This story is my offer for the Oct 2021 WEP challenge, Scream. My hero for this year stories is a young Space Fleet Academy cadet Neville. Suspended for one year from the Academy for disciplinary infractions, he is serving that year on the spaceship Mariposa as the captain’s liaison with the passengers, refugees from a destroyed colony planet. You can read my previous entries about Neville here:
“You must find my Scream, officer. It is priceless. I can’t afford to lose it.” The woman’s fingers dug into Neville’s arm, her face tense. The other passengers of the refugee hold #5 listened intently. Nobody surrounding them even pretended not to be interested.
Neville sighed inwardly. By tomorrow morning, everyone in all seven passenger holds would know that someone had lost something during boarding, and none of these people could afford to lose anything. They were all evacuees from a destroyed planet, traveling to Simel as refugees. All of them had lost too much already when their planet imploded: families, homes, careers. He would do anything to help any of them if he could, but he was one man, even if he was the passengers’ liaison with the captain, and there were over eight thousands of them presently on board.
“Tell me more,” he said quietly to the distraught woman. “What is your scream? I’ll do my best to help you find it.”
“It’s a musical instrument. Destrian bagpipes. It is unique. I call it Scream. I’m a musician, a piper. After our planetary disaster, my Scream might be the only one of its kind left in the whole universe.” She sniffed. “Here, I’ll show you.”
Neville looked at the holo 3D rendering spinning slowly above her tablet vid plate – a strange assortment of wooden pipes of different lengths and diameters, sticking out in all directions from a red fabric bag, presumably filled with air. “It plays music?” he asked dubiously. He couldn’t quite conceal his skepticism.
“It is a traditional instrument, with thousands of years of history, you ignoramus,” she said acidly. “It came from old Earth. And now, you went and lost it when you helped me with my luggage.”
“I didn’t help you with your luggage, ma’am,” Neville said. “I didn’t help anyone with their luggage. I’m forbidden to handle the passengers’ luggage by the captain’s orders.”
“Oh.” She deflated, then rallied. “Well, someone did. I had it when I boarded, and now I don’t have it. Where is it?”
“I’ll find it for you,” Neville promised.
“See that you do,” she said angrily. “Because if you don’t, I’ll sue the entire Fleet for losing my beloved instrument. My livelihood. Centuries of history…” She turned away, still muttering.
Helplessly, Neville watched her stiff shoulders. Some people reacted to their huge losses by becoming weepy. Others were stoic. Still others turned furious from the horrendous toll their dying planet had extracted when it shattered. No matter, he would help her find her Scream. After all, the Mariposa, his ship, was large but finite. If the woman brought her pipes on board, they were still there.
Three days later, he didn’t feel so sanguine. He had talked to many people in all seven holds. His surveillance drones whizzed all over the ship, searching for Scream and not finding anything even remotely similar. The Mariposa had less than seven days left on this trip, and he was still in the darkness regarding the odd pipes.
The piper demanded an update from him every morning and grumbled her disdain for the Fleet officers’ ineptitude, and he could tell her nothing.
On the fifth day, Neville decided his random personal contortions were not enough and settled on a technical approach. He entered the parameters of the Destrian bagpipes, as well as some other types of bagpipes he found on the interplanetary net, into the Mariposa main computer. Then he programmed the sensors to scan the ship for the 3D representation of bagpipes. The whole rigmarole took him a couple more days, as he could only do it at night. His days were devoted to the passengers.
On the seventh morning, yawning from his lack of sleep, Neville set the scanner to commence and headed for the refugee holds to start his day, as usual. The scanner would take a while, but it would cover every inch of the three-kilometer-long ship. By evening, he would know where the pipes were.
When he returned to his cabin in the evening, the scan outcome blinked red on his com-link screen. No object found.
Neville frowned in consternation. Did he make a mistake in his scanner program? Or in the pipes’ parameters? Or did the woman not bring her instrument aboard? Did she lie to him? Why? Just in case, he removed the size restrictions from his scanner requirements and set it to work again during the night.
In the morning, the eighth morning of the trip, the scan results blazed green on his com-link. Object found. Neville stared at the holo pipes slowly rotating above the vid plate. The parameters of the found object ran in a short list beside the image. Its size was the first line. Its location was the last.
Neville cursed and went to see his captain.
“What’s wrong, Cadet?” she asked. “You look stormy.”
“Captain. I’m not sure. I think this woman lied to me, but I can’t imagine why. What did she think to accomplish?” He outlined the entire odyssey of his search for the pipes. “I found them. They’re this tiny, like a toy.” He brought his thumb and index finger a few centimeters apart. “And they are in her luggage. Why would she do that?”
The captain shook her head and sighed. “She threatened to sue the Fleet, didn’t she?”
Neville nodded unhappily.
“I think she is a hustler. She set you up to fail. She found a possible way to make money and she pursued it.”
“With all the tragedies these people have already endured? She tied up my time with her pointless search. The time I could’ve spent helping someone in real need.”
“You want my advice, Cadet?”
“Confront her with as many witnesses as you can manage and demonstrate the results of your search. Loudly. Then get the pipes from her suitcase. You have my permission to open it for this. Show the pipes to everyone. Make a recording with your drone, so she can’t sue the Fleet. That was her real goal.”
“Her hold mates would tear her apart for this.”
“Yeah.” The Captain grinned evilly. “She deserves it. Go and prove to every passenger on this ship how competent the Fleet officers can be. Good job, Cadet.”
“She probably can’t even play the real pipes,” he muttered as he stomped away.
Behind his back, the captain laughed.