“Black sheep”

Samwise Fuller

All rights reserved by the author

 

Waking from a nightmare with a frightened yelp, Clarence leapt straight out of his bunk and onto the cold steel of the floor. He lay there for several minutes before he got up the courage to sneak a look at his surroundings. The room he found himself in was furnished with nothing but a metal chair and desk, some knobs on the wall for revealing recessed drawers, and, he assumed from his face down position, a bed built into the wall about a meter and a half above and slightly to the left of him. Clarence recognized the austere accommodations typical of a freighter captain's temporary quarters, but had no immediate recollection of how he'd come to be there. He didn't even know which space station he was on. He shifted over onto his back and addressed the ceiling. "Hello?"

            "Good morning, Captain Mumford," a pleasant female voice intoned. “Would you like to view the Mess Hall’s breakfast selection? For a limited time, all Captains receive free food and entertainment on the first three days after a tour. Perhaps you’d like to take advantage of this opportunity to schedule an afternoon session in the zero-G squash court?"

            "No, I'm fine, thank you. Where exactly am I, and what's the date?" Clarence was somewhat anxious to know his location; he was impatient to get back into the pilot's seat, even though he had just returned from a 6 month tour less than a week ago.

            "You are currently on the floor of room 3087 of Space Station Sigma, the time is 0743 hours, May 8, 2457. Shall I send an advisory to your Commander informing him of your tardiness, or do you wish to attempt to keep your original meeting time?"

            Clarence’s right eye ticked and he suddenly tensed up. “When and where is this meeting?” As a Captain, you may only meet with your Commander two or three times in your career, and missing a meeting is the best way to find yourself prematurely unemployed.

            The computer failed to grasp the urgency of the situation. “Your meeting is scheduled for the Observation Deck Mess Hall, 0800 hours. You currently have 16 minutes, 37 seconds. You should be aware, Captain Mumford, that it is approximately a 9 minute, 56 second brisk walk to the Mess Hall.”

            Clarence began to tear through his drawers, hoping to find some clothing that was halfway presentable. He began to babble to himself under his breath. “What the hell is wrong with me why does this bullshit always happen to me? Why am I meeting with Hesh anyway, I haven’t done anything wrong. If I did something stupid during my blackout I’d already be canned…” He continued to prattle on inanely, alternately cursing himself and Hesh. After about 1 minute, or a sixth of his total time to get dressed, he angrily turned to the ceiling and screamed, “Where are my dress whites?!” With a hiss of air, a drawer emerged from the wall. “Cleansed and pressed, as you requested last night, Captain.”

            After quickly donning his uniform, Clarence paused to thank himself profusely, and momentarily put questions about what had happened during his blackout out of his mind. He made off for the Mess Hall, with 11 minutes and 14 seconds remaining till 0800.

 

The Observation Deck Mess Hall was the largest onboard Space Station Sigma, serving the several thousand crewmembers, mechanics, pilots, and officers that called the mammoth series of stacked rings hanging in orbit over the Earth home. It was also home to one of the worst musical acts in existence, a 20th century Barbershop Quartet revival group, called the Fundamental Forces. But this was space, and anyone that wanted to spend extended periods of time away from Earth was paid quite well, which was the only reason anyone bothered to stay in space at all. Virtually every worker involved with the station or the ships it serviced, from the commanders on down to the custodial engineers,   was at first lured by the glamour of outer space. What kept them in these giant fishbowls suspended over the Earth, long after the wonder had faded, and the longing for home was unbearable, was the spectacular pay.

Commander Hesh tried for several minutes to determine what sort of effect the Forces were going for, but it was impossible to tell. Human voices without the proper digitalization reminded him of howler monkeys from the preserves back on Earth. Glancing at his watch, he noted that Mumford had about 30 seconds to show up before he was late, and Hesh had no qualms about tossing a Captain’s rank literally out an airlock for failing to adhere to his schedule, even with a record as impeccable as this particular Captain’s.

Fortunately for Clarence, he was exiting the Main Lift and began walking to Hesh’s table that very moment. He saluted, and was told to sit with 7 seconds to spare. “Yet another impressive display of punctuality, Captain Mumford. It’s that sort of reliability and efficiency that I’ve come to appreciate over the years. I’m going to get down to business, so just shut up about whatever you were going to say about this being a privilege and honor.

“I’ve got a very, very, high level request from the Global Security Organization to transport a classified cargo, some sort of geological radar to scan for underground signs of life, to one of our bases on Mars. Due to the nature of the cargo, there will be no crew backing the pilot up, not even a co-pilot. The mission will consist of nothing but the cargo, the pilot, and one of the big EM gunships, the Vingilot. This is going to be our lowest visibility and highest priority mission in a century, and we want you to pilot it, Clarence.”

Clarence sat for several moments, trying to take in what just happened. This was the last scenario he’d imagined on his walk to the Observation Deck. There really was no point in weighing the pros and cons. There weren’t any cons. He wanted to get into a ship and away from people, and this opportunity presented itself conveniently. Not to mention the career boosting and financial aspects of a trip like this…

“Sir, if I may be blunt?” Hesh just inclined his head ever so slightly. Mumford nervously cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. Will there be a bonus compensating for the increased danger and importance of this mission?”

Hesh shifted a bit before answering. He didn’t approve of increased pay for greater priority cargo; it seemed to be wasteful to him. “Yes, the GSO has decided to increase your pay by a factor of 20. They think that with you being completely alone for 7 weeks, you deserve some extra compensation.”

“Sir, I accept this mission, and I am honored that you feel confidence in my abilities. When do I leave?”

            “Immediately,” came the terse reply.

 

            Clarence checked the position of the space tugs on his holographic display. They were nearly out of the first staging area, their task of aligning his spacecraft finally complete. With characteristic slowness they puttered out of sight. As he watched them slowly drift out of his display, his vision began to blur and darken around the edges. He would have faded into a deep sleep, if a musical chime announcing the departure of the tugs hadn’t jolted him back to reality.

            Almost immediately, a familiar face appeared in the near-upper-left quadrant of his viewer. “Captain Mumford?” “Yes.” “This is James with Lunar Control, we’ve got you holding steady in Lagrange 5 orbit, how is your ship looking?”

“Fine, the EMPL is ready, everything reads normal.”

“We say ‘Go’ for primary stage activation of your EMPL.” A small green button labeled “Confirm” pulsated on the whole of the holoscreen.

“Roger.” Clarence tapped the button and waited. The EMPL that made up the majority of the ship had begun the process of firing its projectiles, and soon he’d feel a slight jolt into his seat as Newton’s 3rd law worked its magic on an unbelievable scale. Over the next 4 and a half days, reality for Clarence would be filled with steady dozing punctuated by a series of jerks on 2 minute intervals, pulling him with sudden weight into his chair. As its massive electromagnetic gun fired, the Vingilot slowly gained speed. James’ face reappeared on the screen.

“Ok, we’ll take it from here, you know what to do.”

            Clarence settled in to his seat. From here on out the autopilot would take care of everything, but he was required by law to stay alert and provide confirmation for each item in the checklist James was verifying. He’d performed the procedure with James dozens of times. He knew what to say, and when to say it. In fact, there were several occasions when he’d blacked out during the pre-firing sequence and managed to perform his duties well. In his head, Clarence wondered what the point was of having a faulty, yet federally mandated, carbon-based computer backing up a far more reliable silicon model.

5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

“Yes, I’ve got 500 megawatts running here…”

3… 2… 1…

“Confirming test results: I have capacitor rebound in 1 minute, 59 seconds.”

1…

“You have a pleasant summer too, James. Enjoy your vacation.”

James killed the video connection with the freighter and turned to address the Polar Coil Gun Complex control team. “Fire it up, gentlemen.”

            Feeling only a nearly imperceptible shiver in his feet, James watched the first projectile leave the muzzle of the gun through the main viewer. 1000 kilograms of metal and fuel leapt forth from the 10 kilometer barrel into the void at 20 kilometers a second and was out of sight in an instant, its onboard thrusters already maneuvering it into the necessary vector for rendezvous with the Vingilot.  James began to relax and wondered how he was going to spend his afternoon off. From here, the only human role played in the process was a series of verifications to prompts by the machine to send a new group of projectiles. James had tapped “confirm” a thousand times in the pit of Lunar Control, and he didn’t plan on watching newbie interns doing it for the next several hours.

 

Clarence leaned his head back into his chair and relaxed. He was now completely alone, and would be for the next 7 weeks. He still had one duty left as pilot before he could leave his station, and that was checking the status of the EMPL. The projectiles from the moon were due to begin reaching his ship any minute now, and if his own EMPL wasn’t charged and ready to slow them down to receive them, his life and the Vingilot would end in a spectacular catastrophe as the nuclear engine that drove the entire process ruptured and melted down. Everything checked out fine, the same as it always did. With all the checklists completed and the autopilot taking care of everything, Clarence checked the buckle on his safety harness, and let his mind drift…

 

Day 12:

There wasn’t a single holovideo left in the Vingilot’s computer that Clarence hadn’t seen. He’d watched all the new blockbusters on his last 6 month mission, and after watching them again, he began to make up some in his own mind. It had been several days since Clarence left the command deck, his quarters seemed unspeakably constrictive and the gravity only served to remind Clarence of his room in his parents’ home on Earth, the last bed he slept in with real gravity in 20 years. For the hundredth time of this journey, he began to recite his plan to return home. “With this money I can finally get the place I wanted a nice old style ranch like in the good old days. And I can retire young and still have the best 100 years of my life ahead of me. And I can finally be able to walk up to Jenny and say what I’ve always wanted to, ‘I love you, will you be my wife?’ And she’ll say yes and we’ll have 4 kids at first and we can raise them full time since I’ll be fucking loaded! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”

 

Day 17:

Clarence shed his clothing after realizing on day 15 that no one would ever see him, and that there was no point in wearing them for protection in such a controlled environment. He experienced a personal comfort and freedom of spirit that can really only be compared to the womb. Most of Clarence’s entertainment was in his own mind now. Personal fantasy had nearly eradicated the tenuous grasp on reality that he had before his isolation. He didn’t really remember what he was doing on board this ship, and he didn’t recall where he was going, either. The computer wouldn’t help him, saying it required his voice identification and retinal scan before it could reveal any classified information. The retinal scan was a pass every time he attempted it, but he couldn’t pass the voiceprint. He couldn’t recall what he was supposed to say…

 

Day 38:

Clarence had fled the command deck in terror. Every time he ventured outside his room the computer would flash its alarms and tell him to do something, but he just didn’t understand what they meant. He’d been holed in here for 2 days, and now his hunger was unbearable. He decided to make a dash for the supply room and hide in there, hoping the computer would stop setting off its alarms and let him eat in peace. Clarence took a deep breath and prepared to throw himself into the hallway. With a rush of feet, he was out the door and into the hallway, reaching the transition point to the non-rotating part of the ship in only a few seconds, but then he stopped. There were no alarms or repeated requests of action. It was eerily quiet. Increasingly worried by the absence of alarms, Clarence made his way to the command deck. Everything appeared to be in normal working order, except for the holoscreen, which contained a single line of text, blinking slowly: WARNING: Final Escape Vector Threshold Has Been Exceeded! Impact Imminent!

            A tiny dot appeared on the viewer, and then began to grow at a rapid pace. As it grew in detail, Clarence felt an increasing sense of dread. Once it was clear this peculiar red orb had 2 polar ice caps, Clarence recognized what he was looking at. “Oh, my God.”

            As Clarence’s mind came back, he began moving by rote as his training took over. Surveying the situation quickly, he knew his odds were poor to zero. The ship was coasting through space still oriented with its EMPL pointed at Earth, which made braking impossible. Clarence slammed the maneuvering rockets to full, praying that the EMPL could swing around in time to brake by firing its rounds. “Computer, time to impact, security clearance Captain Clarence Ezekiel Mumford, United Earth AeroSpace Corps, Logistics.”

            “Time to impact is approximately 5 minutes.” The computer remained dispassionate, even when faced with its own likely annihilation in the next several minutes. Clarence knew then it was hopeless to try and stop the ship from crashing on Mars. It would have taken at least 5 hours to slow down the Vingilot for entry into the Martian atmosphere, and more than twice that long was originally planned. Still, with nothing better to do with his last moments, Clarence began firing the EMPL into Mars, vainly chipping away at the momentum that had been building since the ship left Earth orbit.

            EMPLs on the poles of Mars answered back with shots of their own, striking the Vingilot and throwing it into a new collision course with Mars. Now completely filling the holoscreen, a massive dust storm raged on the surface. Knowing that his only hope lay in escaping the doomed Vingilot, Clarence raced to put on a spacesuit that could support him on the surface of Mars for several days. Suited up and fastened into the pilot’s chair, Clarence spent his remaining minute and a half engaged in a very intense, impromptu conversation with God, offering nearly anything to the Almighty in exchange for his life. His last thoughts, before everything went dark, went as follows: “I always knew there was something slightly askew with myself.”

 

Clarence returned to consciousness with an unbearable pain in his right leg, and a complete lack of outside sensation. Gradually, he became aware of a presence near him, despite his inability to perceive it in any ordinary way. The presence in his mind seemed to radiate a warm blue glow, and he could feel an expression of sympathy in his soul. His cares and worries lessened, and pain left him. The blue glow in his mind coalesced into a humanoid figure with obscured features, who made it instantly known to him that none of what happened was strictly his fault. A sense of relief flooded into Clarence and washed over him, leaving him with a question for this apparently friendly entity sharing his brain: Who are you, and what is going on?

            Something like mirth entered Clarence’s understanding briefly and then was gone. We are here to guide you, and all of your kind, until you are ready to meet the others. It was unfortunate that things had to happen this way, but the suspicions and plots that the human mind can produce limited our options. We couldn’t allow your device to reach the human base, or we would be found, but neither could we simply seize it as it was being constructed on Earth. So we engineered the crash by taking temporary control of your mind. The tone of this exchange was one of regret, but Clarence understood that his own value mattered to them less than the value of the whole human experiment, nearing completion.

            Another question entered Clarence’s mind, one of indignation and frustration. “Why can’t we meet you, if you guided us to this level of technology, then let us take the final plunge!” No sooner was it thought of, than it was answered. Sadness filtered through a strong resolution: The tools of humans develop far faster than you can mature, and far faster than we can control; there is still evil and cruelty in the hearts of men. If the members of your race began to unlock the latent powers in their minds, it would rip your home world apart in a year. You just aren’t ready yet… I’m very sorry, Clarence.

            And then he was alone in the dark again.

 

The next thing that Clarence was aware of was a shock that made his entire body spasm. His head start to loll to the side, but it was held in place by a series of wires leading to electrodes on his scalp. He heard the voice of Commander Hesh screaming, “What do you mean, his brainwaves show truth?! He’s obviously a lying saboteur, he says he was abducted by fucking Martians!” Clarence heard a deep sigh to his left.

            “I’m sorry Commander, that’s what his brain says. Every neuroscientist and psychologist you can ask in the UEN will agree with me: this man is completely insane, and suffers from hallucinations. I’ll be making my report to the Admiral this afternoon, consider yourself fortunate you only picked a paranoid schizophrenic for this mission, and not a spy. Good day, Commander.”

 

Clarence took a deep breath and looked around at the green hills spread out before him, rolling off to the horizon. There were, Clarence thought, far worse ways to spend the rest of your life than on a farm in the country, getting paid to undo psychological damage to yourself that was never really there in the first place. They even had sheep to tend, for the patients who were the most competent. Till the end of his days, Clarence always felt a special affinity for the errant sheep that would break free of his fence, and push beyond their boundaries. Later he would find them, lost and frightened, unsure of what to do with their newfound freedom. Like any benevolent shepherd, he would bring them back to the safety of the barn, and see to it that they were kept safe from their own curiosity.

 

© Copyright 2004 by the author

All rights reserved