Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"The Commander's Courage" Excerpt: Lockdown


A blaring alarm and flashing lights scrambled my "flight" reflex so hard I immediately sprang forward and smacked my hip on the nearest table.

"Caustic," Marx spat. Huge, metallic gates slowly slid over every windowed surface around the perimeter. Marx grabbed my hand and started ducking and dodging his way toward the door as the sliding gates slammed faster and faster.

"What's going on?" I yelled as the floor pitched gradually—inexorably. We were now fighting our way uphill on a smooth surface, dodging loose items as they slid in our direction.

"Gotta... Make... It!" Marx grunted, squeezing my hand so hard the sweat was beginning to build. The floor slowly tilted back to flat, sending us tumbling forward, but we were too late. We arrived at the entrance just as the gate covered its last couple inches. The alarm ceased, and my head rang in the sudden silence.

"IS THIS NORMAL?" I yelled before my brain registered that I was yelling.

Marx didn't seem to care. He stared at the solid gate, as we sat in the dimly-lit cafeteria that looked as if a tornado had ripped through it. The bolted-in chairs and tables were still in place, but the stack of trays at the back of the room, the swinging lamps suspended from the ceiling, and the massive bins of food packages had spilled all around the room.

He winced as he stood, favoring his left leg. He hobbled over to me and put out his hand.

"Are you okay?" He asked.

I had recovered my hearing, so I nodded and whispered, "I'm fine." I don't know what it is about big spaces and the urge to speak softly, but I definitely did just then. My hip still smarted—I was going to have a bruise for sure, but no bones broken and no cuts or anything, so all things considered, I was pretty darn good!

"What happened?" I asked, as Marx seemed to be staring at the gate in front of us and waiting for something.

He crawled over to a display screen in the corner. No matter what combination of buttons he pressed, the screen remained dark.

Marx shook his head. “The blast doors are sealed, the console’s out—the temporary disruption of the stability engines… All of it means only one thing.”

“What does it mean?” I didn’t like the way this was heading.

Marx looked me dead in the eye and pronounced it like a death sentence.

“Lockdown.”

Of all the situations I could have been preparing for over the course of my life, lockdown wasn't one of them. Sure, we had those drills in grade school where the teacher turned the lights off and we all had to huddle in the corner and make absolutely no noise.

But this wasn't a school building; it wasn't even earth. There wasn't a whole group of people; the threat might not even be one that responded to either silence or noise. It could be a monster, or another ship that rammed into us outside those steel doors. I had no protocol for that.

Marx, meanwhile, had resorted to his old technician habits: he had pried the front panel off the console and dragged the motherboard into the open. He twisted wires and untangled others, checking the screen for any activity as he worked.

I watched him mutter at the wires, while the screen above us didn't even flicker.

I sighed as I leaned against the blast door. "Can you get it working again?"
He pursed his lips. "Sometimes, yes; if it's a technical blackout, I can override the system in just this one console and at least be able to open the door and get us to a room with other people who might know more of what's going on." He tried another connection, with no success.

He tossed the wires aside with a sigh. "Looks like… whatever hit the ship just before the lockdown must have torn the outer siding somehow, or damaged an airlock. Whatever it is, the ship's defense systems detect exposure to outer space elements and lock everything down until the breach is repaired." He gave me a sidelong glance. "There's no override for that one." He chuckled and shifted his position, but the noise stopped with a hiss.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

The young technician shrugged. "Ah, it's my leg," he gestured. "There's no blood, but I think I wrenched it pretty bad when the ship tilted." He reached for the toggle of a zipper on his pant leg, just above the knee, and unzipped it. Sliding the extra material off gave us a clear view of his leg. No breaks in the skin, sure, but the entire calf was one big purple mass. I couldn't tell if it was actual bleeding under the skin, or just a really big bruise.

I shook my head. "We need to get you help.”
[…]
Marx was slumped against the dismantled console. I was too busy trying to see if I could hear anything through the metal door to know if he was awake or not.

Steady thumps reached my ear. I brightened.

"Marx!" I wiggled his hand. "I can hear somebody!" Raising my voice and leaning as close as I dared, I yelled, "HEY! WE'RE IN HERE! HEY! HEELLLP!" I even banged on the door for good measure. "HELP US! (bang, bang, bang) WE'RE TRAPPED! HELP! (bang, bang, bang) WE CAN'T GET OUT! (bang, bang, bang) HEEELLLLLP!"

My voice gave out and I realized that Marx was muttering my name.

"Laura." 

The poor guy was in bad shape. His face had gone pale. I checked his leg again. The purple looked like it was spreading up past his knee. Sweat poured down his face, but his skin felt clammy to my touch.

"We need to help the bruising, and possibly ruptured blood vessels," I decided. "Is there ice somewhere in here?" With all the other stuff I'd seen that should have been normal but ended up weird, I had to ask.

Marx clenched his jaw like he was in a lot of pain. "Yeah," he grunted. "White panel, that way." He indicated the wall over by the toppled pile of trays.

I wasn't going to risk him passing out or dying in the time it would take me to find the thing and come back. I crouched next to him. "Here," I said, hooking my arm under his. "Let's get you over there."

He cringed, even crying out when the pain was too much. He didn't even let his bruised leg touch the ground. I couldn't support him enough for us both to move.

"Even just standing here, it hurts because of gravity," he told me.

I shook my head. "We need something to completely immobilize it so you don't—"

A familiar whining buzz interrupted me, and my thoughts immediately catalogued exactly where I was, what I wore, and what I was doing. Funny how a buzzing alarm will do that to you. A squarish red security bot rounded the corner. Recalling my experience with it, I smiled.

"I have an idea!" I told Marx, and I reached up and took his keycard off his shoulder.

"Are you caustic? What the frell do you think you're doing?" He seethed.

"Oh, chill! Just trust me!" I slipped the keycard into his pocket, just as I had done for myself when we first met.

The security bot bleeped, and the words "HALT! SCANNING... HALT! SCANNING..." Scrolled across its surface.

Just as I expected, Marx's body went rigid, and I could let him go, as a bright red laser held him in place, hovering just centimeters off the ground.

"Is that better?" I asked him.

He could only blink in response.

"Once for yes, and twice for no."

He blinked once. I was pretty proud of myself. I walked freely over to the wall, and the bot dragged Marx along behind me.

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