The Black Sheep of Vaerlosi
by Desmond Warzel
Governments, an old acquaintance of mine once told me, are like engines: most people neither know nor care how–or why–they function, as long as they continue to do so.
Behind this deceptively fatuous maxim is a truth so solid that it even applies to those in the employ of those same governments. To those of us in the Customs Service, doubly so.
As such a functionary, one often spends one’s entire professional life in the same remote corner of the galaxy, enforcing tariffs, quotas, embargoes, and sanctions whose rationales we aren’t privy to, but which we assume to have been codified by much wiser heads than our own. It goes without saying that moments of glory in such a vocation are few and far between. Most of us condition ourselves early on to be satisfied with the occasional nudge upward in the hierarchy, and to be grateful for the extra shekels in our pockets and pips on our collars that constitute the tangible rewards of progress through the ranks.
No heroes, we; and so the Customs Service mainly attracts those to whom heroism and its dubious wages–early death and grieving but handsomely-compensated descendents–are anathema, and who seek a quiet, violence-free life inspecting vessels, levying fines, and confiscating contraband from sheepish profiteers.
And yet a few of us do dare to dream.
Which is why, on my first full day as Inspector-General of Okazaki Sector, that nearly-empty swath of space that ranks among the remotest of the remote, I pulled a small cargo ship called the Black Sheep to the front of the line less than a minute after it dropped into normal space and presented itself for customs inspection. Ignoring the sudden eruption of angry radio chatter from a score of vessels who had, until now, been patiently waiting their turn, I tractored the Black Sheep directly into the station proper for a visual inspection that I would oversee personally.
You see, according to the Black Sheep‘s documentation, dutifully submitted on arrival, the vessel was owned and operated by one Gilbert Nwachakwu, and just in case you’re entertaining the possibility that this was some other person who had coincidentally been saddled with that singular name, it was the ID picture, not the name, that sent me lunging for the tractor controls.
Did I recognize the man, even though I’d never met him? I did, and in the same miniscule fraction of a second that it would take you to recognize a picture of your favorite actor, or your most-despised politician, or some other object of your admiration or your scorn whom you’ve never had the good fortune or ill luck to encounter in the flesh.
Gilbert Nwachakwu, that modern-day outlaw, that patron saint of smugglers. Enemy of civilized society. Hero to thousands. In the dark, seedy places of the galaxy, songs are sung about Nwachakwu. Don’t ask me what they rhyme him with.
The man’s exploits were, in a word, legend. But I hadn’t heard any news on him in quite some time; no new verses had been appended to the Lay of Nwachakwu for at least two years. I figured he must have been counting on our guard being relaxed thanks to his time outside the spotlight. There was no other explanation for his waltzing into my sector without even trying to evade detection.
I collected an assortment of underlings and met Nwachakwu down in the bay. He’d already debarked and was leaning against the Black Sheep‘s ramp, idly smoking a cigarette.
“He doesn’t look like much,” muttered one of my subordinates. Such is often the case when would-be immortals descend from the mount.
Nwachakwu looked us over as we crossed the otherwise-empty bay, and made a beeline straight for me. His smile was warm. For all I knew, it might even have been genuine. He shook my hand with enthusiasm. “Mr. Inspector-General,” he said, indicating my rank insignia, “a pleasure. May I assume my vessel has been selected for inspection?”
“Mr. Nwachakwu–” I began.
“Gilbert, if you like.”
“Mr. Nwachakwu,” I persisted, “one of my men will escort you and your crew to the mess.”
“There’s only me, I’m afraid.”
“Have anything you want. Have a drink, if you like. But I’d suggest not wandering too far–”
“As you may have to take me into custody.”
His laughter echoed across the bay. “My ship is your ship, Mr. Inspector-General. You will do as you must. While I’m ensconced in your mess, no doubt under close but inconspicuous observation, you will search for outstanding warrants for my arrest. Knowing my infamous reputation, you can do nothing else.”
“As you say, I will do as I must.”
“And you’ll find that I’m no longer a wanted man.”
“May I ask how that could be?”
“A man grows tired of sneaking to and fro, Mr. Inspector-General. And so, after a great deal of negotiation with innumerable jurisdictions, I’ve paid several small fortunes in fines and spent two stressful years performing what might politely be termed ‘community service.’ As a result, I am a free citizen, albeit one with a considerable criminal history.”
So we stowed Nwachakwu in the mess while we ran him for warrants. And what I’d assumed was a poorly-reasoned bluff turned out to be the truth.
Not so much as a jaywalking summons, in any sector.
So we turned our attention to the ship.
The first things I noticed about the Black Sheep were its size–smallish, but not unusually so–and its armaments, which were considerable for a cargo vessel. No doubt they were a reflection of the paranoia any successful smuggler must cultivate.
Nwachakwu’s cargo, according to his documentation, consisted solely of AI modules bound for Vaerlosi, one of a handful of inhabited planets in Okazaki Sector. Thousands of them, in fact; the ship was loaded to the proverbial gunwales. The hold was filled well past capacity and the overflow had been netted to the bulkheads anywhere there was room, including the cockpit.
We scanned the hull for compartments; we checked the density of the fuel reserves; we rifled Nwachakwu’s clothing and toiletries; we unpacked the crates and cross-checked each AI module’s serial number; we weighed each individual unit, looking for deviations; we even X-rayed the cockpit seat cushions. All for naught.
I ended the inspection–we were already in a gray area, legally speaking–and trudged to the mess. Nwachakwu was the only soul in the place. He nursed a cigarette and a drink of unknown composition. A partly-emptied mess tray lay to one side.
“You’re free to go, Mr. Nwachakwu,” I said from the doorway.
He turned to regard me. “Mr. Inspector-General! You were gone for quite a while; I was beginning to worry.”
“You’re free to go.”
“May I surmise that you found nothing untoward regarding my cargo or its documentation?”
“You surmise correctly.”
“No contraband to confiscate? Tariffs to collect? You have no concerns about my undermining Vaerlosi’s burgeoning computer industry by dumping cheap imports on the local market?”
“You’re free to go. Might I suggest doing so?”
“And so I shall, Mr. Inspector-General.” He rose from the table, finished his drink, strode across the room. I didn’t return his proffered handshake; he was unfazed by my churlishness. “Until next time, then,” he said, and set off toward the bay, whistling an unfamiliar tune.
I wondered whether his was the jocularity of the genuinely innocent or that of the sharpie who’s just put one over on his chosen mark. I’ve always been predisposed to assume the latter.
“Community service,” he’d said.
What service could Gilbert Nwachakwu possibly do a community, except leave it?
I was ready for him.
I’d contacted my immediate superior and, trading on my reputation as an evenhanded but thorough customs officer, I’d requested the warrants that would give me a freer hand the next time Gilbert Nwachakwu darkened my doorstep. I’d gotten them, too, as well as the envy of a hundred fellow Inspectors-General once word got out of the trophy I was striving to claim.
Nwachakwu strolled down the ramp of the Black Sheep and greeted me like a long-lost friend. He gushed about how he’d been looking forward to being the beneficiary of my hospitality once more.
He had enjoyed that particular privilege for three days by the time I’d finished going over his vessel.
In addition to reenacting our prior inspection (which once again turned up nothing), we put a set of freshly-requisitioned high-resolution molecular scanners to work on the ship itself (which indicated only that the Black Sheep was structurally uncompromised all the way down to the atomic level) and, as a last-ditch effort, performed a visual inspection of the entire contents of Nwachakwu’s onboard computers (which, no matter how many times we rearranged and reconstituted the data, didn’t turn up so much as a bootleg media file).
Nothing out of the ordinary, in other words, except the cargo itself: a holdful of rocks. Costnerite, to be specific; case after case of flat little igneous crystals, blood-red and sharp. Almost impossible to pick up without slicing your hand open. That’s why they call it costnerite, they say; because it’s untouchable. (I don’t get it either. I’m told there’s a joke there, but it’s always gotten by me.)
The stuff’s only found on a few worlds, and until I inspected the Black Sheep that day, I wouldn’t have thought there was that much costnerite in the whole galaxy. Still, Nwachakwu’s shipment was legitimate, every parcel properly documented. And, once again, bound for Vaerlosi.
When I reached the “guest quarters” I’d assigned him–spare, unwelcoming–I found Nwachakwu stretched out on his cot, quietly regarding the ceiling. I told him he was free to go.
“The accommodations were wonderful,” he said as he stood and stretched. “Are you satisfied yet as to my legitimacy?”
“I’m satisfied that you’re not smuggling anything this trip. Nothing I can find, at any rate.”
“A small fortune in costnerite doesn’t arouse your suspicions?”
“There aren’t any import restrictions on costnerite. Though I’ll admit I wonder why it couldn’t simply be synthesized on Vaerlosi.”
“The synthesized stuff is no good–too perfect. The flaws in the naturally-formed crystals are what make them useful. Or so I’m told.”
“Useful for what, exactly?”
“They’re employed mainly in holographic data storage systems. And also some energy-based firearms. Does that concern you, Mr. Inspector-General?”
“I’m about to arrive on Vaerlosi, a planet in your fine care, with an unheard-of quantity of a rare object that might be employed in the manufacture of illegal weapons. This doesn’t bother you?”
“I have no idea which weapons are legal or illegal to manufacture on Vaerlosi. That matter is for Vaerlosi’s government to decide–and to enforce. I am responsible to the Customs Service and no one else; I enforce its regulations, and no others.”
“You are a singular individual, Mr. Inspector-General.”
“You’re free to go, Mr. Nwachakwu.”
Nwachakwu bounded down the ramp of the Black Sheep and practically jogged across the bay to meet me. “So good to see you again, Mr. Inspector-General. I was afraid that you had chosen to trust me. That we would have to forgo our usual scintillating conversation this time around.”
I arched an eyebrow. “If you were counting on my dropping my guard, I’m afraid you’ve miscalculated.”
Nwachakwu shrugged. “I thought perhaps the bureaucrat in you would want to curtail further waste of time and resources. Or that the humanitarian in you might simply wish to give a brother a break.”
“You’re not my brother.” (In fact, Nwachakwu’s skin was darker than midnight, while my own pallor places me at the mercy of every sun I find myself beneath. There were many, many forks separating us on the family tree of humanity.) “And if you were,” I continued, “you wouldn’t be here.”
“As you are my fellow man, I must respectfully disagree. Still, birds must fly…shall I show myself to my quarters?” He reached into his coveralls and pulled out a book, so well-worn that the lettering was gone from the spine. “I brought something to amuse myself this time. Your station is lovely and your people are first-rate, but there’s precious little to do here by way of passing the time.”
With Nwachakwu squared away, we turned our attention to the Black Sheep once again. This time it was medical equipment: a dozen tissue synthesizers. Destination: Vaerlosi.
We didn’t find a thing. My crew were starting to look askance at me, and I had to ride herd on them pretty closely to make sure they weren’t just going through the motions.
“Let’s have a chat,” I said when I arrived at Nwachakwu’s quarters.
He closed his book and sat up, perching on the edge of the cot. “I await your wisdom with bated breath.”
“I didn’t find anything.”
“I can’t claim to be surprised.”
“Since your return to the shipping business, you’ve completed–or will complete–three runs, each originating in different, widely-dispersed, sectors, each terminating on Vaerlosi. Why Vaerlosi?”
“Have you been?”
“I enjoy the scenery; there are a great many natural wonders on Vaerlosi. I find the people refreshingly friendly, too.”
“That’s a bit of a generalization, don’t you think?”
“Have you ever considered broadening your horizons? Diversifying? You could realize a lot more profit in a much shorter time.”
“And miss out on our conversations?”
“In that case, you could ship to other worlds here in Okazaki Sector. But you haven’t. And I suspect you won’t.”
“You suspect correctly, Mr. Inspector-General.”
“Mr. Nwachakwu, you’ve put one over on me twice since your ‘rehabilitation,’ and I fully expect that this will be the third time. My advice is to be satisfied with that, and explore other avenues for a while. Prove that something untoward isn’t going on under my nose. I just might be more cooperative when you do make your way back here. In the distant future.”
“Noted. I assume I am free to go?”
“Not just yet. There’s one place I’ve so far neglected to inspect. Report to the infirmary for a few quick scans, if you would be so kind. Don’t worry; it’ll be completely noninvasive. This time.”
And when he’d shown up with a shipful of grain, ostensibly headed for one of the most bounteously agrarian planets in all the galaxy, I could be forgiven for thinking that he was intentionally flaunting the unnecessary nature of the transaction. So I sent him in to be carved up like a ham without a second thought.
Naturally, they didn’t find anything.
I paid Nwachakwu a visit while he recuperated.
“What are you trying to tell me? What’s the significance of the grain?”
“It’s simply grain; edible, if bland, and nutritionally enhanced. Being no horticulturalist, I’m uncertain of its pedigree, but the documentation should help in that regard.”
“Nutritionally enhanced? So it’s meant for consumption, rather than planting?”
“I would assume so. Why? Is it illegal?”
“No. But fortified grain is usually associated with activities such as famine relief. And Vaerlosi is one of the galaxy’s most abundant producers of food. So this transaction, taken at face value, indicates a degree of eccentricity on someone’s part, doesn’t it?
“Eccentricity? Perhaps. But legal eccentricity.”
“You’re not the least bit curious?”
“It would make no difference if I was. As far as either party is concerned, I’m just a part of the ship. An indispensable part, thankfully.”
“Humor me. What could be the purpose of such a shipment?”
“Logically, there can only be two answers. One: the grain isn’t what it appears to be, and I’m pulling a fast one on you. Two: there really is a food shortage on Vaerlosi.”
“That’s not possible.”
“But you yourself told me you take no interest in planetary affairs. Why couldn’t such a situation be occurring on Vaerlosi without your knowledge?”
I sighed and slumped into one of the chairs at Nwachakwu’s bedside. “Vaerlosi’s food exports are at an all-time high,” I said. “That, I am in a position to know, because every outgoing shipment goes through me.”
“That is not your affair, Mr. Nwachakwu, but I’ll humor you because I happen to know the answer. Almost all of it goes to Staarns; that’s–”
“Vaerlosi’s nearest inhabited neighbor, yes. I know the place.”
“The coexistence of surplus and a shortage on the same world seems unlikely.”
“Oh? Does it?”
“I should think so.”
Nwachakwu grimaced as he heaved himself up onto one elbow, so as to look me in the eye. “Have you ever heard of the Irish potato famine?”
“I know what a famine is, and I’m familiar with potatoes. What is an Irish?”
“Ireland and England were neighboring nations, in the days before planetary governments. Potatoes were the staple of the Irish peasant diet. What that food was wiped out by blight, it was a national disaster. And yet Ireland maintained regular, substantial produce exports to England throughout its travails. Why?”
“Presumably they had no choice.”
“Exactly. When people are not free, reason takes leave.”
“If Vaerlosi has become subjugated to Staarns, as you seem to be suggesting, there are any number of galactic bodies to whom it could petition for redress. Vaerlosi has an elected government to act on its people’s behalf, just like every other planet.”
“An elected government, or perhaps just the appearance of one. Have you ever heard of Syria and Lebanon?”
“More neighboring states from ancient days?”
“This is a very old story that I’m trying to tell you.”
“If there were trouble on Vaerlosi, I would have heard something.”
“I suspect not. I suspect that as long as Vaerlosi appears orderly, all else is noise to you. Your loyalty lies with the Customs Service, Mr. Inspector-General. Tell me; what is the mission of the Customs Service?”
“To ensure equal and unfettered commercial intercourse between all worlds, subordinate to each world’s right to a stable local economy.”
“That was very crisply recited. You’ve internalized it well. And the quotas and tariffs that ensure these twin ideals; who determines them?”
“People of much greater intelligence–and higher salary–than I.”
“Using what criteria?”
“I have no idea.”
“But you trust that the laws and regulations you enforce are fair?”
“I have no way of judging that, and wouldn’t care to if I did.”
“And there we are. Governments are like engines: most people neither know nor care how–or why–they function, as long as they continue to do so.”
I rose abruptly, my chair scraping against the bare floor. “Once you receive clearance from the doctor,” I said, turning to leave, “you’re free to go.”
“All my thanks, Mr. Inspector-General.”
I got as far as the infirmary doorway before my logical faculties, still reeling from Nwachakwu’s verbal assault, made sufficient recovery to allow me a final question. “Suppose there were a famine taking place on Vaerlosi; how could one shipload of grain–how could one shipload of anything–possibly make a difference?”
Though it caused him visible discomfort, Nwachakwu laughed his booming laugh. “If one shipload couldn’t make a difference, Mr. Inspector-General, what would they need you for?”
I hasten to add that I took utmost care on each of these occasions; it never became perfunctory. I figured that Nwachakwu was waiting for just such a slackening of our watchfulness.
I never got him on a single charge.
And yet, at the end of that two-year period, I was promoted once again. A little more money, another collar pip, and new duties: administration, internal affairs, and occasional instruction. An opportunity to help remake at least one little corner of the Customs Service as I saw fit.
And I owed it all to that jovial enemy of the people, Gilbert Nwachakwu, and that undersized, overweaponed crate he called the Black Sheep. Although I hadn’t collared Nwachakwu himself, my efforts in that regard had led to what one might call an “augmented state of vigilance” in Okazaki Sector (though my subordinates, continually complaining of overwork, might have had other names for it). As a result, the number of customs violations, including outright smugglers, we did catch rose to a record high during my tenure.
And what of Nwachakwu?
If he turned out to be a reformed, law-abiding citizen of great respect and renown, a hero to his fellow man, his benevolence only highlighted by his good-natured enduring of my probes, that would be a good story.
If my successor as Inspector-General of Okazaki Sector had caught Nwachakwu red-handed his first day on the job, that would be an even better story.
Though it would be some time before I pieced the whole thing together, the real story was better still. What made it so was the fact that I could have had him all along.
Remember those molecular scans we took of the Black Sheep from its second appearance onward? None of them turned up anything, but if we had ever compared any of them side-by-side, we would have noticed some disparities.
I found those disparities when news of the Vaerlosi Revolt–when that pastoral world threw off the military and socioeconomic yoke of Staarns, its closest neighbor, with a single bold stroke–sent me scurrying back to my old post in Okazaki Sector to recheck my records.
They say it was a startling sight: countless swift, heavily-armed ships descending as one on Staarns’s capital city and extracting peaceable terms from its government with barely a single shot fired, ending a subjugation that few had even known existed.
An entire herd of Black Sheep.
I’d always been the most meticulous person I knew, and that trait had served me well throughout my career. But Gilbert Nwachakwu had taken what I’d thought of as my defining attribute and extended it by an order of magnitude.
Falsifying a new registration each time was the easy part. And a ship’s computer files can be altered carefully enough to fool even me, with the proper expertise. But how meticulous can one man be? To replicate every scratch on the bulkheads? To reproduce that single tear in the cockpit upholstery with perfect precision? To score the paint here, touch it up there, make each incarnation of the Black Sheep identical to its predecessors?
To smuggle an entire fleet to Vaerlosi, one ship at a time?
And the smile never left his face. I’d encountered some cool heads in my day, but Nwachakwu left them all behind.
No, I wasn’t angry, then or now. There were no professional repercussions for me, and most agreed that the end result was, all in all, a good thing.
And Nwachakwu got to make the transition from criminal mastermind to folk hero in a single leap.
I don’t know where Gilbert Nwachakwu is today, nor have I tried to find out.
I would offer him two pieces of advice, though.
Rejoice in your success; you earned it.
And find a new hobby; one many times removed from the surreptitious arming of rebels.
Because I guarantee that stunt won’t work twice.
Desmond Warzel’s first short story (wikihistory) appeared in Abyss & Apex in 2007. Those wishing to give credit–or assign blame–for his subsequent literary output (which includes stories in Shroud, Alternative Coordinates, and the anthology RETURN OF THE RAVEN, as well as first prize in SFReader’s 2008 short story contest) need seek no further. He lives in northwestern Pennsylvania.
Story © 2010 Desmond Warzel. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish