Sunday, 3 June 2012

Story 14 - Control Panels

The control panels are flashing red. A strange anomaly has appeared on the view screen and the captain has ordered a level one alert. It’s a dust cloud in the shape of a perfect hoop. The hole in the middle is black… whether it’s an actual black-hole or not is something I don’t think anyone knows for sure. Certainly the atmosphere on the bridge is tense.

The captain shouts for me to get down to engineering immediately and the information-pad in my hand is ignored but swiped away nonetheless. When someone bothers to look they’ll see our sensors have been showing a 0.02% malfunction over the last several hours, which I suspect is getting worse. In a ship this size it could be interfering with our exterior imaging array.

I slouch into the turbo-lift and command to be taken to section E2, silently cursing my low rank.

“How about you?” I say to the lift’s computer. Were you ever a lowly control panel? How long did it take you to work your way up to having your own voice?”

“Unable to comply,” is the simple response I get. “Please restate the question.”

Engineering is bustling with a flustered liveliness. Flashing red lights along the walls and ceiling add to the mood. Staff are arriving from various sections. Most of them, like me, seem uninformed of what they’re supposed to be helping with. I search out a senior officer through the crowd who subsequently informs me that we’re all awaiting orders, and when I ask if there’s anything I can do in the meantime he only tells me that it’d be helpful if I could just pass this message along.

So I’m meandering around for a while, telling anyone who’ll listen to keep calm, not panic and that it’s probably only a false alarm. There I am, busily doing nothing when I notice Juliana Shawls standing by a control panel in the navigational section of the engine room; her face deep in a kind of perplexed concentration; an unsolved problem obviously blocking her out to the rest of the world.

Juliana Shawls who I’ve been trying to find the opportunity to talk to ever since being assigned to this ship. I ponder if now would really be the best time to tell her how much I admire her work; how long I’ve been following her career; how honored I am to meet her in person. How I’ve dreamed about her more times than I can care to remember…

No, forget it. Why would she even care? I’m a nobody amongst hundreds of other nobodies. Someone of my rank would and should never talk to an officer in such a way. But there again, if my theory about our malfunctioning sensors is correct I may have enough reason to interrupt her thoughts. I could even be of help.

I walk over, wondering how I’m to open our conversation: when her head is going to rise from the control panel and she’ll stare into my eyes, inviting me to state my reasons for talking to her.

“So nice it is to meet you,” she’ll say. And then I’ll be telling her there’s no time for idle chit chat because we need a diagnostic to determine if there really is an anomaly outside, if such a menace is actually present at all; or whether the danger could be worse than predicted.

“Never mind the diagnostic,” she’ll reply, letting her hair down in front of me. “Why don’t we take this chance for me to show you my quarters?”

She’ll be leading me away through the crowd, throwing orders to a passing cadet before we come to the turbo lift. And once inside we’ll no longer be able to restrain ourselves.

But wait. This sort of thing wouldn’t happen to a lowly cadet such as I am.

I pick myself up from the floor; try to focus, to shake off the throbbing pain there now is inside my head. Why do I seem to be the only one conscious in engineering? I have to contact the bridge.

I stumble over several bodies to the nearest control panel, punch in a code I can hardly remember. The flashing red lights are blinding to me as I shout, “Bridge! Get me the bridge God dam it!”

A rush of static gushes out of the speakers. Somewhere in there I think I can hear the voice of the captain, though I can’t be sure.

“This is cadet 362,” I say.

There’s no response but more static.

I look around me. I’m not an engineer and have no idea what half of these control panels are for. An officer is needed, not me. Why is it that I’m the only one left conscious? I need to find an officer.

Making my way over the bodies I search out someone with a blue patch on their left shoulder. By the hyper-drive area I immediately notice some movement. Yes, the blue patch is there on this officer’s uniform, and they’re awake too. It’s the most beautiful officer I’ve ever seen. She’s smiling at me…

No, wait. This isn’t happening.

I pick myself off the floor again; ignore the throbbing pain in my head, the flashing red lights. I search the bodies around me, more bodies, finally come across the same officer I spoke to earlier. The one who told me to be alert and wait for orders. I shake him by the shoulders trying to rouse a response. After some minutes of this he begins to mumble sleepily.

“Wake up!” I shout. “Focus!”

“Where am I?” He finally says. “Who are you?”

“Never mind who I am, focus. Look around you. We’re in engineering. Something’s happened to the ship. I’ve tried to contact the captain but communications are out. We need to assess our situation but I’m not qualified to -”

“- my head! No!” he suddenly cries, falling to the floor, writhing in obvious agony before passing out once more.

I decide quickly not to reawaken him; look around me at the bodies, wondering if I should try someone else. A young female cadet lies to my left. I pick her up, shake her, her eyes open and then she’s kissing me passionately: but I manage somehow to bring myself around from this new fantasy; finding the same cadet lying on the floor next to me. I shake her, slap her face and shout for her to wake up but she doesn’t stir.

I need to get out of engineering. Maybe the situation is different on other parts of the ship. The bridge is where I should go. That’s where all the important people are: the ones who can help; who know what they’re doing. I pray to God someone is awake up there as I stager towards the turbo-lift.

Luckily it’s still working. And as soon as the doors shut and begin to move the throbbing in my head weakens somewhat. Transported through the veins of the spaceship on my way to the bridge I can feel my heart beating fast, my breathes short and irregular; and I’m sweating profusely: but there’s a definite sense of relief to be out of engineering.

Able to concentrate for the first time in a while the thought suddenly occurs that I can use the voice activated controls to talk to the ship’s computer in here.

“How many people are on the bridge?” I begin.

“There are eighteen people currently on the bridge. Four senior officers, two security officers, three science officers, three navigational officers, one weapons operator and five cadets.”

“And how many of those are conscious?”

“That information is not available.”

Hang on, I think. Why isn’t the captain on the bridge? I ask: “What is the current location of Captain O’Conner?”

“This information requires a security override.”

“A what?”

“Knowledge regarding the locations of Captain O’Conner and First Officer Dobson has been restricted to officers only.”

What, I think, is going on?

Then the doors of the turbo-lift are abruptly opening before me to reveal the bridge.

As I step out onto the golden floor the first thing that strikes me is how normal everything appears to be. Officers and cadets stationed at their posts, punching information into control panels, staff gliding about from one place to another, everyone communicating in low, calm voices. The flashing red messages of alert have ceased. The image on the view screen is an unremarkable picture of distant stars.

But soon something strange begins to occur: namely a realization of the fact that nobody has responded to my presence. They all just seem to be going about their business in an orderly fashion; a little too orderly for my liking.

I grab a passing cadet by the arm.

“Where is Captain O’Conner?” I whisper. “What happened in engineering? What is the state of the ship?”

It’s as if I’m not even there however. The cadet confusedly brushes my arm away, continuing in the direction he’d been headed.

I saunter around the bridge in desperation, pulling my hair out; wondering what to do. I move to look over the shoulder of a navigational officer, but I’m not qualified to understand our heading: cursing my rank once again and making a sudden decision I run at an officer by the turbo-lift, tackle him to the ground; then drag him through the sliding doors, commanding for the lift to move immediately.

“Take us to medical,” I shout, without putting too much thought into which section I’m willing to go to next. What I want is to get this officer away from the bridge in the desperate hope of shaking him back to life.

My plan however soon begins to backfire in the strangest of ways. Before I know it the officer has attached his hands to my throat and is strangling me with this crazy look in his eyes. He’s screaming with a frightening sort of anger. And when I say strangling I mean really strangling: actually trying to kill me.

My thumbs are under his hands, I’m pushing against him but he’s leaving me with no choice. I may be of low rank but I’m well experienced in hand to hand combat. I hit him squarely on the chest. Hit him again in the same place with more force and, when he comes at me a third time, kick at his temple to knock him out cold.

In slow motion he slides down the silver wall, crumpling to the floor. I turn to see the doors of the turbo-lift have opened behind me.

Three security officers are blocking my way. “The medical section has been restricted to officers only,” they say. Or at least this is the last thing I hear before being shoved back into the turbo-lift.

“Where am I supposed to go now?!” I appeal as the doors slide shut.

“Unable to comply,” is the lift’s unwelcome response.

I put my head in my hands, once again cursing my low rank. I am cadet 362; a nobody in a ship full of nobodies. I cry out for the lift to take me to the shuttle bay while beside me the officer begins to stir.

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