The Shepherd’s Path: Wonder, Chapter 3

The Barclay was an ungainly sight. It looked little more than an immense greyish slab, roughly a third of a kilometre in length, and half of that in height and width. Grossly unaerodynamic, the Barclay, like every other large cargo transport, would never feel the embrace of an atmosphere around its hull. Despite its bulk, its construction was simple, owing to its requirement for deep-system travel. Even the pull of gravity much above that of the Saturnian moon Enceladus — not a place the Barclay would ever visit — would be enough to collapse the frame under its own weight. In the weightlessness of space without the worry of drag or any nearby gravity well, the ship‘s spidery boxiness was more a boon to its haulage capability than a hindrance of performance.

One of the Service‘s fleet of cargo ships, the Barclay handled a regular transport route from the Inner Planets to the smattering of stations and bases in the Outer Planets, periodically bringing valuable cargo in return. A Forge-class ship, the Barclay was designed specifically for work in the Outer Planets. Although a mere eighth the size of the massive Crake-class ships that plied the Inner Planet routes, the Forge-class ships were better suited to the lighter cargo traffic beyond the Asteroid Belt, the sheer bulk of the Crakes being wasted on such low-population, lighter-production places. Even for the Barclay, it was a rare trip when its hold was completely full.

At a first glance, one might mistake the Barclay for an 80-storey building lying on its side, a dozen bulged cylinders laid along the sides to aide in thrust and navigation. Various control thrusters were scattered about the four long sides, attached to the battered lattice of illuminated girders that held the sides of the carrier in place. The external lighting was just enough to keep the surrounding blackness from swallowing the Barclay whole.

A boxy protrusion burst from building’s the top floor, adjoined to a misshapen blister draped over one side. These were the only visible evidence of life amidst the boxiness, housing the limited crew quarters and flight control stations. They were only hardened parts of the ship, protecting the crew in the event of catastrophic failure. Such was the reality of space travel, several centuries after a human had first planted a footprint off Earth’s surface: it was still exceptionally dangerous. Most chose not to think about the thin barrier between comfort and instant death, or the density and velocity of interplanetary detritus that could readily perforate a ship’s armour.

That included Midshipman Denise O‘Connell, who stared out of the middle of three two-metre diameter circular portals of the cabin. She floated alone in the recently-restored zero-g, the ship having completed its deceleration only a couple of hours earlier. Only the lightly rushed sound of the air recyclers broke the silence. Ahead, the largest planet in the solar system hung in the centre of the window, suspended in the empty black like a forgotten Christmas ornament, bordered only by the stars that hadn‘t been drowned out by the cabin lighting.

Denise found herself feeling slightly cheated by what she saw. Jupiter was much smaller, not even a half metre in diameter, and much dimmer than she expected. She had thought the planet would be so immense that she could not see its edges, that it would be easy to see the bands in Jupiter‘s atmosphere along with the vibrant colouring she‘d seen so many times previously. She had never seen Jupiter in person before, of course. Like the majority of humanity, all of her expectations had been created by enhanced colour photographs, artist renderings, video, and holographs. Seeing it for the first time felt like when she had been given a huge, brightly-wrapped present on her sixth birthday — its contents a fantastic mystery — only to be disappointed after breath-held moments tearing into the package, finding a small, tacky snow globe. Still, as she hung in the zero-g, she wished there was some kind of gravity to pull her down so she could have the comfort of resting her head in her hands, and gaze at the heavens.

A snuffle from behind reminded Denise that she wasn‘t alone. Forge-class ships had a regular crew of five: the Commanding Officer, two pilots, and two engineers. The ships didn‘t require any additional personnel due to the extent of automation, especially related to loading and unloading. There had been countless arguments for many years over completely automating such ships, but doing so would run the risk of using intelligent systems, which usually was the reason such arguments rarely went any further.

The Forge-class ships were also used frequently as crew transports, so the cabins were large enough to accommodate up to ten additional people. This was partly how Denise had come to be on the Barclay; she had been a late, extraneous addition. Dodge, a commanding officer who Denise thought seemed to fit his assignment perfectly, had assigned her a few token duties: meal preparation, ensuring the sleeping area was tidy and free of any free-floating materials, and what Dodge had called “swabbing the deck“ — using wipes to clean the interior surfaces of the cabin every two days. All of it was “busy“ work, she knew, but it at least was something somewhat useful. She generally avoided the engineering crew due to their mean streaks, and she was only permitted on the bridge to bring meals. She only talked with others during the brief times anyone happened to be in the cabin. The comm link had provided the bulk of her distraction, but one could only spend so much time in front of a viewscreen. The trip had been numbingly dull so far, and with the destruction of the communications array two days earlier — reducing her distractions to only the few materials stored in the on-ship computer — the prospects of the return trip hung evilly before her.

Denise couldn’t help but remember the words of Lt. Cmdr. Tseung, her College flight instructor: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.” The entire class had laughed nervously at such a frivolously-worded statement from such a serious taskmaster. “You think the distance to Luna is large, that Mars is a pleasant journey on a cruise ship. Those are our neighbours. You step beyond those bounds, and you’re into weeks or months of travel. And I assure you, once you stretch beyond two weeks cooped up in a small space, where the scenery doesn’t change, the routine doesn’t change, the people don’t change, your clothes don’t change, you’ll start to understand the real difficulties of space travel: watching the seconds pass as slowly as hours as you creep along between two infinitely tiny points in an infinite universe. Only then will you know just how truly big space really is, and how fantastically dull it is to be out there. Every expectation you have about space will continually underwhelm. Space travel is truly nothing more than pure necessity, used only by those who must travel. Statistically, no-one goes out there because they want to.”

Denise had to travel in order to graduate. That was the other part of the reason she had ended up on the Barclay. She was starting to understand why travel was a “must” and not a “want”.

She and the rest of the Barclay’s crew would have been the compliment for the voyage, had they not received the rather sudden, urgent, rare, and extremely risky request to meet up with another vessel just over two days earlier. The orders had caused a significant amount of yelling from the bridge, and Dodge swore for nearly three hours afterwards. “It‘s out of our way!“, he had complained. “Insanity! Too damn risky!“ Denise‘s personal favourite utterance still gave her a slight giggle: “Someone‘s got a burr up their ass!“ The transfer, despite the complexity of the meet and size of the ships, had been surprisingly quick. The departure hadn‘t gone so well, though; the other ship failed to push off far enough and tore off the communications array, and very nearly punctured a hole in the bridge compartment. Dodge, had been ominously silent at the mishap, mostly because — as he would say later — he would have hurt himself yelling. Thus the Barclay had come to also carry a passenger.

Dodge had immediately deemed the newcomer as Denise’s responsibility. The news had been initially gratifying, since she had someone as real company during the remainder of the otherwise long and dull days. At the very least talking with someone would pass the time. But it hadn‘t gone quite as Denise had hoped.

Almost as soon as the passenger entered the Barclay‘s cabin, she had gone straight to the racks, sacked up, and went to sleep, uttering only “Permission to come aboard“ to Dodge — and she hadn‘t really waited for the response. The passenger had remained sleeping almost ever since. She‘d risen once, about twelve hours after arriving. In a perfectly silent stupor, the woman had visited the head, and mechanically inhaled a ration tray, before returning to the racks. Despite the near-zombie state, her motions had been precise and deliberate, as if her body were running on some form of autopilot. She had stared blankly with deep ocean blue eyes, apparently unable to register even the ration tray before her. Her hands — ringless, Denise had also noted — gripped the spoon so tightly that Denise thought the woman might cut herself. She‘d emitted two sounds the entire time, one to accept the ration tray, and the other a noncommittal response to Denise‘s question: “Did you sleep well?“ (Clearly, she hadn‘t, as she sacked out again mere minutes later.) Denise‘s additional responsibility had been largely inconsequential, and entirely disappointing.

Denise looked at the woman — the only other female on board — through the thin curtain that partitioned the dimmed sleeping area, as Denise had done many times since the woman’s arrival. She was a mystery, which Denise yearned to unravel. Who was she? Why was she going to Jupiter? And what the urgent reason to transfer her to the Barclay? Denise couldn‘t tell much by just looking. Her standard Service grey flight suit bore a lieutenant‘s rank, but little else — not the branch of the Service, no campaign patches, no commendation bars, not even a specialist mark. Just her last name, stitched into a space below her left clavicle: Shepherd, J. Even the name offered no information, as Denise couldn‘t use the cabin‘s comm link to learn anything more.

The lieutenant‘s dark brown hair was cut short, at most three centimetres in length. Even Dodge‘s hair was longer, although it had beaten a steady retreat across his head over the years. The lieutenant‘s face bore a few lines — age or stress, Denise couldn‘t tell. She seemed simultaneously wise and … somewhat boyish, though there was no question of her femininity. There was a hint of a scar on the right side of her nose, and it almost seemed like part of her left earlobe had been cut off. Maybe the lieutenant was a fighter? It was hard to determine her physique under the flight suit (and sleeping in a sack), though she didn’t look particularly muscular. Perhaps she was merely clumsy. Although sleeping in zero-g was the most unglamorous position for a body, Denise saw that the lieutenant bore it well, like someone very used to a lack of gravity.

Denise had racked next to the mysterious Lt. Shepherd on the next sleep cycle. She had quickly noticed Shepherd’s scent, her breathing patterns, the twitches of her face as she slept. Denise wondered what filled Shepherd’s dreams. When she awoke for her duty cycle, Denise found herself seeing the lieutenant in a very different light, and concluded that she was not just merely pretty, but also attractive … in a not-really-into-the-same-sex sort of way.

No amount of gazing seemed to stir the lieutenant to awaken. Not long after Shepherd had returned to the relative comfort of the racks after her short consciousness, Denise came to feel that she was somehow intruding upon the lieutenant‘s privacy and turned her attention towards the approaching Jovian system. That had been several hours earlier, and Jupiter had turned out to be a lousy conversationalist.

The snuffling not resolved (Denise had hoped it to be the lieutenant, but suspected it was the sleeping pilot), she turned back to the forward window again. The infinite void of space was broken by the gas giant and its inner moons. Denise knew, as pretty much any schoolkid knew, that she was already within Jupiter‘s gravity well, and had passed the vast majority of Jupiter‘s lesser moons and moonlets. Though already in the same orbital path, Ganymede still seemed so far away. She suddenly thought that perhaps — just maybe — the lieutenant might want to see Jupiter before she arrived. Besides, how much could one person sleep?

She pushed away gently from the window, glided over the forward couches with their padded lap arms, and back towards the sleeping racks. She pushed through the thin curtains, which ran floor-to-ceiling on two rods to keep them in place. The lieutenant was wrapped into one of the five sleeping sacks attached to the wall, her head floating freely. Denise marvelled a moment at the lieutenant‘s ability to sleep without the head restraint, a device she‘d never liked, but accepted as a necessity to keep her head from rolling around. Shepherd’s hands seemed similarly able to stay at her sides; most people slept with their arms in the sacks to keep them from floating about. A small globule of spit floated near the corner of her mouth. At first, Denise hesitated, but then reached out and touched her shoulder lightly.

“Ma’am?“ Denise said quietly. Shepherd grunted slightly. “Lieutenant Shepherd?“ she asked a bit louder.

“Mmurf… wuzzit…“ Shepherd mumbled, snorting and inadvertently inhaling the ball of drool that had hung close to mouth that had spawned it. As she coughed involuntarily to the spittle, her arms came to life, and she appeared to be using her hands to wrench her eyes open. “We there?“

“Not yet, ma’am,“ Denise smiled as sweetly as she could. “We’re in orbit, but we‘re still a few hours from docking. I thought … uh, I thought you might like to freshen up?“ She tried not to grimace at her off-the-cuff suggestion, hoping it didn‘t offend Shepherd.

“Yeah, sure,“ Shepherd said weakly, not noticing any unintended comment on her hygiene. She unzipped herself from the sack and floated free. She stretched her arms and legs out, arched her back, and emitted a deep growl that slowly turned into a sigh. “Heads are down that way?“ Shepherd asked, jerking her thumb aftwards.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Denise. “Would you like a ration tray, ma’am?“ But she got no response, as Shepherd had already vanished.

Denise was alone again for nearly a half an hour before she heard Shepherd come forward again. She had cleaned up considerably, her youthful appearance greatly restored. Denise felt her pulse quicken. A real person! And she‘s even prettier than I thought! Shepherd’s eyes looked a little bleary, but the deep ocean blue now sparked with life. Denise met her in the galley space, and removed a ration tray from the warmer.

“Hopefully this will help,“ she smiled, handing Shepherd the tray.

“Help with…?“ Shepherd asked, raising an eyebrow. Denise‘s smile immediately faded, and she started to stammer, realizing what she‘d said wasn‘t what she‘d meant. Shepherd interjected before Denise could speak. “If you‘re referring to my empty stomach, miss, then you‘d be right.“

Shepherd moved to the forward couches, and slipped herself under one of the padded restraint arms that would keep her and her meal from drifting away. She stared for a moment at the flat, compartmented object — a greeny-beige platter that held a half dozen shallow and brightly-coloured containers with peel-back lids, all emblazoned with the wordmark “FÜD“. The wordmark was carefully crafted in a friendly typeset, the “Ü“ shaped so that it resembled a smiling face (though when asked, no-one could readily remember anyone displaying such an expression when eating from them).

Pre-packed rations hadn’t changed in hundreds of years. Perfected centuries earlier, the substances in front of Shepherd were meant to sustain nutritional needs, and optionally impart the feeling you were eating something real. The exact taste, colour, and composition had varied infinitely since their first battlefield use a millennia earlier, and every soldier since had winced at their appearance at mealtime. Rations had reached their pinnacle at the very beginning: real food, pasteurized and provided in champagne bottles, served with real wine. It had all gone downhill from there, running the full gambit of unappetizing, unpalatable, inedible, and infectious. Within a couple of generations, rations had garnered the reputation of “last resort“.

The problem had become so bad that a couple of centuries earlier, the Service’s precursor had contracted a nordic company (known primarily for whimsical furniture and home decorations) to rebrand the entire rationing experience, hoping to improve the quality. The result was a slightly better food product, provided in packaging that was more appealing, in a wide array of configurations that could effectively reproduce nearly any diet or traditionally ethnic meal. However, the inescapable reality of being a foodstuff meant for long-term storage inevitably resulted in the new branding adopting a colloquial meaning almost as old as the actual invention of food rations:

  • Fear: Being handed one of the ration trays, knowing there was no other alternative.
  • Uncertainty: Wondering if this was actually an edible substance, and if consuming it constituted some clear violation of human rights.
  • Doubt: That this was in any way construed as being “food” in the first place, and whether you would feel any better for having ingested any of the ration, regardless of how hungry you really were.

Shepherd peeled back the lid off the first container, and sighed quietly. It had, many years earlier, been a sigh of resignation. She had long since past being resigned.

Denise joined Shepherd a moment later, going back to her place near the window. “Sorry about that, ma’am…“ she started, then stopped.

“About what?“ Shepherd asked, scooping a reddish-grey paste into her mouth. She tried not to think of what it was supposed to be. She preferred to think of it as a way to stay alive, rather than pleasure. Shepherd used to fear that she would never enjoy eating again, but she had also long since past being afraid. “I haven‘t had to make my own food, I‘ve slept better than I have in longer than I care to think about, I feel almost human again after actually being able to clean myself uninterrupted, and you‘re the first person who‘s been nice to me in months. And you‘re sorry?“

Shepherd looked at Denise. She was young, very young. Shepherd wondered if Denise was still a cadet; she almost seemed too young to even be a cadet, but Shepherd also found herself thinking cadets were getting younger every year. Denise wore the uniform of a midshipman, so probably someone not long out of the College. Denise’s blonde hair was tied in a bun to keep it from floating around, but Shepherd guessed by the size that her hair would hang to her shoulders under the pull of gravity. Shepherd could easily see Denise’s lithe form, even through the flight suit — like most young women in the Service, Denise tended to tighten the suit to fit.

“Well, I‘d just thought…,“ Denise stumbled again, then stopped entirely.

“Do you have coffee?“ Shepherd asked suddenly.

“Uh, yes, ma’am,“ said Denise. She seemed to twist worryingly, fiddled with her fingers a moment, then added a bit more quietly: “It‘s reconstituted, though, ma’am. You’re probably used to real coffee?“

Shepherd sighed again. She reached down into her flight suit and pulled out her necklace. It was a thin string of titanium links, chosen for resiliency and utter lack of any kind of magnetism. She twisted the clasp, a locking screw, and pulled out a simple gold band into her hand.

She then rolled up her sleeves to the elbow, and showed the band in her left palm to Denise, who looked back quizzically. “Watch carefully,” said Shepherd, and waved her hands over her head back and forth in front of each other. Suddenly she stopped moving her hands, and the band was gone.

Denise looked unimpressed. “No offence, ma’am, but I know this trick. It’s behind my ear.”

“Nope,” smiled Shepherd. “Check your left suit pocket.” Denise raised an eyebrow, looked down, and shoved her hand into her pocket.

Doubly unimpressed. “It’s empty, ma’am.”

“I know,” smiled Shepherd. “I’d comb your hair, if I were you.”

Denise looked dumbfounded a moment, then threw her hands into her hair, right back to the tight bun at the back. She felt a hard lump in its centre. She dug her fingers in and pulled out the gold band. Despite the lack of any acceleration to assist, her jaw dropped. “How the hell…?”

“The first thing you learn when you perform a magic trick is to distract the audience, and have them look somewhere else. After that, it’s a matter of a light touch,” Shepherd smirked. “I’m terrible with magic tricks, but I’m pretty good at distractions.”

“Sneaky,” said Denise, returning the ring. “Sooo, why the magic trick, ma’am?”

Shepherd strung the ring back on its chain, and returned it inside her flight suit. “Look, you’re new, and you’re trying to impress—“

Denise winced. “It’s that obvious?”

Shepherd shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry.” She leaned forward a bit. “I did that trick because we need to get off on a better foot. It was getting a bit awkward.” Denise nodded slowly. “I don’t like formality when I’m a guest. It’s not worth the aggravation. My name is Jess. Let’s skip the ‘ma’am’, okay?”

Denise smiled, and extended her hand. “I’m Denise. I’m at your disposal, ma’am, uh, Jess.”

Shepherd smiled in response. “Tell you what: get me a coffee — I don’t care what it tastes like — and we‘ll pretend nothing’s already been said.“

Denise’s smile returned. “I think I can do that!“

“Is there a terminal around?“ Shepherd asked. “I need to check my messages.”

“I‘m afraid you can‘t,“ Denise said from the galley. “When we picked you up, the ships collided slightly. Our communications array was torn off.“

Shepherd blinked hard and thought for a moment, then her eyes opened as she seemed to complete a mental puzzle. “That explains the yelling. I wondered what that was.“

“Yeah. Dodge wasn‘t happy. I think he‘s still angry, actually.“

“What happened?“ Shepherd asked.

“You should ask Dodge. He can explain it better. I didn‘t actually see,“ apologized Denise, handing Shepherd a warm drinkpak.

“Ooh, thank you!” Shepherd took a long drink through the valved straw. She closed her eyes peacefully and wiggled a bit in content. “Ah, coffee, my old friend…”

“Are you going to be in the system a long time?“

“That is a good question.“

“Um, not that I want to sound too inquisitive, but don’t you know? Don‘t your orders tell you?“

Shepherd reached into her breast pocket and handed Denise a small hand-written message, torn from a larger sheet. It read:

___

REPORT IMMEDIATE ALICE STN GANYM, JUP AWAIT INSTRUCT

___

“You got this from CENTRAL?“ Denise nearly squawked, handing the paper back to Shepherd. “I‘ve heard it sends out some strange stuff, but this is … almost nothing!“

“It‘s not from CENTRAL,“ Shepherd said, pocketing the paper. She knew that the paper itself was entirely useless as actual orders, but it gave her some comfort to actually have it. “The way that order was received, and then I transferred here? CENTRAL didn‘t order all of that. Someone did that manually. And I‘m sure CENTRAL‘s having kittens about it.“

“Wouldn’t someone just tell CENTRAL to not worry?” asked Denise.

Shepherd laughed. “You can’t tell CENTRAL not to worry. Even if it could worry, it’s too damn complex to pay any attention to something that’s not an order or a requisition.”

“I guess if it’s just handing out orders…,” Denise said, thoughtfully.

“Oh no. No, no, no, no. It’s a lot more than that!” tsk’ed Shepherd. “It’s what deals with request processing, tracking Service resources and supplies, assigning people to the right places at the right times, ensures that priorities are handled properly, and that requests are delivered promptly to the right people. It’s highly automated, so for all intents and purposes, CENTRAL is completely autonomous. What would take a very large group of people to do in a day, CENTRAL handles in a second.”

Denise whistled. “Well, I guess that explains some of things I’ve heard about it,” she said.

“Oh? Like what?”

Despite there being no-one else within earshot, Denise leaned in close and dropped her voice. “Well, I heard that it’s so complex that special subroutines were written just to keep CENTRAL from becoming sentient. Apparently that was after CENTRAL propositioned an Admiral after a number of requests about sleeping arrangements.”

Shepherd burst out laughing. “Oh, that’s good! I haven’t heard that one before. Though that would explain its rumoured partial lobotomy a couple of decades ago, which caused a two year backlog in processing. I still haven’t heard a decent explanation for that. It was before my time, but I know a few people who remember it.”

“Wait, the backlog actually happened?” Denise giggled. “I thought that was a myth.”

“No myth!” said Shepherd. “My CO still tells me about how he had to manually radio ships for nearly a year to get status reports.”

Denise laughed again. “I can’t imagine anything that complicated. CENTRAL must be huge. Do they keep it on Earth? Or is it on Mars? I mean, for all the space it would need.”

It was one of those “central mysteries“ (a pun frequently used by those who felt they received a disproportionately large number of CENTRAL requests), such as how cells know when to divide, how a mother bird knows how to care for its chick, why dolphins smile, or even why the Universe exists: it was just assumed that CENTRAL was there. It was as if CENTRAL seemed to exist as a subset of the Universe, and like the Universe, defied all attempts to understand it.

Shepherd shook her head. “No idea. And I’m not sure that I want to know.”

“So if your orders didn’t come from CENTRAL, where did they come from, then?” asked Denise.

“Well, I got that from the Comm operator on the Chapter House about an hour before meeting up with you. I suspect he got it from SAHQ.“

“Sack,“ Denise repeated mechanically. “I‘ve heard that before…“

“Like I said, you‘re new. You‘ve got a lot of acronyms to learn and forget,“ Shepherd chuckled. “Service Administration Headquarters. Ess Ay Aych Queue. Usually means someone who‘s got responsibility for a lot of things. In my case, my CO.“

“Must be important, then, to make such a fuss. Can I ask what your assignment is?“

“You’re awfully curious,” Shepherd noted.

“I would say ‘bored’. I’ve spent a lot of time on my own,” pouted Denise. “I’m dying for some real conversion. I’m sorry if I’m intruding, ma’am.”

Shepherd chuckled knowingly. “Get used to it, Denise. If you spend enough time off-planet, you’ll be spending lots of time alone. But to answer your question: I haven’t a clue what I’m supposed to do. You know as much as I do at this point,“ Shepherd shrugged. “I‘ve never heard of the place, I don‘t know anything about it, or who runs it.“

“Your commanding officer didn‘t send any briefing information?“ Denise asked incredulously. Years of College instruction had laid down the rote rule of process. Everything followed process. There was the Chain of Command, requests through CENTRAL, specifications for assignment, even hand-delivered papers for things like promotions and transfers. One instructor had referred to it all as “The Red Sticky“. It was engrained in every cadet from their first day at College, and anyone who tried go around process usually found themselves in front of a review panel. Despite the system‘s impenetrable fog, the inherent confusion, and the unending view that everything was brutally inefficient, the process was the blanket of comfort that helped every member of the Service feel comfortable that, somehow, everything would always turn out right.

“My CO has,“ Shepherd paused to find the right word, “a sense of humour. This isn‘t the first time I‘ve been dumped into something blind.“

“So you don‘t even know who you‘re reporting to?“

“Like I said, Denise, I have no idea what to expect. It‘s all part of the fun!“ Shepherd said with a huge grin.

A faint voice yelled from far back in the cabin. Denise floated to the rear of the lounge. The voice said something again, almost inaudible to Shepherd. Denise floated back. “I‘m sorry, ma’am—“

“Jess…,“ Shepherd chided.

“…Jess. I‘m sorry, Jess, but apparently they need me in the back,“ Denise sighed. “They probably want to torture me again.“

“’Torture’?“

“Like you said, I‘m the new kid around here, which seems to make me the target for every practical joke. Dodge is the only one who hasn‘t burned me. I suppose it‘s also because I‘m the only woman on board, and my rank makes me the gofer.“

Shepherd held her hands up, recognizing the reality. “Yeah, that sounds about right. What all have they done to you?“

“What haven‘t they done to me!“ Denise replied, exasperated. “I‘ve had to make ration trays for myself after being blindfolded and spun in circles, found all my clothes tied in knots, had my underwear stolen twice and scattered all over the cargo bay … I suppose I should be lucky they haven‘t tried to steal my uniform, too! Then they moved me into the middle of the cargo bay while I was sleeping and I woke up with the lights off … I don’t think I’ve ever felt so panicked in my life! The Engineering crew seems to have a particularly sick habit of plugging the head with all sorts of disgusting things and having me fish them out.“

“Some things never change,“ Shepherd said, stifling a chuckle. She added, apologetically, “I‘m sorry to hear the hazing is hitting you that badly.“

Denise sighed. “Isn‘t hazing supposed to be banned?“

“Yeah,“ Shepherd confirmed. “It‘s been banned for ages by the Service. But it‘s amazing what you can get away with on a 50-day round-trip when senior staff — all of whom still cringe at their own hazing — look the other way. I think I spent an entire week on my first trip wearing nothing more than the two strips of duct tape they gave me.“

Denise burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh!”

“Chilliness aside, it wasn’t too bad. At least until I had to take it off. Back then, I could pull off the look and make it work. If I had to do it today, I’m pretty sure someone would give me the whole roll.”

“Oh,” Denise cringed. “I suppose I should stash an extra set of clothes somewhere, just in case. But in the meantime, I‘ve got to deal with the head again.“

“Care for some company?“

“’Company’? Or ’audience’?“

“Call it… ’moral support’.“

Denise stared at Shepherd a moment, squinting slightly. “Okay, c‘mon…“

Shepherd tucked, somewhat gratefully, the uneaten portion of her ration tray under an elastic on the couch arm, and followed Denise towards the rear of the cabin, where it passed into the cargo hull. A wide archway separated the forward couches from the rest of the Barclay’s living area. Through the archway to the left was the sleeping bunks, still occupied by the sole second pilot (who, despite the yelling, slept soundly), and to the right, the small galley. On the forward area next to the galley was a terminal, whose comm status read: OFFLINE.

Just past the galley, were two accessways: one on the “ceiling“ that led up to the bridge, and a second on the “floor“ which led to the cargo hold, its hatch partially open. Although cargo ships were usually pressurized with air, used to refresh air supplies on stations, there had been dozens of cases of rapid depressurization due to meteor strikes that slipped past the scatterfields. The cargo hatch was positioned to snap shut and preserve the air in the cabin, though it was commonly left open as it was also the only path to the main drive engines.

Continuing aft was a locker for smaller, more delicate packages that couldn‘t be shipped in the cargo bay, or items that required additional security and required personal identification. Then came the head — two rooms containing the vacuum toilets, and a third room for washing and changing. Between the change room and the environmental engineering space at the aft of the cabin was a small exercise space, rarely used as crews had long since turned to osteoligants to keep their bones from weakening. It was only historical and political demands from the Medical Directive that kept the exercise equipment in place.  

As Denise and Shepherd approached Environmental, Shepherd knowingly drifted off to one side so she wouldn‘t be seen, and let Denise drift to the doorway. Denise caught herself at the door and said as bored-cum-bothered as she could muster: “What do you need?“

Shepherd couldn‘t tell how large the Environmental compartment was on the ship, but they tended to be just large enough to maintain two centrifuges, a variety of pumps, and usually at least one biotank for waste processing. In any case, the room was big enough — and the machinery loud enough — to hide some of the more subtle nuances of speech (she could hear no whispering, though the conspicuous pauses in speech between the two engineers and Denise were more than telling). The parts that Shepherd could hear were even more obvious.

One of them was trying to set up Denise for one of the oldest gags in the hazing manual: The Burp. The prank was fairly basic, and at a glance seemed genuine enough. The “problem“ would be explained: usually that one of the toilets wasn‘t sucking properly, and someone (the prankee) needed to go in and start the toilet‘s suction, while other (the prankster) put the digester system in backwash. This effectively turned the suction into a pump, and sprayed semi-liquid, semi-fermented waste onto the poor victim.

It wasn‘t a joke, from Shepherd’s perspective. It was disgusting on a level that anyone who had ever witnessed one (let alone experienced it first-hand) would effectively be put off of any meal, regardless of how famished they might be. Beyond the sanitary concerns (post-digested matter was a biohazard), it was almost impossible to entirely clean yourself afterwards with wipes. Victims smelled like fermenting waste until they got to use an actual water shower, something that crews might not see for weeks. No-one had ever managed to devise a method to kill the stench in zero g environments.

Shepherd actually felt a little ill as she thought about what was being prepared for Denise. Shepherd had been lucky enough to avoid the prank on her first voyage out. Thought she had been set up, she shut down the toilet at the last moment when she’d caught a whiff of sewage. The prankster — a gaunt and rather belligerent redheaded engineer whose name she was thankful to have forgotten — had come roaring out of Environmental to demand why his trick hadn’t played out as planned, only to run right into the ship’s captain. Shepherd had thought the hazing done at that point. However, not even an hour later, Shepherd’s classmate, Carlos, caught the full fury of the Burp. Half of the cadet crew lost their appetite for two days; nearly a quarter lost their lunch. The Redhead would later enact his revenge on Shepherd, leading to the week of duct tape clothing.

She had a choice. She could either allow the prank to proceed, or she could order it halted. Allowing it to proceed was unnecessarily harsh, even if hazing was a quasi-tolerated practice. Halting it would only postpone the inevitable, and the pranksters would no doubt try again later. There were far too many pranks to give Denise a clear idea of what to expect and how to avoid being on the wrong end. Instead, there was an opportunity for a lesson.

While Denise was trying to understand what the two men were telling her to do, Shepherd quietly floated around to the access panel between the head and the Environmental compartment. She quietly opened the doors and looked quickly at the flat labyrinth of piping. Although she had never actually seen this particular configuration before, Shepherd had two things going for her: first, she had a decent understanding of environmental systems. Secondly, and most significantly, Shepherd had what some called a “mechanical mind“: an innate sense of how things worked. She’d had it for as long as she could remember. As a child, Shepherd had repeatedly taken things apart to see how they worked. This habit had initially frustrated her father, who was left with the task of reassembly. However, the elder Shepherd soon taught the younger Shepherd to see the “what, how, and why“ of things, and soon the younger was not only disassembling and reassembling, but quickly learned how to repair — a fact that helped not only around the home, but also led to her future.

It took only a few moments for Shepherd to “see“ the piping; she quickly turned six of the valve handles, and closed the door back up before anyone else had noticed. Denise, having finally understood what the two in Environmental had wanted, turned to see Shepherd in front of the panel, floating with a strange grin on her face; she waved silently. Denise looked at Shepherd curiously, and then proceeded to the #2 toilet. She went in, positioned herself, and pressed a button. A slight humming came from within. She threw her head out the head‘s door and yelled back into Environmental.

“Okay! Try it now!“

Shepherd could hear the juvenile giggling from inside Environmental as the two men started up the backwash. She could hear the slurry flowing through the pipes towards the intended target. The gurgling hinted that it might be a particularly messy Burp. She looked down towards the floor, and giggled a little herself. Revenge is a dish best served sloppy. The access panel seemed to giggle with her, as the slurry routed around all the piping, before shooting back into Environmental. A moment later there was a confused sound followed by a loud POP, and then the shocked cries of two men being sprayed with their own prank.

“What the heck was that?“ Denise asked, thumbing towards Environmental.

“Hmm?“ Shepherd looked up innocently. “Sounds to me like they found the problem.“

Denise looked at Shepherd intently. The weeks of “assisting“ the engineering crew had given her a fairly decent understanding of where most of the major systems were on the ship. At some point, she had opened (and nearly half the time been locked into) every access panel on the ship. She looked at Shepherd, and looked past Shepherd to the access panel. She remembered what lurked within the space. She glanced back at the head, then at Environmental. It took Denise a moment to deduce what would have become of her. “You didn‘t…,“ she gasped, her eyes great circles of shock.

“The first thing you learn about performing magic…,” Shepherd grinned evilly.

The pumps having been stopped, two men burst from the Environmental compartment doorway, both nearly caked in an shatteringly foul-smelling greyish sludge. It’s a little studied phenomenon that smells — particularly horrid ones — travel at an unrealistic speed within small spaces. Whereas the scent of something delicious, like fresh-baked cookies, may take a few minutes to fill a space the size of the Barclay’s cabin, the stench of partially-digested waste seemed to occupy the same space in mere seconds. The smell was upon Shepherd almost instantly; Denise caught note of it an instant later.

The men didn‘t see Shepherd, and immediately wound up to rush at Denise. Denise was about to make a mad dash for the cargo hold when Shepherd inserted herself.

“HOLD IT!“ she bellowed. The two men somehow stopped in mid-flight and looked, stunned, at Shepherd. “Leave her alone.“

“She covered us in month-old shit!“ protested one of the men. They started to move towards Denise again, who was still backing towards the cargo access.

“Considering that‘s what you were trying to do to her in the first place, I would think you‘d appreciate the humour?“ Shepherd said calmly. “Or do you think you were unfairly wronged?“ She let the “wrong“ hang heavily in the awful air.

The two men were silent. Both were looking at Shepherd’s rank insignia. They glanced up nervously.

“That‘s what I thought. The hazing‘s over. And I mean over. If I hear of even so much as an over-pressurized drinkpak — and believe me, I will — you‘ll be scrubbing toilets on York station for the next year.“

The two men looked down towards the floor.

“Please let me know if this isn‘t clear?“ Shepherd asked sharply.

“Yes,“ said the other of the two men.

“Yes, what?“ snapped Shepherd.

“Yes, ma’am, Lieutenant!“ both men said.

“Good. Now I suggest you get cleaning, starting with Environmental. That smell is enough to wake the dead … on Earth.“

The two men scowled at Denise, then drifted back into the Environmental compartment. Denise tried not to smile, but failed. “I am so dead,“ she cried, after they were out of earshot.

“I think you’ll find they don‘t speak to you for a long time, but that‘s about it,“ Shepherd said, reassuringly.

“What the hell is going on down here?“ said an older man who had just come down the accessway from the bridge. “What in Hades what is that smell?!“ he added, his face screwed up in revulsion. Then he saw Shepherd. “Ah, I see you‘re finally awake, Rip.“

“Sorry, I was apparently a lot more tired than I thought. The last assignment took a lot out of me,“ Shepherd explained. “Also, my apologies for my curt arrival. I try not to make enemies on my way in.“

“Apparently you wait a couple of days, and then lay waste to my Environmental bay?“ the man snarked.

“It was either that, or lose a toilet,“ Shepherd replied.

Dodge laughed, floated over and held out his hand. “Dodge. Pleasure to meet you. I‘m the CO of this scow,“ he said, then looking past towards the Environmental compartment, and the smell emanating from it. “I don‘t suppose you can shed some light on that?“

“She knows a few things about plumbing,“ Denise offered somewhat timidly.

“Ah. Burp?“

“Attempted. And reversed,“ Shepherd smirked.

“Oof!“ Dodge shuddered, “The smell is almost as bad as I remember … and it’s been over 20 years. Well, if you‘re done making a mess of my ship, come on up. I’d like to know a little more about my cargo.“

“I‘d love to,“ Shepherd said, casting a quick look at Denise that said “sorry, but I really should“.

“Denise, can you bring up three coffees?“ said Dodge, heading towards the accessway with Shepherd in tow. He stopped just as his head started to vanish into the bridge, and looked back to Denise. “Oh, and please tell those two jokers I want to see them when they‘re finished cleaning up?“

The bridge was an domed oval, about one a half times longer than it was wide, and seemed much more spacious than the cabin beneath it, despite having the same width and a lower height. Viewports ringed the room, with triple-sized rectangular viewports fore and aft. Both of the largest viewports had embedded holographics to provide navigational data, ship status, and to note potential obstacles. The forward-facing viewport had no less than a dozen items highlighted and tracked, with directional and mass data so the Barclay could safely travel around them. The room had a pair of large consoles towards the front, from which the pilot controlled the ship. Towards the rear of the bridge was a squat holographic cylindrical map of the solar system, indicating the major points, the ship‘s location and vector, and anything bigger than a grain of rice within a million kilometres.

Denise floated up with the coffees, along with the rest of Shepherd’s uneaten meal (which Shepherd carefully stowed until both the stench and the thought of the Burp had passed), then returned to the forward cabin alone. After a few sips of coffee, Dodge tucked himself into his command seat, and spun to face Shepherd, similarly tucked into another seat. He took a deep breath, exhaled through his nostrils, and asked: “Care to tell me what the hell is going on, Jessica?“

“Wish I could, Dodge. You know about as much as I do. Maybe more, depending on what orders you were given. And please, it’s just ‘Jess’.“

Dodge tapped the display next to him, and pointed to a message. “This is what told me to pick you up. It doesn’t say much.“

Indeed, the message barely had more words than the one Shepherd had received on the Chapter House. The only significant difference was the message’s sender: Cmdre. A. Perez. “Ah. That explains a bit, at least,“ said Shepherd, upon seeing the name of her commanding officer. “Looks like a high-priority request. And I’m guessing so urgent as to handle the request personally, rather than let CENTRAL deal with it.“

“Perez’s the one with the burr up his ass? That’s one hell of a damn risk to take. We lost our comm array during that little dance, y’know!“

“I heard,” said Shepherd. “I’m certain that the Commodore wouldn’t have asked for the transfer if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.“

“But you don’t know why it’s necessary…“ Dodge pointed out.

“I don’t have to know to still follow an order.“

Dodge shook his head in disbelief. “You, my friend, are in for a world of hurt.“

“I usually am.“ Shepherd sat back further in her chair and shook her head, smiling ruefully.

“That your standard MO, being thrown in the deep end?” Dodge smirked.

“I go where I’m needed. And lately, I’ve been needed a lot.”

“Long assignment?” he asked.

“I’ve been away from Earth and Mars for…,” Shepherd tallied up her recent assignments. “I think it’s just over a year, now.”

Dodge whistled. “And I thought I was a sucker for space. I’ve at least had shore leave in the last six months.”

Shepherd squinted. “You don’t strike me as the type who enjoys feet on the ground.”

“Hell, no!” laughed Dodge. “It makes my belly sag!”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?” Shepherd’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your story, Dodge? Why are you out here?”

“Safety,” chuckled Dodge. “I was a ground pounder for years. Didn’t think much of it until a rescue mission on Phobos turned into an assault. I was the only one who got out. Those are memories I’d love to erase.” He shuddered slightly. “I decided I needed something less detrimental to my longevity. So I went to hauling freight. It might be a bit dull, but no-one’s taken a shot at me for the last decade.” He leaned back in his seat, extending his arms to indicate his domain. “This is pretty good. The only thing that would make it better is if I were on the other side of the Belt.“

“Belt“ referred to the Asteroid Belt, which was as hard a line as existed between the Inner Planets and the Outer Planets. While really little more than a marker of distance, it presented a significant mental challenge for many spacefarers. It was empty space, really, when one considered the sheer distances between bodies in the orbits, but it could just as easily been a 34¾ AU-long wall covered with warnings written in blood a thousand kilometres tall. Irrational, but such had been the long history of anyone straying into unknown areas.

“It’s unnatural on this side,“ Dodge murmured. Shepherd looked over and saw Dodge staring at the wall, as if he were gazing through an unseen window, focusing on an unseen star. Shepherd had seen that look before. Dodge dropped his chin to his chest, and running his hand over the back of his neck. He raised his head again, giving it a sudden twist to the left, emitting a dull crack. “Comets that miss you by less than a ship length. Bodies buried at space that smile when you pass by. Supernovae winking at you.“

Dodge’s focus changed to the wall. “Patterns in Jupiter’s clouds that look like fingerprints. Stars that seem to move. Strange blinks and flashes from … nothing. Transmissions from out there that aren’t us. And…“ Dodge trailed off.

“I hear ya,” Shepherd muttered, not really meaning it. She’d heard such things before from a dozen other long-term crew who spent a lifetime in a lifeless place.

“Dodge?” the pilot interrupted. He was a younger man, the timbre of his voice belying both his unfamiliarity with Dodge, and likely also his experience. “I got something on LORAP.”

“’Something’?” Dodge queried. This far into the Jovian system, he expected only warnings about planetary detritus. “Could you be a tad more specific?”

“Sorry, sir, but … I don’t know what this is.”

Dodge drifted over to the pilot’s couch, and looked at the display panel. The bridge felt cold, as if Dodge’s body temperature had suddenly plummeted to absolute zero and drew up all the warmth. The colour drained from his face.

“Lights out,” he whispered hoarsely.

“Uh, sorry?” the pilot asked.

Dodge slapped a button on the panel. “Lights out! LIGHTS OUT!” He whispered something to the pilot.

A moment later, the entire ship went utterly black, the ambient sound sucked out as if someone had vented the atmosphere into space. Shepherd couldn’t see a single thing, save for the strange silhouette over the stars that appeared when she tried to put her hand in front of her face. After a moment, she realized that there was a very faint glow from a single display on the pilot’s panel, partly obscured by the barely-lit visages of Dodge and the pilot.

“What’s going—“

“SHH!” Dodge shh’ed harshly.

Shepherd drifted over to the pilot’s seat. The sole bright spot was a display of the Barclay’s object detection system. The brightness was so low that it was barely visible, but far more than enough to see something that resembled a wavering green smear, tracking ever closer to the ship.

“What is that?” Shepherd asked in a whisper so low she wasn’t initially sure anyone had heard it but herself.

“Her.”

‘Her’ had a few connotations, at least within long-distance flight crew parlance.

First, there was “her”, the spouse. The term was usually said with a kind of reverence, usually a comfortable longing. Marriages weren’t rare, but they rarely lasted unless the couple were on the same crew, or at least both engaged in long-duration assignments. The realities of long-distance travel — which necessarily equated to long-duration travel — meant that marriages endured significant separation strain, which humanity had yet to entirely overcome.

More frequently heard than “her”, the spouse, was “her”, the ex-spouse. The spouse was usually ex-ed as a result of the aforementioned time apart. There were two commonly-heard tones in this case, one of spite, and the other a distantly-accepted acquaintanceship.

Girlfriends were the most common “her”, though the status of said girlfriend was often highly debatable. The long times between visits often mean tenuous relationships were short-lived, so traditional committed non-marital relationships with long-distance crew were a hard find. Adding to that, the moniker “girlfriend” was also rather broadly used, and had a tendency to be applied as easily to a potential future ex-spouse as it would be to various welcoming arms scattered amongst a transport’s ports of call. As such, “her” was heard by most to be a longing for companionship, ranging from “distant” to “lascivious”.

Co-crew members were periodically referred to as “her”, almost exclusively behind backs, and entirely spiteful. The length of use varied, though rarely for more than a single voyage — most transport commanders were quick to rotate out such people, preferring to keep a unified morale on their ships.

Similarly, though notably different, was when “her” referred to a superior officer. Although this did happen on ships (usually “her” was the commanding officer), these were hushed affairs, kept in close confidence so the crew in conversation could avoid being rotated out at the end of a journey. More often, one would hear “her” uttered much more taciturnly, directed at a Flight Group Commander, or other high-ranking officer who’d issued an unpopular order.

Of course, “her” was still the objective pronoun used for ships. (“He” simply refused to catch on in any way, even with all-female crews, except for when things were malfunctioning. Even then, the term was usually not “he”, but “the bastard”.) Such cases were no different than someone asking for a ham sandwich.

“Her” was never used for referring to someone’s mother, though no-one knew why.

Dodge’s “her” was quiet, not for fear of being heard, rather due to the fear he felt. It was an unsteady voice that completely undermined his age and experience. It was really more of a metonymic use, with “Her” allowing the speaker to not have to utter any other name, thereby side-stepping any danger that would arise from whatever supernatural connection that may have existed between the thing and its name. This “Her” was only ever uttered in one of three ways: as a threat, in abject terror, or a survivor’s tale.

Shepherd looked at Dodge. Even with the dim green light, Dodge looked completely colourless. His eyes were tense, the lids peeled back almost to invisibility, with trembling deep creases at the corners. He stared unbreathingly at the LORAP screen, focused on a faint, constantly-changing, but curiously well-defined shaped that was heading towards the Barclay at an oblique angle. Most anyone would look at such an image and wonder if there was anything to see at all, or dismiss it as a smear. But it was a moving smear, its edges almost wrapping under itself as it drifted along, like watching a worm dig its way through earth.

Although the LORAP’s range was considerable, the smear had appeared suddenly, well within detection, and approached the Barclay very quickly. The pilot attempted to call distances, but a single withering glance from Dodge ended any further updates. The display soon showed the obvious encounter with the unknown signal. Despite a healthy dose of her own skepticism — Shepherd would not openly suggest her belief that it was a glitch or some form of solar radiation causing feedback — she could not dismiss the massive increase in her own heart rate, her shortened and tightened breathing, and the hope that nothing would happen.

“Just go,” Dodge whispered, his eyes closed. Tears gathered at the corner, whether from emotion or not having blinked for a couple of minutes, Shepherd couldn’t tell. “Just go. Go.”

The smear seemed to hover around the centre of the LORAP — effectively surrounding the Barclay — before it continued on its trajectory, leaving the massive ship behind. Shepherd, for her part, could see nothing outside of the bridge’s portals to suggest that anything had been out there.

It was over a minute before anyone said anything. Dodge was the first to break the deathly silence. “She’s not a myth.” It sounded more like a reassurance. “She’s real.”

“I didn’t—,“ Shepherd started to say.

“Third time I’ve come this close to her. The Mariner wants me. The bastard wants me. One day…,” shuddered Dodge. For a man who’d previously looked like he’d seen everything, Shepherd couldn’t help but notice that Dodge seemed as terrified as a child that was just handed a tarantula without warning.

“Her“ was a myth, a story that began when humanity first set sail past the horizon and into the unknown, that had evolved past its creators, woven into the lifeblood of those who likewise evolved from sailing the seas to drifting amongst the stars — the story of a phantom, a terrible wraith doomed to forever ply the winds, terrestrial and solar alike.

The Clementine was a ghost ship that drifted through the cosmos, lying in wait for lost ships, waiting to take the lost souls of their crew and add it to her own. Those who’d claimed to have seen it swore that it had appeared without warning, their ships’ sensors simultaneously registering something and nothing. Unquestionably large, the Clementine’s hull was stitched together from the souls of the damned, each waving and grasping to passersby to free them from torment. Deep green, the Clementine glowed the terrible light of creation and death, a sight that haunted the dreams of everyone who’d laid eyes on the vessel and escaped. The Clementine was helmed by the Ancient Mariner, the Lost Soul, who looked for eternal companionship and had no compassion for those he found. Spacefarers told the stories to one another, drifting in the dark, in the style of sitting around campfires. Parents told it to children as a threat to make them pick up their toys.

Shepherd shivered. She felt like she was eight years old again, the dream aching in the back of her mind, threatening to break loose past her subconscious. The green glow leaking through the cracks in her closet door, the heavy stomping crossing the floor, the cracking breaths. She shivered again.

Dodge was silent for nearly an hour after the lights came back on, and it took two more coffees for him to return to a conversational state. Every so often, a quiet chime would sound. Dodge would pass over to one of the consoles, tap a few buttons, talk with the pilot (who was intently focused on a continually increasing amount of navigational obstacles), before drifting back. The two engineers received their dressing-down, though Shepherd figured it was entirely due to her intervention.

In less time than Shepherd had thought passed, they had entered the approach to Alice.

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