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Command Transfer
    by Darren Eggett
Command Transfer
Artwork by Dean Spencer

It was supposed to be the last time James Clintock woke up for the next six hundred years. He'd been out of Deep Slumber for far too long and he knew it. His body knew it. Three years out, they said. Three years awake, serving the colony, and then he could hibernate again. Well, his shift was finally ending. He'd done his part and more. Someone else could watch over the ship. Someone else could take a turn. He rolled over on his bed. It was time.

So why was he so nervous?

The voice of Pandora, their ship, whispered through his earpiece. "I have prepared a portion of the rations, sir. They are waiting for you in the hopper."

He rarely answered Pandora anymore. When his shift first started, James would chat aimlessly with the computer, reminiscing about his childhood, his marriage; anything to help pass the time, to make him feel less lonely. It hadn't taken long to realize it was pointless. The A.I. was no substitute for another person.

Granola waited for him in the hopper. He cursed. What wouldn't he give for eggs and sausage? This was his last meal, for crying out loud. He choked it down as he made his rounds through the ship, all the while wondering why the shift change made him so uncomfortable.

He made no noise as he canvassed the decks. Black insulating foam sheathed every surface. The helmet-mounted light was so close to his eyes he could barely see shadows. Together, the foam and viewpoint lamp messed with his sense of perspective. Sometimes it felt like he wandered forever in blackness, never reaching the end of his route because it seemed he never left.

His first stop, as usual, was the dormitories. At the start of his shift, when he realized Pandora failed the Turing test of his first several months awake, he had come here and found his wife. Nadia was two hundred forty-three paces down the hallway to his left. James peeled back the black foam from her hibernation tube and brushed his fingers across the glass over her face.

She looked so young.

When they were first married, he loved to watch her sleep. Sometimes he would get so caught up in her closeness, holding her in his arms, feeling her body softly rise and fall as she breathed, that he'd forget to sleep. She was so innocent; so vulnerable. He was amazed that anyone could trust him so completely.

Then the war broke out. Nadia's father and sister were killed. James barely made it back from his tour of duty.

She never slept well after the war started. She talked in her sleep, cried out for him when she flew awake. He couldn't stand the look of fear in her eyes, as if she couldn't believe he was really there.

The Pandora project was a blessing; it was much more than just a fresh start for the colony. Everyone slept well in Deep Slumber.

James pushed the foam back down around her canister, tucking her in one last time. A lump rose in his throat. She looked so peaceful. While it was his shift, she trusted him to protect her. That made all the sacrifices, all the loneliness, worth it. Just a few more hours and he could join her in hibernation until their journey ended.

But the nagging feeling was still there.

He didn't want to think about it. As he resumed his rounds, James spoke to Pandora. "Any chance of some working music today?"

"I'm sorry, sir. My programming will not let me transmit more than necessary within twenty-four hours of a shift change."

Of course. It was all part of the game: War made people paranoid and they became overly cautious. Some of that paranoia drifted into everything they did. Pandora was the perfect case in point: disguised to look like a meteor from the outside and impervious to scanning. Every bit of light, of sound -- anything that could be used to detect signs of life -- got absorbed by the foam within twenty yards of emission. And Pandora had life support for only one person at a time -- one person who stayed out of Deep Slumber, just in case anything went wrong.

It was extreme, but the security was necessary. Their enemies were powerful; so many of his people were already dead. And those who weren't, like their little colony, were in hiding. Hundreds of years of travel would provide not only time, but the distance that would hopefully keep their descendants safe long enough for them to grow strong again.

As James entered the heart of Pandora, which stored all the primary and secondary processors, the back of his neck prickled. This was definitely more than a temporary feeling, more than just his shift coming to an end. Something was wrong.

It was just as well that Pandora had refused to play anything for him: the music would have kept him from his thoughts. If something was screwed up, he needed to see it, think it through, find a solution, and get it fixed.

His first inspection of Pandora's heart showed nothing out of place, so he started over. This time, James let his hand drift over every inch of the black foam, feeling for anything that didn't belong.

He found the inconsistency on the secondary communications processor. He turned his head from side to side so that the light would play against it from different angles. Nothing appeared out of place, but when he brushed his hand over the panel again, he felt a divot forming a line down the middle of the panel. He pulled a knife from his pocket, sliced the foam along the divide, and revealed the processor beneath.

"Pandora, run a diagnostic on secondary communications."

After a few moments Pandora said, "All automatic testing returns without failure."

Okay, so nothing was blatantly wrong. "Check the wiring against construction schematics."

"There are some anomalies, sir, though they appear in line with standard maintenance repair."

James couldn't shake off the tickling feeling in his gut. This is why he was so nervous; he was sure of it. He paced in circles around Pandora's heart, letting his thoughts wander.

Pandora's voice startled him. "It's time, sir. I'll start waking up your replacement." Good grief, how long had he been pacing? "The hibernation tube can be ready by the time you return to the dormitories."

"Belay that." James surprised himself with the force of his voice. Why? What was it about his replacement that bothered him? "Who's on deck for the next shift?"

"Trinn Leeman, sir."

James pounded his head. Trinn Leeman . . . Trinn Leeman . . . A picture of a short, pudgy man with thick fingers and unnaturally dark lips flashed in James' mind. James had been a little disgusted by the man's appearance before the trip, but that didn't matter. Right here, right now, the only question James needed to answer was if Trinn could be trusted.

"Pandora, I need a bio synopsis of Trinn Leeman. Now."

After a brief pause Pandora returned. "Trinn Leeman, 27 years old at time of hibernation. Married to Sandra --"

"Skip the minor details," said James. "Start with military history."

"Mr. Leeman has limited military experience. He received an education waiver during the primary conflict."

Strike one. "Continue with his education, then."

"Undergrad completed from MIT in microbiology; advanced degrees in nano-broadcasting from --"

James stopped listening; that was enough. Trinn was a broadcaster. "Where are Leeman's personal articles stored?"

"Searching . . ." said Pandora. "Storage deck twelve, container A-17."

He left Pandora's heart, moving as quickly as he dared in the blackness of the corridors. Yet it seemed he couldn't get to the storage area fast enough. Pandora was droning on about something, but James wasn't listening. When, at last, he stood before container A-17, he finally made out what she was saying.

"May I remind you again, sir, that it is a violation of community law to open the personal storage containers of a fellow traveler --"

"Except in times of emergency," James said, finishing the line. And this was certainly an emergency -- or at least it might avoid one. He used his knife to cut through the foam and pry open the top of the storage container.

"This violation has been noted on your service record."

"Fine." Let the council decide what to do with him once they arrived and everyone was safe. James rifled through Trinn's belongings, finally tipping the container over and letting the contents spill across the floor. He tossed the items back into the container one at a time as he decided they were harmless: clothing, extra large; cases of toothbrushes and toothpaste; textbooks and novels galore -- the guy obviously didn't know how to be alone with his thoughts.

Toward the bottom of the pile, next to an ivory-handled mirror, he found them: thought broadcast-patches. They were perfectly harmless for long-distance interpersonal communication, but Trinn would be alone during his shift; there was no need for them. If Trinn attached a receiver to a fully functioning communications processor, he could send their position across the galaxy. And the bounty on the colony was high enough that someone with the means would find it impossible not to. Trinn could doom them all and have enough money afterward not to care.

James was the only person who could do anything about it.

He realized he was shaking. He'd sacrificed too much already, hadn't he? He'd spent so much time alone in the blackness of space, in the blackness of the ship.

Besides, there was only a chance Trinn would turn them in. Trinn was probably a good guy, pudgy, thick fingers and all.

But when he thought about Nadia, he knew any chance was too great. She needed him to be there, to protect her.

"Pandora, as acting commander, I'm overriding the shift transfer to Trinn Leeman. Authority code 6-7-1-1-9-2. Effective immediately, I'll be taking his shift."

Pandora whirred and hummed in his earpiece. "Are you quite certain, sir?"

"Yes, I'm sure," he said. "Who's scheduled for the shift after Leeman?"

"Patricia Mallo."

Good. He remembered Patricia. Nice woman. She came from a wealthy family and had given up her fortune to escape with the colony. She knew what it was to sacrifice. He could trust her.

James picked up the remaining items from the floor and nestled them back in the storage container. As he placed the mirror on top of a stack of books, he caught a glimpse of his reflection.

He swore. He hadn't seen himself since before he went into hibernation. When had his hair turned gray? And the creases in his forehead? When did they appear? This was more than three years could do to him. "Pandora, how long have I been awake?"

"Twenty-seven years, sir. You have served eight shifts beyond your original term of service."

Eight shifts? Could that be right? He couldn't remember. "List them, please."

"Jackson, Troyovich, Niles . . ." As Pandora continued the list, James counted them off. Eight shifts.

But they were all untrustworthy. He couldn't give control of the ship to any of them.

At least Patricia was up next. He remembered her as a striking woman, a natural leader. Occasionally she dyed her hair bright red, but that was just a foible. He could trust her.

He could.

Couldn't he?

Well, he had three years to figure it out. He could hold off thinking about it -- for a while, anyway. "Pandora, since the transfer isn't happening, how about some music?"

"Certainly, sir. What would you like to hear?"

"Surprise me."

He realized he was hungry. Hopefully what's-his-name . . . Trinn . . . requisitioned some real food for this shift.

Stringed instruments whispered to him through the earpiece: Barber's Adagio. A good choice.

He sighed. Three more years.

Until then, Nadia could sleep peacefully.

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