Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Chatak's Bad Day

by Dan Shelton


When Chatak regained consciousness, it was to the sound of beeping and flashing of red lights. She shook her head, blinking quickly at the light, trying to discern where she was and what was happening.

As her head cleared, she recognized her surroundings. She was strapped into the pilot's seat of a spacecraft, the familiar array of instruments and controls spread out in an arc around her. But she appeared to be alone -- the copilot / navigator's position was empty, and the ship was drifting.

Her head ached, throbbed in fact. She felt round it and discovered a painful lump at the back of her head, on the right. She wondered if she had hit it on the back of the seat.

The instrument panel was still flashing and beeping, demanding her attention. She tried to think how she'd got here but her memory was still fuzzy and uncertain. She turned her attention to the controls. Many systems were offline: weapons, thrusters, stabilizers, communications, navigation. Fortunately, life support was functioning normally.

She turned off the audible warnings and called up the ship's log; it would hold some clues as to where she was and how she got here.

The navigation log showed her the route she had taken from the fleet on her mission. She had been taking supplies from her fleet to a planetary Zuut settlement. The fleet had been patrolling the area on the lookout for Bintarian scout ships. But during that flight something had happened... something she couldn't remember. The logs were no help -- the visual and audio record of events after the first navigational waypoint had been corrupted somehow.

All she knew for sure was that she was a Zuut, and the Zuuts and Bintarians had been at war for more than six decades. Few remembered how and when and where the war had started, but defeat would mean extinction for the losing side.

She restarted the navigation console but the status indicator confirmed that it was as dead as everything else, so she had no way of determining her position or velocity. She surmised that she couldn't be that far from her last known position, given the limited range of her ship, but without some kind of navigational fix, she would never find the fleet or her destination.

She decided to let the computer run a diagnostic. Maybe at least some of the damaged systems could be restored with the limited tools and spare parts on board. She tapped on the control panel and was informed that the diagnostic was underway.

"Chatak..." A whisper.

She spun round in her chair to face the rear of the cockpit. "Who said that?" But the compartment was as empty as it had been when she awoke.

I must have imagined it, she thought. I'm alone.

The control panel began to beep once again, this time a high-pitched urgent noise. "What now?" she said aloud.

She inspected the panel. It was reporting a failure in the diagnostic program. Chatak shook her head in disbelief. This is ridiculous, she thought. I've never seen this happen before. She decided to cancel the diagnostic; the alarm ceased. She sat back in her seat to think for a moment, but that brief rest was interrupted by the blaring and flashing of the control panel. Every system was flashing red, a corresponding alarm sounding. She stared at the sea of red before her in disbelief and annoyance.

This doesn't make sense! she thought. The alarms for the cabin lights and life support systems were sounding, though the lights were on and temperature and air quality seemed fine. If that alarm is malfunctioning, perhaps they all are, she reasoned.

On the other hand, perhaps something worse was happening, some kind of virus in the system. She turned off the audible alarms again and decided to try the communicator, since it might be working after all. Her fleet would surely be wondering where she was, she surmised. Either way, sending out a distress call was a priority.

She activated the comms panel, ignoring the warnings that it wasn't operational. She keyed in the SOS code, said a little prayer that it would work, and hit the send button. It responded with a low beep, which equated to error. She tried again and was met with a similar sound. "Damn it," she said.

"Chatak..."

She whirled round, hearing her voice in whisper again. Anxious, she looked from left to right. The cabin was empty, with nowhere for anyone -- or anything bigger than a pressure suit helmet -- to be hidden.

"Who's there?" she asked, but then felt stupid for doing so. She was alone, without even the usual copilot for company. She wondered why that might be, but remembered that the shortage of pilots had led to the authorization of solo missions when no trouble was anticipated.

She smiled ruefully to herself. Nobody but me on this tub. After all, what could go wrong on a routine supply mission?

She grabbed a torch and tool kit and went to the cabin's door, expecting it to open. It remained shut. She stepped back, and walked forward again, but the door refused to acknowledge her and open. This day just keeps getting better, she thought. What next?

She pressed the release button situated next to the door as a backup for the sensor-activated mechanism. Nothing happened. She sighed, put down her tool kit, opened it, removed a multi-screwdriver, and said to the door, wagging the screwdriver at it for emphasis, "Looks like I'll have to open you up, old girl."

She quickly opened up the controls and connected together the two wires which under normal conditions would have facilitated the opening of the door. On this occasion, the wires sparked when connected, but the door remained closed. Chatak hit it with a wrench, more out of frustration than any genuine belief that such an act would lead to the door operating normally. The door would have to be forced open. Cursing under her breath, she dug through the tool kit for the largest screwdriver, the closest thing to a pry bar she had.

####

By the time Chatak reached the computer room she was in darkness, her way lighted only by the small torch she carried. As she had walked the short distance from the cockpit to the computer room, the overhead lights had gone out one at a time behind her, as though a cloak of darkness had been following her. It was as though the lights had been playing with her.

Torch held in her mouth, she removed the panel behind which the main computer fuses were. She shone the torch the full length of the fuse array -- they were all intact.

"Behind you…"

Again, that whisper. The shock of the voice sent her reeling backwards, the torch falling from her mouth and striking the metallic floor, where its bulb shattered and cast her into darkness.

She stood, trying to regain her composure. "Who's there? I know somebody's there."

The hum of the ship was the only sound. Looking round, she could see almost nothing, just the barest of outlines of her surroundings revealed by the odd twinkle of small LEDs in the operations panels dotted about the computer room.

For more than a minute she stood there, as still as she could manage. She sensed no other movement, no other presence, no voices, nothing.

She steeled herself for the task at hand. She was going to remove the fuses, then restore them, the effect being to reboot the ship's computers and hopefully restore them ship's systems to some kind of working order. She'd never known them to act up like this before; computers were predictable, dull, nothing but instruments of logic. For them to display strange behaviour wasn't possible unless... Perhaps the ship has been infected by some kind of virus… Or perhaps, even worse, there was some kind of ghost in the machine.

She remembered hearing unsubstantiated, crazy stories that the Bintarians had found a way to interface with machines, that they could directly control anything with a microchip just with the power of their minds, that they could even download their consciousness into a machine. Somehow they had invented the technology to allow them to do this, she had heard.

But she thought this to be unbelievable. There was no way that a person could interface so directly and accurately with a machine, let alone combine themselves with one.

Chatak was a realist, and knew that such stories were just that, stories. Perhaps they originated with the Bintarians, another weapon with which to scare the Zuuts and gain an advantage in this horrid war.

####

There were four fuses, all lined up in a row. Each was about the size of a person's thumb. Feeling her way without light, she pulled each out. This would effectively cut the power to the ship, since everything went through the main computer.

The hum of the ship ceased, the few LEDs she could see blinked off. She was in complete darkness, complete silence. Only the sound of her own heartbeat thumping in her ears punctuated the silence.

She sat down on the floor, leaning her head against the wall, legs laid out before her. It would take about a minute for the ship's capacitors to fully drain and any volatile computer RAM to lose its data. She closed her eyes, relishing that brief moment of calm.

She replaced the fuses. Shortly after the fourth was back in place the low hum of the ship's environmental systems restarted. Chatak breathed a small sigh of relief. The ceiling lights flickered into life, causing her to blink a few times as she became accustomed to their brightness.

She returned to the cockpit but nothing had changed. The control panel still reported various systems as being offline.

Chatak slumped into the pilot's seat, unsure of what to do next. The answer to her predicament was right behind her though.

"Chatak." That voice, again, but this time it was spoken not whispered. She jumped in the chair, startled by the utterance. She turned around in her chair and let out a small yelp of surprise and horror.

In the middle of the cockpit, a man stood, legs apart, gun out before him, like a gunfighter in an Old Frontier vid. From the look on his face, she could see that he was eminently pleased with himself.

"Let me introduce myself," he said, grinning. "My name is Dogotoe. Today, I am your hijacker." He added sarcastically, "Pleased to meet you."

"How did you get in here? Who are you?"

"Questions, questions, your kind always have questions," he mocked.

Chatak narrowed her eyes. "My kind? You're a Bintarian," she said.

"Well done, top marks, go to the front of the class. How clever of you."

"What are you going to do with me?" she asked.

He shook his head but only a little. "Me? Nothing. You're going to do it all yourself, or at least that's the way it'll look. You're going to crash into the lead ship of the Zuut fleet."

"And I'll do that because?"

"Because you don't have a choice," he stated. "The ship will do it all."

She snorted. "In case you haven't noticed, the ship is in no state to do anything."

He began to laugh. A long, derisive laugh. "Oh my, how naïve you are." He snapped his fingers. All of a sudden the ship became fully functional. The nav computer began to track their position, all the warning lights on the console turned to green, and ship's stabilizing thrusters began to fire to stop the ship's directionless drift.

"How did you...?"

"Your ship is fine," he told her. "Something was controlling it, that's all. Fooling it, if you will."

"And that something was you," she concluded, "interfacing with the machine."

"Bingo. And now, it's time to finish things, no more talk. This ship will fly into your fleet's lead ship, destroying or seriously damaging it at least, because I'll be controlling it. You're my first hijacking, by the way. And my last too, of course, since we're both soon to die." He smiled again, ruefully this time.

"But you still need me, because I have the access codes to get through the energy grid. They're not in the computer, only in here," and she tapped the side of her temple.

"My my, aren't we the clever one. But it's time for us to depart." He clicked his fingers again. The ship began to move. "You'll notice from the nav computer that the fleet isn't that far away. We'll be there quite soon."

"And what was all that about whispering my name, messing with the ship's computer?"

He shrugged. "Wanted to give you a bit of a fright. We are enemies, after all. Might as well have a bit of fun in my last few hours."

Chatak rubbed gently at the bump on her head, which was beginning to hurt. "I suppose this was your handiwork too."

"Indeed. You put up quite a struggle too. Feisty little thing aren't you. Shame you'll be dead soon."

At that moment, figuring she had very little to lose, she got out of the seat and rushed at him. He was caught unawares, his arrogant swagger felled as she forced him to the ground, the gun between them. They struggled on the floor, rolling over once one way then once the other. Somewhere during the course of the struggle the gun went off.

Their struggle stopped and they both lay still, he on top of her. Blood began to drip from his mouth. She rolled him over, the wound in his chest visible and bloody. He managed to raise his head from his prostrate position, seeing the wound and the pool of blood slowly amassing about his body.

Dogotoe closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on transferring his consciousness to the ship's computer before the life from him finally departed. But he was already too weak and the pain spreading throughout his chest prevented such concentration.

Chatak meanwhile had activated her mayday device. The blast from the gun had damaged more than Dogotoe -- the thruster control panel was showing more red than green again.

"It's been a hell of a day for me, but the tough part's over," Chatak said, slumping in the pilot seat. "The fleet'll send someone to rescue me in a while, and I'll tell them about your new trick. There's probably a way to block it, now we know it isn't just a rumor."

Dogotoe closed his eyes, his life force finally depleted.

THE END


© 2008 Dan Shelton

Bio: Dan Shelton is a sci-fi junkie living in the UK. He enjoys reading Stephen King and collecting elephants. He writes part-time and hopes to complete his novel by the end of the year.

E-mail: Dan Shelton

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