“Double Rations” by Nicky Drayden

“Double Rations” by Nicky Drayden

Archibald Smithe rubbed the empty socket under his eye patch. It was bad enough having his good eye watering up on him, but these phantom allergies were about to drive him to mutiny. Ever since they’d left port at Talacagon Alpha, the air on the Gnarly Scab hadn’t been right, and even above the constant din of the munitions room machinery, he could hear his crewmates coughing, sneezing, and wheezing.

On his command, the tactician dimmed the view screen and twin giga-ton charges blew, igniting a plasma fire in this bleak expanse of space. Archibald let loose a tiny indiscernible sigh as the fire winked out and was replaced with the seed of a brand new wormhole. They couldn’t afford another botched explosion, especially this close to the deadline.

Archibald had voiced his concerns to Captain Prawns on the rare occasions he’d emerged from his quarters. Finishing this trans-dimensional superhighway without Prawns’ expertise was tricky enough, but to do it with a crew suffering from foggy minds and runny noses would be damn near impossible. The captain had merely dismissed Archibald’s apprehension with a flick of his hook, however. That was weeks ago. Now Prawns didn’t come out at all.

“Cap’n’s been requesting double rations,” said Riff, the ship’s cook, later that evening at mess. This caused Archibald great concern since no one with half a mind would shove an ounce more of that dank gruel down their gullets than necessary. “I hear he’s got a plant locked up in there with him. One that can cure the Brangelian Rots.” The cook slipped his hand down his trousers and scratched his crotch, his face wrenching in obvious relief. He then smudged his fingertips across his apron and proceeded to scoop two heaping spoonfuls onto a metal tray.

“Aye, you’re probably right…” Archibald said as he reluctantly took the tray. The plants on Talacagon Alpha could do some amazing things: soothe novaburn, treat nebula shingles, sing karaoke.

Archibald navigated the narrow, curling hallways of the Gnarly Scab towards the Captain’s quarters. Captain Gilmore Prawns was the best sapper this side of the Kel’Tauren and a mean old bastard who could punch a hole in subspace just by staring at it too long. He ran a tight ship, and his absence hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“Who’s there?” said the captain, his voice worn and raw, almost like he’d been crying.

“It’s me, Cap. I’ve brought yer dinner.”

“Leave it by the door!”

“Sir, if I may. Things are falling apart out here. I don’t know how much longer I can keep the crew in check.”

“I can’t come out. You’ll just have to make do without me!”

Archibald sniffed back a nose full of snot. His allergies were worse down here. Nausea. Itchy throat. Hives. Maybe the cook’s exotic plant conspiracies weren’t so far from the truth. Archibald hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, in fear of starting a whole new wave of rumors, but he had seen Captain Prawns taking an interest in a giant Talacagon bush willow specimen during shore leave. Its beautiful blooms had hung like lures from a tangle of suction-cup-tipped plumes. A plant that rare might fetch a heavy sum in other systems.

“Your choice, Captain,” said Archibald, managing to put a convincing quaver in his voice. “But when someone gets sloppy and blows a chunk out of the Scab‘s hull, don’t say I didn’t warn you!” Archibald set the tray on the floor, making sure to clang it loudly, then stamped his boots against the deck plating, as if he were storming down the hallway. He ducked around the corner and waited.

“Anybody there?” said the captain’s tentative voice, but Archibald stifled a cough and stayed quiet, determined to uncover the captain’s secret. Minutes passed, but then finally he heard the door sphincter open. Archibald peeked around the corner in time to see the captain’s arm reach for the tray. He took a quick breath, and then sprinted out from his hiding place before Captain Prawns could react.

The sight of the captain straightening up was enough to knock the wind out of Archibald. A giant clump of needle-thin tentacles sprouted from the Captain’s bare belly like a fungal disease run rampant. He dropped the tray, sending gruel flying in each direction.

“Medic!” Archibald cried out, snorting back a noseful of snot as he tried to make sense of the parasite latched on to the captain’s torso.

Prawns struck his good hand out to cover Archibald’s mouth. “Not another word, do you hear me?” Archibald felt the tip of the captain’s hook, cool on his side. “I don’t need a doctor, matey. This little problem of mine will solve itself in due time.”

The ship tremored, hard and violent, nearly knocking Archibald to his knees. Sirens blared, and a shipwide announcement followed –- an explosion in the superior vent shaft, it said. Fire contained, no need for alarm. But Archibald did worry. As first mate, he had a responsibility to the crew and to the Gnarly Scab‘s safety, and they were all bordering on worthless with this parasite compromising the integrity of every sinus cavity aboard the ship. “We have to get that thing off you, sir!”

Captain Prawns shook his head, cradling the monstrosity in his hand with an eerie tenderness. “We should have been more careful, but what’s done is done. I’m going to keep it.” The captain’s eyes teared up. “Oh, these damned mood swings!”

“Keep it? Sir, you’re not making any sense.”

With a heavy sigh, the captain laid his arm across Archibald’s shoulder. “That bush willow on Talacagon Alpha…S’YollaQ’truu was her name. I called her Betty. I liked her personality. Laughed at her jokes. After a few rounds of ale and liquid fertilizer, one thing led to another and…” As Prawns rubbed over his belly, the creature cooed, then coughed out a cloud of silver pollen. Almost immediately Archibald’s nose began to tingle, and he tried to suppress the sneeze. Again, the captain’s hook became pronounced in Archibald’s side. “I can trust you to keep my secret, can’t I?”

“Of course, Captain Prawns,” said Archibald with a sniffle.

“Very well. Keep tending to my crew, and if you get this project done on time and under budget, I’ve got a good mind to make you godfather.”

Archibald trembled at the thought, but managed a faint “Aye, sir.”

The captain returned to his quarters, and the door closed behind him. Archibald mopped the gruel into a puddle and scraped it up onto the tray. He’d return to the galley to get more, of course. Riff would pester him with one of his new conspiracies: a plasma cannon or a starlight engine or perhaps one of them octo-hootered love aliens so popular around these parts. Archibald wished he could go back to not knowing. The truth was more disturbing than any of the cockeyed theories he’d had to put up with. But there was no denying it, now. Captain Prawns was eating for two.

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas, where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. You can see more of her work at www.nickydrayden.com.