In the bright morning of the new day, Sarah Hawkins sits in front of the window of Delbert’s large observatory, smiling at the sky. Jim is alive and safe, and more than that he’s happy – she can see in his eyes that hopeful spark, that old delighted glow. He is a changed man, and Sarah is overcome with gratitude. It is worth the loss of her inn a thousand times over if this space adventure has brought her son back to her, and something in the pit of her stomach tells her it has.
The story Jim and Delbert told her – with much drama and excitement, before collapsing into bed – was almost impossible to believe. A black hole, death, pirates, a lost treasure, a whole host of vivid characters, a robot recharging upstairs: they had come together to form a truly remarkable (though frightening) tale. It’s like something out of one of Jim’s childhood storybooks.
A knock interrupts her musings. Startled, Sarah stands; she can’t imagine who would be calling at this hour of the morning, with Jim and Delbert both heavily asleep, only just returned from months in space. She casts a glance at the small pile of precious jewels on the table, jewels she hadn’t cared about yesterday when Jim pressed them into her hands but which now seem unsafe, a target.
Another brisk knock, and Sarah goes quickly to the door, telling herself not to be silly. She turns the handle, unsure what she will see on the other side.
‘Good morning,’ says the knocker, a tall feline with sharp eyes. ‘You must be Sarah Hawkins. Captain Amelia, pleasure to meet you. May I come in?’
‘Of course,’ says Sarah before she can register what she’s saying, already moving aside, and then it clicks – this is the captain, the captain of their voyage, the woman who, if Jim and Delbert are to be believed, saved their lives more than once.
The captain is striding across the floor, tall heels clicking confidently, and when she turns Sarah sees that her left arm is in a sling. Another memory – Delbert gesturing wildly, and because the captain was injured, she ordered me to take the helm, and my word what a terror that was, but very exciting, Sarah, you wouldn’t believe –
‘Delbert’s asleep,’ says Sarah, because she has a hunch, and the captain smiles.
‘No matter,’ she says, removing her hat, ‘it’s Mr. Hawkins and yourself I intend to speak with, although I presume his status is the same as the doctor’s.’
‘It is,’ says Sarah, once she’s worked out what the captain’s said. She suddenly understands Delbert’s emphatic the most incredible turn of phrase and grins. ‘Coffee?’
‘Delighted,’ says the captain, and minutes later they are seated in front of the large observatory window, watching the first sunrise of the morning.
‘It really happened,’ Sarah says at length, coffee cooled enough to drink comfortably. ‘The way they told it.’
‘Quite likely,’ the captain confirms, taking a dainty sip. ‘It is, in this instance, a story that would suffer from embellishment, rather than improve, I must admit. Certainly one of the more exhilarating voyages I’ve been on, and I’m late of a few run-ins with the Protean Armada.’
‘Thank you,’ says Sarah impulsively, feeling the impressive words crash over her. ‘Thank you for watching Jim. I know you did. Delbert said you saved their lives.’
‘Tish tosh,’ the captain says crisply, waving a dismissive hand. ‘The fact of the matter is, your son saved us all, in the end. And goodness knows I’d be in an embarrassing state right now if the doctor hadn’t flustered over my rib.’
Pride swells in Sarah’s chest. ‘He’s a good boy,’ she says, meaning it. ‘He’s had some rough spots, but he seems – better, now. Happy.’
‘Your son is a good and courageous man,’ says the captain without hesitation. ‘Of that I have no doubt. He has his troubles, but,’ she says, shrugging, ‘so do we all. I was quite a terror myself, in my youth.’
‘You weren’t,’ says Sarah, before she can stop herself, looking at the brisk and upright woman before her.
‘Certainly,’ the captain replies crispy. ‘Nearly thrown out of the Academy twice, if you can believe it. Quite an argumentative nature and too head-strong by half. But we all learn, and so will Mr. Hawkins.’
‘I’m sorry?’ says Sarah, blinking.
‘Oh,’ Captain Amelia says, ‘yes. I suppose now is as good a time to mention it as any – it is my opinion that Mr. Hawkins is deserving of a place at the Royal Interstellar Academy. With your permission, of course, as he is still underage.’
Before Sarah can react properly to this, Jim shuffles into the room. He yawns, stretching, before he sees Captain Amelia and immediately straightens.
‘Captain!’ he exclaims, and it’s been years since Sarah has heard such respect from him.
‘Good morning, Mr. Hawkins,’ the captain says briskly. ‘Do sit down.’
Jim does, quickly, and the captain leans forward. ‘I’ve brought you this,’ she says, withdrawing a heavy envelope from within her coat and sliding it across the table to Jim.
‘What is it?’ he asks, turning it over in his hands.
‘An application package to the Interstellar Academy,’ the captain replies, tapping one long nail against the wood. Her lips quirk in a smile. ‘I popped by the Academy this morning and had a word with the director to make it clear that, should an application with your name on it find its way to their admissions office, I would consider it a serious error to neglect accepting it.’
Jim’s eyes glow as he flips through the papers. ‘You should know, Mr. Hawkins,’ Captain Amelia adds, ‘that I rarely recommend people to the Academy, and I have made this exception with the expectation that my good name will not be sullied in doing so.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ says Jim, grinning where he once might have been hurt. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’ll leave you to look that over,’ the captain says, standing. Sarah gets to her feet and follows her to the door.
‘Thank you,’ she says, eyes glistening.
The captain clicks her tongue. ‘Nonsense. In actual fact, it is my belief that he will be a credit to us all.’ She pauses, eyes flickering once over Sarah’ shoulder to where Jim is reading the first page of the application, oblivious to his surroundings. ‘It’s my understanding that Jim has not been realizing his full potential in school.’
‘Will that be a problem?’ Sarah asks, with a flash of old anxiety.
‘To the contrary,’ the captain says briskly. ‘I bring it up in order to reassure you that the Academy is particularly suited to those of … rebellious spirit, shall we say, as I can personally attest to. Not to mention that this most recent voyage will speak for itself.’
At Sarah’ surprised look, the captain adds, ‘This was a private contract but I am still an officer of the Royal Fleet – a full report must be made. And of course the prosecution of the pirates we apprehended will require my testimony.’
Just as Sarah is beginning to feel a bit alarmed, the captain flashes a charming smile. ‘I’m frequently in and out of the Academy myself,’ she says, eyes twinkling. ‘Your son will be well looked after, I can promise you that.’
The captain has already turned and is several steps down the front walk before Sarah tries for another attempt at repaying her. ‘Delbert will be awake soon, if you want to stay.’
‘Oh, no, thank you,’ the captain demurs. ‘I should hate to be predictable. Good day, Mrs. Hawkins.’ And with a tip of her hat, Captain Amelia is gone.