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Culpable Obedience

by Jack Bragen

part 1 of 2

Jorkshire, who had nicknamed himself “Prince Jorkshire,” was the self-appointed Prime Minister of New Venus. He stood before Governing Committee members to state his case.

“Prince” Jorkshire had a powerful public following and was well-liked among the top brass in the military. Despite the Committee members’ obvious dislike for him, most of them held their tongues. He wasn’t someone they would want as an enemy.

Jorkshire’s position of Prime Minister was actually an illegal one, but the public — in mob mode — had voted him. It was unknown why he wore face paint and had nicknamed himself a prince. These enigmas, however, seemed to make him even more popular among a very bored community.

The Governing Committee, on the other hand, barely remained in power and feared a coup in which they would be assassinated. The members of the governing Committee were determined to be rid of him as soon as practicable. However, at this point, hundreds of thousands of angry citizens insisted that he was Prime Minister.

“The devil incarnate lives in the unexplored solar system, coordinates 5.5, 5.6, 5.6.” He paused momentarily for effect. Two members of the Committee visibly swallowed, their Adam’s apples sliding upward and down. “I am renaming it Devil Star.”

A man in his seventies spoke. He sat in the center seat of the Committee members, and his gold-plated plaque indicated he was Jesse Hillsborough, the head of New Venus’s ruling committee. “Where is your evidence that you have found the Devil? This is absurd.”

Jorkshire replied, “Biblical prophecy, my respected Committee chair. The same prophecy that predicted I would come to power. The same prophecy that—”

“Nonsense!” barked the committee chief.

Jorkshire, without so much as a pause which might give another member of the Committee an opportunity to speak, continued: “I strongly suggest a pre-emptive attack. Say, a thousand battle spacecraft and one flying fortress...”

A din of loud talk immediately arose as Committee members began to argue among themselves.

“A thousand craft? What sort of enemy are you anticipating?” said Hillsborough, his aged voice crackling with outrage.

“Intelligence surmises a formidable force,” replied Jorkshire. “And we should be prepared for any contingency. A loss on that vector would invite unknown enemies in that direction.”

“And how long will it take to navigate there and back, round trip?” asked Chief Hillsborough, adopting a less robust tone of voice, one of mere inquiry. Even the chief Committee member was wary of crossing this prince. And Jorkshire had made a good point; defeat invites more defeat.

Another member of the Committee, Gladys Seymour, interrupted, as she was known to do. “What about reports of non-terrestrial based life on that vector? Shouldn’t we be on our best behavior?” She was in her fifties and had red and gray hair; with quite a dignified presence. She was the only female on the Committee, and few dared invoke her wrath; she could get vicious.

“Why should we believe in fairy tales?” Jorkshire replied while acting offended. “We know there is no life other than of terrestrial origin.” He folded his arms and paused. Then he said, “The round trip, even if we assume a long battle, is a mere eight years on our clocks, a four-year round trip by ship’s chronometers. The new anti-inertia generato installed on the ships will speed up interstellar travel considerably. The star system in question is three light years from us.”

The committee members looked at one another unhappily. Jorkshire had gone over their heads and had retrofitted the fleet with the new equipment without permission. No one had the nerve to confront the Prince about it.

“Only an ignoramus could assume a humans-only universe,” said Gladys, bypassing the other issue. “Why don’t you try proving the existence of your ‘God Almighty’?” Seymour folded her arms in mockery of the Prince. “There’s more where that came from.”

“You should be kicked out of this Committee,” retorted “Prince” Jorkshire.

“You look like a fool in your face paint, and there has never been royalty in the history of this colony,” said Gladys. “The day I’m kicked out of this Committee is the day this planet goes dry.”

And at that, Seymour believed she had checkmated “the Prince.” With her it always came down to the fact that she owned a controlling interest in the planet’s supply of water as well as spacecraft fuel. If people didn’t cooperate with her they could soon discover themselves very thirsty and unable to drive their spaceships anywhere. One man had tried to cross her, and she kept a photo of him pinned to the wall of her office in the Committee building.

“Who votes to overrule this presumptuous dame?” Jorkshire’s stance against Seymour was unheard-of up to this point, but the committee abruptly outvoted her. She might not recover from this loss of face. Without a word, she stood to her six feet two inches and stormed out of the building. The colony would soon experience a famine because of the crops being deprived of irrigation water. Meanwhile, “the Prince” had clearance to launch his attack.

* * *

This is the tale of one of those ships that came to attack what would be known as Star System Fate. Specifically, the ship number was 997. I was the commander of that vessel.

I was at Marchbanks Bar and Grill with my grandparents as well as dozens of family members. We were celebrating my grandfather’s 127th birthday. A drone came up to me and handed me a slip of paper. It said, “Byron, Ship Commander, Due to ship out to space in twenty-four hours. Report immediately. First you are summoned to office of Committee member Seymour.”

My aunt, in her seventies, saw the expression on my face. “That’s a look I had hoped to never see,” she said. She put a hand on my shoulder. “You’re not shipping out...?”

I nodded.

“Oh hell,” and she added, “Those bastards. Who could they possibly be starting a battle against? That prick the Prince. He should have never been elected.”

I stood, I wrote a check for my restaurant meal and said in a voice everyone at the long table could hear, “Everyone, I have to ship out and I have to go right away. There is no time for a decent ‘goodbye.’ I hope to see you all again.” I turned and walked away without providing a chance for family to grab me and sob. The energy drain would only impair my functioning. I had begun the transition to a military frame of mind. Emotions like these were not welcome.

Uncle Ed pursued me out the door. “Oh no, you don’t. We deserve a hug and a word.”

I sped up to a sprint and got into my aircar which was across the street. As my vehicle ascended I waved to Uncle Ed, who by this time had broken down and was hunched over in tears. “I will be back, uncle,” I silently said to the hunched figure. I wished he could hear me.

* * *

At the launching station I met my crewmembers. A female pleasure android had been provided for the relief of the male crew, and otherwise there was only one female who would be on board, the physician, biologist, and forensics specialist. We were the only ship to get such an “extra” person, and had been given no explanation why we were chosen for the privilege.

I noted that she was a handsome woman, with sort of a manlike, trunk-like build, and taller than average, with auburn, medium length hair. But certainly not unattractive. I reminded myself that sexual relations between crewmembers were strictly prohibited. And yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that we had a four-year round trip ahead of us.

“Sergeant Rebecca Collins. Have you looked at me enough?” she remarked, as I shook her hand.

“Who do I look like to you?” I replied.

“You’re mission commander,” she said, hesitantly. I left the remaining part of the conversation unspoken. It was inappropriate of this crewmember to speak to me as if I were someone picking her up in a bar.

“Try to get up to speed,” I said. She looked perplexed, and without helping her figure things out, I moved and stood before the next crewmember.

“Mechanical and Repair specialist, with Gamma Certification: I am Mr. Crain.” He shook my hand with more strength than I was ready for, and seemed to be a bit young for this. I hoped he wouldn’t be a source of trouble.

I eyed the one other crewmember, who appeared short and plump, and kind of geeky. I wondered if this one was physically fit for space travel. He nodded at me and said nothing, until I asked him to identify himself.

“Bernstein,” he said. “And you should already know that I’m the navigator and weapons person. I’m the only one left.”

“I’m Commander Byron,” I said to my three crewmembers. “We’ve been allotted fifteen minutes to get coffee before we must get on the spacecraft. The ship number is 009970, and I’ll see you all at the door to the ship.”

* * *

The four of us stood before the looming space battleship, and the young engineer Mr. Crain whistled.

“It is a pretty one,” I confirmed. “Let’s hope it stays pretty and that we stay pretty.”

“Unlikely,” remarked Bernstein. “We have a statistical likelihood of sustaining damage.”

“Ship 009970, prepare to be boarded,” I said. It was important to maintain a commanding stance, and not to show significant weakness to the crew. I had to adopt a façade of semi-perfection in order to function as commander. It was a big departure from the accommodating and even self-deprecating character that I showed family and friends.

We climbed the ladder that the ship had lowered and entered the airlock of the ship. There was a slight depressurization. And then the top of the airlock opened, allowing us to stand up and climb out.

Crain remained on the lower deck to monitor the engines, parts of which impinged upon the space in the lower deck. Bernstein and I entered the cockpit, while Collins hesitated, and then offered to go into suspended animation and remain on the middle deck in one of the sleep tubes so that she would be “out of the way.”

“You were put on this ship for a reason,” I said. “You should take one of the extra seats in the cockpit and observe, if nothing else.”

“Of course,” replied Sergeant Collins. I realized she had likely joined the space forces without expecting to head into an active combat situation. I could not reveal that I felt the same. Meanwhile, it seemed that my two other crew members lived for action.

“One more thing,” I announced. I pressed a button to activate the pleasure android and ordered it through the cockpit microphone to put on one of the extra uniforms and report to the cockpit. “We’re using you as computer interface,” I said. “There’s no sense wasting an extra body.”

“As you wish, commander. I am now connected to the ship and in strictly interface mode. Pleasure systems are deactivated.” The android nodded at me and seemed eerily like a living person. The android then took a seat in the cockpit adjacent to the red-haired Sergeant Collins. Damn. I had a thing for women with red hair.

“We launch in one hour. Remain at your stations,” I said.

The pleasure android, now in the position of computer interface, reported: “All systems O.K. for launch and trip, and the fleet reminds us to fly in formation.”

“Engineer, have you made engines available to navigator?”

“Of course, sir,” replied the voice of the young engineer speaking through the intercom from the bottom deck. I anticipated that Crain’s cockiness could become a problem.

It had been implied that we would come right back after hopefully defeating the enemy there, but there had been no guarantee of that. We had to follow orders, whatever they turned out to be. If the general of the fleet ordered me to jump off a cliff, I was prepared to do exactly that, and to make sure my crew did the same. Meanwhile, I might need to put Crain in his place when the opportunity presented itself.

Discipline of the crew had several stages. Command had a mystique, and that mystique had rules. Ultimately, the crew needed to function flawlessly, as one integrated unit.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Jack Bragen

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