Captain Quasar and the Fastest Thumbs on Zeta Colony Four
by Milo James Fowler
Captain Quasar greeted his first officer with a wink as she climbed out of the cramped transport pod and into the Effervescent Magnitude‘s spacious launch bay. “Glad to have you back, Number Wan.”
Commander Selene Wan ignored his ridiculous nickname and adjusted her uniform. Things tended to get a little rumpled while in transit. “Thank you, sir.”
“Your vacation went well, I trust?” Quasar stifled a yawn. “The Paradisian Waterfalls as magnificent as ever?”
“The conference, sir?” He’d never shown much interest in her ten-year plan for advancement, culminating in an ambassadorship for the lucrative trade sector, so it came as no real surprise that he’d forgotten why she had disembarked over a week ago.
“Right.” He snapped his fingers. “Something about negotiating artwork. . .”
“The Art of Conflict Resolution in Interplanetary Negotiations, Sessions 1-12, taught by former United World Prime Minister Thurmond Elizabeth Blackwell.”
“Yes, that.” He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “I hope you took some good notes. Our services have been requested on one of the Zeta moons. No more paragliding for you, I’m afraid.”
One of her narrow eyebrows contorted. “Why would a Zeta colony contact us, sir?”
“Why wouldn’t they?” He laughed, jerking his head for her to follow him down the corridor to the bridge. “I’m sort of an old-fashioned hero in these parts, you know. And I’ve been catching up on my reading, figured it wouldn’t hurt matters: The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Coyote Cal—”
“Westerns, Wan.” He grinned, baring a full set of dazzling pearly whites. “Oh, and check this out.” His right hand shot to the cased Cody 52 Special at his side, loaded with pulse rounds. With a flick of his wrist, the weapon spun up out of its nubuck holster and made three full rotations around the captain’s trigger finger before landing firmly in his grip.
“Impressive.” It was clear he’d been busy while she was away.
He shrugged, returning the weapon to its holster. “We’ll have to blend in with the locals. The Zeta moons are notorious for their quaint, primitive ways, as you well know.”
“Yes, I do know.”
He gave her another wink. “A little exposition never hurt anybody.” Striding onto the bridge, Quasar assumed his captain’s stance—boots spread, hands on hips, chest fully inflated, chin high, eyes narrowed—and bellowed, “To Zeta Four, full speed ahead!”
Startled by the captain’s sudden outburst, a few of the bridge personnel jumped at their posts. But the four-armed, very hairy helmsman only chuckled into his shaggy fur at their reaction.
Quasar grinned. “Got ‘em again, Hank ol’ buddy.”
The helmsman nodded. “That you did, sir.”
Commander Wan left the bridge to roll her eyes in private.
Zeta Colony Four wasn’t exactly as the captain had expected. There were arid plains and rolling hills, dusty roads and clapboard buildings, to be sure, but no livestock: no lowing cattle, no stomping horse hooves or snorting horse nostrils. He hadn’t realized the effect their absence would have on his overall impression of the place, and he lost some of the swagger in his step because of it. Perhaps it was foolish to assume these primitive people would never have incorporated modern technology into their culture. Thus, it really should have come as no surprise that hovercars transported folks to and fro outside, whirring by in gusts of moonpowder, and that a well-maintained airlock allowed Quasar and Commander Wan entry into the local saloon, a popular dust-free establishment known only as Las Zetas.
The governor, a toad of a man in a squatty green suit with an ancient timepiece tucked into its waistcoat, greeted them and scowled anxiously as he ushered them past the bar to his private office. Quasar raised a hand in greeting, smiling at every person they passed, but the townsfolk merely glanced at his uniform and turned away in absolute boredom. They looked to be a quiet, tired lot, and apparently it took more than the sight of two unfamiliar starfaring officers to rouse them from their drinks.
“Why are we here, Captain?” Wan whispered without moving her lips—a skill she’d picked up at the recent conference on Paradiso Seven.
“I believe we’re about to find out, Commander.”
From the horse-faced governor’s mouth, they learned that Zeta Four had always been a peace-loving, gun-toting colony, ever since their great-grandparents had left Earth in the First Exodus to settle in the far reaches of the galaxy. The governor could trace his own lineage back to the original terraformers on this moon, a fact which usually had a way of lending him a hand around reelection time. But as of late, there was a new force to be reckoned with in town, a fellow by the name of Kaasjager who seemed determined to crush the spirit of Zeta Four’s people under the power of his genetically enhanced thumbs.
“Excuse me?” Captain Quasar frowned at that.
The governor held up his own pair of fleshy appendages. “His thumbs, Captain. They’re not like yours or mine. They’ve been. . .augmented.” He cleared his throat. “He’s our gunsmith, you see, but he ain’t been selling your usual type of shooter for months now. You know, with a trigger?” He curled and flexed his index finger. “Nobody can get ammo for their old guns anymore, not since he’s cornered the dang market!”
Quasar nodded to show he partially understood. “He’s forcing you to buy a new type of weapon, is that it?”
“Yeah! You catch on fast, sir.”
Quasar raised an eyebrow at Wan. She remained as stoic as ever.
“And you would like us to help you how, exactly?” she said.
“By running ‘im right outta town!” The governor leaned forward on his desk and licked his lips. “Listen, I sure hope you don’t mind, but I let Kaasjager know I was bringing in a hired gun—”
“Hold on now,” Quasar said.
“—and you’re scheduled to meet ‘im right outside for an old-fashioned gunfight in oh, let’s see now—” He retrieved his brass pocket watch and squinted down at its face. “Two Earth minutes.” He clapped the timepiece shut and smiled up at them in turn. “I’d be much-obliged iffin you don’t make me out to be no liar.”
The captain stared back at him. Words failed to make an appearance.
“Good thing you practiced.” Wan glanced down at Quasar’s Cody 52 Special.
The governor stood with a heavy sigh. “I reckon yours is the only one in town still loaded.”
How could an entire colony run out of ammunition? “Your people do a lot of shooting, I take it?”
The governor shrugged. “It passes the time. Guess we figured there’d always be more ammo whenever we needed it. Some have tried ordering off-world from that intergalactic superstore, you know, with the free shipping? But we’ve found them folks dead without a mark on ‘em, drained of whatever energy the brain used to make their muscles work—including the heart. It’s a real tragedy.”
“Why not simply purchase the new weapon this gunsmith is selling?” Wan said, always the logical one.
“Because it’s the principle of the thing.” Quasar stood, and by the tears shining in the governor’s eyes, he knew he understood the situation well enough. “You refuse to kowtow to this bully, and I applaud you for it. How much time do I have left?”
The governor consulted his watch again. “Thirty seconds.”
“Captain.” Wan faced him. “You don’t have to do this.”
“As I well know?” He gave her another wink.
“We could leave right now—”
“I never run away from a fight. At least, I try not to.” He spun his Cody 52 Special up out of its holster, garnering a wide-eyed look of admiration from the governor. “Time to teach this Kaasjager a lesson.”
Captain Quasar had no patience for people who were fashionably late. He was punctual, and he expected the rest of the known universe to operate in the same manner. Unfortunately for him, it often did not.
“So. . .” He glanced at the governor. “How much longer should we give this guy?”
The townsfolk had assembled along with their petulant blasé air along main street, and the captain stood out in the middle of it with the Las Zetas saloon on one side and a friendly mercantile on the other. There were no tumbleweeds on this dusty moon, but it would have been an opportune moment for one to roll by, and it if had, it would have cheered Captain Quasar considerably.
The governor clucked his tongue as he consulted the timepiece in his hand. “He should be here by now—unless he’s otherwise indisposed, that is.”
“Ah. Yes.” Quasar had heard about the diets of some of these moon colonists. The dehydrated local cuisine could do wonders to one’s intestinal tract. “We’re in no hurry, I suppose.” He looked at Commander Wan, standing beside the governor with her arms crossed. Apparently, Quasar’s decision to meet the town bully in this manner went against everything she’d recently learned at her seminar.
She met his gaze briefly, nodding her head toward the west end of town where Hank waited in their transport pod just over the hill, out of sight. They could return to the Magnitude whenever they wished.
Quasar set his jaw; the muscle twitched on command. He would not run from adversity—at least not before he saw the shape and size of the adversity he’d be dealing with here.
A boy crossed the street about halfway and stood there, his attention glued to the gamepod device in his hands. At the same time, a hush fell over the crowd. Would Kaasjager gun down such an oblivious lad if he stood in the way of a scheduled gunfight?
“Clear the street, son,” Quasar called, gesturing for the youth to move quickly. “You might want to look up from that gizmo every now and then.” He chuckled amiably. Young people and their fascination with gadgets! It was adorable.
But as shocked gasps coursed through the townsfolk, the situation suddenly became clearer.
“Ah. I see.” The captain composed himself. “You’re Kaasjager.”
The kid’s bloodshot eyes glanced up from the screen in his hands. He was no kid at all, just an undersized twenty-something with the makings of a beard that hadn’t decided what it wanted to be when it grew up. “You the gunfighter?”
“I am Captain Quasar of the Effervescent Magnitude, here to ensure that justice prevails!”
Kaasjager snickered, catching the governor’s eye. “Where’d you find this guy?”
“He came highly recommended,” retorted the governor, ducking behind Commander Wan.
“Am I to assume you’re armed?” Quasar couldn’t see a gun holstered anywhere on the youth’s scrawny frame.
“Oh yeah.” The kid grinned, baring gaps where teeth had lived once upon a time. He tucked his gamepod into a baggy pocket and flexed his abnormally limber thumbs, bending them every which way. “Ready when you are, mister.”
Wan cleared her throat. When Quasar looked her way, she mouthed the words Negotiate, sir.
“Right. Well,” the captain began. “I’m sure we can settle this matter like reasonable men. You see, the governor there just wants to be able to buy ammunition for his shooters. Is that really too much to ask?”
Kaasjager shrugged. “They’re obsolete.”
“Perhaps so, but you can’t expect these people to buy your new models simply because you no longer stock what they need. It’s absurd!”
Another shrug. “Supply and demand. They should get with the program.”
“And if they don’t, you kill them. Is that how your brand of economics works?”
“You gonna draw that thing or talk me to death?” The kid called out to the governor, “Give us a count.”
“Oh, I don’t know—” the governor stammered.
“This was your idea, so you give us a damn count!” Kaasjager screamed, his face burning crimson all of a sudden. In that instant, Quasar could easily imagine the youth losing his temper and killing just about anybody who stood in his way.
“One,” the governor began. “Two-three—”
“Draw!” the kid hollered.
Quasar’s hand dropped to his holster, but he wasn’t fast enough. Already the youth had his gamepod out with both thumbs flying across the screen in a blur of superhuman speed, and as Captain Quasar felt himself freeze in place against his will, he had the sneaking suspicion that Kaasjager’s device was unlike any other gaming gizmo in the galaxy.
“Captain!” Commander Wan lurched forward.
“Stay back.” The kid gave her a threatening look. “He’s fine for now, don’t you worry. He just can’t move is all.” His thumbs twitched, and Quasar shifted position, first standing on one leg, then on the other. Then he was hopping up and down. Next came jumping jacks. “What do you think?” Kaasjager laughed out loud. Cautious chuckles meandered through the townsfolk. “Funny, huh?”
Captain Quasar had never felt so humiliated in all his life. Here he was to save the day, yet he’d become this barely-bearded youth’s plaything. Nothing but a marionette, for the galaxy’s sake!
“Stop it.” Wan’s hand slid toward the stun-gun cased at her side.
“I wouldn’t, lady. Not unless you care to join him,” the kid sneered. “I can make any of you do whatever the hell I want!”
The captain dropped to the dust and started doing one-armed pushups. Truth be told, he was pleased by this opportunity to show off his upper body strength; but then again, he was being controlled by Kaasjager’s device, so it wasn’t really him doing the pushups at all. Disgusted by the whole situation, he attempted to communicate his ill temper but found he couldn’t use his vocal chords any more than his own muscles. They’d all betrayed him.
“Let him speak,” Wan said. “Please.”
Kaasjager narrowed his eyes at her. “Very well. But only because you asked so nicely. And because you’re kinda hot.” His thumbs jiggled.
“—this stupid kid!” Quasar yelled, reaching the end of what he’d planned to be an internal monologue. He cleared his throat mid-pushup. “You’ve had your fun now, Kaasjager. No firearm of any type can stand against you, much less anyone with a discernible amount of muscle tissue. You’ve somehow managed to hijack the electric signals from my brain, is that it?”
The kid grinned in all his gap-toothed glory. “You get it! Nobody else on this podunk rock has a clue what I’m able to do.”
“Uh-he’s right about that,” the governor added. “Honestly, Mr. Quasar. We didn’t know he could do anything like this. I’m so very sorry—”
Kaasjager threw back his head with an abrupt laugh. “This is my big reveal, you idiot!”
“But you cannot be the only one on this moon with such power,” the captain said, and from the corner of his eye he could see Commander Wan nodding in agreement. “It’s absolute. And you know what they say about the corruptive influence of absolute power. . .”
Kaasjager squinted at Quasar. “Huh?”
“Give me the device, and you can go back to selling the sorts of things a gunsmith should be selling. No one else has to die here today.”
“I’ve never killed nobody. And besides, you’re in no position to make demands, mister!” The kid’s speedy thumbs sent the captain into a series of cartwheels, somersaults, and handsprings, and the townsfolk cheered uproariously. It seemed this was the type of diversion that really held their attention. Kaasjager grinned, loving every moment of his time in the spotlight, his bloodshot eyes fixed on the screen and twitching as he created and executed brand-new commands right there on the spot like a techno-savvy genius.
Until he went down with a sharp yelp, and the gamepod skittered end over end into the dust. Released from its hold on him, Quasar collapsed to the ground like a wet noodle. He gasped for breath and looked up it time to see Commander Wan return her stun-gun to its holster without batting an eye.
“Something you learned on that vacation?” Quasar managed, struggling to his feet.
“Session 12 of the conference,” she replied, watching as the governor scurried to claim Kaasjager’s device while the rest of the townsfolk checked to see if the kid was dead. He wasn’t. But they stole his boots and clothes anyhow—a quaint old Western custom, by all appearances.
“They must have saved the best for last.” Covered in moonpowder, Quasar slapped at his uniform. Dust billowed into the air all around him. “What did they call that maneuver, by the way?”
“Negotiation failure, sir.”
Back on board the Effervescent Magnitude, all cleaned up and sporting a crisp new uniform, Captain Quasar reclined in his chair on the bridge and watched stars rush by the portholes in brilliant streaks of frosty white. Absently he toyed with his Cody 52 Special.
“A gamer’s revenge,” he mused.
“Captain?” Hank half-turned from his position at the helm, all four of his very hairy hands gliding across the blinking display as if with minds all their own.
Quasar looked pensive. “Back on Zeta Four. That kid was a direct descendent of the Great Gamers who left Earth during the First Exodus.” He flexed one of his thumbs, nowhere near as limber as Kaasjager’s. “How he ever ended up on that moon’s a real mystery, though. Why would gamers ship out with a crew of terraformers? And why would he be running an old gun shop, for the galaxy’s sake?”
Hank shrugged his superior set of shoulders and returned to his console.
“Perhaps his great-grandparents’ expertise was needed at the time,” said Command Wan, appearing at the captain’s elbow without warning. He would never admit it, but sometimes she really startled the heck out of him. “Before the actual terraforming could begin, they would have needed to run multiple batteries of virtual tests to ascertain whether the moon was suitable for colonization. A gamer’s technical abilities would have proven invaluable. It’s in their DNA.”
“And with such genetic expertise no longer required by later generations?” Quasar raised an eyebrow.
She nodded. “Idle hands, Captain.”
He blew out a sigh. “Well, at least that gamepod thingy is now in the capable hands of the governor, and it’s good to know those dead bodies weren’t dead after all.” Apparently, Quasar had not been the first marionette at the mercy of Kaasjager’s thumbs, and the kid’s prior subjects had been reduced to vegetative states. And subsequently buried. “The governor assured me they’ll be dug up toot-sweet and should be back to perfect health in no time.”
Wan didn’t seem convinced. “You’re comfortable leaving such a powerful device with him? If he was ever to reverse-engineer it for broader applications—orbital offensives, for example—I shudder to think what a politician could do if left unchecked.”
The captain shook his head. “His flabby thumbs are no threat. But if you’re right, maybe when our travels bring us back this way, we may be asked to lend a hand yet again.”
She nodded pensively. “Against the governor, you mean?”
Quasar shrugged. Then he drew his Cody 52 Special and spun it in three complete rotations before gripping it at the ready. “Guess that’s just how it is when you’re a gun for hire, eh Number Wan?”
A sudden pulse round erupted from the muzzle in a flash of blue light, blasting into the ceiling and fizzling to black. Cowering with short cries of alarm at the unexpected shot, the entire bridge crew stared, wide-eyed. Unbeknownst to them, many of the captain’s muscles had yet to recover fully from his ordeal on the Zeta moon, and unfortunately for them, his trigger finger in particular was still suffering from unpredictable spastic episodes.
“As you were.” With a dashing smile, Captain Quasar returned his weapon to its holster, and the Effervescent Magnitude forged on through the black, flying into the golden glow of a distant nebula.
Milo James Fowler is a junior high English teacher by day and a writer by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, and Macmillan’s Criminal Element. In his spare time, he collects rejection letters.