On Board Leper by E.J. Shumak




E.J. Shumak

The comm panels exploded with light. Whole systems went to backup and a few to third bypass circuitry, but we were still flying. I spun around and took first weapons comp. Carlson was off shift, and me, a grade three navigator, had the command.

“Jacobsen, get me a damage report, and get the cap’n up here!” I ordered. Probably the first time I ever gave an order that meant anything.

“Docking collar’s gone. There’s some damage to the upper observation deck, but the seals are holding—we’re still tight,” replied Jacobsen.

Carlson came bursting through the hatch shovin’ me off the weapons comp, “Get us on auto evasive, and tie in to the weapons comp.”

Well, at least it wasn’t my problem anymore. I tied the weapons comp into my nav terminal, strapped in, and sat back. Of course I knew where the Concoloron ship had come from, but we must keep up appearances. I checked the computer’s scan log and found her trail. Then the ship rocked hard to port, throwing Carlson clear of the weapons comp. Great, now we’re really screwed.

I unbuckled, but before I could get to the weapons comm, Carlson was crawling back into his crash couch. This time he buckled in.

Jacobsen called out, “She threw that last volley, and then ran for jump. If you want me to hold scan we’re gonna hafta chase ‘er.”

“Let her go. Did you get any hull markings off scan?” asked Carlson.

“Checking now,” I replied. I wish somebody would remember I was a navigator, not a scan or weapons officer, and sure as hell not OOD material. “Yah, we got Nys ID markings on the hull, figures.”

“Check for any other trails. There anything else you guys managed to miss out here?” asked Carlson.

I wanted to tell him that at least I managed to stay in my crash couch, but thought better of it. I checked the proximity and area scan. They were clean, except for the one Concoloron’s incoming and assault trails.

“We’re clean, commander. Lookin’ at the trail scan, I don’t think the Concoloron could’ve hung around even if she wanted too. Came in at full velocity, took three shots at us while she flew through. She was damn lucky to catch even a piece of us,” I told him.

“Yah, I couldn’t even get the weapons comp to bracket her. She was movin’ way too fast.”

“We know they know we’re here,” offered Jacobsen.

“Thanks, I’m sure we all need to be reminded of that happy fact,” said Carlson. I was sure gonna keep my mouth shut, there was gonna be enough crap flyin’ around about this without pissin’ off Carlson on top of it.

The captain came through the hatchway and climbed into the command chair, “What’ve we got, commander?”

“Concoloron, Nys group, Tigris class, shot through here at full V. Took a few pot shots at us and kept goin’. Damage confined to the forward observation room and docking collar,” replied Carlson.

“Who had the comm?” asked Captain Harmon.

“I did sir, with Jacobsen on communications,” I told him. He just glared at me. I sure was makin’ the points now.

“Jacobsen, get a repair crew on the collar and forward ob-deck. I want us tight and solid before they come back.”

“Right, captain.”

“Duerr, you’re off shift. I want a report, including computer analysis and logarithm mismatch on this. I want to know why we didn’t see this one coming, regardless of speed.”

“On it now, captain,” I said as I unbuckled and headed for the lift. You didn’t hav’ta chase me outta there, no sir.

The halls were quiet. It was hard to believe we just took a hit. I should’a stayed with haulin’ rocks. These military types were gettin’ scarier every day. I’m walkin’ down the hall, tryin’ desperately to keep my shorts dry, and these bozo’s are actin’ like it’s a Sunday picnic. Maybe somebody spilled the potato salad, but it was still just another day to these people. Maybe they wouldn’t even care if they knew who I was.

The lift opened on L deck and I nearly fell out of the hatchway. Diane was there, and I could sure use some consolation–maybe even a little hero worship–after I told her how I single handedly saved the ship.

“Hey darlin’, you didn’t get too shook up down here, now, did ya.”

“Were you on the bridge? What happened? You know we lost pressure in the forward ob-deck. We also lost Callahan and three assault pilots. They were there on break when we took the hit. Hey, are you alright, you look like death warmed over?”

It had never entered my mind that we lost anybody. Could I have prevented it? Should I have set off the proximity alarms, would it have given us any time to issue a strap down warning? “We took a couple of hits from a Nys Group Tigris class. I was on comm. I had scan duty.”

“Oh crap. I guess that explains the look on your face. Hey, I’m sure it wasn’t your fault. All that computer scan stuff is preset, but you know all about it, you’re the one who just passed his grade one scan tests. You know it wasn’t your fault,” said Diane.

My god, even Diane took it as all in a day’s work. I thought outta’ everyone on this can I knew her. “Yah, right, well, I’ll see ya later.” I stumbled off towards the briefing rooms to put in my report. I sure as hell hoped I could find an empty one. My whole life just went into the toilet and I didn’t need any help flushin’ it.

I palmed the lock on L-B47, peeked in, and found it mercifully empty. I sat down at a terminal and called up the scan log and scan alarm logarithmic patterns. It didn’t take any time to figure out how to report it; the Concoloron captain had done her job. They launched as soon as they had us on augmented scan. The proximity alarms went off as the computer recognized the ship, even as soon as it picked up the ship-sized mass, but that was less than three seconds before the first volley hit.

I sure wasn’t gonna give the captain much of a report, but I didn’t see what they could fry me on. I couldn’t spot something on the monitor, if the comm didn’t show it.

I transmitted the information up to the captain’s mail box, pulled a copy of the logs and report out on disk, and pocketed ‘em. I’d heard of logs gettin’ altered before. Just because I was paranoid, didn’t mean that they weren’t out to get me.

I was the only class three nav operator on board that had passed class two and one tests — on both navcomp and scanops. I knew there had to be a reason, I just hadn’t got it figured yet. I did manage to figure that this last fiasco wasn’t gonna’ help me any, not that I was lookin’ for a promotion. I just wanted to stay outta’ trouble, and keep low profile. That was my job. If I could do that, with or without a promotion, so much the better. This sure wasn’t keepin’ me outta’ notice.

The buzzer tore me right outta’ the sack. It had taken me three hours to get to sleep and fifteen minutes for some jerk to pull a message alarm on me. I stumbled to the terminal, trippin’ over my last clean bridge suit and nearly fell through the input board.

I palmed the release panel and got the voice mail. Our darling computer voice spoke these precious words. “Commander – junior grade, Duerr, you are ordered to appear at bridge deck wardroom for briefing at 1800 hours. ENDIT”

Great, the captain’s gonna’ make me present this report to all the grade ones. That’ll make me real popular. I should get a whole boat load of fun duty outta’ this one.

I looked over at the time display and saw it was already 1740. Great, I got a whole twenty minutes to prepare a report I just tried to forget all about. I looked down at the last bridge suit I had, picked it up, shook it out, put it on. Yup, gonna look just great!

The Deliverance was one heck of a big ship, thirty-seven levels, some as wide as a hundred meters, with twelve launch decks. Sometimes you could go weeks without seein’ anybody you really knew. Not so this evening. On the way to the briefing I ran into every SOB that ever screwed with me. They all either glared or laughed in my face. Somebody was sure I was dead meat. Besides the aforementioned “friends” I met in passing, everyone that I really knew, and thought maybe I could trust, turned around the minute they saw me coming down the corridor. It looked like I was the new on-board leper.

I had only been in the bridge deck wardroom once before, the time the captain chewed me out for messin’ up a comp input during docking with a repair facility. Walking into the same room now didn’t exactly ease my apprehensions.

It was a fairly large room, with a circular table and flush-mounted terminals at each of eighteen stations. The Captain sat at a peninsula on the side furthest from the corridor hatchway. The left wall was all video screen, and the other wall had hatchways leading to an auto-kitchen, and the bridge corridor. It always smelled of plastic. My stomach churned.

I sat along the wall at the corridor hatchway, in one of the dozen, hard backed jump seats provided for “guests”. The room filled rapidly and I felt no better to be seated alone in the “guest” area.

The first fifteen minutes were taken up by unimportant bull that no one was interested in or actually listening to. I guess all meetings are pretty much the same. When the captain asked for the reports on the Nys Group incident, everybody woke up. Carlson gave his report, never even mentioned I had the comm. I wondered why in hell I was there. Carlson didn’t make it sound like my fault.

Carlson finished and Captain Harmon spoke up, “Okay Carlson, we got the idea. The problem is we lost four men and we still have to hold this stinking sector. We have orders to protect Vega seven. It’s in the corner of our sector and we jump at 2200. First staff will be off shift until reentry at Vega. Carmichael, give your report on Vega system Concoloron activity.”

Carmichael stood up, “Gentlemen, we have a situation where the Concolorons are attempting to enlarge their sphere of influence into the Vega system. Vega seven, specifically, has a large resort community that must be protected. Traffic in and out of the Vega system has been endangered the past several weeks.”

I had to wonder why I was here. This wasn’t any of my business. I not only didn’t have a need to know, I had no desire to know. Maustin interrupted Carmichael.

“What exactly are the mission specs?”

“We are to set up a post at Vega seven and work from there into the nearby, Concoloron held areas. We need to clean out any Concoloron presence within the sector and secure the entire area.”

“I don’t mean to repeat myself, Carmichael, but exactly what are we doing and more importantly, what are the specific target objectives and justification mandates?” asked Maustin, the first navigator.

“Okay, Okay. Look, I’m a little uncomfortable about this. We need to establish a secure trade route through the Vega system to enable increased traffic at Vega seven. The economic pressures require that the Vega system retain its current classification as a ‘safe’ system.”

Carlson spoke up, “What does the company get out of this, and, what’s the Concoloron influence?”

Carmichael continued, “We get thirty per cent of any increased revenues to Vega seven. The contract is for three years, so we may well have to come back, even after we secure the sector the first time. That is, if we do secure it the first time. The Concoloron interest centers on the third planet. It may have religious significance, or it may be financial. The Concolorons deal with species unknown to us. There isn’t anything valuable to us, system wide, but that doesn’t mean the Concoloron’s aren’t selling something to someone else, something we consider worthless.”

Captain Harmon interrupted, “Give them the whole thing.”

“Captain, I don’t feel comfortable…”

“Okay, Okay. Duerr, You’re the only qualified first scanop. I don’t like to double promote, especially under such unfortunate circumstances, but you just made commander. Take your seat over here at first scanops.”

Carmichael glared at me, then continued, “The Concolorons obtain a crystal substance from the third planet. They consider the entire system sacred and object to any other species in the system. They use these crystals — Karnth crystals — in their religious ceremonies. Apparently the visible matrix in the crystal resembles some Concoloran deity they think they sprang from. They believe that their evolution to sentient beings is somehow tied into these crystals.”

I still don’t remember what exactly happened next. I know I was in shock, but I apparently didn’t do anything real strange. The talk about home, coupled with the promotion had me in a daze. I got up, sat down at the first scanops seat and kept my mouth shut. Maybe I was learnin’ the military way. From what I was told later, all I said for the rest of the meeting was, a “Yes, sir,” as I took my seat.

When I got back to my barracks, the message light was on. I palmed the release and got another dose of computerized voice mail.

“You are advised to attend a staff meeting 0800 hours tomorrow. ENDIT”

Apparently, as a commander, I didn’t get ordered anymore, I got “advised.” Great, I wonder what the difference is. Needless to say I didn’t sleep real well.

I rode through the jump in my bunk; it was a heck of a lot easier than working comm through a jump. I threw up twice, once I awoke, but I’d had worse trips. I really think attending my first real staff meeting was bothering me more that the jump stresses.

Sittin’ comm with a full complement of staff was a real education for me. I had run nav and scan comm most of my life, first with my dad, then with my adopted family and the last few years working for the company. I had been naive enough to think these guys really knew what was goin’ on. Boy, was I wrong. I had never seen a less competent bridge crew, and, of course, every one of them knew exactly what they were doing. If you weren’t sure of that, all you had to do was ask.

As we approached Vega seven the instruments started acting up. First it was a navigation problem. The numbers on the instruments were off the scale. Scan acted up next. I reported the incident.

“Captain, scan is down. Just lost all inputs.”

Carlson got excited, guess he still considered me an idiot, “Get off the comm, shunt it to weapons one.”

“Yes sir, switching now,” I replied as I shunted scan control to his comm.

“Captain, scan is down,” reported Carlson.

Before the captain could respond, I added, “Big surprise, I thought I heard that somewhere before.”

“Okay, watch your mouth, Duerr. Carlson, check targeting systems,” ordered the captain.

“Working. We’re down captain. I can’t even bracket test.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at things, our video systems were unaffected. I thought I had best bring this revelation to the captain, along with our change in status.

“Captain, video is functioning, along with augmentation. We have a situation.”

“Shunt your image to main screens, said Captain Harmon.”

“On your mark, transferring now,” I responded. On the main view screens, thirty two separate views of the exterior of the ship appeared along the bottom monitors, while a computer enhanced and assembled image filled the upper portions.

“Where did they come from?” said Maustin.

Surrounding the ship was a full squadron, twenty four, Concoloron Puma class ships. We were completely at their mercy, though if we decided to commit suicide we could probably take quite a few with us.

“Looks like maybe we’re gonna leave these guys to worship in their own way,” I offered.

Maustin and Carlson glared at me; I didn’t have the guts to look back at Captain Harmon.

“We got messages coming in. Audio/video mixed, you want it, captain?” asked the communications officer.

“To the main screens, we’ve all seen enough of our predicament.”

An image of a grey furred, three-inch-fanged Concoloron filled the screen, “Captain Harmon, you have twelve hours to evacuate the planet’s surface. We have calculated that as sufficient time, and you have sufficient room to accomplish this. Do not argue. This is not negotiable. There will be no further contact with this vessel.”

The screen went blank and the bridge remained silent. I smiled, didn’t even care who saw me this time. “Captain, I’m familiar with the planet. I would volunteer to pilot one of the transports.”

“We haven’t given up yet, mister! And we sure as hell haven’t been defeated,” replied Captain Harmon. I guess I touched a nerve.

We started the evacuation. The planet populace, only seven thousand total, had already been collected and readied for transport by the Concolorons. I ran one of the first transports down to the surface. My former crew mates were busy with other preparations, so I only got a few strange looks from Vega seven locals when I headed towards one of the Concoloron Defense Authority Ships.

I clutched my Karnth crystal tightly. My job was over; I was going home to my adopted family. The Karnth crystals were protected. I could continue to worship as I had my whole life, ever since I was seven, and Concoloron miners pulled me from an abandoned hauler drifting outside Altair system. A hauler drifting because the company had killed the pilots, my parents, then left me for dead. My father had found one big mineral deposit too many, one mineral deposit the company wasn’t willing to pay for.

I hoped it was costing the company plenty this time. My only regret was Callahan, and the three pilots. That wasn’t supposed to happen, though their lives were well spent. Without their unknown sacrifice hundreds of lives, both Human and Concoloron, would have been lost before Deliverance would have been sent here. I would be away from my species—yet with my own “kind”. I knew I’d never feel like a leper again.


Food for Thought

Do those with an interest in commerce, in providing sustenance for themselves and their families, take precedence over another’s right to a religious belief? Does a religious belief take precedence over another’s right to better themselves through unfettered commerce? What loss of commerce is reasonable to allow for freedom of religion? Can we balance the right of creatures to better themselves through unfettered commerce with the right of creatures to have the objects needed for religious completion?

Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the newfound Roman “culture” of commerce,

Step by step they were led to things of idle decadence–the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude. And so, the gullible natives eventually came to call their slavery ‘culture’.

Baron de Montesquieu wrote in 1712,

“Commerce is sometimes destroyed by conquerors, sometimes cramped by monarchs; it traverses the earth, flies from the places where it is oppressed, and stays where it has liberty to breathe”

And Religion,

Religion ought not always to serve as a first principle to the civil laws. The civil laws are not an appropriate tool for enforcing religious norms of conduct: God has His own laws, and He is quite capable of enforcing them without our assistance. When we attempt to enforce God’s laws for Him, or to cast ourselves as His protectors, we make our religion an instrument of fanaticism and oppression; this is a service neither to God nor to our country.

Who is right, and more importantly, is it worth dying or killing for?

About the Author

This is Mr. Shumak’s fifth visit as a writer here on the pages of Sciphijournal. He lives in metro Chicago, Illinois, and has spent most of his life in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. He has been many things, police officer, large cat sanctuary operator, C.P.A. and on again, off again writer. He has held membership in S.F.W.A. since 1992, and has sold four books, three fantasy novels and one non-fiction. He has also sold several dozen short science fiction pieces and non-fiction articles through the last three decades.

He has extensively used his experiences as a sanctuary operator in the 80’s and 90’s to fuel his writing. He also leans heavily on law enforcement experiences of the same time frame. In this story (On Board Leper) the Duerr personality, as well as most of the other human characters stem from that police department experience and the officiousness so common to the administrative levels of same. Felid personalities sprung from the many large cats previously in Mr. Shumak’s care. During the nineties, Mr. Shumak operated the largest big cat sanctuary in the mid-west U.S., and was employed in a southern Wisconsin small town police department.

Mr. Shumak’s most recent work can be found on his author page at Amazon — amazon.com/author/ejshumak

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  1. Nice to see space opera here, especially with aliens flying by. Feels like I am right there on the bridge. Neet.

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