Thursday, September 6, 2012

Normal Parameters

A couple of months ago, I entered a writing contest called "Summer Shootout". It was the first time I'd ever tried such a thing. Of the 22 original contestants, I came in fourth! If you had asked me five years ago where I saw myself in that amount of time, the answer would not have been 'entering a writing contest'. But life does take odd turns, doesn't it?

A few of you have asked to read the stories I submitted, so I'm posting them here.

The contest entailed receiving a 'prompt' on Saturday, and having until the following Saturday to submit a short story. There really were no other rules, other than the deadline.

The first prompt given was "Instrument Failure"

I wrote a short story titled, "Normal Parameter" set in the not-too-distant future. Leave a comment or send me an email and let me know what you think.

Thanks, and enjoy.


Normal Parameters
Submitted July 20, 2012
By j l mo

            The vibration I feel through my shoes seems familiar. I step to the small patch of bare wall, one of the few areas not covered by instruments, pipes or wires, allowing a direct touch to the inner hull. Reaching up, I place my hand on the slight curve to try and identify the sensation. Bzzz. A count of ten and again, Bzzz. Rhythmic shivers gently pulse through her. Something tugged at the back of my mind as I try to reach a memory of a lesson, buried in layers of lessons from too many years gone.
I've been Captain of this antiquated three-level shuttle since my demotion five months ago. In all fairness, she was a beautiful spacebus in her day. The upper dome held the helm, mid-deck was for the passengers and the lower deck housed the engines and gravitational units. The thing is, her day is 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, claim 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 with grace. My true hell lay in the monotonous shuttling of passengers from Earth all the way to Moon, with five regular stops on each surface. 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 Shuttlecraft, for God’s sake! I return his salute, stifling my frustration.
            “At ease, Lieutenant. Have you noticed a pulse, an odd vibration, through the ship?”
            “A vibration, sir?”
            “Yes, Lieutenant. Here, put your hand right here.” Meyers places his palm where indicated on the ship’s inner hull.
            “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. After twenty seconds his head jerks up with his eyes wide. “Shit! I mean, 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?”
            My chest clenched as I heard her say, “No, sir. As I told the Captain, all is working within normal–”
            She didn’t finish the sentence. I 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 anyone 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 too calm.
            “Is there a problem, Captain?” she asked, as her lips curled into a cruel curve. Tadford’s eyes locked mine as she reached into her pocket and proudly displayed a recognized, much-hated black calling card depicting a hologram of the red planet. I froze in shock. The card marked her a MarSaver. One of the terrorists responsible for thousands of deaths in their pursuit to ‘save Mars from man’ has sabotaged my ship.
            “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, killing hundreds of innocents! What more could I do?”
            “Captain!” Meyers voice broke the spell of incredulity this woman held me in. “We might still save the passengers 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 carries the proper number of escape pods!”
            Tadford said, “It did until I had two removed for maintenance. The instrument failure was overridden. Captain Casey? Are you afraid to 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,” the terrorist purred. “I would say it's been a pleasure serving under you, but, well, you know.” The shrug she gave and 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 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 I receive 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 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 is trying to pull the ship in on itself. The closer we get the more difficult it is to move, 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. That is, unless someone sabotaged her, which somebody did. The SET was destroyed. Tadford must have had help with this. There must be another MarSaver among the escaping passengers. 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 as I gasped. Agnes was not programmed for speech recognition. She should not be able to respond, or to give instruction. Meyers’ face looked like he'd just 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, and terminate the shuttlecraft. The planet we serve will survive.”
             “Agnes?” I asked, voice shaky to my own ears. “How long have you been sentient?”            “Repeat. Repair the Stress Energy Tensor by removing the HB Artificial Gravity Field. It's been an honor to serve with you, Captain Casey. Repeat. Repair the Stress Energy Tensor by removing the HB Artificial Gravity Field.”

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