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The Shepherd of Zakhbaal

by Bill Bowler

Chapter 2: A Good Chance

Omar Jones travels to a distant Earth-like planet where he encounters an alien civilization. He is by nature taciturn in the face of personal conflicts and tragedies, but as he approaches his destination he begins to experience strange sensations and emotions. When he reaches his journey’s end, he finds the one thing he thought he had lost forever.

Four young men sat around a conference table in a windowless room. The muffled sound of large aircraft landing and taking off could be heard from outside. The men were fit and athletic. Three of them — Armstrong, Cruz and Weld — were clean-cut and in the pale blue uniform of the United Earth Peacekeeping Forces. The fourth was Omar. He had tied his hair back into a ponytail, trimmed his beard, and put on faded jeans and a T-shirt for the occasion.

Colonel Shepherd was standing beside a large hologram displaying an image of the northern night sky filled with stars. He zoomed in to a faint constellation and turned to the men.

“Vulpecula. The fox.”

Shepherd increased the zoom to show a yellow-orange star, and zoomed again, centering the image on a planet in orbit around the star.

“HD 188015b. Planet X, as we call her. One hundred and seventy-one light years from Earth. You’ve been briefed on the signals. The atmosphere, temperature and gravity are within range for human tolerance. Spectrographic analysis shows the signature for water vapor.”

Armstrong, Cruz and Weld exchanged glances. Their faces were bright with barely suppressed excitement and anticipation. They shifted in their seats and seemed barely able to sit still. Omar bowed his head and gazed intently at his hands folded on the table.

Shepherd continued. “The ship’s systems are full auto, but the decision has been made to send a human crew. There’s a chance we’ll make contact, a good chance, and we want to show them what we’re made of.”

“Hooah!” Cruz called out.

“We won’t let you down, sir,” said Armstrong.

“I know that, men.” Shepherd went on. “You’ll be placed in cryogenic suspension, but as things stand now, it’s a one-way ticket. The ship is capable of acceleration to half light-speed velocity, but even if you did make it back, centuries would have passed on Earth.

“Of course,” Shepherd grinned, “if the thrust technology advances quickly enough, another ship from Earth may still beat you there, and I might be on it. We would be from your future, and God willing, I might personally be there to roll out the red carpet when you arrive.”

“Go for it, sir!” said Cruz.

“Thank you, Captain. Now, any questions?”

After a brief silence, Armstrong, the security officer, spoke up. “What about these signals?”

“Omar, that’s your department,” said Shepherd.

Omar looked up and spoke quietly. “Vulpecula emits pulsating radio waves that display segmented patterns with potential semantic value, something on the order of Morse code for the unknown alphabet of an unknown language.”

“Could it be from a natural source?” Cruz, the pilot, asked.

“Not likely,” said Omar. “Of course, the signals that reach us are almost two hundred years old. Even if we managed to decode them, we’d be reading history.”

Shepherd nodded. “All right, gentlemen. If anyone is having second thoughts, now is the time to express them.”

Shepherd looked around the room at the crew. Cruz had a broad grin on his handsome face. Armstrong smirked and whispered something to the engineer, Weld, who laughed at the private joke. Shepherd was proud of these young officers, brave men who welcomed adventure without a thought for danger.

But then there was Jones. He sat quietly, his hands folded on the table, his face expressionless, his eyes downcast as if lost in thought. He was the weak link, Shepherd knew, the most likely to crack or deviate from the mission goals.

A child’s voice screamed “No-o-o!” in the hallway outside the room. The men heard the sharp sound of a slap and the scream increased in volume. The door opened, and a little girl, four or five years old, a miniature version of the colonel, ran into the room with tears streaming down her cheeks. She stumbled as she raced in, and fell against Omar’s chair. Omar reached for her, but she stepped back and glared defiantly at him. One of her cheeks was bright red.

“What are you doing here, Lyla?” Shepherd’s voice was cold. “Where’s your mother?”

The girl looked around at the men in the room, and buried her face in her hands. Mrs. Shepherd appeared in the doorway, face flushed, eyes flashing with anger. When she saw the men, she composed herself and smiled at the child.

Shepherd took Lyla by the arm, pulled her to the door, and handed her over to his wife. Then he shut the door and turned to his men.

“Now, any questions?”

No one spoke for a moment. Armstrong stood up. “When do we start, Colonel?”

“O-six hundred tomorrow morning.”

* * *

After the men had left the room, Shepherd stood gazing at the hologram of Planet X. On General Wolffe’s orders, Shepherd had stuck to the cover story about the signals and made no mention of the deteriorating situation with the T-Bomb proliferation.

Terrorists were now threatening to detonate the stolen Tachyon device if their demands were not met. Their location had been identified and a Navy SEAL team had been dispatched. This incident apparently would be contained, but it could hardly be the last.

The technology had leaked. It was only a matter of time. Sooner or later one of these things would be used, and that would be the beginning of the end.

Shepherd’s mouth was set in a mirthless smile. The crew of Mission X was not even aware of the mission’s real name. The classified Pentagon codename was “Lifeboat”.

* * *

Freeze pods were installed in four life support chambers adjacent to the flight deck. Under Shepherd’s supervision, medical technicians strapped the men into the transparent, egg-shaped containers, wished them a safe journey, and sealed the lids. On glowing monitors, Shepherd studied the readouts of the crew’s vital signs. Three of the men showed elevated stress levels. It was only normal. The fourth set of readings was anomalous.

“Check Jones.”

The technician glanced at the screen. “What is he, sleeping?”

The tech went to Jones’s pod and looked through the lid. Omar’s eyes were open and a smile flitted across his lips. The tech checked the readouts again. Jones was in a beta state. Complete tranquility.

The tech knocked on the lid. Jones winked one eye.

The med tech crossed back to the console where Shepherd stood. “I don’t think he’s going to need any anesthetic.”

“Very funny,” said Shepherd. “Go ahead.”

The medical officer opened a valve, and the four crewmen were asleep within seconds. With all readings stable, Shepherd gave the command. They filled the pods with fluid, drained the blood from the men into the storage reservoirs, and began to bring the temperature down.

“Take a look at this.” The med tech called to Colonel Shepherd. “Now Jones is showing heightened neural activity.”

Shepherd looked at the monitor. “He’s still within range, yes?”

“Just barely.”

“Keep an eye on it.”

When they took off six hours later, the crew was in cryostasis and the ship’s AI was flying the ship, monitored by the ground crew at mission control. At 14:30 hours the next day, the ship passed through the orbit of Pluto, accelerating towards the edge of the solar system.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler

To Challenge 461...

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