What to Pack When You’re Bound for HD37531.3 by Aaron Polson

Nov 13 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

It began the as the same as the others: Calvin woke in his stasis chamber to the blank near-face
of Earl, a Sonwik SR-150A service robot, the name painted on his grey metal torso in white
block letters. Three robots shared the Lucy Jean: Earl, Kilroy (another SR-150A) and a single
AP-15 pilot droid. Calvin was the only human. They only sent one human on bombing runs. The
robots had made three interstitial jumps while he slept—three Earth months in the cold of space.
The targets hid in the mines of HD37531.3, the third planet from HD37531, a star otherwise
known as Goneril.
AP-15, Kilroy, and Earl guide the Lucy Jean and kept Calvin alive.
He was the trigger.
The ship weighed 1.35 million Earth tons, of which two-thirds was ordinance, thermo-nuclear
penetrators built to cut rock and kill in darkness. Lucy Jean was a “Hellcat” model jump-capable
bomber. Calvin would have called it a “cosmic harbinger of death” if I was prone to hyperbole.
Chum was. Chum had been Calvin’s closest friend in the Corps, if one could think any trigger
could have a friend. Sonwick developed the Hellcat because of the war. It was a light ship but
strong, capable of making interstitial jumps with ordinance intact. Only one Hellcat, Chum’s,
flamed out on a bombing run—one out of nearly sixty runs during the war, a fine success rate.
The Hellcats were orbit-bound and departed from lunar concurrent stations to minimize fuel
load. Big and square with dark titanium alloy hulls, they looked nothing like a cat or traditional
depictions of hell. Being orbit-bound, they dropped ordinance from high atmosphere.
Calvin dropped our ordinance. He was the one doing the killing, not the robots.
Calvin weighed just under two hundred pounds and stood almost six feet tall. His flight suit, the
orange suit which he wore while out of the hibernation chamber, weighed two pounds and
offered a total of ten pockets. He carried seven pounds of personal items, all of which was to be
kept in his flight suit. Most triggers carried a toothbrush, floss, a small tube of lotion for dry skin
and hands, a small pouch of sanitary wipes, a tube of lip balm, a utility knife, and adhesive tape.
The cabin of a Hellcat was notoriously dry. The robots did not care about the humidity aboard
Lucy Jean, but forced hibernation pulled moisture from a man’s skin. Calvin’s skin would just
flake off.
Some triggers carried other things, small trinkets from home, but nothing which pushed the
weight of allowed personal items over the seven pound limit. Before he flamed out over
HD37531.3, Chum carried a small bag of beef jerky on each run. Other triggers brought good
luck charms, medals, and other small mementos. One commonality was the lack of family
photos, notes, or letters. Men with families were never selected to be triggers.
Calvin carried two books, T.S. Elliot’s Complete Poems and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis,
both in paperback weighing one pound two ounces combined. A trigger aboard a Hellcat
bomber had to be awake during the final jump. Hibernation sickness could cloud judgment, and
no trigger worth his flight suit wanted to be strapped to the toilet when his ship started a run.
Calvin blamed the drip for his diarrhea. When he woke on his fifth and final run, the worst
hangover of his life squeezed his skull in a vice—this despite having fluids pumped in and out of
his body like a human plasma bag during hibernation. No one should eat liquid in his veins for
three months, but Calvin had no better solution. He wasn’t a physician.
He was a killer.
The stretch between waking and the final jump lasted twenty Earth hours. The thirty minutes of
jump time was hell, and the after-effects of hibernation sickness made it worse. Those who
haven’t made an interstitial jump can’t understand how uncomfortable it is, like swallowing a
stone and holding your stomach down with your lungs while your skin peels away, a
meaningless description. Mere hyperbole.
Calvin carried the books for the time between wake up and the bombing run. He read while he
waited for the jump, and read again on the other side, while AP-15 maneuvered into high orbit
above HD37531.3, a planet with no other official name, although the triggers called it the Dump.
The people of Earth had been fighting and killing those things on HD37531.3 for three years, and
never gave them a name. Calvin read Till We Have Faces on each of his missions, beginning
once his bowels settled and finishing the last few chapters just before he descended into the
bomber’s box.
Triggers were allowed one meal while awake. One meal after the diarrhea subsided and before
they turned their minds to other things.
Earl watched Calvin as he ate and read.
A SR-150A had no face. Neither did the AP-15, but no one ever saw the pilot. It. Earl and Kilroy
moved about the cabin—Earl took care of Calvin’s human needs, food, drink, exercise. Kilroy,
aptly enough considering his name, prepped the warheads. Perhaps a face would have made them
a little too human. If that had been the case, why had the engineers at Sonwik given the SR-150A
human proportions? Arms. Legs. A torso. Even a neck with spheroid head attached, and a dim
glow from the amber eyes in that head.
“What is it you read, sir?” Earl asked.
“Till We Have Faces, just like always.”
“Define always.”
“Every run, Earl. Every run I read this book.”
Earl’s head shape didn’t move. Even a dog might have titled its head while thinking.
“It’s about God,” Calvin said. “It’s about God and faith, how it’s impossible to see the face of
God until…” He stopped. Earl wasn’t thinking. He/it had been programmed to talk with Calvin,
to ask questions and help the trigger feel less lonely. Nothing more.
“Are you finished with your meal, sir?”
“Yes Earl. Yes, I am.”
During training, they told us we use human triggers because of the moral obligation of war. We
were not the enemy, they said. We did not send soulless drones into the atmosphere of a foreign
planet to kill indiscriminately, like they had with London, Tokyo, Mumbai… A trigger always
held the choice to launch his payload or flame out. A trigger could kill or be killed. The enemy’s
soulless drone bombers did not think of these things. Robots did not think of these things, even
those on which were painted names like Earl or Kilroy. The trigger carried the weight of the
faceless dead so as not to become them.
I brought the poems of T.S. Elliot into the “bomber’s box” when the time came. The ship, Lucy
Jean, knew her path. Kilroy pre-programmed the payload to detonate on time. All I had to do
was pull the switch. I was the trigger, and as such I carried the choice: release the warheads or
flame out when they detonated, destroying Lucy Jean, Kilroy, Earl, the AP-15, and hisself in a
final, blazing act. Chum made the choice to flame out on his fifth and final run. Did he break the
routine? Did he think of them as people—humans? Did he imagine the faces of his silent enehis,
those hiding in the mines and caverns of HD37531.3? Were they like the faces of men or God?
Calvin brought Elliot’s book for one poem, “The Hollow Men,” which he read aloud. The words
hung in his ears, echoing above the inhuman growl of AP-15 as he/it barked out distance to
target. He closed the book and shoved it into a waiting pocket once his lips wrapped around the
final lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” His hand found the
switch. He slipped his face into the viewport, and when the screen bled green, the decision was
his. His choice. Flame out or kill. Seconds stretched. The distance between Earth and
HD37531.3 slid through the eye of a needle. The universe dissolved in a bead of sweat on his
forehead. His eyes stared back through the viewfinder. Surely families—whatever families the
inhuman inhabitants of HD37531.3 might have had—hid in those mines, under the crust of the
planet the warheads were designed to penetrate. He ignored the imagined faces of children and
mothers and fathers and pressed the switch. The warheads detached and fell toward their targets.
Calvin squeezed his eyes shut before the flash.
His final run. Three years of his life and millions dead.
Goodbye, HD37231.3.
Earl carried the limp body like a bag of straw. He/it laid Calvin in his glass coffin and wiped the
tears from the man’s cheeks before the enehis could scramble and pursue. Calvin was asleep
before Lucy Jean made the first jump, and three dreamless months later arrived home a hero.

 

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Aaron Polson currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit.
During the day, Aaron works as a mild-mannered high school English teacher. His stories have
been reprinted in The Best of Every Day Fiction 2009 and 2010, listed as a recommended read by
Tangent Online, received honorable mention in the storySouth Million Writers Award and Ellen
Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. Aaron prefers ketchup with his beans. You can visit him
online at www.aaronpolson.net.

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