Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"The Commander's Courage" Excerpt: "Technical Difficulties"


I nearly fell over as reality of the non-virtual sort came crashing over me again. Marx was still beside me, holding my elbow as I tried to push the helmet off my head with shaky, limp arms. The room was still as stark as ever, but after the warmth and bright colors of the virtual world, it was downright gloomy.
My stomach clenched like an astronaut on re-entry. I hunched over, grabbing my gut. "Ow!"
"Hungry?" Marx asked. "Or sick?"
"Hungry, I think." The last time I ate was... Let's see, I couldn't even remember! "Does this place have a food court or something?" They had a virtual arcade, for crying out loud, why wouldn't they have access to some massive, commercialized means of getting food?

Marx and I emerged from the tunnel onto the walkway, and he guided me back the way we had come—jeepers, it felt like it had been hours ago! We passed a window again, and at first I wondered how it could be night—and then I saw the tiny ships and I remembered. I managed to avoid freaking out over it as Marx replied, "Yeah, technically on a cruiser it's called the galley, and the military," he indicated his uniform, "typically call it the mess, but they serve food, so we can go there."
"Yes please!" I followed him willingly enough, only hoping that it wasn't too far to walk, because if the galley was on the other end of the ship I wasn't sure I would make it!

"The galley's just right over—" Marx jerked back the hand he had been pointing with, grimacing against the pain. He held his wrist up, and I saw a silver bracelet of some sort. Marx swiped a finger across it, and I could hear static as if from a tiny speaker.
"What was that for?" He demanded of the person on the other side.
"Sorry, Private—we've been trying to reach you for hours."
"Hours?" Marx fiddled with the bracelet, which must have been more of a wrist-communicator. "Sorry, the Arcade must have messed with the connection."
"Arcade? What—What are you doing, Private? Don't you know there's a war on? We have malfunctioning tech over here, and we need—"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be there." He swiped the other direction to end the call. His face was full of concern as he looked at me, at the galley, and back again.
"I'll be fine," I lied.

We reached the blue line in the walkway. My mind registered a body in a blue uniform a moment before the voice spoke from high over my head. I nearly let my head flop all the way back to see the small white head atop a long white neck. It was like a dinosaur's head on a human-shaped body. The alien spoke in a soft, murmuring patter only Marx understood.
"Yeah, I get it," he said as the alien reached over, still muttering away, and pressed the button to shut down the blue barrier. "Whatever; just show me which one it was."
The alien stopped its patter and fixed wide yellow eyes on me. It bent its neck to bring its head close to my face. A series of curious peeps issued from its mouth.
Marx snapped his fingers between us. "Hey! You can make friends later, I have work to do, right? We don't want to spend all day in the lab."
The alien warbled its opinion.
"No, really?" Marx responded drily. He beckoned to me. "Come on, this will just be quick."
"What will?" I asked, trotting along behind them.
"Well, Dr. Bollibor was just saying—"
The alien turned and yammered something at me. Marx looked offended.
"Don't be rude!" He snapped. "She's new."
"Doesn't matter," I said. "I can't understand it anyway."
"You don't understand Bubuli?"
I wagged my head.

Just then, a gravelly voice cut over the steady mechanical hum.
"Private! About time you got here!"
A tall man with sleek black hair and green skin stood head-and-shoulders over the crowd and pointed to my only friend on this ship so far.
"Get over here and fix this so we can finish our research!"
Marx glanced over to make sure I was still behind him.
"Stay close," he muttered, and we scurried between the workstations to find out what the problem was.

As it turned out, finding the troubled workstation wasn't hard; it was the only one smoking.
"What a worthy mess this is!" Marx gasped as he surveyed the sparking machine. "What did you do?"
"I did nothing out of the ordinary!" The green-skinned man retorted. "I was merely defragmenting the developmental algorithms, and I opened the topographical data spreadsheet—"
Marx had peeled the face of the desktop off, and was fiddling with the wires. He frowned at the state of the console. "That shouldn't fry the circuits—"
"—And I was also running the differential program for the ship's defense system, and monitoring personnel records—"
"What?" Marx cried.
"It's my job!" The scientist blustered. "If I am going to be responsible for so many functions on this ship, then I should be able to depend on the machinery to keep up!"
Marx deftly turned the warped circuit board so that the wires were no longer crossed, and proceeded to plug wires into different ports. "You try doing six forms of advanced algebra at once and see how far you get," he grumbled.
After adjusting the cables, the screen flickered back to life. The huge green man loomed over us. "Did you fix it?" He demanded.
Marx raised his arm to bat the hand--which from my perspective looked big enough to palm his whole head--out of his way. "Not yet! Hang on." He began entering commands into the computer, and very soon the screen changed to a mass of streaming graphs, all updating in real time.
"Done!" Marx backed away with a pleased expression, but the researcher was already back in his chair and hunched over the console.
"About time," he spat. "Now go away! This is sensitive information!"
Marx's shoulders slumped, but there wasn't much either of us could do about it.

“Private!” I heard running footsteps and furious panting as a young cadet in a purple uniform ran up to us. “Malfunctioning droid waiting for you in the communications bay,” he reported.
Marx nodded, tight-lipped, but he didn't start moving right away like he did when the researcher called him. “I’ll be there,” he said, while his feet remained rooted to the spot.
The boy in the purple jumpsuit noticed. “It’s imperative,” he stressed.
“I’ll be there,” Marx repeated.
I heard a chime ring as the runner received another message and darted away.
I watched Marx; his response this time had been a lot different than the overloaded workstation a while back. A minute passed, and he still hadn’t moved, just stared in the direction of the sector with a heated glare.
Finally, he let out a rough sigh. “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered under his breath.