A Brief Interruption
by Frances Pauli
“Hang on a sec, Dot. I’m on a roll.”
“Not now, Dot!” Jules swiveled his plasti-form chair around, pointedly placing his back to the ship’s console. His fingers danced across the key pad of his handheld. 3000 more points and he’d hit level thirteen. 2500 more, 500.
The handheld squealed and Jules watched his avatar take a critical hit, exploding in a pixilated supernova. “Son of a...” So long, level thirteen. “Dammit, Dot. Do you know how far back that save point was?” he shouted and spun back to the controls.
“Captain.” The polished, computer-generated features of his A.I. interface scowled at him from the central view screen. “I believe you should be aware...”
“What have I told you about interrupting me when I’m playing, Dot?”
“Not to interrupt you unless the bloody ship is under attack,” Dot answered.
“Exactly!” Jules snarled and tossed the game onto the empty co-pilot’s chair. “So what the hell is so important?”
“The bloody ship is under attack.”
“Nice.” He snuck a covert inspection of the sensor array and then leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms across his chest. “So why aren’t the alarms engaged?”
As the words left his mouth, the chair jumped several meters to the right. The viewscreen, still primarily occupied by Dot’s smiling face, tilted sharply in front of him. The klaxon clatter of his alarm system burst through the cabin, squealing at an exaggerated decibel as if to make up for its late arrival.
“If you’ll divert your attention to the secondary port side array, Captain,” Dot’s voice chimed in, “I believe you’ll see the problem.”
Jules frowned at the control panel. Secondary port... there it was. He tapped at the interface and watched the little red zigzag dancing in complete freak-out mode. Damn.
“Pull up the nearest viewing angle,” he told Dot, and the main screen immediately shifted imagery. Dot’s gloating artificial expression gave way to a view of the ship’s hull. The camera angled down the length of the craft so that the bottom third of the screen showed a triangle of ship. The remainder was dominated by a bulging, fleshy tentacle.
“What the hell is that?” Jules pushed back against his chair with a shudder. While he watched, the tentacle flexed, shifting enough to reveal a row of rubbery, round suction cups.
“It seems to be a large space-faring life form,” Dot said. “Attached to our port side engines.”
“Yeah, I got that much from the view. Bring up a diagnostic, please.”
The control panel displayed a crisp, neon outline of the ship’s schematic complete with attached alien. Jules frowned down at it and scratched his head. The on-screen tentacle flexed again, and the bridge dipped sharply to the left. What was the best way to detach a giant squid that had failed to respect the personal space of your vessel?
“Scan the area, Dot,” he said. He watched the data scroll past the schematic. The closest system was too far to be of any help. A distress signal would bring the cavalry in about three days, which he figured would be about two and a half days too late. “Hang on.” The scrolling figures froze in place. “How close is that asteroid?”
“We could be in proximity in less than five minutes,” Dot answered. “Do you wish me to plot a course?”
“No, I don’t wish you to plot a course, I wish you to get us there... now!”
The intervening five minutes passed with maddening sluggishness. Jules watched the tentacle, which twitched every ten seconds or so, with his head resting in his hands. He ran the diagnostics twice just to kill time, but found no abnormalities aside from the giant calamari wrapped in a rather intimate embrace around one engine.
He’d hoped the trip might dislodge the thing, but the squid’s grip remained undisturbed. When Dot’s voice finally announced their arrival, and the image on the screen shifted to a view of the tumbling planetoid, Jules welcomed the change. He’d had just about enough of suction cups for one day.
“All right, Dot,” he said. “Scrape it off.”
“Use the rock and scrape that thing off our hull,” he said. A moment of silence followed. He watched the asteroid spin and nodded. This would work.
“Switching to manual controls,” Dot announced.
“Really? You trust me to do this on manual, Dot?”
“I’d prefer not to take any of the blame when this goes terribly wrong,” she said. “Good luck, Captain.”
The ship shuddered as the manual system kicked into gear. Jules grabbed the controls with one hand and smoothed back his hair with the other. He could do this. He rolled to starboard and brought the port engine up in line with the closing asteroid. Just a gentle bump ought to do the trick.
* * *
It should have worked. He stared out the view screen at the ship’s nose, rumpled and buried for half its length in the asteroid’s surface. It would have worked — he nodded — if that damned thing didn’t have so many tentacles. He glowered at another fat, fleshy limb snaking its way across the hull.
The ship lay inverted, pinned between the chunk of rock and a giant space squid that apparently knew how to do judo. Jules watched the suction cups sticking to and releasing the smooth metal as they explored the surface of their victim. How strong could the thing be?
“Fire the engines.”
“They are currently engaged, Captain.”
He bit down on his lip. “Full stop then,” he said. “And bring up that port angle again.”
The view shifted and a saucer-shaped squid eye filled the screen. The surface gleamed with slime and the pupil shifted slightly left and then right.
“It that thing hurting the ship?”
“Aside from the damage caused by the impact?”
“Aside from that.”
“No, Captain. It appears harmless.”
“Send out a distress signal,” he said.
“At this distance, any response would take at least three days, Captain.”
“Good.” He reached around under the seat and retrieved his handheld. The game music bleeped through the cabin as he flipped the thing back on. His avatar blinked back into existence at a paltry level eleven. Jules sighed. “Don’t bother me unless....” He looked up into the giant eyeball. “Until the cavalry arrives,” he said.
Copyright © 2010 by Frances Pauli