Suggested By: Mary C. Findley
-Burlington Balderdash Benton
-A broken-down, barely-functional spacecraft in an uncharted sector
-The control lever that is the only thing with which to keep the ship from stalling out and never starting again
Bleep.... Bleep... Bleep... SQUONK!
"The droid did it!" The words jumped out of his mouth before his brain achieved full consciousness. Sitting upright, he came face to face with the mechanical humanoid that glared at him as drily as his artificial eyes allowed.
"The droid, huh?" said the android.
The biological man rubbed the sleep from his eyes and ruffled his hair. "It wasn't anything against you, Balderdash; just a dream."
Balderdash emitted a whirring noise from within his face; if he'd had organic sinuses, it would have been a snort. "And what, pray, did this nefarious android-who-is-not-named-
Balderdash frame you for this time, Captain?"
The man busied himself slipping on his trousers and the jacket emblazoned with his name, "Captain Burlington," as he tried to assuage the persnickety robot. "You know what, half the time I don't even know what's going on in my dreams—it's just a reaction, okay? Lay off!" He padded out of the sleeping quarters and headed down the smooth hallway toward the bridge.
Balderdash followed. "Is that an order, sir?"
"No," Burlington shot back, "this is: grab me something from the mess and bring it to the bridge, okay?"
"Is there anything in particular that your appetite dictates?"
"Food and coffee, Balderdash, that's all I ask."
"Right away, sir."
Burlington entered the bridge and sighed. Half the panels didn't work, and the rest were temperamental. He should have known the Galactic Space Exploration Commission did not have the funds to update its fleet. Not that Captain Burlington would require a brand-new spacecraft, either. He wasn't picky, and the old ship did very well—till the autopilot died. Even then, they coasted smoothly through space, only requiring slight adjustments in their heading from time to time.
Then that ferocious storm that happened to drift along in time to intercept the broken ship. It had trapped Burlington and Balderdash in the same room for three days—or at least that many hours. Even then, the Captain had not minded—it wasn't like he had a whole crew to worry over; it was just him and Balderdash.
Burlington stared at the planets outside the ship; this star system was completely new.
"Computer, where are we?" He asked.
"You have entered the outer reaches of the Allineal System."
"Allineal, huh?" That was a new one. "What can you tell me about it?"
"There are eight planets in this system, orbiting around the star known in your universe as Alline."
"Interesting," Captain Burlington mused. He watched the gas giants drift past as the ship coasted. The star at its center beamed brightly. "Computer, what time is it here?" Not that days meant anything in space; but Burlington liked to orient himself.
"According to the rotation of the nearest planet containing sentient beings," the computer reported as they passed a bluish planet with green-brown land masses and streaks of white cloud over its surface, "the time is 0300 hours."
Balderdash's thick boots clomped on the metal walkway as he approached.
"Your breakfast, Captain," the android intoned solemnly.
Captain Burlington eagerly accepted the steaming mug. He tipped it toward his mouth and inhaled.
Abruptly, the beverage spewed from his mouth as the ship ground to a halt.
"What the nebula was that?" Burlington spluttered, slapping at the warm stain now covering his uniform.
"Here, let me get that." Balderdash positioned himself in front of the Captain and breathed out a stain-removing vapor. Suddenly, the ship gave a jerk, and the android tilted forward into the captain. They landed on the floor, Balderdash on top, his open mouth blowing stain remover down Burlington's collar.
Balderdash closed his mouth.
"Pardon, Captain; I couldn't help myself."
"Get off me, you sack of wingnuts."
Man and droid stood as alarms began to wail all around the ship.
"What was that?" Burlington demanded.
"Warning," said Computer calmly. "Incoming horde."
"Horde? Horde of wha—" The words died in Burlington's throat as he saw an entire fleet of alien ships heading straight for them.
"You don't say, Balderdash?"
Burlington scrambled for the control panel. He sat down just as an explosion very close rocked the ship. Balderdash crashed to the deck.
"Balderdash, sit down! I'm going to try and get us out of here!" Burlington turned back to the panel. He blinked, frowning as his eyes scanned every light and toggle. He felt every surface within reach.
"Balderdash, where is the control lever?"
"What control lever?"
"The thing I drive the ship with, tin-head!"
"This ship was on autopilot when we started."
"Of course it was; then when that quit, remember, I would come in here and adjust the heading."
"Oh yes, quite."
"With the control lever."
"I thought you said there wasn't one."
Burlington winced as another round landed from the advancing horde. They seemed to be adopting a strange sort of linear path toward the ship.
"There isn't now, Balderdash, so where did it go?"
They were in the middle of the horde now, completely surrounded by alien ships.
"I hate these kinds of exploration voyages!" Burlington cried.
Just then, the ship gave a lurch—and began firing back at the alien hordes! Ship after ship blew up, and then Burlington clutched the sides of his chair as the ship shot away from the now-empty zone among the Allineal planets, back into open space. It slowed, and they began drifting once more.
Burlington turned slowly, fixing his wide, horrified gaze on the emotionless android.
"WHAT. WAS. THAT?" He seethed through clenched jaws. "I didn't even know this ship had cannons, much less an automatic firing system!"
Before Balderdash could answer, the ship gave another lurch, veering off to another heading as the alarms sounded again.
"Ready Wave 2."
"Wave 2?" Echoed Burlington.
"Warning, incoming horde."
This time, Burlington watched the scenario carefully as they drifted into the phalanx of aliens once again. As before, the ship moved jerkily among the ships, firing constantly and yet not very accurately.
"Computer, what is driving the ship?" Burlington asked.
"Attention, external controls engaged."
Burlington looked over at Balderdash. "External controls? What is that?"
Finally, the last alien ship exploded, and the spacecraft blasted free once more.
"Attention," offered Computer, "Would you wish to communicate with the external controller?"
Burlington considered this; it was definitely unlike anything he'd ever experienced. "Sure, put me through."
"Attention, line open."
Burlington hesitated as the speakers hissed.
"Hello?" he finally managed.
"Hi." The voice that responded was either very high male or very low female. "Who is this?"
"This is Captain Burlington and Lieutenant Balderdash of the Havergian Galactic Command, on a peaceful exploratory mission."
"Cool," said the controller. "I'm Benton. Say, where are you?"
Burlington blinked; this was just too bizarre. "I am—well, right now I am in open space, between headings 2135.46-degrees and 468972.34-degrees."
"You're in space? How come you're talking through my video game, then? Can these things talk to space?"
Video game? Burlington began feeling faint; he didn't even know what a video game was! "Benton, tell me about this game; where did you get it?"
"At the store! Mom said if I got a good report card we could get the new Space Invaders game."
"Space Invaders?" Burlington mulled over the strange name. "How do you play it?"
"Well, it comes with a control lever that you plug into the TV, and you are a ship at the bottom of the screen and you move around like this—"
Suddenly, the whole ship began to rock violently, as Benton chattered on. "—and you shoot the alien ship and on the last level it's the Big Boss!"
"Balderdash," Burlington whispered, "what's making the ship shake like that? Can you run a diagnostic?"
"Captain Burlington," Balderdash replied after a few moments, "It appears that the signal originally belonging to the control lever that used to be here was damaged when we went through that storm and into the Allineal system."
Burlington kept watching Balderdash. "So?"
"So, when the control lever disconnected, the ship automatically began searching for a signal that matched it, in order to set up the external controls—and it found the control lever of this Benton person."
"You're saying Benton is controlling my ship?" Burlington exploded.
The alarms sounded again.
"Ready Wave 3! Warning, incoming horde!"
"Benton!" Burlington screamed frantically, "Are you playing your game again?"
"Yeah," Benton responded. "I want to beat all the levels."
"Benton... How old are you?"
"Ten," came the answer.
A ten-year-old boy! Their fates were in the hands of a ten-year-old boy!
"Benton, I want you to listen carefully: your controller is controlling my ship."
"Really? That's neat."
"And the aliens you're fighting?" Burlington winced as a hailstorm of bullets crashed around him. The computer had raised shields around the ship, but who knew how long they would last? "Those are real aliens you're flying us through."
The ship halted and stopped firing.
"Keep shooting!" Burlington shrieked.
Benton resumed firing till the last alien ship exploded.
"Captain?" His small voice echoed in the silence. "Are you still there?"
Burlington sighed. "I am."
"I'm sorry." The kid was choking back tears. "I didn't mean to—"
"It's all right," Burlington interrupted. "You didn't do anything. We'll figure this out. How many waves are there?"
"There are ten waves in Level One. Am I gonna be driving your ship through each one?"
Burlington sighed. "I suppose you'll have to, until we get this problem figured out. At the very least, you can't stop playing until we figure out how to override this. Your game controller is the only thing keeping this ship moving."
"But..." Benton went on, "if you're real, does that mean that if my ship gets hit by a bullet from the alien ship—"
"We have our shields, Benton." Burlington left off the part where he could see the power levels draining with each wave.
"Ready Wave 4. Warning, incoming horde."
Captain Burlington gripped the sides of his chair and stared at the incoming ships.
"Fly, boy," he murmured to Benton. "Fly true; the only way we're going to solve this is if you can get us through it alive. Are you ready?"
The answer rang with the steadiness of a soldier.