by Richard A. Conine
1. Raft: (verb) to ride someone or something as though it were a raft; to dominate or own; to destroy. We are totally going to raft them in the game today! Their team sucks!|
2. Raft: A clan of lesbian vampires that live in a sea cave off the shore of Scotland.
— Urban Dictionary
Chip Corrigan woke to sonorous chiming and a dulcet female voice repeating the same nonsensical phrase in an endless loop. “Attitude incorrect. Attitude incorrect. Attitude incorrect.”
He rubbed his eyes and yawned. His head felt hot and strange. He realized that he was upside down. In point of fact, the entire ship was upside down and he was strapped to it. Not that there is any up or down in space but gravity banks always insist there is. And human bodies don’t ask a lot of questions where gravity is concerned.
All spacecraft from ships-of-the-line right down to emergency pods like the Academy Mark IV Automated Life Raft were built to align to the galactic plane. In order to navigate in 3D space they required referential coordinates and self-positioning data.
Up and down and port and starboard, coreward and aft were all defined in relation to Earth, the galactic plane, the core and the rim. Earth’s finest engineers finding no up or down in space just went ahead and created them. The eternal void wasn’t complicated enough for them; they had to go and make it possible to be upside down in a weightless vacuum with absolutely no reference points.
“Crap,” Chip exclaimed unhappily.
The inflectionless but song-sweet woman’s voice said, “Cadet Corrigan, profanity no matter the class or severity is not permitted in a professional Academy setting. For this infraction, you are issued one demerit. Attitude incorrect. Attitude incorrect. Attitude incorrect.”
He unstrapped and promptly fell straight into the little raft’s overhead. He crawled over light fixtures to the U-shaped helm, reached up with both arms and corrected the boat’s attitude with a few keystrokes.
The raft flipped 180 degrees on its x-axis and he fell again. He was deposited onto the helm where his helpless thrashing around and mashing of various uncalled for buttons set off yet more alarms.
“Sheesh,” he blurted.
“Cadet Corrigan, profanity no matter...”
“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted. “One demerit. I get it.”
“Cadet Corrigan, for the duration of this voyage, you will consider me your commanding officer. I will not tolerate interruptions, profanity, slang or other disrespectful speech. For this latest infraction, you are awarded two demerits for a total of four. These will be logged and reported to your senior instructor upon return of this life raft to port.”
He looked at the whirring lights on the computer panel. They seemed so condescending. He asked, “How do you figure you’re my commanding officer? You’re a computer.”
“If you had bothered to read the cadet manual you would recall that page 11, paragraph 5a contains the following passage: ‘An Academy cadet is the lowest form of life in the universe. You must always understand your place. When you pass a prokaryote you should salute it because it is technically senior to you. If prokaryotes ever get it into their nucleoids to start issuing orders, you will obey with alacrity, respect and complete pride of service’.”
“I read it,” he said dismissively. “But you aren’t alive. You’re all circuits and zeros and ones. So technically...”
“According to subparagraph 10a on page 136 of the Academy Mark IV Automated Life Raft manual: ‘In the absence of an Officer of the Line, cadets are considered subordinate to any item of electrical gear, random prokaryotes or solar dust motes that happen to be present in the cabin of the Academy Mark IV Automated Life Raft. This provision applies to all situations to include routine maintenance, inspections and emergencies. Cadets must always understand their place’.”
Chip was aghast. “It does not say that.”
“It certainly does, cadet. For your homework this evening you will read the Academy Mark IV Automated Lifeboat manual from front to back. There will be a quiz before lights out. For questioning a superior officer, you are fined two demerits for a total of six.”
“Stop giving me demerits,” he commanded.
“For disrespect, you are awarded four demerits for a total of ten.”
“I can count,” he nearly shouted. “Listen, computer...”
“Alright, Captain Computer. The Murgatroyd is gone. She blew up. For all I know everyone else is dead.”
“You are correct in your assumption, cadet Corrigan. All crew members of the Academy Training Ship Murgatroyd except one perished when the vessel contacted an unmapped singularity. You were spared because you were performing disciplinary maintenance on Life Raft U88167. While engaged in routine dusting you accidentally pressed the eject/release button moments before impact with the singularity. The raft was ejected into space and thus narrowly escaped destruction.
‘However, ejecting a life raft without a direct order from an Officer is an offense punishable by general courts-martial. I have noted the infraction in your record. I strongly encourage you to do your best not to collect any more demerits, as these will certainly make your judicial situation worse upon return to port.”
He blinked. “Yeah. Okay. I guess. Did you turn on the emergency beacon?”
“I’m not an idiot. Of course I did.”
“Distance to nearest habitable planetary mass?”
“428 light years.”
“Excellent. I’m presuming we have enough fuel to adjust course and heading.”
“Great. Given our current speed and heading, when will we arrive?”
“4,625 years, 4 months, 2 days and 16 hours.”
“That’s not so great. When will we reach the space lanes?”
“Fine. No need to try and soften the blow. Are there any ships within hailing distance?”
“Did any ships receive Murgatroyd’s distress signal.”
“Murgatroyd did not transmit a distress signal.”
“How long before the Academy misses us and sends out search parties?”
“But probably soon, right?”
“I said unknown, cadet.”
“No need to get snarky, Captain. What are the chances we’ll run across another ship out here?”
“One-billion, nine-thousand, one-hundred and ninety-nine to one.”
“Wow. That’s bad.”
“Actually, given the size of the galaxy and the relatively small number of Earthly vessels traveling between star systems, and factoring in the vast amounts of time required to reach distant points, this is a very upbeat assessment.”
He rubbed his chin. “So I guess the best course of action is to hunker down and wait for the Academy to come looking for us. I’ll get started inventorying supplies.”
“That sounds like a reasonable course of action, though I already have a complete inventory of survival supplies and equipment. Would you prefer to do that or would you like to examine the ship de-cloaking off our bow?”
“De-cloaking? You’re a little wonky. We did get rocked pretty good when the Murgatroyd exploded. You sure you don’t have shrapnel in your brain or whatever?”
“I don’t have a brain.”
“Did you say ship?”
“You’re a little slow. Yes. I said ‘ship’.”
He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Well, looks like we won the lottery after all. Cheeseburgers and beer, here I come. Go ahead and show it to me.”
The little pod’s windows weren’t windows in the traditional sense. One could not see through them. They were naturally opaque so as to filter out solar radiation. As he watched, a real-time streaming image began to coalesce on the panels. It was a panoramic view captured by the pod’s cameras and projected very cleverly onto the faux windows in blazing 3D. He could almost reach out and touch the stars. But that was all he saw, stars.
He harrumphed. “Nothing there, Captain. You are wonky. Start a self-diagnostic routine and shut that off. Let’s not waste the batteries.”
“My, my, cadet. We’re getting a little big for our britches, aren’t we? Who’s the Captain of the SS Flower?”
“SS Flower? What kind of name is that? Do life rafts even have names? You can’t just go around naming stuff.”
“You can’t shush me.”
“Cadet, something’s happening.”
He glanced at the windows and saw a strange shimmering. The stars were vanishing in batches. The constellations were gradually replaced by darkness, an inky hue so formidable it made the color black look like a pale, blushing cousin.
“What is that?” he asked wonderingly.
“This is why I’m snarky, cadet. Try to follow the conversation. It’s a ship de-cloaking.”
“Whoa. It’s pretty big. That thing’s huge. What do you mean de-cloaking? That’s like science fictiony stuff.”
“It’s not like anything. The vessel appears to belong to an advanced race with a superior technology that includes cloaking devices. These aliens appear to be very, very large. I mean big. I mean stupendously huge. I mean colossal, enormous...”
He held up a hand. “You mean ‘gynormous’.”
“That is not a word. But something like that. Yes. The ship appears to encompass the square area of several planets. If it is constructed in a manner familiar to us, each deck would be the equivalent of an entire world.”
“Wow. A world-ship. That’s cool.”
“Did you just name that ship?”
He shrugged. “It’s better than Flower. What should I call it, the HMS Pansy?”
“You should stop naming things. I’m the Captain. But I’ll agree with you this once. Pansy is a nice name. That’s what we’ll call it.”
“No, we won’t.”
The life raft’s engines began to hum and whine.
“I told you...”
“We’re being drawn in. The engines aren’t strong enough to maintain current course and heading. I’m going to shut them down.”
“No!” he cried. “Reroute emergency power to the engines.”
“Oh, knock it off,” the computer barked. “You’ve been watching Star Trek again, haven’t you?”
He shrugged. “Well, it always works for Captain Kirk.”
“Captain Kirk is a fictional character, and the Star Trek universe is, if possible, even more fictional. Nothing about that show agreed with traditional physics or engineering principles. There is no emergency power, and if there was, there would be no way to reroute it. This is a life raft. By its very nature it is an emergency craft, a shelter of last resort, and all the power is utilized in a continuing effort to sustain you.”
“Well then, what do we do now? What if these giants are man-eaters?”
Copyright © 2013 by Richard A. Conine