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Culpable Obedience

by Jack Bragen

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Eight months elapsed aboard ship, most of it uneventful. Crew and commander were not able to communicate with their families because of the absolute radio silence that had been ordered for the trip to Devil Star.

Other ships in the fleet were visible with magnification; the fleet was in formation. Even radar could not be used, since it might be detectable by the enemy. The ships’ crews had to assume that if they maintained the course and speed that had been assigned each one, there should be no collisions with fellow spacecraft. They also had to assume that it was very unlikely that a meteor or other object would be in their path; radar could have detected it in advance.

The ships had another six months of acceleration due, which provided “gravity” for those on board the spacecraft. There would be several months of weightlessness, followed by a year of deceleration, which would once again provide gravity. During deceleration, the ships would be flying with their noses to the rear and their engines to the front, providing reverse thrust. The inertia-reducer device allowed for speeds that more closely approached light speed, and this allowed greater distances to be traveled more easily.

I had reached the stage of becoming friends with my fellow space travelers, who no longer questioned the fact that I was in charge. The one female crewmember so far had refrained from having any sexual contact with any of the three men on board.

“It’s a tall order,” Bernstein had said, when I mentioned Collins’s chastity to him.

It was at one of those completely random moments, as it always is, when hell broke loose aboard my ship.

I had taught the engineer to play chess, and I was whipping him at it on a third game in a row. I had thrown the first game, something he was beginning to suspect. I remember I was in the middle of pushing a pawn when a bullet-sized hole instantaneously appeared on the right side of Crain’s abdomen. As blood started to spurt, the ship began to tumble and threw us and objects all over the place.

I instinctively raised my arms to protect my head as I got thrown from one place to another. Above the banging and clanging of objects hitting the walls, floor, ceiling and each other, I could hear a loud hissing.

There was a moment when I was close to an emergency cutoff switch for the engine. I was just barely able to flip the switch while getting thrown past it. And then, we were weightless as the hiss continued that you never want to hear in a spacecraft. Air was escaping.

“Meteor,” said Crain, speaking in a groan. “I’ve been hit. Please help me.”

The ship was intended to be maneuvered by weightless crew during times of non-acceleration, so it didn’t take me long to get to the one locker that had the supplies for plugging holes. The plugs came in size small, smaller, and very small. The presumption was that too large a meteor would cause the interior of the ship to lose air too quickly for a crew member to survive and attempt to plug the leak. In addition to the hole-plugs were spray cans of sealant, and several large, lighted magnifiers to help spot a tiny hole.

I had to rely on my sense of hearing, mostly. Any hole that was extremely obvious to the eye would be one that would let all the air out of the cabin almost instantly. Since I was still alive, it meant that I was probably looking for two very small holes. A meteor, at the velocities of outer space, would likely have an entry and an exit hole.

I found a hole in one wall close to the edge of one of the two main propellant tanks. If we lost half of our propellant, there would go our prospects for returning home. With a medium-sized mallet, I hammered in a “smaller” sized plug, which was made of soft lead to accommodate variations in shape, and then I sprayed on the gooey, tar-like, black sealant.

There was still hissing, although not as loud, and it was becoming hard to breathe. I turned around and listened, and saw a small hole beyond where we had been sitting playing chess. I shoved off from the wall, and floated to the second hole. And then I hammered in another plug of the same size, and sprayed it with sealant. No more hiss.

I buzzed Bernstein on the intercom: “Bernstein, what’s your status?”

“At my station, commander. Now you know why I always connect a tether. Did we lose air?”

“From the bottom deck we did. Where is that doctor? Crain is hurt, badly.” I realized I was also in pain, and I checked myself in the mirror for meteor holes. I could see none and wondered if I might have a case of the bends because of the depressurization.

Collins emerged from the opening that led to the middle deck, and kicked against the wall, propelling herself toward her patient, who was now unconscious and producing floating bubbles of blood in the zero gravity.

Collins examined Crain for ten minutes, gasping in horror while doing so, shook her head and said: “This man has a hole that goes through the intestine and liver and has also hit a large artery, possibly the main artery. Without complete hospital facilities, such as a team of surgeons, countless pints of blood and a lot of other fancy stuff that we don’t have on board, his chances are zero. Oh, now he’s in cardiac arrest. I think we ought to let him go.”

“I have to go to the cockpit and evaluate the damage to our spacecraft.” I paused, holding back the impulse to weep. “Goodbye young man. You have died a hero.” I wiped a tear from my eye that had gotten past my resolve to be non-emotional. “Take care of him,” I said. I wished I could grab Collins by the shoulders and cry in her arms. It took everything I had to get it under control and then proceed to the cockpit.

“We don’t have an engineer,” I said to Bernstein. His response was a somber nod of the head. I asked, “How badly are we damaged?”

“Propellant tank B is showing close to zero pressure.” Bernstein said, while looking right at me; “The tank is ruptured.” Then he looked straight ahead and said, “We won’t be going home.”

“We’ll find a way,” I replied. “Trust me.” I put a reassuring hand on Bernstein’s shoulder, and then took my hand away and said, “Let’s get back on track toward this star system. We may be able to find propellant there.”

“It’s not exactly water. This is special stuff that it took years to develop. We would need the cooperation of that civilization we are assigned to destroy.” He paused and looked at me. “Don’t you think this mission was a dumb idea?”

“It’s not our job to evaluate the decisions of the generals,” I said. “It’s our job to carry out their orders.”

“I’m sorry, but this is senseless,” said Bernstein. “And you and I both know that.”

I put my hands on the edges of the console where Bernstein sat, and looked at him in the face, with my face only inches from his. I said: “Listen. Our only chance of surviving this idiocy and not being imprisoned for the rest of our lives once we get home is to do as we’re told. If you mutiny on me right now, it will be a death sentence. We must be and continue to be a functioning unit. Now, I think I can get us out of this, get us home, and keep us intact while doing so. I can’t share with you at the moment what I’m thinking, but you have to trust me. Are you with me, officer?”

Bernstein nodded.

“Let’s get our spacecraft back on course toward the battle,” I said.

“Doing so now, sir. I hope you’re right.” Bernstein was calmer. Crew must be convinced that I know what I’m doing, and also that I have some greater knowledge than they do that allows me to plot the right course of action. In fact, I didn’t know anything more than Bernstein and was just operating on pure hope plus guesswork. Bernstein didn’t need to know that.

“Pressure in propellant tank A remaining steady,” the pleasure android in the role of computer interface reported.

“Mister navigator, engage autopilot at will,” I ordered.

“Autopilot working,” he replied. “Switching autopilot on.”

* * *

The next week on autopilot was uneventful except that we had to give a burial in space to the engineer, Mr. Crain, and the three of us were preparing ourselves to be stranded, light-years from New Venus. We didn’t expect to live very long.

The planet we were headed for was a complete unknown, and it might be uninhabitable after the attack of our military. Or should we be the losers of this space battle, then we would die in the cold of space just the same.

And then, we received a message from home.

The transmission was powerful enough to overload the circuits in our receiver and get through to the ship’s computer despite the receiver having been shut off for purposes of radio silence.

Alert: The illegal prime minister is removed from power. New Venus is restored to a democratic state. Fleet will obey orders of ruling Council.

We are putting General Collins, aboard ship 997, in charge of fleet. Her every order shall be obeyed on penalty of death by expulsion into outer space.

All attack activities are ordered terminated. Attack is cancelled. Return home at once. Obey orders of General Collins. This message will repeat.

Bernstein looked at me. “Wait a minute. We’re ship number nine, nine, seven.”

I turned to Collins. She had donned a general’s uniform. I instantly regretted the cavalier manner in which I had been ordering her around.

“General Collins, I presume,” I saluted Collins.

“Keep in charge of this ship. Continue as you have been unless I tell you otherwise,” said Collins.

“What is the time estimate of that radio signal reaching the rest of the fleet?” Collins was asking that question of the pleasure android, which had more computing ability available to it than any human on board.

The android replied, “33, 2740.”

“If so, it allows enough time for the battle to have begun.” My tone toward Collins had shifted from one of talking down to her, and doing so a bit roughly, to one of non-emotional submission. I thought I saw Bernstein grinning.

* * *

When we approached the solar system of battle, I was surprised when there was no wreckage or other signs of battle adjacent to the home planet of the enemy. We approached orbit and sighted the fleet in a high orbit, still in formation, still a thousand strong.

General Collins opened up a frequency to General Stillmore, whom she outranked. “I am glad to see that no battle has taken place,” said Collins.

“Negative. The battle is completed,” said Stillmore.

“Where is the damage?” asked Collins.

“Our side has sustained none. The damage is restricted to that of the enemy civilization. We mopped the floor with ’em, sir,” reported Stillmore, apparently with glee.

“What was their level of technology?” asked Collins.

“Equivalent to post-Victorian,” the other general replied, “twentieth century on old Earth. They didn’t have a chance against us.”

“Is it safe for us to fly down there and assess the damage to the enemy?” asked Collins.

“The radioactivity on the planet’s surface would make that inadvisable,” replied the other general. “There is nothing left worth surveying.”

I was getting sick to my stomach. I brought up an image of the planet on the main view-screen. The atmosphere was visibly saturated with gray smoke, and it had an unearthly radioactive glow that was visible on the nighttime side of the planet. We had committed genocide.

General Collins pressed a button located at a normally vacant communications console to temporarily mute communications with her fellow general. She gave an order to Bernstein: “Mr. Bernstein, take us into a close orbit of the planet and enable the visual recorders on this com console.”

I stood next to Collins as she photographed the entire planet’s surface. She was apparently paying close attention in order not to overlook any remaining bits of structures. She intermittently took photos from various angles of our fully intact war fleet in space.

I put a hand on Lieutenant Bernstein’s shoulder because it seemed he could barely contain himself enough to fly the ship as he witnessed this atrocity.

He freed up a hand from the ship’s controls to grab my wrist and remove it from his shoulder. “I can deal with it,” he said in an even tone.

The android of its own volition asked, “What is the purpose of a military action against a helpless adversary?” It wasn’t a rhetorical question. The android was speaking literally and wanted to know the answer. When the android’s question was met with silence, it apparently became upset. It put its hands to its face and cried: “Oh my!”

General Collins again contacted the other general: “Our ship is crippled. Is there still an empty vessel sent here on computer control?”

“Yes, sir. I will have that sent to dock with you immediately.”

“That’s all for now,” Collins paused. “The fleet is to return to New Venus immediately.”

“How did we do, sir?” asked the clueless Stillmore, apparently hoping for praise.

“You carried out orders,” said Collins. “That will be all.”

I hit a button that disconnected the communication.

Collins looked at me and said, “This qualifies as a war crime.”

“It was up to the general and all military below him to disobey a criminal order from a superior,” I said. “Blind obedience has not been expected since the Second Dark Ages.”

“I’m aware of military law. I’m a general, remember?” Collins snapped. Ordinarily she would have withheld such a comment. She paused. “We don’t tell them they’re headed for punishment because I want all of these idiots to blithely return home so we don’t have to send the Mounties after all of them.”

I nodded. I wished I could be off the hook of my own culpability but realized I had fully intended to participate in this bloodbath. I did not dare bring up the subject with General Collins.

* * *

Bernstein landed our ship at the space terminal we had left behind, seven years before. General Collins gave me permission to exit the ship and report to the Council. She said she needed “a word” with Bernstein, and said, “Don’t worry about us. Your assignment is done.”

At the time General Collins said that, I believed she was implying that I faced impending arrest and incarceration for the war crimes that had taken place. I believed she was implying that my military career was finished. As it turned out, she was merely referring to this assignment. If I had known that, I would have rushed to my family, whom I horribly missed. As it was, I shied away from seeing them because I very painfully anticipated their grief at seeing me go to prison for life. I couldn’t face that.

As I stood on the launch deck, I was surprised there was no military escort. I looked and saw that a nearby vessel was surrounded by officers, and they had their weapons drawn.

I looked around and saw the door that led to the observation bay. It had been seven years since I had had a donut. I needed to have a donut before turning myself in for punishment.

As I stood at the counter of the coffee shop, a passing officer saluted me. I was surprised at this. Had I not participated in mass murder? Had I not lost all honor as a space officer and a human being? Why was I being saluted?

I finished my donut. It tasted good. And then I walked toward the office of Head Council member, which was in an adjoining building. I hesitated, and then I knocked on the door.

The door opened, and Gladys Seymour was sitting at the desk of Head Council Member. I hesitated, and then I saw a plaque at the desk that read, “Head Councilmember Seymour.”

Miss Seymour still had the same red and gray, medium-length hair. She seemed not to have aged much in the ten years that had elapsed. “And what is this concerning, Mister?” she asked.

“I’m here to plead for a pardon for my navigator. He objected to the military action and I overruled him,” I said.

“But my understanding is that your ship didn’t make it to the battle in time to participate,” replied Seymour.

“Sorry about that, madam. Events transpired that were beyond our control,” I said. I was trembling at the prospect of impending punishment. I fully expected to be in handcuffs at any moment.

“But if you didn’t participate in the carnage, your guilt is purely hypothetical. We don’t punish people for hypothetical crimes. This legal custom was stopped after the demise of the United States of America. You are not to be punished, young man. Go home.”

“Thank you, madam,” I said. I turned and began to walk out.

“You’re going to be decorated,” Seymour said.

Copyright © 2012 by Jack Bragen

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