Carla: I’d like to know more about you, Jesse — about what life was like for you before you were detained here. I’ve never been in space, after all. I’ll never have a chance to leave this planet. So tell me about your ship.
Jesse: There’s not a lot to tell. As you know, it was a freighter. Believe me, being Captain of a freighter is not exciting. It’s not what I dreamed about when I was younger, certainly. I thought when I joined Fleet that I’d get a chance to explore new worlds.
Carla: Surely you’ve visited a lot of them in twenty years.
Jesse: Not new ones — just well-established colonies, and they’re all pretty much the same. They’ve got better living conditions than Earth’s, of course, and they’re less crowded, and there’s a lot less poverty and crime. And in most of them, except for this one, there’s less government interference with people’s lives. Still, I haven’t seen one where I’d want to settle.
Carla: You were born on Earth. I suppose you were glad to get away.
Jesse: That was all I cared about when I was a kid. I left to enter Fleet Academy the day after I finished school, and I’ve never looked back. But the last few years I haven’t been looking forward, either. There just isn’t anything to hope for, Carla. I’m a Captain. I do my job well and my crewmates look up to me. I’ve had relationships with a few, though I’ve never met one I wanted to marry. So what’s left? I’m never going to be promoted to a starliner, much less a colonizer.
Carla: Because of the alleged drinking problem?
Jesse: Maybe. I suppose it could be on my record if some world’s port authorities spotted me in a bar. That would be ironic, considering that I drink on shore leave just to forget the frustration. As I told you, I’ve never been drunk on duty and I don’t drink at all while aboard ship. Nobody has ever questioned my performance. It was just bad luck that this world’s medical police happened to arrest me when no one from my crew was around to protest.
Carla: Our laws against unhealthy behavior can’t be blamed on bad luck — they’re the result of this colony’s population having lost all regard for personal freedom. Bad as your experience in the Hospital was, Jesse, you haven’t seen but half of it yet.
Jesse: Well, I’m sure I don’t want to see the other half. People’s personal health is their own business, not the government’s, as long as they’re not hurting anybody but themselves by what they do or don’t do.
Carla: Here, they’ve made it the government’s business — its main business. Would you fight against that, if you were a resident?
Jesse: I don’t even want to think about becoming a resident of this planet! And yet I may not be able to get away. If I’m listed as AWOL from Fleet I’ll lose my rank and won’t be able to get passage offworld. I’ll be stranded here for the rest of my life with nothing to do. I’m not qualified for any of the jobs available in a backwater colony like this.
Carla: If it weren’t for that — if you could get involved in something really worthwhile, not just opposing our tyrannical laws but something bigger — would you mind leaving space?
Jesse: No, I don’t think I would. I’ve had enough of space, given the fact that there’s no challenge left there for me. But I can’t imagine what kind of thing you’re talking about. Look at you — you’re obviously capable of holding a much better job than that dead end data-technician position you’re stuck in. So there can’t be a lot of scope for talent here.
Carla: There are other talents besides what people are paid for.
Jesse: If you have some and an opportunity to use them, I’m glad. But I haven’t got any talents besides those related to my work. I’m not selling myself short — I’m a top-rated pilot and an efficient officer, and I have what it takes to command a crew. I’d even have the ability to command a colonizer if given the right training. None of that would be of any good to me here, Carla. And even if it would . . . there’d be no meaning in it.
Not that I’ve ever figured out just what sort of meaning I’m looking for. I guess when I was young I just assumed it was out there among the stars somewhere, if my ship took me far enough. I somehow thought that to keep on searching would help humankind advance. That was pretty naive. I know better now.
Carla: Do you? I’m not so sure it was naive. I think you might someday be surprised.
Author’s Note: As the nature of the plot is revealed gradually in the book, to refer to any of its events in a way assuming Jesse’s knowledge of them would be a spoiler. I had to write from his perspective at the very beginning of the story before he has any idea what is about to happen to him.