at the view of space from an observation area he was about to pass. This place still felt like home, even though it reminded him of the days when his father would send him off into the station alone for hours at a time. He imagined his younger self just staring out into space imagining all kinds of adventures. He smiled knowing that he was finally on an adventure of his own and began to jog back to the ship.
After stowing his weapon and securing the airlock, Jack took his heavy sack and made his way to the bridge. "Hey guys!" He smiled as he saw both hard at work.
"There you are kid," Mitchell nodded as he turned in the command chair and smiled. "You enjoying your day off?"
"The whole day?" Jack questioned. "I thought I was going back to work when we left."
"No, you are going to do whatever you want for the day. I'd take some time to rest up though. You will be taking the night shift since we have a rush delivery to make." Mitchell watched as Jack's eyes opened wide when he realized what Mitchell was implying.
"Alone?" He gasped, "I'm doing the overnight alone?"
"Unless you don't think you're ready," Mitchell laughed, "Why do you think you needed a higher security clearance in the system? So you could play games on the bridge?"
"Oh wow," Jack said as he sat at the weapons console and scratched his head. "I'm ready." He said looking lost in thought.
"Good, now beat it. The rest of us have work to do." Mitchell said turning to look at the display.
"Yes sir." Jack smiled and reached to pick up his sack, "Oh before I forget..." He said opening the drawstring and pulling out a bottle. "Tony had a bottle of that alcohol you like from Earth. I remembered you said you needed to get more so I bought the one he had."
"Really?" Mitchell tilted his head and smiled. "That was thoughtful, thank you." He added, reaching for the bottle and smiling as he looked at its label. "Nothing like a good bourbon to warm you up in the cold of space."
Merit turned in his chair and laughed, "Did you buy anything for yourself while you were out? I mean. That was kinda what you were supposed to be doing today."
"Yup. I got new sneakers and a ton of candy!" Jack grinned picking up the sack and throwing it over his shoulder. "I'll be in our quarters."
Deciding that he needed to take a nap before he would be expected to take over his very first night shift alone, he swept the candy wrappers off of his bed and curled up, hugging his pillow. He wasn't sure how long he had been asleep when the room shook violently, throwing him to the floor. "What the hell!?!" he moaned as he rubbed the side of his face that had hit the floor before the rest of his body. As he tried to get to his feet, the ship lurched again, tossing him to the other side of the room.
"Bridge to Jack..." Merit's voice shouted.
Rushing to the intercom, he held onto the wall and pressed the button to reply, "Merit, what happened?"
"Uncharted debris field, we got hammered pretty badly. You okay back there?"
"Yeah. I think the inertial compensation units are offline though. Felt like we flew into a planet." Jack said as the ship lurched again. "Are we damaged?"
"Yes." Mitchell's voice took over, "Jack I need to trust you to do something EXACTLY as I say. I need you to go into the cargo hold and override the security protocol that's used in the event of possible structural failure. The bay doors took what looks like a severe hit. We aren't venting atmosphere, but our sensors are registering a compromised seal. If the main computer reasons the possibility of structural failure, it will power down everything in the section and decompress."
"To reduce damage," Jack replied, "If a door seal blows out, it could take a chunk of the ship with it."
"Look, I need you to physically bypass the integrity sensors in the hatch. We are rushing to get to the nearest system for help, but I can't take the risk of losing the cargo. The hatch will hold."
"Understood." Jack reluctantly replied as he began to look for his sneakers in the mess that was now all over the room.
"Kid, you are to bypass those sensors and stay away from the cargo. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes sir," Jack responded as he hopped on one foot trying to get his sneaker on.
"I'm not kidding Kid, get in and get out. Stay away from the shipment."
"I got it." Jack shook his head and opened the hatch to leave the room. Once reaching the lower deck, Jack tapped at the display outside of the cargo bay and verified that the atmosphere was safe before opening the hatch. He had never seen the inside of the room when they were loaded so it shocked him how little space was left over with the enormous metal container in the center of the area. Rushing to the hatch he got right to work bypassing the sensors that monitored the doors. He knew it was a risk doing this as a controlled decompression would do so much less damage than a hatch seal blowing out but, also knew that Mitchell has always been exceptionally protective of the shipments they handled.
It took about 20 minutes before Jack finished his work and began to pack up his tools. It had been a while since the last noticeable impact to the ship could be felt so it was quiet in the large area, allowing Jack to hear a noise that sounded like a warning signal. Jack took a deep breath and walked over to the shipping container and looked at its display panel. "Sealed, atmosphere-controlled environment." Jack read aloud. "No wonder he's afraid of a power down, we're shipping animals." He said as he reset the alarm and recalibrated its damage control system now that it was no longer taking a pounding. "Should be fine now." He said as he turned and left the cargo bay.
In the corridor, Jack activated the intercom and sighed. "Mitchell, the door's sensors are bypassed so the cargo bay isn't going to decompress on its own. We need repairs badly though."
"Understood, we are going to have to drop our shipment before we stop for repairs so, it just has to hold for now."
"About that," Jack swallowed hard, "The container was signaling an alert, so I reset it. Its environmental systems got knocked offline. I know you said..."
"I said stay the fuck away from the cargo!" Mitchell barked. "Am I speaking just to hear my own voice?"
Jack's eyes opened wide, "No sir. But it was an audible alert. I figured if we are shipping animals or something, we shouldn't take the risk of them being suffocated. I'm sorry. I was only trying to help."
The silence coming from the speaker made the boy nervous as he had yet to upset Mitchell and knew that was something you just never wanted to do.
"Those containers can be dangerous. You got really lucky. Do not disobey me again, do I make myself 100% clear Mister Page?"
"Y-yes sir." Jack stuttered as Mitchell never used his name, much less his last name. It actually startled him to hear him speak it. "It won't happen again sir."
"Damn right it won't. Now return to your quarters. Consider this a warning."
Jack turned off the intercom and began to tear up as he slowly made his way back to his quarters. Mitchell was mad at him. When his father was mad, it meant a beating was coming after he had drunk enough alcohol. Even though Mitchell never laid a hand on him, he knew people feared him for a reason.
Hours later, Jack's alarm went off to wake him. He was a little less excited to be working his first overnight solo shift following his earlier screw-up. He gathered his clothes and went down the hall to take a shower and brush his teeth. Then he went down to the galley to grab something to eat, as he knew it was going to be a long night. Finally, he found himself standing outside of the hatch leading onto the bridge. After taking a couple of long deep breaths, he opened the hatch and nodded when Merit, who was at the science station looked at him and smiled.
"There you are." Mitchell said as he rubbed his eyes. "A little early too, good job."
"Yes sir," Jack responded, "About earlier, I wanted..."
"Let it go." Mitchell cut him off. "When I give you an order, it's typically for your own safety and I expect it to be obeyed. This is the first time in over a year that you have ever disobeyed me, and I do understand that there was a valid reason for you to take action. Even that is something I can appreciate." He stretched in the command chair and then stood up, "For future reference, if you ever find yourself in a position to interact with a live shipment again, you notify me and leave the area. Even if it means the cargo's life support fails. It is THAT important that you stay away from the live cargo we ship. Okay?"
"Yes sir." Jack tried to smile, "I am sorry sir."
"I know you are." Mitchell ruffled the boy's hair. "Merit, you ready to leave our safety in the hands of your trainee?"
"Yup!" Merit smiled. "Looking forward to having our quarters to myself for a while," He laughed as he stood up from his position and stretched a little.
"Okay then, Merit you are relieved. Kid, you have the bridge. No racing freighters, No buzzing mining colonies, and for god's sake, no detours." He laughed when Jack finally smiled.
The moment the hatch closed, Jack looked around the bridge and sighed. 'This isn't the same as when my father HAD to let me take control.' he thought to himself. He was really being trusted; a fact that made him smile. Climbing back into the command chair, he double-checked their course heading, went over the ship's systems to be sure everything was as it should be and then he began systematically cycling through each station watching for trouble both in their path as well as from within. The night passed with only minor corrections needing to be made but each one carefully considered and executed to the best of his ability.
"I'm impressed." Mitchell smiled as he went through the ship's log file. "How the hell did you get FTL efficiency up to ninety-four percent?" He laughed. "I've been trying to get it higher than ninety-two since we had the damned thing installed."
Jack grinned and folded his arms, "I noticed a pattern in the flow harmonics. If you can match them by feel you can increase the drive's efficiency by leaning out the matter intake at the peak of each wave. The rest just responds to those adjustments, unless something is misaligned."
"Everyone knows that Mitchell, come on." Merit laughed as he ruffled Jack's hair on his way to his station.
"Nice," Mitchell scoffed, "Not only do we have a new engineer, we evidently we have a fucking comedian aboard as well." He smiled looking back at Jack, "Get some rest kid, we'll take it from here."
"Thanks." Jack smiled, feeling very proud of himself at the moment.
"Now we just need to keep Mitchell from messing with your adjustments." Merit laughed.
"Ha, ha, ha." Mitchell sighed. "I'm proud of you kid. Seriously." He said crumpling up a piece of paper and ricocheting it off of the back of Merit's head. "Laughing boy over there better watch it or else I may make him go outside to wash the viewports by hand."
"Yeah, so this is me being quiet over here." Merit said and laughed to himself as he went to work.
Leaving the bridge, Jack decided to grab something to eat before getting in some firearms practice. Three hours later, he hit the shower and as he was about to turn off the water, the ship jolted harshly, bouncing the boy off the side of the small stall, cutting his forehead open and throwing him to the floor. "What the hell?" he whined as he felt his forehead and looked at the blood that covered his hand when he pulled it away. He opened and closed his eyes a few times realizing his vision was blurred and his head felt like a bell that had been rung.
Opening the door to the shower, Jack grabbed a towel and pressed it against his forehead as the intercom in the changing area started to be heard over the ringing in his ears, "...Jack, I repeat. Respond please." Merit's voice echoed through the room.
"I'm here Merit. Was in the shower. What happened?" Jack asked as he checked the blood saturated towel and switched to a cleaner spot.
"The cargo bay doors blew out. They must have been worse off than we thought." His voice continued, "Are you alright?"
"I think so," Jack said as he closed his eyes and opened them a couple of times. "I hit the wall of the shower pretty hard, cut my forehead open and I'm a little dizzy."
"Mitchell wants to know if you need help?"
"I think..." Jack shook his head trying to shake loose the fuzziness and looked at the small intercom as it seemed to just get further away. "I think I'm..." He closed and opened his eyes one more time and the box seemed to slide out of reach again the moment he opened them. "Merit..."
"Jack! Talk to me, buddy!"
At that moment Merit's voice seemed to echo and the walls of the room looked as if they were quickly getting further away. The dizziness got worse and he dropped to the floor before everything went black.
"...his blood pressure is a bit on the low side but not horribly." A voice that didn't sound familiar at first cut through the haze as Jack began to open his eyes.
"He's waking up Doc!" Merit shouted as he rubbed his eyes. "You scared the shit out of me bro."
"Um... wha... uh... oh my head," Jack mumbled, trying to sit up.
"No, no, no. Stay down," Merit lowered his voice, "You busted open your forehead and lost a lot of blood."
"Merit, he may also have a concussion so after you finish dressing the wound, I want you to get him some juice to help with the loss of blood and most importantly, keep him awake. Make sure he's not experiencing any dizziness and just keep him talking. If his speech is impaired in any way or he seems confused, I'd suggest getting him to the nearest physician. Remember, keep him awake at least until I check back in with you."
"Will do Doc, thanks. I'll contact you sooner if anything goes wrong. Merit out." Merit said as he got on his feet and helped Jack up to sit on the bench in the room. "Let's get you dried off and dressed. Are you feeling dizzy?"
"No," Jack said as he leaned back against the wall. "Not anymore."
"Good." Merit said as he opened a storage locker and stowed the first aid kit. Grabbing another towel, he helped the boy dry off the rest of the way and helped him put on some clothes. "You up for a walk to the galley?"
"I think so," Jack replied as he slowly got to his feet and tested his balance. "Okay, I think I can." He tried to smile. "Head still hurts and I feel shaky though."
Merit put his arm around the boy and led him into the corridor, "I bet. We should probably pad the walls in that thing."
"Yeah, or we can stop shaking the ship around like that." Jack tried to joke. "Does that mean we lost the animals?"
"Yeah." Merit shrugged. "Those shipment containers aren't designed to deal with severe decompression. It probably burst."
"That's sad." Jack sighed and didn't say anything else as the two made it down one deck and to the galley. Merit had him sit down and then got him some fruit juice.
"This should help," Merit said, placing the mug in front of the boy. "Drink it while I check in with Mitchell." He said and made his way to the nearest intercom. "Mitchell."
"Go ahead Merit."
"Doc Dion says Jack may have a concussion. I'm getting some juice into him and we just need to make sure he doesn't start acting weird." Merit said as he looked back and watched the boy drink. "Well, weirder than normal."
"I heard that!" Jack grinned as he took another sip from his mug.
"Okay, you continue to watch over him then. Concussions aren't anything to mess around with. Does he believe we should find him a doctor out here?"
"No," Merit replied, "He told me what to watch for and to keep him awake until the next time he checks in. We can focus on the ship for now I guess."
"Works for me. I'll deal with getting the ship repaired. Hull integrity is reasonably stable so we can head for the Opla system at sub-light speed for repairs and to decontaminate the cargo bay. Should take us a day and a half. What a loss."
Merit watched Jack sip his juice and sighed. "I guess Jack was right earlier."
"Oh, I know he was, but we had a deadline to meet so we had to try. Don't sweat it, losses happen. Keep me advised on the kid's condition. Out."
"You hungry?" Merit said as he walked past Jack and started looking through the refrigeration unit. "You know we have ice cream, right?"
"Yeah." Jack half mumbled as he set his mug on the table. "I should have refused to bypass the safety protocols."
Merit scooped out two cups and placed one in front of Jack before sitting down at the other side of the table. "The ship can be fixed. There was better than a fifty percent chance the door wouldn't lose integrity and get us all the way there. Mitchell thought it was worth the gamble to try to make the shipment on time."
"I guess," Jack said as he poked at his ice cream with his spoon.
Merit sighed as he took his first spoonful but frowned as Jack simply wasn't eating. "You feeling alright bro?"
Jack set his spoon down, crossed his arms on the table and rested his chin on them. "I just wish it wasn't animals in there. They'd be alive if..." He got out before Merit cut him off.
"They would be dead either way. If you hadn't bypassed the sensors, the door would have gotten worse and triggered them. They would have detected an imminent failure and decompressed the section on its own." He said putting his own spoon down. "Actually, the only thing that would have been different would be the level of damage we need to have repaired. The sudden decompression at least ended their lives quickly."
"I guess you're right." Jack tried to smile. "I guess it's easy to forget that accidents could take our lives at any time. Space is space."
"Yeah," Merit agreed, "if given a choice, I'd rather a quick exposure and death as opposed to slowly suffocating as the atmosphere bleeds away. At least they didn't suffer."
"Thanks, Merit." Jack's smile returned, if even just for a moment.
Merit went back to his ice cream but noticed Jack still wasn't eating. "If you don't eat that, I will you know."
"I had some just before I jumped in the shower." Jack giggled.
'You pig!" Merit laughed, finally earning an actual smile from the other side of the table. "Judging how much blood was in that towel, you should try to eat some more though. Don't need you passing out again."
"Okay, if you're gonna force me to." Jack smiled and shoveled a huge spoon full into his mouth. "Badh dhith ith dorduew."
"You're such an idiot." Merit laughed. "I'll show you torture."
A few hours later, Doc Dion called and checked in. Jack was understandably tired from working the overnight but did his best to stay awake until the Doctor felt it was safe enough for him to go to sleep. Merit spent most of the night checking on the boy. The next day Jack was given some downtime as Mitchell piloted the last part of the journey and Merit met with the crew that had been tasked with clearing the cargo bay before the work crew would be allowed to start on repairs the following day.
"Hey kid. How are you feeling?" Mitchell stretched and put the book he was reading in his lap.
"Not bad." The boy replied as he stepped the rest of the way into Mitchell's quarters. "Do you know how long this is going to take?"
"You mean the repairs?" He asked, getting a nod from Jack in reply. "Just a couple of days. They are just going to replace the cargo bay doors and the automation. The worst part is going to be repairing the small amount of actual structural damage that was done. Why do you ask?"
Jack leaned on the door frame and simply shrugged his shoulders.
"Okay," Mitchell tilted his head, “You don’t normally have a lack of things to say. Talk to me.”
Jack came into the room and allowed the door to close. He sat on Mitchell’s bed and looked at the floor for a minute before letting out a big sigh. “I broke your rules and you rewarded me.”
Confused, Mitchell’s eyes opened wide and he sat back in his chair. “I don’t follow.”
“I got to think about it when I did the overnight by myself for the first time. You told me not to do something, I went ahead and did what you told me not to do and then you gave me control of the ship, alone. You trusted me anyway.” Jack continued to look at the floor as Mitchell let his words sink in.
“This has been bothering you, hasn’t it?” Mitchell questioned, receiving a nod for an answer. “Why?”
Jack looked the man in the eye and took a deep breath. “Cause people who cross you get punished, but you rewarded me.”
“Fair enough. You care to tell me what it was you were thinking while you were blatantly performing your act of transgression?” Mitchell folded his arms and sat back.
Jack thought a moment and shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t really think anything, I just didn’t want whatever we were shipping to not be safe.”
“You were protecting our best interests. You weren’t defying me out of some act of greed or malice.” The man smiled and sat back in his chair. “Look kid, I gave you a set of rules to follow and I was upset that you ignored them but, I have to respect your motives here as well. You were protecting our cargo, our livelihood, and even though you had no idea why I never want you near those crates, you risked punishment to protect something you knew is important to all three of us. It may have been extremely stupid to not follow my orders but, you didn’t do it for a bad reason.” Mitchel smiled and waited for Jack to make eye contact. “I didn’t reward you by giving you control of the ship. I gave you control of the ship because you keep demonstrating what kind of a fool I’d be if I didn’t trust you completely.”
“Oh,” Jack said as he tried to keep his eyes from tearing up.
“Disobey me like that again and I’ll have a flag pole installed on the hull of this ship and fly you from it like some sort of idiot banner but, I know what kind of a man you are becoming and I do trust you.” Mitchell stood and opened the door. “I hope now you’ll stop moping around the ship and get back to being yourself. Understood?”
“Yes sir.” Jack smiled and quickly wiped away a tear that had escaped his eye despite his best efforts as he stood as well.
“Good. Now get the fuck out of my room, I have real work to do.” Mitchell laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair as he walked past.
On the bridge the next day, Merit and Jack were busy resetting the ship's integrity monitoring systems when one of the workers wandered onto the bridge. "Which one of you guys is Merit?" The young man asked.
"Right here, what do you need?" Merit asked as he stood.
"My boss told me I was to inform you when work was done on your cargo hatch. You need to inspect it before I can sign off." The man stated as a small boy with shaggy blond hair entered the bridge, looking dirty and tired.
"Great, let's take a walk then, you can leave your kid here. Jack, I'll be back in a few minutes." Merit said as he motioned toward the hatch.
"You wait here for me and don't bother the pilot." The man said to the boy as he followed Merit.
"Okay." The boy said as he watched them leave.
When the hatch closed, Jack looked over and saw that the boy couldn't have been any older than 4 or 5 years old. He looked uncomfortable as he stood in the corner and stared mainly at his feet. "Hey um..." Jack said as he stood up from his seat. "You don't need to stay over there you know."
"Okay." The boy almost whispered as he slowly walked over to where Jack had been working.
"That's better." Jack smiled. "I'm Jack, what's your name?"
"Seven." The little boy almost squeaked.
"Kevin?" Jack questioned, kneeling down in front of the boy so he wasn't looking down at him.
"No, Seven." The boy mumbled.
"Okay, cool," Jack said trying to get the boy to smile. "Do you always get work with your dad?"
"My dad's dead." The boy frowned. "You gots water?"
"Yeah, sure." Jack nodded and stood up to grab a cup, filling it from the piped-in tap from the galley. "It's good and cold too." He added as he handed it to the boy who immediately drank half of the cup down really quickly. "Wow, you must have been really thirsty. You hungry too? I have my lunch over there if you want half. It's just a sandwich."
"Yes please." The boy smiled and Jack sat him at the science station and handed him half of his sandwich. "So, is that guy like an uncle or something?"
"No," the little boy said with his mouth full, "he's my new owner."
"Owner?" Jack said as he almost choked on his mouth full. "Like he bought you?"
The little boy swallowed what he had in his mouth and gulped down the rest of his water. "No, he winned me playin cards." The boy replied without even looking up from his sandwich.
"Oh my god," Jack mumbled, putting his half of the sandwich down. "He's good to you though, right?"
"Yeah." The boy shrugged his shoulders. "Lets me wear clothes in our room when it's cold."
Seeing that the boy had finished his sandwich, Jack offered the rest of his half to him, getting the first smile he had seen from him since they started talking. "Your old owner wouldn't let you wear clothes?"
"Nope." The boy said taking a bite from the sandwich Jack had started. "Can't tickle us with his mouth if we gots clothes on."
Jack's eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped as he watched this little boy describe the abuses of his old owner in a matter-of-fact like manner. "Your new owner doesn't do that though, right?"
"No." The boy said as he emptied his cup. "We gotsta tickle each other. He watches an tickles himself."
"All set." The man said as he and Merit entered the bridge, startling Jack. "Did he ask you for food?" He demanded as soon as he saw the boy trying to quickly stuff the rest of his sandwich in his mouth. "You better not have been begging..."
"N-n-no, I gave it to him cause I didn't want it." Jack cut him off, still stunned by the boy's words. "He actually said no at first, but I didn't want to have to get up to throw it out." He said as he took his cup of water and put it down so the boy would have something to wash down his mouth full. "Sorry if you didn't want your boy taking food from strangers."
"Oh no, you are Mitchell's boys, far from being strangers. As long as he wasn't begging. I won't tolerate that and he knows it." The man said through what looked like a forced smile.
"No, he's a good one," Jack said as Merit watched the exchange with a confused look on his face. "He's welcomed back here anytime."
The man nodded his head and snapped his fingers, getting the small boy's attention instantly. "You thank the nice boy for lunch, you got manners, use them."
"Thank you, Jack." The boy smiled and then rushed to the man and grabbed his hand.
"Good boy, thought I was gonna have to punish you again." The man grumbled. "You tell Mitchell the cargo was disposed of properly. There won't be any questions." The man said as he tugged the boy's hand to make him walk.
"Will do." Merit said as he followed the man out the door to escort him off the ship. A couple of minutes later he reentered the bridge and watched as Jack just sat where the little boy had been sitting earlier holding his empty cup. "Everything okay?"
"I don't know." Jack sighed. "That little boy said that that man had won him somehow and it sounds like his last owner was doing sex stuff to him. This guy doesn't but it sounds like the situation is still pretty messed up."
"Yeah, you've never been here before." Merit stated as he sat down and started working. "These are the people who do the work when Mitchell needs stuff done with no questions asked. They are kinda poor, a little strange, but willing to help us out. The job they just got paid for will make their lives much better for about a year or so. Mitchell likes giving them work when we need laborers. The last time we came here was when we needed the new FTL installed, just before you came aboard so, it's been a while since they've seen real money."
"They gamble with kids?" Jack shook his head. "I thought my dad was bad."
"Everyone has their own way. For what it's worth, I've met Moran before and a couple of the kids he's had with him. He's strict with them but they seem pretty well cared for. He probably saved that kid." Merit said as he hit the intercom. "Mitchell, we are now alone. Preparing to depart and will need our next destination."
"Good to hear." Mitchell's voice came over the speaker. "Set course for Tozuu best speed, I think I can make up some of what we just lost."
"That's good news. We'll be en route in about 5 minutes." Merit smiled as Jack began to prep for departure without another word. "Bridge out."
"Well, it still sounded messed up." Jack continued as the maneuvering thrusters came online.
"I don't doubt it but, they work for Mitchell, so you just want to keep in mind that if they aren't crossing any lines that Mitchell won't accept being crossed, then we need to do the same." Merit sat down at the nav station and the two worked together to get underway. "Be safe anytime you
think something is wrong and either talk to me or Mitchell before doing anything on your own. Could cause real problems if you mess up a contact."
"I will." Jack sighed as he stared blankly at his display. "You sure Mitchell would be okay talking about stuff like that?"
Merit turned in his seat and tilted his head. "Seriously, if something bothered you, he would want to hear it." He crossed his arms and watched as Jack seemed to wrestle with his focus. "Look, I got this, go talk to him now. I need your head in the game if you are gonna be any help to me. Just tell Mitchell you need to have a man to man talk. You're ready for those now and he likes them."
"You sure?" Jack asked as Merit stood up and motioned for Jack to give up the command chair.
"Yeah, I'm sure." Merit said shooing Jack off the bridge. "Go on."
Outside of Mitchell's quarters, Jack hesitated when he was about to knock and froze for almost a full minute. Just as he was about to turn and walk away, Mitchell swung the door open and both just stared at each other. "I'm not sure I like that look, what's up?" He asked and watched as Jack seemed at a loss for words. "Get in here, sit down. What's bothering you?"
Jack slowly entered the room and sat on the corner of Mitchell's bed. "Something happened before we left, and Merit said I should have a man to man talk with you about it."
"Oh." Mitchell nodded his head and opened his refrigeration drawer and pulled two cans out, placing them on his desk. "You'll need a beer then."
"W-w-what? No. I don't drink beer." Jack laughed. "Merit said I should talk to you because of something that happened before we left and...um...I don't want you to get upset."
Cracking open one of the beer cans, Mitchell handed it to Jack and then cracked another for himself. "There, man to man." He smiled and took a long sip from his can. "Now, what's troubling you?"
Jack spent the next ten minutes retelling Mitchell of all that the boy had told him as he took baby sips from his can. When he was finally finished, he was relieved that the man didn't appear upset in the slightest.
"So, something that I think would be helpful for you to know is that children are property in some systems. The Tova system is no exception. They are traded, and gambled, and sold, and it's legal." Mitchell tossed his can and grabbed another. "It's not our place to tell other communities how they can and can't behave based on what we consider right. Now if someone asks for our help, that's something different."
"They do sex stuff with their kids?" Jack said as he took a bigger sip from his can, shuddering at the harsh taste but swallowing it anyway. "I mean my dad was bad, but he never let anyone do that stuff to me."
"There you go, right there," Mitchell stated, putting his can down. "Your father said some pretty harsh things to you right in front of me the day I met you that made me really want to knock his teeth down his throat. Yet you decide because he never crossed THAT line that he wasn't that bad. Had I belted your old man right then and there, I'm sure you wouldn't have trusted me in the beginning even though I would have been trying to help you. Does that make sense?"
Jack took another sip from his can and forced it down with a cringe. "Yeah, I think I do."
He said looking at his can. "That boy didn't ask for my help. He didn't even sound like he needed help cause things for him were just normal. Actually, better now that he is owned by Moran instead of that other guy."
"There you go," Mitchell said as both took a big swig from their cans. Jack again looking like he just took a big bite out of a lemon. "Have you learned anything else today?"
"Yeah," Jack said handing Mitchell his can, "beer is gross!"
"Good man." Mitchell laughed. "Now, get back to the bridge and pretend that you haven't been back here drinking."
It took a moment for Jack to realize that Mitchell was joking with him before he smiled and stood up to leave, handing him his half-empty, warm beer. "Thanks, Mitchell. I was worried you'd be upset."
Downing the rest of the boy's open beer, Mitchel nodded his head and smiled. "Anytime something is bothering you, don't ever be afraid to bring it to me. We're a better team if we are open and honest with each other."
Jack nodded his head and walked back to the bridge, after closing the hatch, Merit stood up and patted Jack on the shoulder. "You better now?" He asked as Jack sat back on the command chair.
"Yeah, thanks," Jack said with a nod. "You were right."
"Good." Merit replied as he turned and returned to the nav station. "One last question though." He continued turning his seat to face Jack.
"Okay," Jack replied.
"Have you been drinking?" He laughed. "Do we need to have that talk as well?"
"No no no no..." Jack started as Merit just started laughing.
"When Mitchell hands you the beer to have a man to man talk, you don't have to drink it. It's symbolic."
"Oh, thank god." Jack started to laugh. "That stuff is nasty!"