Not all is as it seems...

Not all is as it seems...

By Craig Hogan

Interplanetary Merchant Marine Captain Scott always hated these long voyages. As the exploration of space evolved into a marketable enterprise, the need for supplies, materials and goods created the by-product industry of - space shipping. And with it changed Captain Preston Scott, a somewhat successful merchant marine captain of the North American Flying Guild. When the exploration of space became a business, Scott saw an opportunity to leave his slow paced and mediocre position shuttling dried milk and liquid proteins to the "underdeveloped" nations of the planet. He saw himself as an adventurer, a pioneer, a maverick - so long as the adventure wasn't too dangerous or mysterious. Hence, Captain Scott let the astronauts, as they were called then, create a safe space in which to conduct business. Of course, this meant that Scott was usually bringing up the rear, with supplies or parts and raw materials. His career in the service seemed to always be in the rear as well. While his friends and colleagues moved ahead to Commodores and Admirals, Scott remained a quiet, contented and thoroughly dull captain of the merchant marine force in space.

Captain Scott's young first mate was an altogether different story. Jim Petersen was a strong willed intelligent cadet, right out of the Flying Academy. Like all rookies, he was talkative, excited and a little bewildered concerning space exploration, the technology behind it and his particular position in the service. He had good marks, obeyed his superiors, and was in general a good cadet. How, he wondered, had he ever landed this assignment. No scientific explorations, no encounters with alien life, and no chance to advance his career in the service, just the slow painful crawl of the transport continually following the armada that could not be seen at this distance.

In average conditions, with average people this boredom would have certainly caused temperamental flare-ups, such as those found in the average household. But, these were not average men or average conditions. No - these men were graduates of one of the most prestigious, and disciplined schools in the galaxy. The Space and Aeronautical Flying Academy. Every technician, mechanic, pilot, officer and cadet involved in space flight or commercial transportation inside the atmosphere had graduated from the academy. One did not fly if he did not graduate from the academy. This ensured the powers-that-be that only the prime stock of men were operating their billion dollar pieces of machinery in the dark coldness of alien space, or the illusive blue-cold that engulfed the entire planet we now stand upon. These men, Petersen and Scott, knew what to expect and knew what was expected of them. With flawless rapidity, they hauled from here to there and there to here anything that could fit in the transport.

The Flatback was a space barge. Simple in design, overwhelming in capacity. The pilot's cabin was small indeed. Just enough room to fit two full sized humans, and enough dials, switches, buttons, indicators and equipment to move the smallest amount of serum or lug an immense piece of raw metal through the dark regions of space. The ship was practical. The cargo area was normally covered by a metal hull that would capably hold boxes of cargo or conceal military shipments of arms and supplies. Conversely, the metal hull over the cargo area could be removed to carry large pieces of metal and other raw materials that were, either too wide, or too tall to fit inside the hull. With the hull removed the ship looked like a flatbed truck with a cabin to house the human drivers. The name Flatback was jokingly christened this ship by it's navigators.

Preston Scott always hated these long voyages, and the question began to dawn on him whether his space career had any positive results on his life. As the ship careened along the dark shadows, Scott could not help the feeling of complete boredom, and perhaps, the feeling one gets as the major portion of ones life seems to have passed. He did his job well enough, but was the job enough for Preston Scott?. When he came to the fleet, those many years ago, he had seen himself leading a squadron of patrol ships against the numerous pirates that always seemed to lash out at the largest shipments and convoys. Today, he was captain of his own ship - a transport barge. As though that would hold any excitement or wonder to the progeny of the Scott clan.

Scott turned to look into the sleeping surface of Petersen's young face. It seemed to him, that Petersen always had that kind of naive expression babies have when sleeping. But then, Petersen wasn't much more than a young adult himself, and so thought Scott, perhaps that explains it. He just couldn't get it out of his mind, though, the feeling that he was working with a child. Petersen was no child, however, he was an Academy Cadet. For that, he could be trusted to understand the rigors, and dangers of space travel, as well as, the discipline necessary to maintain and prolong a system that moves merchandise throughout the cosmos. The Captain should have roused his shipmate to take the next watch. But, you didn't become the captain of anything in this service without having some understanding and compassion of human nature. Petersen needed rest, and he would have it even at the expense of Captain Scott's sleep period. To cope with the long journey's in space, hiberunits were instituted to immerse the pilots into sleep. The sleep was not so relaxing as it was time consuming. One would not actually be in the second stage of sleep, the deeper sleep. But, in a state that would allow time to flow by quickly, yet the pilot could be revived by the touch of hand on the shoulder, or a loud exclamation by any of the other crew members. The two men of the Flatback found the hiberunits very unnerving since no rest seemed to be gained under its influence. Because the deeper sleep was not attained through the hiberunit, one never felt that satisfying feeling of complete and restful sleep.

Slowly but surely Scott's boredom turned to unconsciousness. It had been an hour since he looked through the viewscreen towards the blackness that was space, and was now deep in the second phase of sleep, unaware to any danger that might possibly rear its ugly head. This sector of space was newly explored, and even though the planets, and asteroids had been charted it had not been given A1 clearance. A1 clearance meant that the entire sector of space and any sector surrounding it were charted, free from natural threat, and well explored. With A1 clearance, ship's personnel could relax on long trips and use the hiberunits. Without this clearance regulations stated that: "One crew member must stay on watch in the event of natural or man-made threat". This sector had not had all the asteroid movement, and planetary movements charted. So that no one could determine when the next chunk of space junk could come soaring out of the abyss, on a collision course with the ship. For this reason, at least one crew member had to watch the viewscreen, while another went on sleep period.

Wham! The shock was easily enough to wake sleeping cadet Petersen. Almost instinctively the young officer flipped the aft viewscreen on to try and get a glimpse of what had connected with the ship.

"Captain!" cried Petersen "we've been hit by something!" Petersen knew full well the penalty for falling asleep while on duty, he also knew better than to bring that up now. "Captain!" shrieked Petersen, now raising his voice simply to stir his commander.

"What?!?" Scott said groggily "what do you mean - by something?"

"I don't see it now, sir. But, it must've been something large." Petersen responded with the cold calculated evenness bore into him at the academy. Now was no time to panic. "Activate all viewscreens!" commanded Scott. In the blink of an eye fifteen small screens appeared on a large black panel directly in front of the two cargo haulers. The panel curved around their sides to almost engulf them, leaving only enough room to move in and out of the semi-circle which was the control panel. To view all screens both men had to swivel in their chairs.

"There it is, sir. Thirty degrees off starboard." Petersen was a professional, and it showed now.

"Thank you, Jim. Let's look at the damage. Close in on the starboard hull." In the screen directly in front of Captain Scott a magnified view of the starboard side of the ship burst into view. "Damn! Look at that". A large gaping hole, dark and foreboding hung on the side of ship. It looked as though a cobalt missile had been launched at the transport from close range. Apparently a huge chunk of very hard space fodder slammed into the transport, and then like a rubber ball heaved at the side of a brick wall, bounced back into the pit of darkness whence it came.

"We're losing cargo, sir." Petersen said with militaristic rigidity.

"Lock that sector off, now." commanded the captain. "Let's see if we can fix it through space walk, Jim."

"Yes sir" responded Petersen, even though his personal opinion of the situation was far graver and warranted a landing.

Cadet Petersen always felt a little strange on these space walks, as they were called. A man on the end of a tether dangling, as though taunting the very sun, challenging man's right to be there. Another thing that always seemed strange to Petersen was the idea that space was cold. Maybe so, but when you were in a spacesuit its purpose is to keep the body cool - to dispel body heat. So that more often than not, one built up quite a lather working in space. As he approached the gaping wound that now infected the side of the ship, his convictions were confirmed."We're gonna have to land and fix her, chief". "What's it look like" was Scott's answer.

"About hundred feet long and, maybe thirty feet wide" replied the cadet.

"We can handle that from out here" Scott began confidently.

Petersen broke in "Yes sir, but one of the main pressure seals is pretty beat up. We're gonna need time and some atmosphere to move in and do the job right".

Trying to think of another option Scott asked "Can we continue on with the hole as it is"?

"I don't think so, chief. The cargo is starting to float away and we might lose it all if we don't get this thing fixed".

"Return to ship, cadet" was Scott's only reply.

The last thing Captain Scott wanted to do was to get stuck on some asteroid floating nowhere in this void of darkness. The cabin of the ship was not even large enough to use for a personnel quarters. Supplied with every transport were flexihuts. These little jewels were supposed to provide everything from a roof over one's head to running water, and for a plastic shell quickly erected on the surface of some desolate place, they didn't do a half bad job at that.

"Scan off the bow, Jim". Captain Scott thought he might try to find a landing point on their present course.

"Off starboard, sir" reported Peteresen. "I think I see a large asteroid, maybe a planetoid".

"Good Hunting" replied the stalwart captain. "Has it got an atmosphere of any kind, Jim".

"Yes sir, it seems to be revolving very slowly which is creating a small amount of gravs and there seems to be microscopic bacteria all over the surface. I can't imagine how they survive so far from a sun."

"Can we put her down there, cadet?" requested the captain.

"I think so, sir - the readings on the mass of the thing are inconclusive but judging from it's gravitational pull and the visual on the surface, think it's a good bet".

"Take her down, mister" Scott sighed with a wisp of despair bordering on boredom.

The long ship scuffed the ground as it came to a halt. The viewscreen showed a simple world - terrain all the same, a low cut almost desert like crust, but softer somehow. This ground looked like nothing either of the men had seen before. It was firm, but somehow, it had a feeling of warmth and comfort. It was the comfort a child felt in the arms of his mother, or the quiet comfort of two lovers after the moment. It was heartwarming, and yet eerie. Why should a planet feel warm from the inside out? Petersen began unpacking the tools needed to patch the hole, while Scott retrieved the flexihut from its hiding place somewhere in the depths of the cargo hold.

Captain Scott had the flexihut assembled quickly and was now preparing coffee for the both of them. The cadet had begun cutting small pieces of the hull away to be used for the patch.

"How long?" asked the captain.

"I'm not sure, Captain, however I would like to say that I will do the work. Why don't you go on a sleep period?".

"Good idea" responded Scott as he dislodged the hiberunit from the cabin of the ship. The captain knew he needed rest, and fell to the whims of the hiberunit. Surprisingly, he fell into a deep, dreamy sleep. In eight hours the alarm on the hiberunit gently tickled his arm and rose him from the death like condition he purported seconds ago. Petersen was awake and just finishing the patch job on the starboard side of the ship.

"You up all this time?" questioned Scott.

"No, just woke up - I'll have this done in a few minutes".

"Good work, mister!" Captain Scott never forgot to tell the boys when they did a fine job, and right now this was the finest. "Let's go!"

"Yes sir" Petersen said triumphantly. In minutes they were strapped in their chairs ready for take-off, cargo in check, hole patched, and spirits high.

The engines of the day still used chemical fuel to blast through atmospheres on take-off. With the gravitational pull of this planetoid they didn't need to blast off at all, a small push would have done the job. But, the machines of the day were not designed to offer different take-off methods, they all just blasted chemical fuel. The engines roared and turned red hot as the propulsion built to a fervor. They were off, off the planetoid but not out of gravitational pull. Acceleration was added by firing the red hot blast of chemicals once again. As their course ascended, Petersen noticed on the aft viewscreen a strange shape. It seemed to grow larger,

"Yes sir, I believe it is moving closer!" Petersen was now slightly frightened and very perplexed. It looked as if the earth of the planetoid was curling up into a huge wave of crusty epidermis. Pieces of it fell back down to the area of the thing that wasn't curling. As suddenly as it had come, it was hovering above them. A huge gritty paw made from the surface of the planetoid itself. A claustrophobic feeling came over the two men.


- - - Space Barge FlatBack unseen and unheard from since 89.2.56

- - - Crew and cargo presumed dead and destroyed

- - - END MEMO - - -

The Anthwol had been - had always been. Soaking in the sun's rays. Ever spinning, ever turning. The Anthwol had been, and had always been. The Anthwol lived with the "sufre" that supported its life. The Anthwol loved its life, constantly spinning and absorbing the sun's rays. And all of the Anthwol would get sun because it was ever spinning, ever turning. The Anthwol loved the microscopic "sufre" feeding on its waste, but the Anthwol would feed on the "sufre" creating a perfectly harmonious relationship. A relationship that was ever feeding, ever creating. The Anthwol had been and had always been. But, occasionally, very rarely to be exact, the Anthwol would get this little itch, it would start out without much pain but very quickly it would become burning hot. The Anthwol must stop this and the only way to stop an itch is - SCRATCH IT!

It looked as if the earth of the planetoid was curling up into a huge wave of crusty earth epidermis. Pieces of it fell back down to the portion of the thing that wasn't curling. As suddenly as it had come, it was hovering above them. A huge gritty paw made from the surface of the planetoid itself. A claustrophobic feeling came over the two men, because at that moment they realized that not all - is as it seems.

Copyright 1997 by Craig Hogan

About the Author: "I have many stories completed, and an entire boatload of story outlines and ideas. Assuming this becomes a positive experience I can supply you with stories every month. In addition I do have my own web page where I have placed my stories and music that I write. I have written and recorded over 80 songs. You can listen to some of them or download them at:"

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