THE GARBAGE MEN
by Drew Arrants
“There’s CX740, right there in the upper left corner of the screen,” Navigator One said to the Weapons Officer as they sat at the starship’s flight console. “And this is one of its large outer planets. Some of its others will be visible soon.”
“Well, I hope whatever we find doesn’t take long to clean up,” the Weapons Officer said. “We’ve been in deep space so long, I’ve almost forgotten what—”
“Uh-oh,” his colleague said under his breath. “The Captain just walked in. We’d better look busy.”
The two young crewmen hunched down and stared intensely at the navigational panels in front of them. As they did their best to appear occupied, the middle-aged figure moved unsteadily past them and finally exited the flight deck.
“Look at him stagger,” Navigator One whispered disgustedly. “How can a starship commander get away with that?”
It wasn’t easy to stagger with six legs for support, but the Captain had enough alcohol in him to manage it. He paused and steadied himself when he reached the hallway outside the First Mate’s office.
The First Mate looked up from her desk and rose as the Captain entered. “Captain, sir! We should be reaching CX740’s solar system before the end of this shift. I’ve been looking over our instructions from Strategic Mission Command, and they seem to be—well, incomplete. I can’t find coordinates for depots on any of the star’s planets. I don’t understand—”
“SMC doesn’t have coordinates,” the Captain explained, “because we never established bases around this star. The last time one of our ships passed through this region was in the Tenth Millennium—well before we were capable of deep-space colonization.”
The First Mate stared at her commander. “The Tenth—? Sir, I wasn’t aware that military records from that period still existed. I was taught at the Academy that practically all ancient archives had been destroyed during the last intergalactic war.”
“Most of them were,” the Captain answered, hoping that the slight slur in his speech wasn’t detectable. “But you remember the news last year—about the discovery of a couple of long-lost tapes from the prewar era? Well, what the SMC historians found has sent us across 80 percent of the known cosmos, to this dismal galaxy.
“It seems that one of our earliest intergalactic crews made an unscheduled stop somewhere in CX740’s system. They may even have landed on more than one of its planets. So now we’ve been directed to see if they left anything behind, and to undertake whatever disinfectant measures may be necessary.”
Several hours later the starship Sanitizer Four had entered CX740’s solar system and was approaching the first of its two planets on which primitive spacecraft could have successfully landed.
“You’d better alert the Captain,” the Science Officer said to the First Mate. “We’re coming within sensor range of planet CX740-4’s surface, and in a few minutes we’ll start scanning for debris.”
“The Captain is—uh—‘resting,’” answered the First Mate. “He instructed me to oversee the scanning and then report to him.”
“Yeah, right,” the Science Officer muttered. He knew very well why the Captain found it necessary to rest. “Since we don’t have any coordinates, I think the best plan is to start at the north pole and work southward until we find something—or until the entire surface has been scanned.”
“That will work satisfactorily. Proceed,” said the First Mate. “Call me when the results are in.”
She went down to her office and was reviewing SMC’s procedure manual for planetary decontamination when the promised notification came. Within a few minutes she had returned to the flight deck and was standing by the Science Officer’s console.
“Looks like we’ve found an old landing site—and I mean real old. Get a look at this.” The Science Officer pointed to the scan of a tiny area on the planet. The image showed three distinct depressions in the surface, each the same distance from the other two, like the points of an equilateral triangle.
“This is amazing,” the First Mate said. “That has to be the footprint of one of those ancient Galaxy-class cruisers. I remember the classic tripod landing gear from that restored model at the Academy.”
“That isn’t a restoration at the Academy,” the Science Officer replied. “It’s just a replica. The last Galaxy cruiser disintegrated into dust eons ago. We’re talking very ancient history here.”
The First Mate realized that her fascination with the image was distracting her from the mission’s purpose. “Well—uh—what about the rest of the scanning? Did the crew leave any trash behind?”
“There’s no evidence that they ever left the ship. Perhaps over the millennia, the winds might have covered their footprints with dust. But they didn’t leave any metal or synthetic debris, or it would light up our scanners. And if they dumped organic waste, it was quickly sterilized by solar radiation from CX740. This planet is as dead as a doornail.”
Relief spread over the First Mate’s features. “Well, the Captain will be pleased to hear this. Now we only have one other planet to worry about. How far away is it?”
Navigator One answered her question. “Right now that objective is almost directly on the other side of CX740, so we’re going to have to circle the star. That’ll take us almost a full shift.”
By the time the starship had reached planet CX740-3, the Captain had recovered from the previous shift’s drinking. It was fortunate that he was now fully alert.
“All right, major,” the Captain said to the Science Officer as he and the First Mate entered the flight deck. “What’s all the excitement about?”
“It’s here in the preliminary scan analysis, sir,” replied the agitated Science Officer. “The whole planet—at least the hemisphere that we can see—is covered with organic material. It’s growing everywhere on the surface—and in the oceans, as well.”
The Captain frowned and swore. “If it’s on half the planet, it’s obviously worldwide. Blast those idiots—now we’re going to have to conduct a global sterilization operation.”
“Sir, how can we be sure that this organic material originated from our Galaxy cruiser?” the First Mate asked. “I know they reported finding no evidence of life anywhere in this sector, but in all this time, couldn’t—?”
“Well, where else would it have come from?” the Captain snapped. “There’s been no spacecraft in this region of the universe since our cruiser passed through in the Tenth Millennium. SMC Intelligence is quite certain of that.”
The Science Officer added, “Also, the odds of life developing spontaneously in a dead galaxy, just by coincidence on the very same planet that the cruiser landed on—well, that likelihood is much too small statistically to be credible.”
“Ah, well,” the Captain said, “how advanced is the organic material? Where’s the data about synthetics and refined metals?”
“Those results take a little longer to scan in, sir. Wait—the synthetic compounds report is coming in now.” The Science Officer paused for a moment as the information appeared on the screen. “No artificial materials, sir.”
That was good news to the Captain, since a positive synthetics scan would have indicated a highly developed civilization. The next scan report, however, was alarming.
“Sir—the sensors are picking up refined metal.”
“Well, that must be the landing site,” the First Mate said. “Maybe the crew jettisoned some trash tubes.”
“No, look at the scanner monitor,” the Science Officer insisted. “It’s all over the place. They couldn’t have left this much metal behind if they’d dismantled the entire ship.”
“My god,” the Captain thought as watched the rapidly multiplying symbols spread over the screen. “Could this planet be inhabited by intelligent creatures?”
He quickly called a meeting of his senior officers. “Apparently the garbage has evolved,” he told the assembled group, “and this presents us with an ethical dilemma. If whatever creatures are down there have developed an intelligence remotely close to our own, we can’t simply exterminate them. We may have to contact SMC for instructions.”
He heard a restrained but audible collective groan from his staff. Communications over mega-light years of space would take more than a month to reach their home planet, followed by an equal amount of time for the reply to come back.
The Science Officer definitely didn’t want to spend an additional ten weeks in deep space, so he spoke up. “Sir, according to the Academy of Federation Scientists, refined metal capability by itself has never been considered a marker of higher intelligence. It’s well known that some of the great builder primates back in our own galaxy developed that ability millions of years ago—and in the millennia that they’ve been observed since then, they’ve shown absolutely no potential for further intellectual evolution. They’ve always remained merely unusually intelligent animals. We’re probably dealing with the same situation here.”
The Captain listened warily to the Science Officer’s words. He took notice of the nodding heads among his staff, confirming their obvious desire to find a solution which wouldn’t prolong the already lengthy mission.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he finally stated. “We’ll conduct a complete examination of planet CX740-3’s ecosystem and life forms, including detailed photoscans and other imaging of its surface. Then we’ll analyze—” he paused as the ship’s Flight Surgeon raised his uppermost claw. “Yes, doctor,” he asked impatiently. “What is it?”
“Sir,” the physician said, “shouldn’t we consider the possibility that intelligent life might have evolved in the oceans? We really ought to examine them in detail, too.” That suggestion was followed by another round of subdued moaning. A thorough scan of the planet’s waters would slow the analytic process considerably.
The Captain sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. We’ll have to do that as well. Then we’ll make operational decisions after all that’s been completed. Are there any questions?” None were forthcoming, so he dismissed his officers to go about their duties.
Then he walked back to his quarters alone. Once inside, the first thing he did was take a large bottle of liquor out of the cabinet and pour himself a stiff drink.
“This was supposed to be just another routine inspection—followed, if necessary, by a brief decontamination procedure,” he whined. “Yet now we have the possibility of intelligent rubbish—how the hell am I supposed to deal with that?”
The Captain glanced at the portraits of his father and grandfather on the wall. In their day, both of those senior fleet admirals had commanded the finest Destroyer-class starships in the universe, and their wartime victories were still required teaching at the Military Academy.
He was ashamed to be drinking in front of such distinguished ancestors, but even more ashamed that his career had been so mediocre compared to theirs. He knew by now that he would never be promoted to admiral, and would never command anything more glorious than a sanitizer ship.
Six days later, the Science Officer presented an in-depth briefing to the senior staff. “After a detailed analysis of the land areas, and a time-consuming study of the oceans, which on this planet are very deep—” he glanced with irritation at the Flight Surgeon as he spoke—“the Science Squadron has determined that this planet is an incredibly fertile site for the sowing of organic material. Literally millions of species have managed to develop in its environment—”
“Yes, well, get to the bottom line,” the Captain interrupted. “What’s the state of intelligence among all these species?”
“Well,” the Science Officer continued, “I can say with confidence that there is no aquatic life that would meet the criteria for higher intelligence. However, a primitive intelligence does exist in one land species—but only one, among all the millions growing there.”
He pointed to the large screen on the wall behind him, as the first of a series of images appeared. “Believe it or not, this bizarre creature is actually the dominant species on this planet—despite the fact that, according to the infrared scans, it’s warm-blooded—which of course means it’s diverting most of its metabolic energy for heat rather than intellectual functions.
“As you can see from these images, this species shows some signs of developing intelligence: It has built crude cities constructed of stone derivatives and organic material—demonstrating remarkable dexterity for a creature with only two upper limbs. It’s also learned how to refine metals, as we’ve noted, yet never applied that knowledge to construction. Not surprisingly, we can’t find any evidence of artificially modulated radio waves or any other form of telecommunications.”
The officer enlarged one of the projected photographs to show detail. “Beasts of burden,” he explained. “This species has learned to use less intelligent creatures for its own purposes, clearly establishing itself as the dominant life form. However, the extent to which it relies on other animals rather than machinery betrays the limitations of its primitive mind—”
The Captain stood up. “I’ve seen enough,” he said. “This species is right on the border between class C intelligence, which merits a sanitation waiver based on developmental potential—and class D, the upper limit of animal intellect, which is subject to decontamination. It’s too close to call at the field level.
“We’re going to have to communicate with SMC, and get their determination on this.” He knew that his decision would not sit well with a homesick crew too long away from loved ones.
Turning to Navigator One, he ordered, “Move us further out until we’re in a stationary orbit around the planet. We’ll wait at that location until headquarters responds to our message. That’s all for now. Staff dismissed.”
As usual after staff meetings, the Captain retired to his suite and reached for the liquor. The next two months, the approximate time for the reception of instructions from Strategic Mission Command, would pass very slowly, and neither he nor the crew would enjoy the long wait.
“I am doing the right thing, am I not?” he asked, addressing his father’s painting. “I am a starship commander, just as you and Grandfather were—and I do hold the fate of an entire planet in my claws, even if—” he took a long drink, and then settled back into self-pity.
While the Captain was getting drunk, the First Mate was making her daily rounds through the various sections of the Sanitizer Four. By mid-shift, she had reached the flight deck, where she confronted the Science Officer.
“You know, major, it wasn’t very professional to scowl like you did during the staff meeting—even if you weren’t happy with the Captain’s decision.”
“Hey, I didn’t appreciate the way he cut me off before I could finish my briefing,” the Science Officer responded. “If he’d just let me show a little more, I might’ve convinced him how animalistic this disgusting species really is. Look here, for instance.”
He brought up an image on the console screen, and the First Mate jerked in revulsion. It showed a group of the dominant creatures standing around the roasted carcass of a larger beast, ripping off chunks of flesh and devouring them.
“Oh, my god!” she said. “That’s sickening—they actually eat other creatures? I can’t believe that.” She began to feel queasy.
“Well, if you think that’s repulsive,” the Science Officer said, “get a load of this.” He played back the video recording of an orgy scene while the First Mate stared, trying vainly to comprehend the creatures’ behavior.
“What in the world are they doing? Is that some kind of combat?”
“They’re reproducing! You heard me correctly—this loathsome species actually makes physical bodily contact when it reproduces. Now, how could anybody seriously ask if these animals have a potential for intellectual development?”
The First Mate had seen all that she could bear. She clutched her abdomen with two of her claws and put two more over her mouth, trying to keep from gagging. “You had to show me these images right after lunch, didn’t you, major?”
The Science Officer watched with a mean smile as the First Mate turned and walked away as rapidly as she could. She rushed to the nearest restroom, where she promptly threw up.
The next four weeks passed slowly and tediously for everyone aboard the Sanitizer Four, but then the boredom was shattered at a highly charged senior staff meeting.
Intelligence Officer One stood before the Captain with obvious concern in his eyes. “Sir,” he reported, “our squadron has just discovered that our ship is under surveillance by the dominant species below—in fact, they’ve been tracking us for almost a month.”
“What?” snarled the Captain. “That’s how long we’ve been in orbit around the planet. Are you telling me that they’ve been observing our ship ever since we got here—and your section is only now discovering that?” He glared at the officer with a career-threatening look.
“Well, sir,” Intelligence Officer One responded with a quaking voice, “we didn’t catch it earlier, because the unit tracking us is very small—only three agents at any one time—and they aren’t using any type of scanning equipment that our sensors can pick up. Also, they’ve been clever enough to move only at night, when it’s almost impossible to detect them visually.
“Intelligence Officer Two noticed an unusual pattern two nights in a row during his last two shifts, so I had him do a quick review of all the sequential photoscans of the area in question. The images confirm a month-long pattern of three figures tracking our ship. Clearly, the dominant species is more intelligent than we thought.”
“And perhaps certain officers under my command are less intelligent that I’d thought,” said the Captain. “Now that your squadron has belatedly discovered this activity, have you made a determination as to whether it poses any serious threat to the Sanitizer Four’s mission?”
“We—sir, we don’t see any—there’s no immediate threat.” The intimidated officer began to stammer. “All three of the agents are—they’re all carrying small quantities of refined metals, but we assume—these objects are either primitive weapons for self-defense, or tokens for commerce or ornamentation. There’s no conceivable way that they could pose any threat to a starship like ours, sir.”
The Captain was becoming increasingly impatient with the young officer’s answers. “I wasn’t asking about the offensive capabilities of those agents, lieutenant. Obviously, their sole duty is to maintain a fix on our position and to report that information to their superiors. It’s the capability of the powers who ordered our surveillance that I’m concerned about.”
Intelligence Officer One felt as if he were going to faint, right there in front of the entire senior staff. “Uh, sir, we’ve done an extensive analysis of the entire planet, and we’ve found absolutely no evidence of any advanced weaponry—there are a few organized territory-states with large land armies and navies—but they’re all at a very primitive stage.”
The Weapons Officer was sitting across the table from Intelligence Officer One. As a contemporary of equal rank with his panic-stricken colleague, he shared his discomfort. “Captain,” he said, “we can easily destroy these agents! That would send a strong message to whoever’s tracking us that—”
The Captain bit his tongue, resisting the urge to lose his composure. “My god,” he thought, “was I as rash as today’s junior officers when I was their age?”
He spoke forcefully. “Allow me to remind all of you that as of this moment, we have no authority to do any harm whatsoever to any species on this planet. Until we receive instructions from headquarters, we are limited to purely defensive action.”
The First Mate was also feeling the tension within the room. She considered suggesting that it might be prudent to move the Sanitizer Four out of stationary orbit, retreating to a more distant location while awaiting SMC’s directive. Noting the commander’s mood, however, she remained silent.
A moment later, the Captain addressed her unspoken concern. “I still think we’re dealing with a Class D ecosystem, although that’s for headquarters to determine. Even at Class C level, it could hardly have developed weapons capable of reaching us. So we’re going to remain in our present location and continue to monitor activity down on this planet, while we wait for SMC guidance.”
His voice had the ring of finality to it. There was a brief silence within the room, and then he curtly dismissed his officers. None of them had any desire to linger.
The weekly staff meetings over the next month were notably less emotional, to the great relief of all present. Intelligence Officer One reported in his briefings that while the tracking agents were still maintaining their nocturnal surveillance of the starship, his squadron had not observed any new activity of significance on the world below.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity to the crew of the Sanitizer Four, the all-important reply from Strategic Mission Command arrived. The Captain was somewhat into his cups when notified of the communication, but he immediately assembled the senior staff. This information couldn’t wait, and besides, the importance of his announcement would obscure any signs of intoxication which he might show.
“SMC has evaluated our report, and has issued clear instructions. Planet CX740-3 has been classified as a Class D ecosystem. We are to proceed with sanitation procedures immediately.”
He smiled at the rousing cheer which his words inspired from his crew. Although decontamination on a worldwide scale was an arduous procedure, at least the crew could finally complete its mission, and then head for home.
The Captain looked directly at the Weapons Officer. “Since this planet is mainly water, we’ll eliminate that first. Prepare laser batteries to boil away the seas.”
Such an act would mean the eventual demise of all life in the global ecosystem, but time was of the essence. “When the oceans are vaporized, intensify the beam until the land masses are molten,” he continued. “Then we can report with certainty that all the garbage has been removed from the CX740 system.”
“Yes, sir!” said the Weapons Officer enthusiastically. He had been waiting to hear those orders for weeks. “It’ll take us about three shifts to fire up the laser generators to maximum intensity. Then we can decontaminate this filthy planet and be on our way.”
The Captain returned to his quarters and reached for the alcohol. He was stung by SMC’s harshest conclusion, one that he hadn’t shared with his staff: that he had greatly overestimated the intelligence of the dominant species below, and that delaying the disinfection to obtain headquarters approval shouldn’t have been necessary.
“They consider me an idiot,” he thought, tossing the report onto his desk. “How can SMC suggest that the creatures below probably aren’t even aware of our presence! What are they going to claim after they get our final mission report—that those three agents were just observing the reflection of CX740 off our hull, as if we were a bright star in the night sky?”
Two shifts had passed when the Science Officer abruptly charged into the First Mate’s office, followed by Intelligence Officer One. “Where’s the Captain?” the Science Officer asked in an agitated voice.
The First Mate looked up at her unexpected guests. “The Captain’s—well, he’s retired to his quarters a bit early.”
“Well, wake the old drunk up. We’ve got urgent news.”
That demand brought a sharp rebuke from the First Mate. “Listen, you can’t talk about the commander like that! Who do you think you are? Besides, we’ll all be going home soon, so what could possibly be so—?”
“You listen,” snapped Intelligence Officer One. “Remember how the Captain finally gave permission last week to send a high-sensitivity probe into low orbit around this planet, after saying for weeks that we couldn’t do that because it might be too provocative—”
“Of course, I recall that,” the First Mate answered. “So what?”
“So this,” the Science Officer interjected. “We finally got enough data back from that probe to do a detailed analysis on what those tracking agents—the ones the Captain feels are so harmless—are actually carrying.”
The apprehension in the crewmen’s words was contagious. “Okay, I’m listening,” said the First Mate. “Go on.”
“We initially reported that the small amount of metal in the agents’ possession probably represented harmless personal items—and that was a reasonable assumption. But one of them is carrying gold!”
A flash of recognition went off in the First Mate’s mind. “Wait a minute. Isn’t that the essential element in—are you talking about a plasma beam—?”
“That’s exactly right. That particular element is useful only in plasma beam weapons!”
“This is a Class D culture,” protested the First Mate. “Isn’t it more likely that they’re using it for some other purpose?”
The two subordinate officers exchanged disdainful glances at their superior’s ignorance. “Everyone knows that gold is much too soft to have any utility as an ordinary metal,” the Science Officer said. “Besides, the probe has determined that both of the other agents are carrying organic resins—which would be needed as the lubricant in a plasma cannon. Do you really think that could be a coincidence?”
“Zenon’s fire!” swore the First Mate. “They must be preparing a counterattack before we can launch our sanitation procedures. Come with me. I’ll make sure the Captain sobers up, and—I assure you—we’ll take immediate action.”
The Captain had a throbbing headache while he faced his hastily assembled staff. Ignoring the pain, he questioned Intelligence Officer One.
“Are you sure that these creatures actually possess weapons of mass destruction, lieutenant? Even if they have WMD capability, how can you be sure we’re under any immediate threat? Isn’t it correct that these elements must be melted together in a munitions factory? Wouldn’t this require the agents to hand the components over to other—”
The Captain was cut off in mid-sentence as the senior enlisted Intelligence Technician ran into the room. “Excuse me, sir,” the yeoman said breathlessly. “I apologize for barging into your meeting—but sir, I don’t think this can wait!”
He typed instructions into the keyboard controlling the room’s large screen, bringing up a blurry image. “The agents who’ve been observing us stopped at this compound a few minutes ago. They were met by two other agents at the entrance, and their fawning behavior indicates that they were reporting to senior officials. They handed over the plasma beam components to their superiors, and now they’ve all gone inside, where we can’t get an immediate image.”
Intelligence Officer One interrupted his technician. “Sir, it’ll take over an hour for our infrared scanners to produce a readable image of the structure’s interior. By that time, their ordnance personnel could easily assemble the weapon. We could be under lethal hostile fire!”
“Captain,” shouted the Weapons Officer, “we can’t wait for our laser batteries to reach full intensity. Shall I ready them for a pre-emptive strike against the planet, using the limited power generated so far?”
The Captain felt a chill rise within him, yet his mind welcomed the sensation. This sudden threat filled him with a resolve that he hadn’t felt in many years. Much was at stake: his starship and its entire crew, the mission they had been directed to carry out, and the fate of a planetary ecosystem. He had to act quickly and decisively, and he could sense that somewhere, from some location beyond space and time, his father and grandfather were watching his performance.
The Captain straightened his back, standing as tall as he could, and waved his claw for silence. “Hear me, all of you! If the dominant species on this planet is capable not only of tracking our ship, but also has advanced weapons with which to destroy us—then it is apparent that they have somehow leapfrogged directly from Class D to Class B intelligence. SMC guidance is clear: We can never sanitize a world that has evolved to such an advanced level, a mere one class below our own civilization.”
The room was deathly silent, as everyone waited for their commander’s next words. “All right, Navigator One—take us out of orbit immediately, before this planet exercises its legitimate right to self-defense and fires at us. Then set a direct course for home galaxy. We’ll send an updated message to headquarters after we’re en route.”
His dramatic decision was followed by a deep sigh of relief from the entire senior staff. All of the officers rushed from the meeting, eager to prepare their sections for departure.
Well into the second shift after the Sanitizer Four had crossed the outer boundary of CX740’s solar system, the First Mate stopped by the Intelligence Squadron. “So tell me,” she asked Intelligence Officer Two, “how close do you think we really came to annihilation?”
“Well, I think we were damn close,” Intelligence Officer Two replied. “But the last infrared scan we got of that munitions compound is puzzling. Look at this—why would a weapons plant have domestic animals in it?” He was bringing up the scan on his computer screen when the Captain walked unexpectedly into the room.
Both officers were startled to see their commander, who normally would have retired to his quarters hours ago. They stood up and came to attention.
“At ease, both of you,” ordered the Captain. “I’m simply making late rounds on my ship. I’ve decided that from now on, I’ll be coming around on a routine basis. It’s important, after all, for a commander to observe his crew firsthand.”
The First Mate was somewhat taken aback by her commanding officer’s uncharacteristic behavior. She also noted that the Captain seemed more steady on his feet than usual for such a late shift.
“Is that the final scan we got?” the Captain asked, looking between the two younger officers at the computer screen. “I assume it shows a primitive but nonetheless deadly munitions plant.”
Intelligence Officer Two glanced at the First Mate, hoping that the more experienced crew member would respond. She took her cue and spoke up.
“Your decisive leadership saved the day, sir! Everybody aboard the ship is saying how fortunate we are to have a seasoned commander like you in charge.”
Her words were like a tonic to the Captain. “You know,” he said, “I learned a lot during our final minutes in orbit around that planet, both about its inhabitants, and about—” he had intended to say, “myself,” but quickly substituted, “the valiant crew members of the Sanitizer Four.
“When I consider everything that’s occurred in the past two months, I have a great deal of respect for that primitive world. We were on the verge of destroying it, and yet they were prepared to fight back, surely knowing they had little chance of survival against a superior force like ours. Think about that! Doesn’t that tell you something about the power that comes from self-respect—and from the realization that each of us holds his destiny in his own claws?”
The Captain didn’t wait to hear their comments. Pleased with his words, he turned and headed toward the next section, where he would make similar statements to the surprised personnel on duty. Earlier during the shift, he had poured the last of his alcohol stores down the drain. In his mind, he had finally proved himself equal to his ancestors, and the crutch was no longer needed.
The First Mate and Intelligence Officer Two remained at the computer monitor in the Intelligence Squadron, fascinated by the images that they were viewing.
“This can’t be a chemical plant,” the First Mate said. “It’s full of livestock and straw—it’s some kind of stable.”
“No, it can’t be a stable,” Science Office Two protested. “Look here—there’s a family living in it, with a small child. No mother would put her infant in a manger full of animal feed.”
“None of these images make sense,” the First Mate said in bewilderment. “Surely, those three agents couldn’t have traveled all that distance just to offer their gold and resins to a newborn baby. Could they—?”
No one aboard the Sanitizer Four would dare suggest that their Captain might be giving more credit to himself, and to the dominant species on planet CX740-3, than either deserved. Both had, after all, behaved in a manner ultimately resulting in their own salvation. In the grand scheme of things, it was the end result—and not the details of how or why—that mattered.
Drew Arrants is a retired psychiatrist and military flight surgeon living on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, where he occasionally writes short stories and novellas. During his two decades as an Air Force officer, he was stationed in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and got to see a great deal of the world while becoming fluent in two foreign languages. His fictional works have been published in various genre print and digital magazines and anthology collections in the United Kingdom and America.