The code worked. Once inside, Quinn’s long legs brought him to the Captain’s chair and the others spread out looking for the engineering controls or the navigation controls among the glossy black control consoles in a concave arc before the Main View Screen. Elder found the Main Computer right away and began exploring for whatever data on the ship he could find.
“I’ve found the engineering controls! But they are as dead as a priest’s soul! They have absolutely no power at all! Whatever we do must be done from the Engineering Room!” MacBeath pounded his fist on the console in frustration, his brown hair falling over his blue eyes.
“I have located the panic button that the briefing officer mentioned. Its location on the Captain’s Command Chair is obviously accentuated for ease of discovery. Are there any other worthwhile discoveries that anyone desires to impart?” Quinn’s calmness helped reduce the anxiety the others may have felt.
Jackson immediately spoke up, her low voice floating across the bridge, “Cadet Trainee Quinn, I’ve got the Sensors. It looks like all the sensors are working; at least, I think they have power. Should I run a diagnostic check? I think I can send the data already in the buffers to the Navigation console so we can know where we are going at least. Is someone on Navigation?”
“Yes Cadet Trainee Jackson, I have it.”
Jackson glanced at who spoke. “OK Cadet Trainee Clarke, here it comes.” She brushed her hair back and began working on the controls.
“Cadet Trainee Jackson, initiate your diagnostic program at the earliest opportunity you are capable of performing such activity safely. Decidedly, everyone should inaugurate diagnostic activity on whatever station they currently occupy. We should be confident that this equipment is functional before we proceed further into this examination.”
“Children, I doubt that we need the course explained to us. I can see what our course is; it is straight for this system’s sun. Please look at the main screen.” Since there were more people than consoles, Father Lester stood by the entrance to the bridge and watched the activity. Now, as he made his comment, all heads turned to look at Father Lester, and then swung to the main display screen dominating the front of the bridge, their fears black as his pointing finger.
After a moment, everyone could see that the data crawling across the bottom of the display indicated that they were flying towards the sun. The course data displayed showed their course was straight for the center of the solar disk.
“Cadet Trainees MacBeath, Irving, Sloan. Depart the bridge and proceed to Main Engineering where you will disconnect the engines. Cadet Trainee Elder, provide to them the most expeditious route to that location and whatever authorization codes that they will require.”
While those three moved to Elder’s station to get their data and then headed to Main Engineering, Quinn walked to the Navigation console and looked over Clarke’s shoulder as he worked on the navigation data.
Noticing Quinn, Clarke said, “If we don’t do something, we reach critical distance in three weeks by my first guess. After that, despite whatever we do, we could not escape from the sun’s gravity well. I recommend that we change course and head away from the sun. We’ll want our examination to last a lot longer than three weeks.” Clarke’s smile now had a slightly strained look about it.
Quinn stood there for a few moments, looking over the data showing on the glossy black console before saying, “I concur with your recommendation; however, do not make a precipitate deviation from our current course. You should introduce a course correction moderate enough so that there is a lack of sudden stress upon this ship. I possess a premonition that we should not choose to perform any actions that may qualify as extreme until such time as we are optimistic that this ship can tolerate such actions. Is the hull of this ship robust enough to withstand serious maneuvering? What additional surprises are forthcoming during this examination?”
“Aye Cadet Trainee Quinn. I will slowly angle off about thirty degrees. That should put us in orbit at a good safe distance form the sun in case something else goes wrong. If Cadet Trainee Elder can find a chart for this system in the Main Computer, I’ll correct our course so that we don’t run into any known hazard.” Still smiling, Clarke raised a blond eyebrow at Elder.
While running the library index to the Main Computer, Elder said, “Cadet Trainee Quinn, there is a program running in the computer that I think is controlling everything that is going on; it looks like a master control program for the whole ship. I can call up files, but I’m not sure I can make anything work unless this program wants it to happen. I think this program is in control of the ship.” Elder started looking for data files on the system.
“Speculating that if you terminate that program, will the engines discontinue their operation concurrently?”
Elder shifted his attention to another monitor where the computer code was flowing quickly up the screen. He watched for a couple of minutes, shifting between various sections of the code. “Probably, I can see some subroutines that have already run and it looks like they controlled the engines. But, it also looks like if I shut the program off, everything on the ship shuts down as far as I can tell and I don’t see how to get anything running again.”
“Are you able to locate any indication of any other control programs? We would then have the capacity to terminate this operating program and utilize those other control programs so that we could properly operate this ship by the use of control programs other tan the one presently operating this ship.”
Taking a moment to make sure he understood Quinn, Elder replied, “There are several thousand control programs listed in the backup storage inventory file. I’ll have to check them out to make sure that no one has tampered with them and see what we can use to run the ship. I’ve started to have some strange thoughts about this test.” Elder shifted his attention to finding the system data.
“You have stated an excellent plan of operation. In addition to what you have proposed, are you able to determine what future actions this strange control program will initiate?”
“You want me to read the rest of the program? It would be no problem if I can find a backup of it. I could read that with no problem, but I don’t think I could read the program while it’s operating, at least not easily.” Elder shifted his attention back to the computer code. “Oh, that’s the system data file. Clarke, here it comes.” After a second, Clarke thanked Elder.
“It would be preferential that you scrutinize those backup control programs that we have knowledge of in order that we may gain the capability to terminate this control program with impunity. You mentioned some doubts beginning concerning this examination, would you please expand upon your comment?”
Before Elder could reply, “Bridge, this is Cadet Trainee MacBeath. We cannot get into the Engine Room. None of the controls work, or rather, the controls work, but the blast door will not rise. Just like pulling the rope and the church bell does not ring. There must be something securing it on the inside somehow. Can you find another way for us to get in?”
“Cadet Trainee Elder, you possess access to the deck plans for this ship, do you not?”
Pulling out his personal computer, Elder said, “I’m already on it Cadet Trainee Quinn. Anyone else good with computers?” When Father Lester volunteered Elder rose from his lime green seat at the Main Computer console and moved to the now empty console next to it. “Good. Father, would you start checking the backup files? Make sure they are intact and safe to operate. I’ll start hunting down the deck plans for the Engineering section since they weren’t with the rest of the deck plans in my portable.”
“Cadet Trainees MacBeath, Irving, Sloan. It would be suitable, in order to conserve time, for you three to initiate an exploration for any emergency access portals you may discover. Cadet Trainee Elder will make contact with you when he discovers something constructive.”
“Aye Cadet Trainee Quinn, we’ll get right on it.”
Quinn walked over to the Navigation console. “Cadet Trainee Clarke, is the heading modification proceeding satisfactorily?”
“We are heading into a stable orbit well away from the sun.” Clarke pointed a finger at the display at his console showing their projected course, his smile absent for the first time since taking off his helmet back in the airlock corridor. “I expect to be in a safe orbit in about three hours. Navigation controls are working fine, this is an agile ship. So far, no strain on the hull at all.”
“That, at least, is a gratifying revelation; however, surmising what assignments that could be normally expected for this ship as a Heavy Scout, such agility is to be anticipated. Cadet Trainee Elder, have you located the files requisite to accessing the Engine Room?” Quinn walked over to where Elder was.
“Nothing yet. It is almost as if someone removed the engineering section deck plans from the files. This would match everything else that has happened on this ship so far.”
“Are you accusing that each of these occurrences is an installment of the examination? You made a similar statement earlier.”
“Probably. Maybe this is to see… Found it!” Punching the intercom, “Cadet Trainee MacBeath, this is Cadet Trainee Elder, where are you exactly?” Quinn walked back to the Navigation console
“Station 685, Deck 7.”
“Good. You are almost on top of an emergency port into the Engine Room. Go to Station 710 and punch 111# into the control panel there. A hatch will open just to your left and you can crawl through. At the other end will be another hatch. That one will have manual controls. Just pull the lever and twist the release to the left, I mean port, and push. That should get you into the Engine Room if this deck plan is correct.”
“Understood. I’ll call back once I’m inside.”
Elder turned to the priest now seated at the Main Computer console and asked, “Father, any progress on the backup files?”
“Not yet my son. These files are too complex.”
“Too complex? Transfer one to my console, uh, Life Support, and let me have a look at it.” After a short pause, “Ah yes, I think I see what you mean. This file is about twice the size it should be. Either the programmer who wrote this file did not know how to write it properly or that programmer hid something in it. Probably the later given what has happened so far.”
“I agree with you my son. I’ve looked at a couple of these files and they match in much of their programming code, a match that makes no sense unless it is a trap of some sort.”
“Bridge, this is Cadet Trainee MacBeath. I am inside the Engine Room. The main door is open and the others are on their way. I’ll usher you a bulletin about what I find as soon as I can.”
After a few minutes, Elder called out, “Cadet Trainee Quinn! They have trapped this backup program. I think it will self-destruct when it is first run. I will bet the others are the same, they share a lot of their program code. We don’t dare run the backups until I can remove the self-destruct subroutines.”
“And the main control program, have you the capability to decipher it?”
“The fastest way would be to shut down the computer and make a copy of the program. I have not seen any backup that could be the backup for this program. Have you seen anything this size Father?” Father Lester shook his head. “And, Cadet Trainee Quinn, what would yo bet would happen if we shut this program down? I would bet we fail the examination because we could not get anything running and we would have to punch the panic button. And, didn’t we have this conversation a few minutes ago?”
“I did make such an inquiry concerning the possibility of determining what was to occur from deciphering the remaining portions of that control program as you have properly remembered. You have had some opportunity to investigate the matter, so I made another inquiry. My attention was not dedicated to the tasks you were performing since I concerned myself with our course and the sensor data during this period. If you have not had an opportunity to investigate, I rescind my question as improper. I do desire to know what you are implying concerning the examination, Elder. That, at least, is a suitable inquiry without doubt.”
Elder shrugged. “So far, whoever planned this has been able to hinder anything we do. From the lockers welded to the deck, blocking the airlock corridor, to the lack of authorization codes, to the sealing of the Engine Room door they set everything up to create the most difficulty for us while giving us problems we could solve. Something hinders everything we need to do. Whoever planned this has guessed how we are going to react to the problems they gave us quite accurately, probably from long experience, after all, they have done this how many millions of times? Moreover, I have not had a chance to investigate this program, and will not be able to do much unless I find a backup for it, and AIA doubt that I will find one. Having a backup of this program would make it too easy for us.”
“And so, speculating that we believe it to be reasonable to fabricate a reproduction of this control program, there will be a discovery that performing that action will generate additional problems?”
“Yes Cadet Trainee Quinn, I think so. The obvious action for us to take to leave the airlock was along the corridor and the lockers blocked that route. The obvious route to the bridge was by way of the elevators and since we did not have the access codes, that way was blocked. The obvious way to find the access codes was to look in the database and the name change blocked that. The obvious place to deal with the engine problem is in the Engine Room and the sealed main door blocked that. Another problem blocks the obvious solution to a problem. At lease, it blocks the immediate use of the solution. Maybe we should try solutions that are not so obvious. I do not trust this control program. The program could completely shut the ship down and we could not get anything done. It should take just a few minutes to fix this program so that could not happen, but that is the obvious solution. What new problem would come up if we tried that, I could not guess. However, it could be that with the program shut off, nothing can work and we end up failing the exam. Alternatively, maybe, we fail the exam if we do not fix the program. I don’t know and we could fail the exam if I guess wrong. I do not want to try messing with it, but I will if you think I should, although I think trying to fix the program is the solution to avoid. It’s too obvious.”
“We will suspend action on the concept until we obtain mastery over this ship. The Navy cannot sustain a high level of activity for the full one hundred and seventy five day duration that the briefing officer informed me that we were to remain onboard. There has to be a respite sometime and when that respite arrives, we will resolve all the issues that need to have resolution.”
“What issues are there to settle? And, how could you expect to claim control of this ship is this program is running everything?” Elder slapped the glossy black Main Computer console as he said this, Father Lester ignored him and continued to check out the various backup programs.
“We must possess some degree of mastery over this ship, otherwise it cannot be a valid examination of our proficiency in reacting to the challenges positioned before us. The issues I believe that require settlement are: One, why are there eleven Cadet Trainees when the Navy briefing officer informed me that there were to be ten? Who is present in this group that is not supposed to be here? And two…”
“Bridge, Cadet Trainee Irving this is. A way to provide power to the Engineering console on the bridge we have found. Now it try.”
“Cadet Trainee Jackson, please investigate the engineering controls.”
“OK Cadet Trainee Quinn.” And a short while later, “The self-test reports no problems.” She brushed her hair back.
“I would not expect that the self-diagnostic would be significantly trustworthy Cadet Trainee Jackson. For the present, determine if either you or Clarke are able to reduce the thrust of the engines.” Then into the intercom system, “Cadet Trainee Irving, this is Cadet Trainee Quinn. What advancement have you made in acquiring control over the engines?”
The intercom rumbled with the reply. “Cadet Trainee Sloan here. Cadet Trainees MacBeath and Irving just went into the main control console. Cadet Trainee MacBeath thinks he found a problem in the control system. I couldn’t fit, so I stayed outside.”
“I should have anticipated that eventuality. All the programs in the Main Computer seem to have a trap laid for us in them, as far was we have been able to ascertain thus far. Cadet Trainee Elder is of the opinion, and I begin to concur,” Elder’s bushy black eyebrows went up at someone agreeing with him like that, “that any attempt to use the obvious solution to solve any problem presented with have obstacles preventing an easy use of that solution. This would appear to be another example of that philosophy on the part of the people who designed this examination.”
“Could be. Cadet Trainee MacBeath thinks that there is something physical involved with this problem, something in the hard wiring in the console itself. He began checking the equipment physically when he discovered that the acceleration compensators were messed up in a way that would have made the situation worse if he had just turned them on. He said something like it being like Anglican processions, whatever that means.”
“Cadet Trainee Quinn, thrust controls are working; but I still can’t shut off the thrust. I can speed up or slow down, but I can’t shut off.”
“Thank you Cadet Trainee Clarke. Were you able to hear that statement Cadet Trainee Sloan?”
“Yes I did. Cadet Trainee Irving just crawled out of the console. Here she is.”
“Cadet Trainee Quinn, here Cadet Trainee Irving. Thinks Cadet Trainee MacBeath that someone around the shut off controls has hard wired. Thrust control you might have, but to thrust shut off we must the engines completely shut down. And if the engines they trapped, started again we might not get them.”
“Cadet Trainee Quinn, don’t shut the engines off. An asteroid field just showed up on sensors and I’ll need the engines to steer the ship safely through.” Clarke’s tenor voice went up two octaves as he shouted.
“Very well Cadet Trainee Clarke. Cadet Trainee Irving, inform Cadet Trainee MacBeath that he is to abandon his efforts on shutting the engines off for the present. Have you discovered any indication of impending problems? Anything that you can ascertain that might generate a problem in the next two hours or so?” Cadet Trainee Quinn spoke just as calmly as if he were at home watching a holovid with his family.
“Look around we will and you let know. Might be an hour or more take it to thoroughly the Engine Room investigate. Why ask you do?”
It is a requirement that we resolve some issues that may be important prior to continuing this examination for too much longer. And we should initiate an inventory of what supplies we possess and ascertain as much as we may concerning what problems we may reasonably anticipate.”
“Understand do I. When can I, you know what we find out will I let. Out Cadet Trainee Irving.” Quinn caught a scrap of song as Irving shut off the intercom.
“Cadet Trainee Elder, your actions as of this point have been commendable. Your actions have quite probably enabled us to continue this examination with greater assurance of success than if you were not present.”
“Father Lester did as much or more than I did.”
“Father Lester has done much, I agree. However, it has been your actions and your abilities that have made the greatest difference thus far. You have shown ability; do not be ashamed of your success.”
“I’m not ashamed, I just don’t see where I did all that much.”
“Elder, I have seen where you have performed admirably and I commend you for that performance. Receive my commendation for a job well done; for you have performed the assignment meritoriously thus far.” Elder shook his head. Quinn continued, “Do not belittle your accomplishments; you have performed your tasks admirably. Now use your proven talents and determine what the computer has listed n the files concerning provisions, spare parts, et cetera. Let us commence planning instead of blindly reacting.”