Dr. Kevin Hillman
The January Editor's Pick Story is by Dr. Kevin Hillman
Please feel free to email Kevin at: firstname.lastname@example.org
CLAIMING NUMBER EIGHT
by Dr. Kevin Hillman
As the sole occupant of Oort Explorer Twelve, four years out from Earth and now at the edge of the solar system itself, I really had not expected to meet anyone. The helmeted figure at my window came as a considerable surprise. I was, in that moment, grateful for the urinary tube they had grafted into me before I was installed in this ship.
Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. You don’t yet know who I am, why I’m here or what I’m doing.
I am Tiberius Dominic Blackthorn, and I am sane. It sounds a strange boast but since I’m the only Oort Explorer in this section who’s managed to avoid flying gibbering into a planetoid or firing all boosters and vanishing into space, it is a proud boast indeed. My sanity has been intact throughout the flight – although the ghastly face I glimpsed when that space-suited man tapped my window did make me wonder if my time, too, might be short. Is that how it was for the others before they cracked? We had limited ship-to-ship communication but there was never any way to tell who was going loopy, or when they would flake out altogether. It just happened. One by one.
It’s better not to think about that. The man outside is real, I’m sure. A line from his suit has tangled around some part of the external apparatus and he’s drifting along with me now. Once in a while he floats past a window or a camera. If I’m lucky he has his back to me when it happens.
He is real. I am still sane. Of this I am sure with ninety-nine, okay, ninety-five per cent confidence. I’ve set the computer to the task of estimating where he came from, and reassigned four close-range and two long-range detectors to look for his ship. I can’t spare more. I have to watch out for the rocks.
Ah yes, I wanted to tell you what I’m doing. The Oort Cloud is a messy place. Composed of bits of ice and rock, all flying around with no sense of order or direction, it surrounds our entire solar system and constitutes what I suppose you might call a hazard to future shipping. My job, and that of any Oort Explorer who manages to keep his head on straight, is to map it.
That’s not strictly true. The computer maps it. All I do is adjust, scan data and send samples. If artificial intelligence had ever worked as it should I wouldn’t even be here. I’m the ‘human element’—and if you could see me you’d laugh at that claim—here to cope with the unexpected. I use my intuition to decide where to aim the sensors for best effect. I fiddle with the programs when something goes out of alignment. I control the sampling arm. I select chunks of rock and ice for the boffins on Earth. Those go back in little pods. Sometimes I use the sampling arm to bat rocks around, just to watch the computer remap their trajectories.
I don’t think the computer was at all surprised to find the astronaut out there. In fact—let me check—yes, it’s mapped him, and it continues to map him as he floats around. Stupid machine doesn’t realise he’s stuck to the ship.
There he is again, floating past my window. I can’t quite make out his face but it looks like someone—but it can’t be him. If it is him then I’ve definitely lost it. I’ll be aiming for the nearest big rock soon enough. It can’t be him. He’s dead, six years in Earth’s soil. Soil I’ll never walk on again.
No, I can’t think that way. I’m alive and it’s better than the alternative. Besides, even if I did somehow go back, I no longer have legs. These ships have stringent weight restrictions. You don’t take along anything you won’t need. Torso and head are essential, as is one arm. The rest is just excess baggage.
The man floating outside is entire. I must admit to a twinge of jealousy, yet I am alive and he is not. That must mean I have the better deal. It must. I have to believe that. Concentrate on life, be grateful for it. It keeps me sane. I think.
Sometimes, over the past four years, I’ve wished I had taken the injection. Those thoughts came often the first year, less so the second, less again the third. Now I’ve grown accustomed to my condition and marvelled at my adaptability. It seems people really can get used to anything.
I killed seven people. There, I’ve said it. No use denying it now anyway, I was convicted and condemned for it. Then saved, if that’s the right word. Oh, it is. I’ve seen Neptune close up. How many could say that?
I hope my sanity, and this ship’s systems, last a long while yet. I’d really like to see what’s out there in interstellar space. Like Yuri Gagarin, the first man to leave Earth’s atmosphere. T.D. Blackthorn, the first man to leave the solar system. The big difference is that Gagarin came back.
Maybe I’ll still be travelling when the first of the interstellar ships passes by. That would be something to see. I could congratulate myself on making it possible with the maps and trajectories I’ve sent back from my little vessel. I doubt they’d even stop to say hello. Nobody likes a serial killer.
Well, not quite nobody. The space geeks came to see me on Death Row. All I had to look forward to was a little prick from the Oblivion Needle. Instead I met a little prick from the Space Agency.
You fit the profile, he said. I know, I said, they’re going to baste me in death-juice for it next week.
No, he said. He meant I was a loner. Someone who preferred to be away from people. He had a proposal. I signed up, quick as a flash, when I found out it could get me out of that place. After a couple of months on Death Row, I’d have signed a contract with the Devil himself. I wish he had visited. He might have had a better deal.
Now here’s Death looking me in the eye. That couldn’t be Tom Santini, my fifth victim, who taps my window with his stiff gloved fingers and grins his desiccated, frozen grin through the thick glass. Taunting me with his limbs and teeth. It couldn’t be him. Yet the face is so like him, the same death-mask. There are letters on his helmet, written in red. Not a word, just a mess of letters in blood red. The thought of blood makes me lick my gums. It’s been a long time since I cut those numbers into my victims’ foreheads. The letters might mean something to the computer so in they go. C-C-C-P.
Where was I? Oh yes, the space agency guy. Well, as soon as I signed the form I was handcuffed and ankle-chained and taken away in a van. They trained me in a mock-up cockpit which had more space than this one. I still had all my limbs then. Once they were satisfied I could do the job, off I went to surgery. Chop-chop, stitch and heal, counselling and more training. I had no choice by then. Take the ship, or take the needle. I had been through too much to turn back.
Four years. It’s been good, in a way. Sure, I don’t have space to move much, which is a little ironic when you consider that just outside my window is more space than anyone could ever need. Still, nobody bothered me until the astronaut turned up so I had four years of peace. The ship feeds me some tasteless mush, takes away my crap and does something with it. I never asked what because I have a feeling I don’t really want to know. I even have TV, of a sort. Nothing but reruns but then that’s all there ever was anyway. Once in a while someone from Earth asks how I’m doing. Once in a while I get around to answering. I know they don’t care about me. It’s the ship they’re worried about. They’ve lost too many and these little babies aren’t cheap.
The computer’s found something. A conspiracy-theory archive from its memory. I shouldn’t be surprised, since even phones had gigabytes of memory when I left Earth. This damn thing probably has a record of everything that was known when I set out, and might even have been updated on the way. Computer memory is far more important than body parts when it comes to weight limits.
A story, a rumour, a tale of Italian brothers named Judica-Cordiglia who listened in on early Russian space shots. A theory about a cosmonaut, pre-Gagarin, whose ship went up and up but never came down. You know, I’d never given it a second’s thought before. Yuri Gagarin’s space trip was a perfect success. It never occurred to me to wonder how they managed to get it right first time. It seems they didn’t.
For the first time in a very long time, I feel a sense of companionship. Outside my ship is proof of a story that Earth regards as legend. The cosmonaut before Gagarin. The failed mission nobody spoke of. The man who just floated away. A myth, a story, a tale for dark nights and firesides and tinfoil-hats and geeks with computers who have too much time on their hands. Yet here he is grinning into my ship. Seems I caught up with him. On the same one-way trip, but still alive, I’m facing another who had little choice in the matter.
So it’s not Tom after all, and I’m still sane. I can continue through the Oort cloud and see what’s on the other side. What to do with this corpse though? I’d rather not have him peering in at me. Kindred spirit or no, he’s hardly engaging company. I can cut him loose with the sampling arm and send him on his way.
Oh, wait. I have an idea, but first I have to confess to something. Are you listening, Space Agency geeks? The reason the cockpit camera broke, three weeks out, is that I broke it. I didn’t want you watching me. I’ve made some adjustments to the system in front of me over the last four years. These transmissions, coded so only you guys can hear them? Well, I finally found out how to disable that coding system. This transmission is going out broadband, all frequencies, uncoded, just like all the others I’ve sent over the last three months. Anyone can hear me. By now, everyone knows your ‘automated’ probes are manned by partially-dissected convicts. I’m not another conspiracy theory you can deny. I’m real and I’m about to prove it. Suck on that, space boys.
You geeks must have worked out I’d broken the encoder. I’ve been thinking about that. You’ll be spreading the word that it’s all a hoax. You’ll pretend it’s some kid in his bedroom making up my transmissions and bouncing them off satellites. Oh, I know you haven’t told the people of Earth how these ships work, and whose mangled bodies are stuck in them. I also know you can’t stop me transmitting. Even if you fire a missile, I’m so far away it’ll take years to reach me and I am a very small target in a big pile of rocks.
I’ve been wondering how to prove I’m real. I could maybe use the cutter to write on a rock sample, but the Space Agency gets them first anyway. The dead Russian here changes everything. This corpse, and this message, are linked. If the corpse comes home then the message is proven. His conspiracy theory and mine can both be proven.
This is going to embarrass Russia and cause all kinds of diplomatic incidents. Maybe even war. Yes, I might still be responsible for deaths on Earth from millions of miles away. So let’s start this game.
I’ve caught him with the grabber part of the arm. If I can just move the cutter over his helmet, I can burn a mark there. Done. Now I have to trap his suit-line in one of the sample pods and cut him free from the ship. No problem.
It’s a big thrill to press that fire button and watch him towed away. Hey, Earth. Your prodigal is coming home. I have no idea how long he’ll be but he’s on his way. Watch the skies. If you want to hush this up, space-geeks, if you want me to sound like just some Earthly fraud, you’d better get scrabbling for that evidence. Lots of countries have space programs now. Who will find him first?
You’ll know him when you find him, and you’ll know I sent him. I burned an ‘8’ into his helmet. Okay, I didn’t kill this one but I’m claiming him as number eight anyway. He’s proof of that old story and he’s proof I’m out here too.
It’s going to be years before Russki gets home but he’s my reason for staying alive now. I want to hear what happens when he gets there.
The anticipation will help keep me sane.
Dr. Kevin Hillman is a rogue scientist and writer who normally appears online as anyone but himself. His multiple personalities include the sensible and restrained Gutbugs and the sensible but volatile Romulus Crowe, as well as the militant Leg-iron and the utterly deranged Phineas Dume. That last incarnation wrote articles for the greatly missed AlienSkin magazine and takes the credit for most of the stories.
Kevin's short stories have appeared in From The Asylum, AlienSkin, and other online venues. His first novel, Jessica's Trap, is due to be released by Damnation Books in April 2011. Fame beckons, although fortune remains sadly elusive.
Dr. Dume was once under the control of the AlienSkin mother, but now he is loose upon the world. You can visit Dr. Dume HERE.
Don't miss Jessica's Trap, coming in April 2011!