Gatekeeper

Space gelled into a sharp starfield beyond the cockpit window of Militia Patrolship 187. Immediately, sentinel buoy telemetry poured in, accompanied by a shrill intruder alert. Adrenaline surged through Mitchell Devay as he peered from under the brim of his Nixonville Patriots cap, hurriedly scanning the monitors, picking the most vital information from the flood of stored data.

“Appeared ninety-three minutes ago,” the rookie patrolman announced. “Roughly five hundred K, bearing one-zero-five…broad spectrum, high energy, EM/Plasma wave detected three minutes after appearance…multiple — make that massive — life readings…currently drifting…no indications of propulsion since detection….”

Without looking away from his console, Lieutenant Terrance Labahn, Mitchell’s senior partner, asked: “Identity?”

“Unknown origin. Buoy’s made low-level systems contact…interface translation matrix pending. Transferring interface processing to on-board systems…Running.”

 Labahn queried his console. “No weapons systems detected.

 Particle shielding deployment subnominal. Plot an intercept to bring us within strike range. I’ll call for backup.”

 Mitchell acknowledged and excitedly tapped at his console while Labahn uploaded a hyper-link broadcast array program into the sentinel buoy. Within an hour, patrolship 187 had been joined by two more Militia ships.

The intruder, a small cargo vessel, floated among a cluster of asteroids. Shaped roughly like a sea turtle, and four times the size of the patrolships, it possessed no discernible registration or identification markings. Sensor scans indicated a hull breach with residual radiation. Mitchell didn’t need his minor degree in propulsion systems to conclude the vessel had suffered a stardrive mishap.

     “This is Lieutenant Terrance Labahn of the Rightstar Federal Militia,” he announced across all known communication channels. “You have violated Rightstar planetary space. Identify yourself immediately.”

     “Alo! Alo!” All three crews jumped at the frantic greeting. “Jes, Vellermo am I. Much thanks for coming,” the voice was thickly accented and barely recognizable as Rightspeech.

     Labahn cleared his throat. “Where are you from?”

     “Eh…from places many.”

     “Identify your home system!”

     “Good Sir, with sadness much, I say no home we have.”

     “What is your vessel’s status?”

     “Eh…my ship, she ees much broke. She moves not. Help me to fix, jes?”

     “Does any of your crew require medical assistance?”

     “Some not well…but not many bad.”

     “We must board your ship.” No response. “To help you, we must examine your ship.”

     The silence continued for several heartbeats until the voice named Vellermo said, “Jes. Come please.”

***

     Moored along the intruder’s port side, Mitchell and Labahn made the fifteen-meter traverse to the adjacent airlock. As the outer door slid closed, they watched their sleeve readouts as a suitable mixture of oxygen and nitrogen flooded and pressurized the chamber. Artificial gravity came on gradually, easing their feet onto the deck. As the inner door slid open, each man removed his shockrod.

     “Good God!” Labahn froze in the threshold and extended his shockrod. Mitchell pulled up behind him.

     The dimly-lit corridor contained a throng of ragged, jabbering humanity, straining over each other to get a look at the black-suited Militiamen with their clear, spherical helmets. In front stood two dark-skinned females, both a meter-and-a-half tall, and nearly the same wide. Each held a crying infant while several wide-eyed toddlers clung to their loosely-fitting garments and stared in amazement.

     Behind the women, barely a half-head taller, another figure looked tentatively out from the crowd. In a sudden burst of determination, it squeezed itself between the two rotund females, popping out before Labahn and Mitchell. Slender and dark-bronze, the little man’s black hair hung down in long, oily curls to his shoulders, framing fiery black eyes and a wide, flat nose.

     “Alo!” Over the din came the voice they heard before.  “Vellermo, am I! Good greetings many to you!” He spread his arms wide in welcome and parted wide, thick lips into a white-toothed smile.

     “What’s going on in there?” came from one of the other patrols.

     “Looks like a gorilla caravan,” Labahn grumbled, tightening the grip on his shockrod as he surveyed the mob. “I don’t like this. I want a level-three boarding — right now.” He activated his external speaker. “Mister Bearmo, are you aware that your ship has intruded into Rightstar space?”

     The little man looked puzzled. He turned and waved his arms frantically, exclaiming something unintelligible, until the din died to whispers and the muffled cry of babies. He turned back and shrugged. “Sorry. You say…”

     “I said,” Labahn came again through clenched teeth, “do you understand that you have trespassed into the planetary space of the Federated States of Rightstar!”

     Vellermo flashed another huge white smile and nodded slowly. “Jes. Now do I.”

     “Well, as a representative of the Federal Government of Rightstar, I am authorized to demand your immediate and permanent departure from our space.”

     The smile continued. “Jes, and I am happy to go. But as I have say to you–I cannot. The engine of my ship ees dead. She cannot go. You must help me to fix, Jes?”

     A violent shudder accompanied a metallic thud. The crowd cried out and jabbered excitedly. Vellermo’s smile faded to consternation. The thud and the vibration repeated.

     “Our ships have attached themselves,” Labahn explained smugly. “Shortly, we will have company; then we will look through your ship.”

     Outside, the other patrol teams moved across the intruder’s hull towards the airlock. One Militiaman took up the Operations Monitor position inside 187. Labahn divided the patrolmen into a group of three that he would lead in reconnaissance of the forward section and the bridge, while Mitchell and a more experienced patrolman moved aft to evaluate engineering and propulsion. Labahn explained to Vellermo.

     “Jes, sir,” the little man gave a quick nod without smiling. “Take you will I to my bridge.”  He turned and rose up on his toes, swaying side-to-side as he searched. He called out several times, waving someone forward. Through the sea of humanity, a figure emerged.

     Tall, muscular, and completely bald; the woman’s dark-brown skin glistened. Her ample cleavage pressed against a sleeveless, khaki vest only partially closed by a loosely-laced thong;  baggy, gray trousers rode her hips with the bottoms tucked into heavy-soled boots. Her dark eyes distributed a cold, hard stare to each of the Militiamen in turn.

     Mitchell found an exotic beauty to her.

     Vellermo jabbered something to her, motioning towards Mitchell and his assigned partner. In any language, her response was curt and acid.

     “X’tani this is,” Vellermo informed. “Your men she will show to the engine.”

     Mitchell’s partner, a stubby, middle-aged man, gave a low whistle and a lusty “Yikes!” The others chimed in with hums slobbering sounds. The Militiamen could only be heard among themselves; still, Mitchell felt uncomfortable.

     “Let’s get moving,” Labahn declared, tossing his arms forward.

     Vellermo turned, exclaiming and waving his arms to clear a path through the wall of bodies. The sea parted slowly as people pressed themselves up against the bulkhead or scurried down the corridor. As Vellermo and Labahn’s team advanced, X’tani gave a stern look to Mitchell and his partner, jerking her arm as the signal to follow.

     Mitchell glanced side-to-side at the faces staring at him. They were young and old, big and small, and — to Mitchell’s surprise — a motley mix of brown, black, olive, yellow, and white. A few meters away, X’tani stopped and shooed several light-brown children away from a door. The two Militiamen followed her through.

     On either side, rows of storage racks were filled with the ship’s ubiquitous human cargo. They reclined or sat huddled in makeshift bunks; children laughed and screamed, running through the aisles.

     Mitchell detoured left down an aisle. Walking slowly, he observed closely. The makeshift bunks looked extremely uncomfortable. Bedding was next to non-existent. Mainly there was only the cold, hard shelves. Cold being the operative word. Ambient temperature read ten degrees Celsius. Many sat pressed together or hugged and rubbed themselves for warmth. Mitchell’s stomach churned as he found areas along the wall that the passengers had taken to using as toilets. Too many people with too few toilets and washrooms; this wasn’t a passenger ship. At least the cold had the advantage of retarding the breeding of flies. He peered into the gaunt and ashen faces continually staring at him. The eyes were dull from the cold, from the hunger, from the sheer misery.

     A scream came from behind, followed by shouting in his earpiece. Wheeling, Mitchell saw a male adolescent struggling with the other patrolman. The youth gripped the shockrod in one hand, while pushing on the patrolmen’s chest with the other. The shockrod discharged in a brillant, blue flash, throwing the young assailant against a vertical rack support. He slumped to the deck. Mitchell rushed forward. A young, crying girl knelt and cradled the fallen boy. X’tani raced up behind the stubby Militiaman, hooked a leg around his, and threw him to the deck–but not before he had back-charged his suit with the shockrod. The electrostatic discharge flashed and propelled the dark woman several meters down the aisle. Both X’tani and the patrolman now lay supine. But while X’tani lay unconscious, wisps of vapor rising slowly off her body, the Militiaman was panicked, cursing and firing wildly into the crowd.

     “Stop it! Stop it!” Mitchell ran up, impervious to the wild barrage of energy by virtue of his suit. He struck the fallen patrolman across the wrist, sending the shockrod spinning wildly long the deck. “Stay down!” he hissed, stabbing with an emphatic finger. Retrieving the weapon, he moved to X’tani, relieved to find her alive. She groaned, opened her eyes and saw him knelling over her. Rising up on her elbows, she sneered and spat.  White, frothy spittle ran down Mitchell’s transparent faceplate.  He calmly offered his hand. X’tani glowered at him, but firmly grasped the black glove.

     “What in God’s name is going on here?” Labahn demanded, strutting down the aisle, followed by Vellermo, the Militiamen, and a host of spectators.

     “Ask him,” Mitchell growled, pointing to the stubby patrolman.

     “That little bastard attacked me!” the stubby one accused, indicating his assailant, who still slumped against the rack with the crying girl.

     X’tani massaged the back of her head and gave the stubby man an icy stare. Spitting out words angrily to no one in particular, she then turned to Vellermo, her tone grave.  

     “X’tani say your man touch the girl bad. Her brother defended her honor.”

     “That’s a lie — I didn’t touch anyone.”

     Labahn surveyed the havoc around him. “On the contrary,” he said with obvious amusement, “I’d say you’ve touched quite a few.” To Vellermo: “My apologies for this little…misunderstanding.”

     “Jes,” Vellermo said solemnly, “I sorry much also.”

     “You,” Labahn addressed one of his team. “You’re with Devay now.” Labahn took the other shockrod from Mitchell and handed it to the stubby one who was rising to his feet, red-faced and empty-handed. “Your sorry ass is with me now.”

     Without further words, the Militiamen, Vellermo, and X’tani returned the way they had come, parting company at the intersecting aisle.

      The aisle turned into a twenty-meter-long catwalk, ten meters above the main cargo hold’s floor, and surrounded by a loose framework of cables. On the deck at the threshold lay a large yellow square. Painted in black was a representation of a body lying parallel with a black line. A red caption proclaimed: WARNUNG: SCHWERELOSIGKEIT

     X’tani paused and motioned to the sign; then pointed out to the left into the cargo bay where hundreds of floating crates and containers were strung together with cables or bundled up in nets. Barking at them for attention, she leapt forward across the threshold and grabbed hold of a cable at the top of the framework. Now weightless, she turned over and began pulling herself hand-over-hand.

     Mitchell and his partner followed, diving headlong into the catwalk, using their suit thrusters to gently push them along.

     As X’tani reached the end, she firmly gripped each cable until her legs fell away and she landed feet-first. Mitchell flipped over, popped his thrusters, grabbed the last cable and nailed the dismount like a gymnast off the uneven bars.

     His partner mimicked Mitchell’s moves, but popped his thrusters too hard and missed the cable. All three cursed simultaneously as the man came squirting out of zero-g. X’tani and Mitchell caught him by the shoulders before he crashed onto his back, allowing for only bruised buttocks and ego.

     The aft section was unoccupied, providing relief from the crush of people. Mitchell and his partner scoured the section looking into every door and access panel–all the while, under X’tani’s disgusted gaze.

     In the upper deck levels aft of the cargo bay, they found the main engineering station. The rectangular room was eight meters wide and four deep. A window enclosed the room on three sides and overlooked the stardrive, bathed in dim light. Through the window, twelve meters to the right of the propulsion unit, Mitchell made out the hull’s outline. He followed the curvilinear wall aft. The surface began to ripple and progressed into irregular contours. A thin, jagged line ran diagonally back along the buckled hull; stars shone through the crack.

     He scrutinized the instrumentation consoles closely. Similar to the zero-g catwalk caution, the keyboards, control labels, and display monitors consisted of familiar letters, but little of the words made sense. Fortunately, the diagnostic console employed a virtual graphics interface. Using the three-dimensional graphical model, he could select and disassemble areas of the ship, while viewing diagnostic numbers and color-coded bargraphs. Red and yellow predominated the graphs; but, without understanding the captions, he couldn’t determine their full relevance. He recognized the word “status” in many readouts, but was uncertain what specifically Stern Antrieb status meant. The term appeared frequently.

     The roving video drone impressed Mitchell. Rightstar engineering systems should have employed such a device. While examining a virtual portion of the propulsion system, he could activate the drone’s icon to inset a live visual of the area. He selected the unit’s port side. After adjusting the brightness and contrast through slider controls on the inset display, he distinctly saw the shattered and twisted conduits and plating. Using a virtual joystick, he turned the drone to examine the hull rupture.

     Two hours later, Mitchell had gained a sense of the propulsion system’s primary components and their function. Of all the uncertainty in the diagnostic data, he knew only two things for sure: First, it would require top propulsion mechanics months of effort to come even close to repairing it; and second, the damage done had not been an accident.

***

     Soon after Mitchell had come to his conclusions about the propulsion system, Labahn entered and sent Mitchell’s partner to join the others on the bridge. The Lieutenant’s gestures to X’tani to leave were met with silent obstinateness and her fiery glare. It took the threat of his shockrod to unthaw her stance and have her stalk slowly out.

     “Well…?”

     “Basically, FUBAR,” Mitchell advised, raising his hands in resignation. “There’s no way this thing’s going anywhere under its own power for a long time.”

     Labahn pursed his lips in contemplation. “Our little monkey-boy captain feels confident that the reactor’s stable and not likely to implode on us. What’s your opinion?”

     “Not much I can offer with one-hundred-percent confidence. But from what I see, I’m willing to agree with that.”

     “So there’s absolutely no way to bring propulsion back on on-line?”

     Mitchell shook his head. “Not with our technology. Looks like we’re going to have to call for a transport to off-load these people.”

Labahn took the seat next to Mitchell, sighed, and shook his head. “This ship is really a mess, isn’t it?” he said with forced casualness. “In all my years, I’ve never seen more filth and wretchedness. Every compartment on this ship is holding three-or-four-times their capacity. People are actually living in the corridors. Who would be willing to live this way? Can you imagine what would happen if these people were to take up residence on Home?”

     “Does Vellermo have any explanation who they are, or what they’re doing here?”

     “He says they’re homeless. They’ve lost, or been thrown off, their worlds.”

     “They’re refugees, then.”

“They’re refuse,” Labahn corrected brusquely. “These people are why our ancestors left Earth. At best they’re drug-addicted derelicts, retards, whores, or homosexuals. Even worse, they’re vandals, thieves, murderers, rapists, you name it.” Suddenly he gave Mitchell hand signs for switching to close-proximity/random-frequency-shift communication, effectively preventing anyone else from hearing there conversation.

     Perplexed, Mitchell shrugged, nodded, and adjusted his voice-link.

     “You say you understand the propulsion system?”

     “Yes. . .” Mitchell drawled sarcastically.

     “And you understand the reactor mechanics?”

     “Pretty much.”

     A graveness fell over Labahn’s face. Their eyes locked for several heartbeats.

     “Implode it.”

     Mitchell looked puzzled.

     Labahn continued slowly and distinctly. “Rig the reactor to implode–remotely…deliberately.”

     They sought in each other’s expression, the answer to two diametrically-opposed questions.

     Mitchell drew a deep breathe. “You mean after we off-load the occupants.”

     Labahn remained silent. His icy stare answered.

     “You want to destroy this ship . . . and kill all the people aboard.”

     Labahn looked away. “I want to fulfill our obligation to protect the citizens of Rightstar.”

     Mitchell was incredulous. “How is murdering the hundreds of men, women, and children on this ship going to protect Rightstar?”

     “Do you want them on Home?”

     “No, but that’s not necessary. All we need to do is quarantine them — according to protocol.”

     “Stuff protocol! Face it, Mitch. They can’t leave under their own power and we don’t have the means to repatriate them to anywhere else in the galaxy. We’re prohibited constitutionally from rendering affirmative action to any inferior race or culture — so the only logical option is to destroy them — like the vermin they are.”

Mitchell had been on Ring Patrol for half-a-year. Since then, he and Labahn had participated in dozens of intruder interceptions — and each time they followed protocol. In all but a handful of those incidences, they successfully — and non-violently — turned ships away. Three times, due to an inability to communicate, they had arrested the two-or-three travelers and remanded them to custody at a Ringbase. And only once — when they were fired upon – were they forced to destroy an intruder. But even then, it was according to protocol. Mitchell would not accept this as anything other than another routine interception.

“I won’t do it. We follow protocol. Period. I’m going to request the Op Mon to transmit a request to Ringbase for a relief ship.”

     “I’m the operation leader. The Op Mon will do as I instruct. No such request will be sent.”

     Mitchell wheeled Labahn around by the arm and faced him down. “Are you insane, Terrance!” he nearly whispered. “You’d never get away with that.”

     Labahn stabbed an angry finger in front of Mitchell’s faceplate. “Don’t think for a moment that the others won’t support this, or that I won’t have backing from the upper-echelon. Yes, this is a sensitive action, but the less who know about it, the better. I’m only being prudent, Mitch.”

     Something resembling fear tickled the nap of Mitchell’s neck. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Terrance. You’re asking me to be responsible for a horrendous act that I’ll have to live with forever…I want this discussed with the entire team.”

     Labahn’s face turned to stone. He rose silently and made towards the door.

     Out of the corner of his eye, Mitchell detected movement.

Three meters beyond the observation window, small, blue lights blinked slowly; the shiny, solitary eye of the video drone stared at him.

***

The others could feel the tension that washed onto the bridge with Mitchell and Labahn.

     “We have a situation that Mister Devay would like to —burden – you all with,” Labahn announced. “I have made the determination that the presence of this ship and its occupants threatens the security, health, and resources of our citizens. Given that Constitutional law prohibits us from aiding and abetting races and cultures that pose such a threat, as well as the inability to have this ship remove itself from our system, I have further determined that protocol dictates that we neutralize with extreme prejudice.” He looked around the bridge: he had their rapt attention. “Do you copy that Op Mon?”

     “Affirmative,” the disembodied voice came quietly.

     “I have instructed Mister Devay to use his expertise to effect this action — but he has refused. He believes this action is too ‘horrendous’ for him to carry out and feels you will concur with him. Therefore, I am allowing him to discuss the situation with you, in the hopes that seeing consensus will convince him otherwise.”

     “’Vape the bastards,” came the stubby one. Mitchell wasn’t surprised.

     “Op Mon, what’s the confirmed lifeform count?” Mitchell asked.

     “Three-hundred twenty-two.”

     “Would you be willing to pull the trigger on over three-hundred innocent human lives, Op Mon?”

     A tense silence. Then came Op Mons emotionless response. “One by one, if it protects our way of life.”

     “These people could be carrying God-knows-what-kinds of diseases,” another suggested.

     “That’s what quarantine’s for,” Mitchell countered.

     The stubby one pulled himself up to his full height and said, “Not to mention that fact that those lazy bastards will scarf-up all the manual-labor jobs that teenagers and students count on. Man, I’ve done my share of picking crops and washing crappers during my school days — and I was grateful I for the job, too.”

     “Mister Devay doesn’t seem to care what cost to our livelihoods and precious resources would be incurred in supporting these people,” Labahn asserted.

     “I’ve never had to put a price on human life before — if that’s what you mean,” Mitchell said. He moved towards a young one sitting at the console, dividing his attention between the discussion and the display. “How about you. Do you think we’re justified in killing all these people?”

     The young man surveyed the room uncomfortably as all the others looked at him. “If they threaten our way of life, yeah — I guess so.”

     “You married?” Mitchell asked.

     “Yeah.”

     “Kids?”

     “A two-year-old.”

     Mitchell put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and peered into his wide eyes. “We’re going to kill all those babies out there,” he said solemnly. “How do they threaten our way of life?”

     “By growing up to become trash like their parents,” Labahn answered. “They’ll move into our villages and towns, breed like rats, and overrun us in within a couple generations. They’ll bring their own particular brand of filth and decay to our neighborhoods. This is what the Great Exodus was for — to get away from the likes of them. Allowing them back into our lives should be — and is — a crime against the citizens of Rightstar.”

     “So all of you are convinced that this shipload of impoverished humanity threatens the sanctity of Rightstar’s gracious living and are willing to go on record as supporting their destruction as if they were a herd of diseased cattle?”

     Mumbled agreement came from everyone.

     Labahn approached Mitchell until they were standing face-to-face. “Yes — we’re all convinced; but no — there’ll be no record. We can’t allow our mission to be hindered by misguided sentimentality from the less-stalwart on Home. This action must be keep confidential, and any threat posed to that confidentiality will be dealt with in the most expedient manner.”

Mitchell’s blood froze. He knew now why fear ran its icy finger down the nape of his neck: Short of a mutiny, Labahn would not be deterred; and a single voice in opposition would simply become a casualty — collateral loss sacrificed for the greater good. He turned away and stared out the large view window. If he didn’t follow Labahn’s directive, it would get done just the same, somehow, except his life would be added to the losses.

“I’m going back to engineering,” he declared and moved towards the door. “I’d appreciate being left alone for a while.”

     Labahn followed him with a suspicious look. Then one corner of his mouth slowly rose into a half-smile. “Very well. But you will be needing our host eventually I take it?”

     “Sure,” Mitchell agreed from the open doorway. “But I think it would be best not to raise suspicions by asking too many questions about the reactor when it doesn’t need attention.”

     “You’ve changed your mind awfully fast, Devay,” observed the stubby one.

     “No — I haven’t,” Mitchell corrected. “I still think it’s horrendous. I still think it’s wrong. I just see that I have no choice. Right, Terrance?”

     “Exactly, Mitch. And don’t go looking for choices either — it wouldn’t be healthy.”

***

The main engineering station door closed silently. Mitchell leaned back against it, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply. In a maelstrom of thoughts, he sat down heavily at the console and stared out the observation window. The video drone was gone. Could he, in good conscience, become the executioner of all these people? He would be the one having to live with the responsibility for their deaths.

Working half-heartedly with the console, he brought up the system displays and graphs. Would he really be the one responsible? Labahn was the one ordering him to do it. If he just followed orders — as was proper for a member of the Militia to do — would that place the guilt on him?

Mitchell tweaked the controls back-and-forth, observed the cause-and-effect in the readouts. He was never taught that a Militiaman was a free-thinker, obligated to question the correctness of a senior officer’s instructions. To the contrary: Follow orders to the letter; the commanding officer is in charge and responsible. That took the burden off him.

 After an hour he thought he might have found the reactor containment controls; but, without a translation of the consoles, he wouldn’t know if he’d breached the core or set off a carbon deoxide warning. If the wrong (or perhaps right) people found out, Labahn would be the one to suffer the consequences — not Mitchell. Rig the son-of-a-bitch to implode, stand back, let Labahn pull the trigger, and erase it from his mind. He could do that: he could forget that it ever happened.

Punching a button on his breastplate, his helmet retracted back behind his head. With his first breath, the stench of raw sewage snaked down into his stomach, threatening to wrench out its contents. He brought a cold, lifeless glove up to his face. Quickly, he broke the glove seals and slipped them off. Covering his face, he alternated breathing through his nose and mouth until he was habituated to the smell. He wouldn’t hear the screams of the three-hundred-odd men, women, and children crying out as they, and all the matter within a thousand kilometers, were sucked into a ten-centimeter gravity well.

 Massaging his face, he mediated in the dark behind his eyes; seeing again and again the nameless faces he would put to death. They wouldn’t come to him in his sleep pleading to know why he had done it.

He could forget…

He could deny…

      “So, you planning to kill the whole nasty bunch of us, are you, mon?”

     Through his musings, Mitchell hadn’t heard the quiet whisper of the door opening. X’tani glared at him from the open doorway. Her brown, muscular arms lay folded across her chest.

     Mitchell stared agape.

     “Oh, and what’s it that surprises you so?” she asked in amusement.

     “You — you speak — Rightspeech,” Mitchell stammered.

     “No mon, I speak English. You white bastards may have changed the name, but on Earth, English is what it’s called. And you’re so chauvinistic, I’ll wager that’s the only language you people know.”

     Mitchell nodded sheepishly and stared at her. She appeared  several years older than him, or perhaps she just endured a harder life. Yet beyond the perpetual scowl and the bald scalp, Mitchell found her fierce eyes and full lips more alluring than any of the pale white woman on Home. Images from the historivids flashed across his mind. “Are you a nigger?” he asked.

     X’tani leapt like a cat. Her right-uppercut to Mitchell’s jaw propelled him out of the chair and onto the deck with a heavy thud. She stood over him, screaming. “You arrogant white bastard! That word hasn’t been spoken in front of my people for hundreds of years. How dare you refer to me in such a way?”

     Mitchell massaged his bruised chin and looked up at the furious woman. “Sorry,” he said, raising his other hand in resignation. “That’s what your race is typically called.”

     “Well, for you, mon — you can call me a Mandelan. I’m from a star system my people named New Mandela. It’s our new heritage in the stars.”

     An uneasy silence ensued. Finally, X’tani offered her hand to Mitchell. It was cool and strong. She pulled once and brought him to him feet. Their eyes locked.

     “So — what’s your name boy?”

     “Mitchell Devay.”

     “So, Mitchell Devay — you ready to kill us?”

     “What makes you think that?”

     “Don’t take me for a fool,” X’tani scolded. “You looked dead into the drone’s eye didn’t you, mon? Yeah, I was there at the other end, reading your lily-white lips. Your boss man was very kind to speak slow and clear. I only had to replay the recording a couple times to make out the word ‘implode’. I saw the look on your face — I don’t think you want to do it.”

     “Maybe I’ve changed my mind.”

     Amused surprise splashed across X’tani’s face. “Oh? Not just because of li’l ol’ me, I hope.”

     “Look, I swore to protect Rightstar and uphold its laws. I believe Labahn is right about the dangers and costs of having you in our system. But I’m not sure that killing you is the only way. It’s expedient, but it isn’t right. Problem is, I’m the only dissenting opinion; and that’ll likely get me killed along with you.”

     “And you want to die neither for us, nor with us, right?”

     “I’d readily die for a good cause,” Mitchell declared. “But I won’t die for nothing.”

     “And we’re nothing to you. Right, mon?”

     “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who any of you are, or what you’re doing in our system. But I’d love to hear about it — as long as it’s the truth.”

     X’tani paused and considered the young Militiaman intently.

     “Okay; here ‘tis: Vellermo is a freaking li’l gypsy, who’s  been selling passage on this ship to any and every poor dumb bastard he’s come across, promising to take them to a paradise world where everyone has a job, plenty to eat, and a roof over their heads.  Most everyone here had none of those things. But whatever they had, he took, and stuffed them in here. He’s been hopping around the galaxy looking for a place to dump them. Here and there he’s got lucky and sold off some women to dumb-ass settlers. He tried that shit with me once and I nearly cut his  balls off. We heard of your system from some sorry-asses you cut loose. Everybody in the galaxy’s been looking for the rich Earth whities who ran away. Figured by now you were in need of some sisters to clean your homes and wipe your asses, and brothers to pick crops and keep you entertained. So here they are! But so far they haven’t got the welcome they been expecting.”

     “You were expecting we’d take all these people as servants?”

     “No, not me. I loathe the whole idea.”

     “So why are you here?”

     “Not by choice, I’ll tell you that! I was part of a New Mandelan expedition to a star system far from our own.

A meteor storm hit and stranded us. Only I survived. Vellermo happened along and rescued me.”

     “So what did you pay for passage?”

     “Every scrape of wreckage he cared to have. But he knew I wasn’t like his regular passengers, so he made me one of his crew and promised to take me back to New Mandela as soon as I helped sell these poor bastards off.”

     “So you plan to return home?”

     “Sure-as-freaking-hell do! I hate this ship.”

     “Then I assume you didn’t help disable it.”

     “Excuse me? This ship was hit by a rock when it came out of hyperspace.”

     “No. It wasn’t. The hull rupture was caused by internal pressure from a detonation in the main plasma flowtubes. The flowtubes could possibly suffer stress-fissures, leak, and detonate if the magnetic containment field is lost. If that happened as you exited hyperspace, both the reactor control valves and the exterior plasma vents would have been open. The resulting explosion would have gutted this ship. But the explosion occurred three minutes after you reentered. The limited damage is consistent with containment being lost only after closing both the control valves and vents. In my estimation, that makes it a deliberate act of sabotage.”

     “Why that little bastard! What was he thinking?” A torrent of foreign obscenities poured from X’tani’s lips. She calmed and said, “Ya, mon, I know what he was thinking: make it so you have no choice but take the passengers while his ship gets fixed. But he didn’t realize what bad mothers you’d be, did he?” X’tani shook her head in amazement and chuckled. “Hell, at least when you kill us, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that li’l bastard deserves it.”

***

     Mitchell pressed the ENTER key. During the interminable pause, he was certain he heard the hissing of a billion toggling computer bits.

Then, chaos. Status monitors flashed urgent red messages; the dim-white interior lighting flicked to red; alarms, sounding like a throttled goose, screamed through the ship.

     “Oh, shit. Oh, shit!” Mitchell swore into his voice pickup.

     “What’s going on Mitchell?” came Labahn’s voice.

     Mitchell’s only response was a continuing flood of curses, and the sound of Vellermo and X’tani jabbering frantically in the background.

     “What the hell’s the matter back there!”

     “Oh, God. Oh, Jesus!…the reactor core’s breached…oh fuck. We’ve got to get out of here, Terrance. Now!” Mitchell ran for the door. “Op Mon: Input far coordinates and prepare to jump!” At the catwalk, he dived head-long into zero-gravity and hit his thrusters hard.

     “Sensor’s show plasma venting into the propulsion area and out through the rupture, Lieutenant,” reported the Op Mon. “The level’s currently not critical–”

     “No, but it could be anytime,” Mitchell interjected as he rapidly approached the end of the catwalk. “I’m not sticking around to find out when or how!” This could hurt. He tuck-and-rolled as he hit gravity, somersaulted once, but momentum brought him right back onto his feet. He tried to run, but stalled against a wall of confused and terrified humanity. He pushed slowly through as they pawed and questioned him desperately in a dozen languages.

     “You’re sure the core’s breached, Mitchell?” Labahn asked anxiously. “What were you doing when it happened?”

     “Look at the displays.”

     “I can’t read the fucking displays!”

     “No shit! Vellermo told me it’s a core breach and we don’t have time for a technical review. You’ve got what you wanted, Terrance. But if we don’t jump out of here right now, we’re going to hell with them!” Mitchell continued pressing hurriedly through. At the cargo area access door, he shed one group only to be met by another. Plowing sideways into the human tidal wave, he felt the crush of bodies.

X’tani’s disembodied voice began competing with the alarms. Her tone was calm and reassuring. She spoke brief sentences in several languages. The crowd made a noticeable effort now to get out of his way. Finally reaching the airlock, the other four Militiamen pulled up behind him with Labahn bringing up the rear.

     “We’ve all got to pack into 187 and go,” Mitchell advised quickly. “Op Mon, the airlock’s too small for all five of us. We need emergency decompress. Override the interlocks and open both inner and outer airlock doors.”

     “Why do we have to leave our ships to be destroyed?” whined the stubby one.

     The airlock door opened and Mitchell bolted inside. “Hurry! Hurry!” he waved the others in and closed the inner door. As the airlock decompressed, Mitchell glared down at the short Militiaman. “If you want to take the chance to get back to your ship, feel free. The names of your next of kin are on file with Militia Command.”

     The other sneered.

     Artificial gravity faded as the outer airlock door opened. Fifteen meters away, 187 waited with its airlock doors opened.

With Mitchell leading, they crossed the gap under full thrusters, passing the sundry items having been sucked out of the crew compartment. Mitchell recognized one and snagged it as he went by. He was glad he hadn’t lost his Nixonville Patriots cap.

     “Get in a bunk and hold on,” Mitchell instructed. Making a quick right into the cockpit, he took his seat next to the Op Mon. Glancing at the jump coordinates on the navigational console, he waited until the airlock registered closed. The starscape beyond the view window dissolved. A palpable quiet fell as the patrolship lunged into the formless entropy of hyperspace.

     Labahn floated into the cockpit, relieving the Op Mon.

     “I don’t know if I should commend you or condemn you,” he said quietly, fastening his restraining harness. “I guess a bit of both. You nearly got us all killed and lost two ships — but at least you followed orders.”

     Mitchell looked at his partner blankly. “I had to do the right thing.”

     “What happened in there?”

     “I’m not completely sure. When Vellermo came back to help me, I had him explain the readouts. I was trying to get a feel for reactor control operation by doing some minor adjustments. I made a couple percentage points correction to the containment field when the alarms went off. I tried adjusting it back, but nothing happened. There may have been damage I couldn’t detect without full understanding of the displays.”

     “Well, as soon as we complete this jump, we’ll try to acquire some buoy data to make sure it’s gone.”

     “I’d be extremely surprised if it wasn’t.”

     “Where’d you get that bruise?” Labahn asked, squinting at the large, ugly, bluish-black mark smeared over the left side of Mitchell’s jaw.

     “I, uh, ran into something, accidentally.”

     Labahn crooked his mouth into a half-smile and nodded. “Well, its time to hit the head and have some coffee.”  He released himself, floating up and away.

     Mitchell stretched out, closed his eyes, and exhaled deeply. He was in deep feces. The buoy telemetry would report the three ships gone, but by hyperspace jump — not reactor implosion. Oh well, guess Vellermo was cleverer than they had given him credit for. And to be duped like that! Lieutenant Labahn, you were in charge of the operation were you not? How could you have let this happen?

Mitchell smiled to himself.

     In the end, it had been simple enough. Open the reactor control valve to bleed plasma into the propulsion section. Alarms go off. Tell the others it’s a core breach — they don’t know the difference. The other part was the program to remotely synchronize the attached ships and input a jump. That’s what gnawed at Mitchell: The program contained Rightstar’s security encryption codes to provide remote access to the two fully-armed and operational patrolships.

     “I hope you appreciate the gifts I’m giving you,” Mitchell had told X’tani.

     “You mean besides our lives?”

     “Yes, plenty besides. Someone could wreak a lot of havoc on us with the programming and hardware you’re making off with.”

     “Feeling a bit o’ remorse, are you, mon? Afraid X’tani and her black brothers and sisters might come and beat on your tender, white asses?”

     “I fear I’m doing my own people a great disservice. My objective is to protect Rightstar. But I will do it without shedding innocent blood.”

     X’tani gripped him firmly by the shoulders and stared into his eyes. “I make you a vow, Mitchell Devay: I will erase this program as soon as we’ve gotten somewhere we can get help. As for the ships, well, I’m afraid one will wind-up going to the highest bidder. The other will take me home. But neither will ever pose a threat to your people. Everyone on this ship owes you that.”

     “Fair enough. But if you or Vellermo ever return to Rightstar, I won’t hesitate to follow my orders.”

     “More big talk, not that I don’t think you’re sincere. But you got to realize this galaxy is getting smaller all the time. You can run, but you can’t hide. Your people aren’t going to be able to live alone forever. People going to keep coming. You won’t be able keep them all away. Fact is, you’ll eventually get bored and come looking for excitement; or get overcrowded and use up your resources and come looking for more and taking it from weaker people. If history be any judge.”

     “Never.”

     “Oh, not you. Or your generation. Or the generation after.  But look at the people you live with now: those willing to kill so many people who never did them a bit o’ harm. Look at them and what happened today. Tell me that you can’t believe someday in the name of protection and survival, your people would hesitate to conquer and pillage others.”

     Mitchell shook his head, but doubt churned in his stomach. “I don’t want to be a part of that.”

     X’tani’s smile lit up her shiny-brown face. “That’s a start. There’s hope for you yet!”

     Mitchell returned her smile. “I’d like to visit New Mandela someday,” he admitted.

     “Oh, no,” X’tani pursed her lips and shook her head. “Sorry, mon — no whites allowed.”

THE END

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