Normal Parameters

A few years ago I participated in a writers ‘shoot-out’ . The genre we were given to create a story within a one week timeline was Science Fiction. The following story was my submission.

 

Normal Parameters

by JL Mo

 

Captainship of this antiquated shuttlecraft had been mine since the abrupt demotion I’d suffered three months ago. The discipline was understood of course, but this assignment was a slap in the face. To be fair to the ship, she was a beauty in her day. I just didn’t believe she should still be in service, since her day was now long past. However, all of her maintenance checks came back clean, so the military keeps her in use.

Standing on the bridge, the vibration I felt through my shoes seemed familiar. Reaching up, I placed my hand on the slight curve of her inner hull and tried 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 long gone.

“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.”

The ensign turned back to the panel. “Is there anything specific you might like investigated, sir?”

I declined with a shake of my head. Not sure where to start with something so vague. The military, in their infinite wisdom, declared system engineers onboard a lowly shuttlecraft unnecessary. The manufacturer, Amalgamated Group of Nations, reluctantly conceded. AGN had built a number of stunning vessels, but the Agnes group of shuttlecraft had been the most trouble free. 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.” He’d been on this ship the longest and should be able to identify that rhythmic tremor.

“Aye, sir.”

The memory of a lesson from long ago danced just outside of total recall. What caused that damn vibration?

The AGNes 012, with its crew of three and carrying a dozen passengers, would fly fine without a captain. After my demotion, this route assignment turned out to be the worst of the penance. Losing rank from Major to Captain was a blow. But the true hell lay in the monotonous shuttling of military passengers from Earth/Sections 02 through 05, to Moon 001/Sections 08 through 11. The most uninteresting, mind numbing route to be had.

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

The formality on this shuttle irritated me, but the others seemed to appreciate the military protocol. So, I dealt with the uniforms, and the salutes, and the posturing as if we were actually on a military mission. Well, I suppose we were. But it’s an AGN Class B Shuttle, for God’s sake! I returned his salute, stifling my frustration.

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

“A vibration, sir?”

“Yes, Lieutenant. Here. Put your hand right here and you’ll feel it.” I stepped away from the small patch of bare hull, one of the few areas not covered by instruments, pipes or wires. Meyers raised his hand and placed his palm fully on the ship.

“No sir, I don’t feel anything.”

“It’s faint. Wait a moment longer.”

Dutifully, Meyers obeyed. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, doing what he’d been ordered to do with every ounce of concentration. Having been through the academy more recently, he’d be the person who could identify this mysterious vibration. On top of that, he loved this ship. The resentment he must hold for me being the captain, instead of him, was kept well in check.

Meyers head jerked up, his eyes wide. “Holy shit!” He glanced at the ensign who swung around quickly in her chair. “Ensign Tadford!” shouted the lieutenant, hand still on the hull. “Has a flux been recorded by the Bosonic Gravitron Meter?”

My heart skipped a beat as I gasped. Failure of the BGM could result in an explosive brand-spanking-new black hole.

“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. I heard her hit the floor, but didn’t care. 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. The passengers and crew would be only the first to die.

The instruments all gave normal readings. I scrambled to the other consoles to check the back-up instruments. All displayed the BGM working within normal parameters.

I spun to face Meyers. He had helped Tadford to her feet. The Lieutenant’s face had lost all color. The Ensign appeared too calm. The suspicion must have been reflected on my face.

“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 organization 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 on the outpost, 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 of the AGN 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 carries the proper number of escape pods!”

Tadford said, “Until I had two removed for maintenance. Oh! I forgot. You don’t check the daily inventory logs. Do you, Captain Casey?”

“You are insane! If this goes off, most of humanity will die!”

“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,” Tadford 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. Some small satisfaction came with the knowledge that I might have broken her jaw.

The panel still read everything working normally, even with Agnes blaring her warning. Think, man! If the instrument says it’s OK, then the instrument is wrong. So, what made it go wrong? No! 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 Tadford, 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 is her glare. At least she wasn’t 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,” Meyers whispered from behind me. “Just hang on for another minute.”

POUND. A count of three 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 reached 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 had. The SET was destroyed, with pieces beaten and broken apart. Tadford must have had help with this. One of the escaping passengers must have been a MarSaver as well. Tadford somehow manipulated the instrument panel while her accomplice came down here and performed this catastrophe.

“Fuck! 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?”

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

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? What… 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 from the compressor.”

Meyers grabbed the compressor for stability, as I manipulated the connections.

Agnes wasn’t classified as Artificial Intelligence. For all of the fear mankind held of AI however, this one saved us all.

He said, “Thanks for saving our planet, Agnes.”

“It’s been an honor to serve you, Lieutenant Meyers. I regret that your life span could not be prolonged.”

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