July 05, 2010

Perilous Patrol

I've got a big painting project going today, and don't have time to write something new from a prompt, so I thought I'd entertain you with a story starring an important character in my life. Lt. Jenna's name was the inspiration for part of my pen name, A M Jenner. Lt. Jenna also appears in the unpublished novel Assignment to Earth.
Perilous Patrol
Lt. Jenna sat in the cockpit of her Wyvern fighter, frowning at the display. “All I want to know is whether there are any ships in the vicinity.” The main display screen stared back at her, its darkened face giving no information to the weary Cavalier. A single square of light blinked steadily at the end of the solitary line of text. DISPLAY OFFLINE. RESET AT ONCE. Jenna pressed the reset switch. The display screen flickered several times, went dark then showed the message again. DISPLAY OFFLINE. RESET AT ONCE. Jenna hit the display in frustration. The message didn't change. She scanned the nearby area visually, but saw no ships, friendly or otherwise. "Well," she said, "it could be worse. There could be some of those 'otherwise' ships here." She pressed the switches to bring up the navigational information she'd need in order to get back the Octavia. With these mechanical problems, she’d have to return to her base ship immediately, rather than finishing her long patrol as scheduled. The square of light blinked with an almost mesmerizing tempo. The words were the same. DISPLAY OFFLINE. RESET AT ONCE. "Yeah, I know, you're not talking to me...” she hit the reset sequence again, with the same results as the last hundred times. After another visual scan, she unstrapped herself and squirmed around until she was kneeling in her seat, facing the rear of the tiny cockpit. She leaned over the seat and reached for the small survival pack secured there. Digging into the outer pockets, she quickly located a small datapad and extracted it. Jenna deftly turned back and sat properly in the seat, reaching for the straps of her safety harness. Before she could fasten her harness the Wyvern began spinning. She reached for the controls, but her sudden movement sent the datapad flying. It connected with her temple, and after one bright burst of light, she saw nothing but darkness. When next she opened her eyes, the stars were whipping dizzily past the cockpit as her ship continued to spin. She quickly squeezed her eyes shut while her stomach debated whether or not to join in the spiral. Jenna tipped her head down and cautiously opened her eyes again, being careful to keep her gaze within the cockpit. Without artificial gravity, her body had no way to know it was moving—as long as she didn’t look out the window. “Well,” she said dryly, “first things first.” Jenna strapped herself into her seat, retrieved the datapad from where it rested against the cockpit canopy, and fastened it securely to her leg. She reached for the control column and gently stopped the Wyvern from spinning. At least the mechanical controls were working. She stared pensively at the display screen. Was the trouble in the display? Or was the computer itself affected? There had to be a way around this. Fortunately Klodfons didn’t seem to be a problem at the moment…at least there were none within her range of vision. Her brain refused to take that thought through to the logical conclusion. Once again she hit the reset sequence. This attempt brought different results. Instead of wavy lines and static, the screen simply went dark. She waited a moment; perhaps this was a good thing. The display stayed dark. Definitely not a good thing. “All right, second things next,” she muttered, powering up the datapad and scrolling through files she kept there. Somewhere there should be…. Ah! The diagnostic program she’d had her maintenance chief copy for her. She searched the index. Within a few minutes she’d located the section she needed, reading it intently. Suddenly she giggled, remembering the words of Duke, one of her first flight instructors at the Academy. ‘Knowing where to find the information you need is nearly as important as learning the information itself.’ He’d drilled her in emergency procedures until she could execute them flawlessly; instinctively. Then he’d told her she didn’t need to memorize the non-emergency-but-urgent procedures, only know where to find them and to keep them handy. Duke’s advice just might save her skin today. She finished reading the section. There were only two possibilities, both of which she’d already thought of. Either the computer wasn’t sending information to the display, or the display itself was out. If the display was the problem, her only course of action was to wait for rescue; she could not repair it from inside the ship, with no parts or tools. If it was the computer, she could try a full system shutdown and reboot. The principal hitch would be that life support would shut down along with it. If the computer didn’t come up again, her only oxygen was already in the cockpit…a daunting possibility. Jenna weighed her options. Waiting for rescue was an attractive thought, except she wasn’t due back from this solo patrol for several days. Her air would run out long before she was even missed; in which case she had nothing to lose by attempting a full system restart. The prime difference being that her air would run out sooner without the life support system in operation. Jenna took several deep breaths to fill her system with as much oxygen as possible, then squared her shoulders and consulted the datapad for directions for full system shutdown and restart. With a small, rueful smile, she wondered how many other breaths she would take before the computer rebooted. Within a few minutes the systems had all been turned off. The Wyvern drifted, powerless, among the stars. Unfortunately, none of those stars were close enough to provide a planet with a good landing area—or even a bad one. Jenna sat quietly in the cockpit, watching the stars for signs of any sort of ship. The half-hour she waited for the systems to become completely cool seemed to be an eternity. If any Klodfons happened by now, with all her systems off, she wouldn’t have a chance of survival. The cockpit became cold as the heat within radiated into the iciness of space. Jenna buckled her jacket closed and continued to wait. She concentrated on taking slow, shallow breaths, trying to extend her oxygen supply. Her breath puffed out in small clouds of condensation, the moisture freezing against the cockpit windows. If the Klodfons came now, she wouldn’t see them before they vaporized her, defunct ship and all. By the time she could begin the restart, she was shivering so badly it was difficult to flip the switches and press the buttons correctly. Finally her part of the restart was finished, and she sat still, waiting. Suddenly, lights flashed on the instrument panel. Heat began to return to the cockpit, and Jenna was shortly able to unfasten her jacket. The display screen flickered madly and filled with squiggly lines. Then, as if there had never been anything wrong, the display showed the readout of her short-range scanners. “Finally!” She offered a sigh of relief and a heartfelt prayer in the same breath. Gingerly, she urged the display to figure out exactly where she was, and to calculate a course which would allow her to rendezvous with the Octavia. The computer tried to place her back onto her patrol course. She patiently punched in the information for a return now, not to the pre-programmed rendezvous point. The computer began to argue with her that the patrol needed to be complete before returning to the Octavia. Jenna growled in frustration and consulted the datapad, thinking furiously of options as her ship continued to drift. There were no instructions for dealing with an argumentative computer. As she scrolled through the different topics on the datapad, a thought formed in her mind. She entered her current position and the planned track of the Octavia into the datapad, and used this small computer to plot her course, bypassing the Wyvern’s computer. Once it had figured out all the angles, it provided an answer; a course and bearing which would take her to an early rendezvous with the Octavia. Breathing a sigh of relief, and savoring the air she’d sucked in to perform that simple task, she changed the computer display to read out her current course. Jenna then manually steered her ship in the direction indicated by the datapad. With any luck, she would arrive at the Octavia within a few hours.
* * * * *
Jenna sighed with relief as the Octavia came into view, right on schedule. She called the bridge for landing permission, briefly explaining she was early due to a mechanical breakdown. As her Wyvern coasted safely to a stop, she murmured another prayer of thanks. She completed her post-flight briefing, then returned to her quarters and began composing a message of thanks to her old flight instructor, Duke. His advice truly had saved her life today.