This is the third in a special series of space-themed stories in May 2020.
By Brian K. Lowe
When I was seventeen, class president, and a year from the Space Force Academy, Dad fell into an antique gun rack at work, dead from a stroke before he hit the floor.
I had been helping him in the pawn shop after school, partly to make some tuition money and partly because it looked good on my Academy application. After he died it was either take over the shop, or let Mom work it and my brother Rey raise himself while I ran off to the Academy. I opened up two hours after the funeral.
Every night, I’d sweep the floors, dust the shelves, double-lock the front door, and walk upstairs after a 12-hour day of trading in things that people had once thought they couldn’t live without, but now couldn’t live without selling.
But while I was scratching out a living buying and selling second-hand guitars, the real money was in things that had gone Out There. Tools, spacesuits, uniform patches… And when it came to interstellar travel, stuff that had been to another star… Years before I was born, the first guys to come back from Proxima Centauri had gotten rich selling their underwear. The best part was that, thanks to time dilation, they were still young. They’d been able to retire in their thirties.
It hadn’t taken long to come up with the Great Idea: Fly to Sirius B or Delta Pavonis with first editions, autographs, and rare coins carefully packed in your gear. When you return thirty years later, you sell your mint-condition treasures to the Earth-bound and retire, a millionaire before you’re forty.
Once everybody figured out space travel was the key to the good life, they all wanted in. Admission to Space Force Academy had never been easy, but it got tougher. Still, as soon as I could read, I knew that was what I wanted, and I worked every day to make myself good enough.
I ran until I threw up, did chin-ups until my arms cramped, and studied until my head hit the desk.
My little brother Rey used to tag along with me all the time, trying to keep up with my squats and sprints, pestering me with questions about my homework until I had to call Mom to get rid of him. It made me laugh, but I had to admit that he never quit until he was ready to fall over. Then he’d lie there with this weird look in his eye, and he’d say, “Next time, Tommy. Next time I’ll beat you.” He never beat me, but he never stopped trying, either.
Still, nobody I knew was smarter, faster, or tougher than me. I worked my ass off until I was a lock for the Academy. It was all waiting: Adventure, fame, and riches available only to the best of the best.
Until my dad died.
Three years after I quit school, the Academy accepted Rey’s application. The fact that he’d “helped his mother support the family after his father passed away” was a big contributing factor.
I missed his high school graduation because I had to work. I missed his Academy graduation because I said I had to work.
I missed his launch for Wolf 359 because I closed the store early and got drunk in the back room.
I hadn’t gotten around to washing the shop windows lately, which made the afternoon light slanting through all streaky, when the door chime peeped. At first all I could see was the uniform, and I let my shoulders slump in resignation. I had been having The Conversation more and more lately, and I hated it. But it came with the territory. Nobody visited a pawnbroker unless he had no other options, not even astronauts. And nobody came to my shop unless he had hit bottom.
Then he came close enough that I could see his face. I knew it instantly, or course; it wasn’t like it had changed in the past twenty years. I felt the old resentment rise up, but at the same time I felt an odd momentary sense of relief: At least he wasn’t here to have that Conversation.
“Hello, Rey. How are you?” Young, that’s how he was. Aged two years for my twenty. By all rights our positions should have been reversed. I thought I’d gotten over it by now.
“Good, good. I just got back from Wolf 359.” Yeah, I kind of figured that out. “You’ve still got the shop.” Next he’d start talking about the weather.
“Yeah, well, where else am I going to go?” I asked with a shrug and a sheepish grin as if it actually was a rhetorical question, and not the elephant in the room. “I got married a few years ago.” I didn’t really want to get into it with him, but if I didn’t mention Marilyn it would feel like I was ashamed of her. “You missed the wedding.”
“Sorry. I … didn’t get the invitation. I was out of town.”
He looked around at the shelves like he was reacquainting himself with everything.
“I’m going to have a son,” I added. Another thing I didn’t have to hide. “You’ll be an uncle.”
His eyes came back to me, and his smile seemed real. “Hey, that’s great.”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, reaching out to straighten a commemorative plate that didn’t need straightening. “When you get to our age, you start thinking about your legacy, you know?” I looked him in the eye. “Oh, wait, you wouldn’t know.”
“Shit.” Rey turned away, his hands half-raised in a gesture of frustration. “I knew this was a mistake. I knew you wouldn’t be able to keep yourself from lording it over me.”
I blinked. “Wait—what? You were the one who went to the Space Academy! You’re the one who just came back from Wolf 359! You’re the astronaut with the fame and the— Oh, shit…”
I finally looked at my brother, really looked at him, at his bloodshot eyes, sunken and haunted. How could I have missed that? He looked like he had spent the last twenty years on Earth, aging as I had, and not travelling at eighty percent of the speed of light.
I closed my eyes, and I promised God anything if He would just keep me from having to have The Conversation this one time.
Yes, men and women were retiring at the end of a subjective three- or five-year voyage at relativistic speeds, living easy lives with their student loans covered by their back pay and their futures greased by what they’d taken with them, collectibles removed from Time itself.
But not every investment paid off. Not every old book or musical chip became valuable. Not every famous person became a legend. Some travelers came back to find their gamble hadn’t scored as big as they hoped, and that their investments were worth barely enough support them in a world whose technology was twenty or fifty years out of their grasp. But even they had something to cash out with. Some guys returned to find their “treasures” worthless and themselves broke, unemployed, and unemployable. Then they came to me, and we had the Conversation.
“Show me what you brought back, Rey.”
He carefully produced a small leather case, opened it, and unwrapped a book. I didn’t recognize it, but the dust cover was pristine.
“You’ve got to give me something! This is a first edition, signed by the author. He was a bestseller! And only five hundred copies were put to paper. This one’s immaculate.”
I entered the title into my database with no hope. The only astronauts who came down here had already exhausted the auction houses and the private collectors. If Rey’s book were worth real money, he wouldn’t have brought it to someone like me. I scanned the results slowly to make sure I didn’t miss anything, then I named a figure.
“It’s got to be worth more than that.”
Actually, it was worth about half that, but he was my brother.
“I’m sorry, Rey, but after you left, the tourist trade started up. The guy who wrote this book, he took off for Cygnus Xi five years ago, and he took every copy of his book he could find with him. Until he gets back, they’re a drug on the market.”
I had never seen my brother with tears in his eyes.
“Look, Tommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry it was me went out there instead of you. But it’s not my fault Dad died.”
“Of course not,” I said reasonably. “Just like it’s not your fault you took off into space first chance you got, instead of taking over here so I could go to the Academy, too.”
“Was that what I was supposed to do? Come back here to push a broom around in the dust so you could go back to school? It was six years since they accepted you! You think they just leave those spots open so anybody can waltz in whenever he wants?”
“That was my dream! I was supposed to explore space! I was supposed to be the one getting rich and famous…” My voice trailed off.
“Yeah, because that worked out so well for me! Do you know what it’s like out there? They tell you it’s great and beautiful and heroic—it’s crap! Two years of living in a tin can with no windows and the same fifty people and there’s nowhere to go to get away from them!” He leaned into me. “And you want to talk about getting rich? Do you know why I bought this book and took off and left you in this store? Because I was gonna come back here someday and rescue you! I was gonna sell it and split the money with you so that we would both have a chance to live better than Mom and Dad did, above a goddamned pawnshop! Sorry, that didn’t work out, so now we’re both screwed! At least you’ve got a job and wife and a kid—what have I got?”
I choked on my reply, my mouth hanging open. Had I gone to the Space Academy, and to Wolf 359, I would have done the same as Rey did, and I would’ve been standing there with him offering me twice what my merchandise was worth…
“This has nothing to do with us,” I said, trying to control my breathing. “Or who left and who stayed. It’s just the way things are.”
“So that’s it, then?” Rey gave an exaggerated shrug. “That’s just how it is? The universe doesn’t care about us? Nothin’ we do makes a difference? Then what am I gonna do, Tommy?” Rey’s voice was breaking again. “I left here when I was eighteen. I hadn’t had time to build up any bank accounts or buy any stocks. My back pay’s barely covering my loans. This was supposed to make the difference.”
All of a sudden I was fighting back tears myself.
“Look. I can give you a job here. It won’t pay much, but it’s a start. Marilyn and I can set up a room for you upstairs, at least until you know what you’re going to do next.”
Rey shook his head. “No. You’ve got a baby coming. You’re going to need that room.” Suddenly he had that weird light in his eye again, that “Next time I’ll beat you” look. “I know what I‘m gonna do,” he said, pointing his book at me. “I’ve still got skills. And I’ve got experience. I’m gonna get re-trained, and I’m gonna get me a job on one of those tourist ships you were talking about. I’m going to sail as far and as long as I can, and I’m gonna take more shit with me, and when I come back here in fifty or sixty years, I’ll have something that’s worth something.”
He tucked the little volume back into the felt-covered case where it had sat protected for twenty of my years, and stood up. We looked at each other, hugged awkwardly, and broke free quickly.
“Goodbye,” he said. I wondered how many more times I’d see him. He’d have to work two jobs even to make enough to finance his loans, and space training was intense. I knew I’d drop everything to see him when he took off again, but by the time he got back, I’d probably be dead.
“Rey, wait!” I pulled a comic book, carefully sealed in archival plastic, out from its niche behind my counter. “Here. This is a first issue of The Stellar Gang. It came out after you left, so it’s not very old, but they’re talking about making a movie.” I shrugged.
Rey gave me a sad smile. “Save it for your son.”
As I watched him walk out, I thought about how many people were heading starward every year, every one of them carrying something in his luggage that he hoped would appreciate over time. The odds against them were getting longer. Rey would never give up, but that didn’t mean he’d ever win.
For a long time, I had envied him. He manned a starship; I manned a pawn shop. He was looking to succeed while he was young; I was trying to make it before I was old. But I had a wife, and a baby on the way, and he had an old book by an author whose name would probably be forgotten before either of them returned. I laughed to myself: then they’d both be broke. At least I had my shop.
Rey’s voice echoed in my head. “‘That’s just how it is? The universe doesn’t care about us? Nothin’ we do makes a difference?'”
No. I could make a difference. I had already started. Marilyn and I had a opened small account for the baby, ten bucks a week, rain or shine. I e-mailed my bank, opened another account, this one in Rey’s name. I put ten bucks in it. I could do the same every month. Marilyn wouldn’t begrudge Rey ten bucks a month. Our gift to the future. Rey’s future.
Because if we don’t look out for each other, the universe wins.
By Mur Lafferty
Humans have a tendency to fret about the big while we ignore the small. Right now, in May 2020, the big news is terrible, with pandemic and economy and stress, but we also have pleasant little news. Space Month continues here at Escape Pod. We recently celebrated our 15th anniversary. Or birthday. I’m never quite sure with podcasts. We’ve announced Wreck Runner, our August virtual race published by Six to Start and written by me and publisher Alasdair Stuart, and Escape Pod’s anniversary anthology, coming this fall from Titan books. And while the pandemic keeps us from attending the WorldCon we’ve been looking forward to since they announced their bid years and years ago, we are still nominated for a Hugo Award. (And yes, a Hugo nomination is small when you’re considering the impact of global pandemic.)
But still. The biggest news is what’s happening worldwide and that’s what bears down on us.
While reading this story I started singing (to myself, because no one wants to hear that) that old Morrissey song, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.” You want to feel good for people you love, but it’s hard to be entirely positive about someone else’s space flight when you run a pawn shop. It’s also like It’s A Wonderful life, only without the guardian angel or the antagonist getting away with everything. Did Sam have the wonderful life with the money and ladies in feather boas, or did George have it with four kids and Mary in a sensible frock? I’m sure Sam Wainwright has an STD or bankruptcy in his future, while George has angels and bells and more frocks.
About the Author
Brian K. Lowe lives in Los Angeles with his wife of many years. He is a graduate of the UCLA creative writing program and the Taos Toolbox master class. He has 50 publications, including his time-travel trilogy, The Stole Future, available from Digital Science Fiction.