Finally, the last WEP post of the year, Dec 2021 challenge, Narcissus. This entry tells another story about a young Space Fleet Academy cadet, Neville. He serves on the spaceship Mariposa as the captain’s liaison with the passengers, refugees from a destroyed colony planet. Read about Neville’s previous adventures here:
“Men want to be beautiful, too,” the old man told Neville in a quivering baritone. “And don’t smirk at me, young man. You do, deep inside your heart. Everyone does. That’s what I did with my life. I made men beautiful. I owned a salon for men only. Haircuts. Massages. Nails. You name it—I offered it. In the end, I owned 15 salons in four cities, all called Narcissus. That’s who I was. The Narcissus. And now…” He sighed and looked around at the passenger hold, where he shared his berth with a thousand other refugees.
The Mariposa’s trips to Simel were not long, eight to ten days only, depending on the traffic through the warp gates, but at the end of this journey, nothing waited for this old man. Neville felt sorry for him. Younger refugees would find new jobs, make new lives for themselves, but this old geezer had nothing to look forward to. Neville opened his mouth to deliver some bracing platitudes when the Narcissus’s next words floored him.
“They should’ve left me on the planet,” the oldster said. “My daughter died there, and my granddaughters. One of them was pregnant. With my great-grandchild. The shuttles couldn’t reach any of them in time, before it all exploded. But they saved me. Why? I’m no use to anyone anymore. I can’t even give you a haircut. My hands shake. Stupid old hands.” He stared into the distance only he could see. A slight tremor shook his wrinkled hands.
Neville desperately wanted to cheer up the old man, but how does one counter such despair? He scrambled his brain for anything positive. “Do you want to walk with me through the ship?” he asked finally. “Have you ever seen such a ship as Mariposa? It’s a military freighter, three kilometers long. It never landed on any planet, was built in space.”
“Heh?” The old Narcissus perked up. “Yes. Thank you, dear boy. Three kilometers? I don’t think I could walk that far.”
“We won’t go all the way,” Neville promised with a smile. “And we’ll stop for rest.” He offered his arm to the old man. “Lean on me, sir.”
“Wonderful.” Narcissus’s answering smile creased the old face. “What is your name again? I’m Peter.”
“Neville,” Neville said.
They walked slowly, and Neville explained each section and its functions to Peter. Twice, the old man rested: once in the mess hall, the next time perching on a huge loader’s arm in the D section. But he refused to return to his hold.
“This is a fascinating excursion, Neville, boy.” The old eyes sparkled. “I haven’t had such fun in ages.”
They were nearing the warp drive housing when the ship chimed a warning. Then the captain’s command, cold and sharp, cut through the intercom. “Officers to the bridge. Passengers, go to your holds and stay there.”
Neville’s head snapped up.
“Trouble?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know.” Neville brought his wrist-comm to his lips and keyed the captain’s station. “Captain? Should I report to the bridge or stay with the passengers?” He was the passengers’ liaison after all. He was supposed to be available to them at all times.
“A moment, cadet.” She continued her conversation with someone else, but she didn’t turn off the audio, and the raised voices came through Neville’s comm-link.
“No, Tergio,” she said. “It’s a suicide mission. We might muddle through as is.”
“No, we won’t,” Tergio said. “The volanite leak means the shell’s cracked. When the leak reaches the critical volume, the engine will blow. You know that. I must go in and patch the shell. I should’ve checked before. I’m the chief engineer. It was my duty.”
“What is volanite?” Peter mouthed to Neville.
“Warp drive fuel. It powers starships,” Neville replied absently, his mind on the conversation he was overhearing.
The captain again: “We are four days out from the nearest station with a decent medical facility. Simel is even farther away. We can’t treat volanite burns onboard. You’ll die.”
“I know,” Tergio said. “But there is no one else. My assistant is twice younger than I am and has a toddler daughter. I can’t order her to do it.”
“Captain,” Peter spoke directly into Neville’s wrist-comm. “Can I do it?” His voice wobbled more than usual.
Startled, Neville glared at the old man.
“Who is that, cadet?” his comm demanded.
“One of the passengers, Captain. An old man. I was giving him a tour of the ship.”
“I’m almost a hundred,” Peter murmured into the comm. “I’ll die soon anyway. No reason to go to Simel for that. I can just as well die here. At least my death would mean something.”
“Are you an engineer?” the captain demanded.
“No. I was a barber. But I’m sure your engineer could talk me through whatever needs to be done. Couldn’t you, sir? In simple layman words?”
“No, Peter,” Neville said in dismay.
“I want to,” said Peter. “My family all died back home. Let me do it.”
“This is wrong,” Tergio said after a long pause.
“Yes, you can do it,” the captain said at the same time. “Thank you. Neville, bring him to the bridge. Tergio, prepare your equipment.”
Peter’s grin was incandescent. “This is the perfect last job for Narcissus,” he said happily, as Neville towed him to the bridge. “Don’t be so gloomy, my boy. Making life a better place was what I did all my life. I might as well die doing it.”
An hour later, Peter entered the warp engine housing under Tergio’s radio supervision and patched the drive shell to stop the leak. It might have taken a stronger and better trained man less than an hour. It took Peter, with his tremorous hands, thrice that long. He didn’t die from volanite burns after all. He collapsed right there, inside the drive compartment, as his old heart finally gave out after his job was completed.
Just after Tergio shouted in triumph: “Well done, old man!”
The captain gave a moving eulogy at Peter’s wake the next day, her words transmitted through the intercom all over the ship. Afterwards, impromptu speeches started.
“I had my haircuts at Narcissus all the time,” said one man. “They knew how to do man’s hair better than anyone else. Had I known we traveled with such a celebrity, the owner of Narcissus, I would’ve told the old guy.”
“Yeah.” Another man stood up. “They did my haircut for my wedding. The best barbers ever, that’s for sure. Who would’ve known a barber could be a hero.”
Neville didn’t talk, but he knew. The captain had already submitted a report. The next new Fleet ship coming out of the military docks would have an unexpected name – Narcissus.
Tagline: Even a barber could be a hero