An excerpt from “Charon” by Ancel K. Houchen
Something was following us; it was trying to hide itself in the background noise of exploding stars and ravenous black-holes. The ship’s deep tracker system missed it but I didn’t. I suspected it was a Black-maw because not much else could survive this far away from everything. It was a parasitic creature about three meters in diameter, and it was attracted to delta waves given off by a sleeping human brain. And unlucky for me, my cargo just so happened to be six hundred buckets of sleeping gray matter, a rolling feast for a Blackie. Technically if you include me that would make it six hundred and one buckets of gray matter, but since I was awake the Blackie couldn’t see me. The sleepers weren’t scheduled for wake-up for another six months and if I woke them up now they’d overwhelm the life support system, then we’d all be dead and I’d be in breach of my contract.
My job as a Ferryman was to safely get the sleepers though this particularly dangerous part of space, where one must travel in silence or not travel at all. I took the precaution of shutting the engines down, hoping that the ship would just glide on by like a piece of debris, but apparently it was too little too late. A Blackie had sniffed us out and it was determined to have a closer look. They didn’t like to hunt near the stars and planets. They were as ethereal and nebulous as a jellyfish so if it got caught by the gravity well of a moon it would be torn apart. But we were at the edge of interstellar space so there was no place to run. Besides, it would find its way inside the hull before I could even get the engines restarted.
There was a time when making this kind of life or death decisions wouldn’t be a problem for me. I’d choose death, just as long as it wasn’t my death we were talking about. It was just a matter of jettisoning a couple of sleepers straight towards the Blackie, and then making a run for the nearest asteroid belt. But as a contractually bound Ferryman I had a job to do, plus I was being paid by the sleeper and not by the distance traveled this time, so I wasn’t about to lose one if I could help it.
The Ferryman program began when the first three Mars missions ended with terminal a case homesickness. Each time the pilots refused to break orbit and head back home. No on knew what happened until a recording was leaked to the public. It showed a red faced Major Andrews, the ship’s pilot and sole survivor, as he paced back and forth in the ship’s cabin, pulling at his hair and swatting at imaginary flies. He was screaming that he’d rather miss the launch window and die orbiting a planet, any planet, rather than return to the bottomless infinity of space. It turned out that “normal” people tended to go crazy after they lose sight of Earth. Even a screen projection of the Earth didn’t work because eventually your brain knew it was a lie.
So that was that, it seemed that humanity’s fate was written in stone. We were doomed to be the clever little monkeys that escaped the trees only to be stuck on the ground, capable of producing unlimited technology that was anchored by our limited bodies. We could always make faster ships but we couldn’t make man a better space traveler. But as it turned out nature, as usual, was way ahead of us.
The government hired experts on human behavior to create a personality profile of what they thought would be the optimal space traveler. Broadly speaking, it called for someone who was smart, resourceful, and easy to get along with, yet they had to be a recluse who had no real social attachments.
Then the government quietly started “Project Charon”, they got the name from Greek mythology about Charon, the ferryman who carried souls across the river Styx to the land of the dead. The goal was to find a reliable way to develop individuals who would fit the Ferryman profile. They thought it wouldn’t be all that different from military training, something the government had a lot of experience in.
The head of the F.B.I., who had over a century of experience in human behavior to rely on, personally offered his services. He suggested that the candidates “Project Charon” was looking for were not only here, but they even had a name for them. They were called sociopaths.
I am a high functioning sociopath, that’s what it takes to do this job, and although I may look and act like everyone else, emotionally speaking I’m about as human as a cold virus. I can imitate emotions but I don’t really feel anything outside of myself. Just before the Charon project went public, the government went on a campaign to officially reclassify sociopathy as a type of autism; they had fewer problems finding qualified applicants.
I still find myself amazed at how the government was able to convince millions of people to allow themselves to be put into an artificial coma, with the spiritual descendent of Charles Manson watching over them. I guess after centuries of selling us political leaders they’ve learned a thing or two about human nature.