Normal Parameters

There was a writers ‘shoot-out’ a few years ago, and the topic we had to write on was Sci Fi with a computer becoming sentient. The following story was my submission.

 

 

Normal Parameters

by JL Mo

 

The vibration I felt through my shoes was somehow familiar. Reaching up, I place my hand on the slight curve of her inner hull to try to identify the sensation. Bzzz. A count of ten and again, Bzzz. Rhythmic shivers gently pulsed through her. Something tugged at the back of my mind as I tried to reach a memory of a lesson, buried in layers of lessons from years gone.

I’ve been Captain of this antiquated shuttle since my demotion three months ago. In all fairness, she was a beauty in her day. Unfortunately, her day was long past. I don’t believe she should still be in service. However, all of her maintenance checks came back clean.

“Ensign Tadford. Status update, please.”

The young woman swiveled around on the squeaky, too small seat and declared, “All is working within normal parameters, sir.”

“Are you sure? Oxygen, power, engines, all read normal?”

“Aye, sir. Would you like a report sent to your intermail?”

“No, that won’t be necessary.”

“Is there anything specific you might like investigated, sir?”

I decline with a shake of my head. I’m not sure where to start with something so vague. The military, in their infinite wisdom, declared system engineers on board a shuttlecraft unnecessary. The manufacturer, AGN, claims there is no need for them. All monitoring, and minor repairs, could be performed by the crewmembers if necessary. Except for odd things like this. “Call Lieutenant Meyers to the bridge.”

“Aye, sir.”

 

The memory of a lesson from long ago danced just outside of total recall. What caused that damn vibration? I’d had so many professors at the academy I couldn’t remember them all. Their individual lessons were even more distant. This was something I should know.

This shuttle with its crew of three carrying a dozen passengers could fly fine without me. After my demotion, the route assignment turned out to be the worst of my punishment. I accepted losing rank from Major to Captain. My true hell lay in the monotonous shuttling of passengers from Earth, Sections Two through Five, all the way to Moon, Sections Eight through Eleven. The most uninteresting, mind numbing route to be had, and I am to fly this until retirement.

“Excuse me, Captain Casey. Lieutenant Meyers, as ordered.”

The formality on this shuttle still boggles my mind, but the others appreciate the military protocol. So, I deal with the uniforms, and the salutes and the posturing as if we were actually on a military mission. Well, I suppose we are, but it’s an AGN Class B Shuttle, for God’s sake! I return his salute, stifling my frustration.

“At ease, Lieutenant. Tell me, have you noticed a pulse, an odd vibration, through the ship?”

“A vibration, sir?”

“Yes, Lieutenant. Here, put your hand right here.” I step away from the small patch of bare wall, one of the few areas not covered by instruments, pipes or wires, offering a direct touch to the inner hull. Meyers raises his hand and places his palm fully on the ship.

“No sir, I don’t feel anything.”

“It’s faint. Wait a moment longer.”

Dutifully, Meyers obeys. He lowers his head and closes his eyes, doing what he’s ordered to do with every ounce of concentration. His head jerks up with his eyes wide. “Shit! Captain!” Meyers glances at the ensign who swung around quickly in her chair. “Ensign Tadford! Has a flux been recorded by the Bosonic Gravitron Meter?”

“No, sir,” she answered calmly. “As I told the Captain, all is working within normal–”

She didn’t finish the sentence, as I roughly pushed her out of the way to get to the instrument panel. The lesson dodging my memory came back to me like a lightning flash. The AGN Shuttles were one of the first passenger ships built with the HB Artificial Gravity Field. In the preceding seventy-five years of use, not one failure had occurred. This would be the first on record. If we survived.

The instruments all gave normal readings. I scramble to the other consoles to check the back-up instruments. They all show the BGM working within parameters.

I spin to face Meyers. He had helped Tadford to her feet. The Lieutenant’s face had lost all color, while the Ensign appeared calm.

“Is there a problem, Captain?” Tadford asked with lips curled in a cruel curve. She watched my eyes as she reached into her pocket and slid out a recognized, much-hated black card depicting a hologram of the red planet. I froze. She was a member of MarSaver, a terrorist group responsible for thousands of deaths in their pursuit to ‘save Mars from man’.

“What have you done?” My voice sounded much calmer than I felt.

“What my people told me to do. Kill you.”

“You would kill yourself and all these innocent people, possibly Earth itself, to get to me?”

“Well worth the sacrifice!”

My voice seemed hollow as I shouted, “I told the military of your people’s demands! They refused to negotiate! I lost my rank because I wouldn’t stop my crusade to save those people, and you blew up the Mars station anyway! What more could I do?”

“Die.”

“Captain!” Meyers voice broke the spell of incredulity this woman held me in. “We might still save some of those on board!”

“Yes! Bypass the instruments and sound the alarm!” The too-smooth, female automated voice started before Meyers reached the control panel.

“The containment field is failing.”

            “Repeat – The containment field is failing.”

            “Repeat – The containment field is failing.”

“I know, Agnes!” I growl under my breath.

“Captain, the alarm began–”

“Yes, Lieutenant! Tell me this piece of flying space junk carriers the proper number of escape pods!”

Tadford said, “Until I had two removed for maintenance. Oh! Did you not notice the instrument failing to alert you, Captain Casey?”

“Captain!” Meyers shouted. “We have to move! The HB is pulsing harder!”

I stopped engaging this lunatic and paid attention the vibrations. The pulse was so hard it had become audible. RUMBLE. A count of five and RUMBLE. “Follow proper protocol to abandon ship. With two pods gone, one remains. All of the passengers will fit if they double up for the ride. Go!”

Meyers scrambled off the bridge and down toward the passengers.

“Repeat – The containment field is failing.”

“Well, Captain,” Lori purred. “I would say it’s been a pleasure serving under you, but, well, you know.” The sickening, cruel upturn of her lips pushed me too far. In two strides I reached her and she hit the floor hard. I’d never punched a woman before, but since I was gonna die anyway, I figured, what the hell. I may have broken her jaw.

The panel still read everything working normally, even with Agnes blaring her warning. Think, man! Professor Watts taught you well, so pull the shit back into your mind! If the instrument says it’s OK, then the instrument is wrong. So, what made it go wrong? The instrument failure is not the point! What will it take to make the HB Artificial Gravity Field not implode? No one’s ever done this! Think!

“Repeat – The containment field is failing.”

“Wait!” I shout. I turn to Lori still on the floor holding her jaw. “The gravity field needs the Stress Energy Tensor! Is that what you did? You disabled the SET?”

The only response I get is her glare. At least she’s not smiling anymore.

“I need to get to the engine room and put the two back together before this ship becomes a black hole!”

From behind me Meyers says, “You’ll need help.”

“Repeat – The containment field is failing.”

“Secure Tadford to something. Let’s make sure she can’t cause any more trouble. Then, please, turn Agnes off.”

All lights had been dimmed to lowest illumination level through the passageways, as per protocol. I could still see, but barely. The pulse now gave the impression of being inside a beating heart. A dying heart. “We’ll try to save you, girl,” I whisper. “Just hang on for another minute.”

POUND. A count of two and POUND. The gravity field was trying to pull the ship in on itself. The closer we got the more difficult moving became, as if walking through molasses.

We reach the engine room adjacent to the HB Gravity Field unit. Meyers crossed himself as we went in. Here was the source of the heartbeat. A monstrosity of machinery, as reliable as the sunrise in the east. Unless someone sabotaged her, which somebody did. The SET was destroyed. Tadford must have had help with this. One of the escaping passengers must have been a MarSaver. Tadford somehow manipulated the instrument panel while her accomplice came down here and performed this catastrophe.

“What’ll we do, Cap?” asked a nervous-sounding Meyers.

The too-smooth, female automated voice said, “Repair the Stress Energy Tensor by removing the HB Artificial Gravity Field.”

My stomach clenched. Agnes was not programmed for speech recognition. She should not be able to respond, or to give instruction. Meyers’ face looked like he’d seen a ghost. Mine probably looked the same. I asked, “Didn’t you shut Agnes off?”

“Yes, Captain. I did.”

POUND. A count of two and POUND.

“Repeat. Repair the Stress Energy Tensor by removing the HB Artificial Gravity Field.”

“Agnes?” I venture.

“Repeat. Repair the Stress Energy Tensor by removing the HB Artificial Gravity Field.”

I attempt to process what I’m hearing. “Agnes that will kill us all.”

“Correction,” Agnes replied in the annoying, non-emotional voice, “That will kill the three humans on board. The planet we serve will survive.”

Lieutenant Meyers asked, “Agnes? Wha-how long have you been sentient?” His wide eyes are focused on me, as if he’s asking me the question.

“Repeat. Repair the Stress Energy Tensor by removing the HB Artificial Gravity Field. It’s been an honor to serve with you, Lieutenant Meyers.”

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