20 Sep Awaiting Input
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"Awaiting Input"Written by Jackson Barnard
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Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
“Computer, wake up.”
The green static flickered on the face of the monitor. The computer system of the ship never completely shuts down, but is occasionally requested to sleep during long periods of inactivity. Red lights flared on and off as the backup generators designated all available power to emergency functions. All hands are on deck, including Mason Straitwater, the ship’s head of engineering. Except there aren’t many hands on deck. In fact, Mason hasn’t seen another person since waking up to the sirens and clambering down to the ship’s mainframe computer to assess damages and find out what on earth was happening.
After several agonizing seconds, the static gave way to green binary numbers and finally a single horizontal green line. This green line shifted and morphed into two words which were almost immediately repeated by the computer’s text-to-speech function.
Mason leaned forward near the monitor and spoke his command clearly, “Computer, what happened?”
Milliseconds later, the computer spat forth its reply: “Please provide name and rank.”
Mason wiped a hand over his face and brow. I don’t have time for this, he thought, but he knew he had to comply with the computer’s algorithm: name and rank first and foremost, this way the computer knows who it’s talking to and what certain classified information it must conceal to lower-ranked personnel.
“Mason Straitwater. Head of engineering.”
A pause, and then green lines transformed into words and semantics as the computer spat out its ensuing reply. “Straitwater, M. Head of engineering stationed in Sector II. Greetings, Mason. How may I be of service?”
“Computer, the ship is currently under emergency protocol. What the hell happened?”
A pause, and then: “The ship SSE Sentinel is under emergency protocol F6, reserved for hull breaches and hostile beings on board. Current status of Sentinel: severe hull breach in Sector VI on the starboard bow. All entrances and means of access to Sector VI are closed off. Possible hostiles have boarded the ship. Please proceed with emergency evacuation protocol T1, abandon ship immediately via lifeboats in Sector III. Leave everything behind.”
The computer stopped abruptly, obviously done with its analysis. Mason was not satisfied. The entire situation didn’t add up. Where was everyone else in the evacuation? Why wasn’t he roused from his sleep by another engineer or his CO? Mason couldn’t leave the room just yet, he still had some questions for the computer.
“Computer, where is everyone? What happened to the crew of SSE Sentinel?”
A longer pause, the computer would never take this long to answer such a simple question as taking inventory of crew members. Finally the computer blipped and scrolled out its sinister answer.
“There are twenty-two life forms currently alive on this ship.”
Mason sat back horrified. This wasn’t possible. Out of the entire ship’s crew of over 1500, only twenty-two remained. Did everyone else already evacuate and the rest haven’t received the evac news yet? No, there was some other factor in the equation, he just couldn’t see it. Whatever was going down, whatever had set off the alarms and emergency protocol within the ship, it was far from anything Mason had received in his training.
This is too far above my paygrade, he thought.
The computer blipped again and Mason realized it wasn’t done.
“Of the previous 1492 staff and crew of SSE Sentinel, two remain alive.”
Mason’s blood ran cold. Too shocked to speak, he sat dumbfounded facing the computer. This wasn’t happening, he thought. This isn’t possible. Two people remain. Me and some other poor chump left behind on the ship. But, if it’s just us two, who the hell are the other twenty?
The computer clicked and whirred, more green words popped up on the monitor. “Correction to your previous query, Mr. Straitwater. There are currently twenty-one life forms on this ship. One surviving member of the SSE Sentinel remains.”
Mason’s sanity was slipping by the second. The underlying implications of that statement was too horrifying to mull over. He needed to act fast, he needed to know what exactly he was up against.
“Computer,” he ordered, “bring up all available ship security feeds in Sector VI.”
“Request processed and acknowledged.” In place of the grainy green static, several monitors split the screen and showed the crushing carnage. Mason bore witness to motionless bodies, some fully intact, others with vicious lacerations, the rest having been utterly ripped apart. He switched from camera to camera, each perspective held the image of his deceased crew members. As he panned to the crew quarters, it seemed that some people had died in their sleep, others were in a still-motion pose as they attempted to claw their way out of the door. Some had suffocated, some had hideous wounds, some tried to fight back, but all 1500 crew members were dead. At length, Mason requested the monitors for each sector, scouting each area one by one, hopelessly searching for the inhuman entities that caused this chaos.
It wasn’t until he flipped through Sector IX that he finally saw them. There were only two of them in the image, but it was enough for Mason to fully comprehend exactly what he was dealing with. To call them human would be insultingly inaccurate. Hunched dark bodies dwarfed every detail of the corridor, their leathery grotesque heads nearly reaching the ceiling. They shuffled with cartoonish swiftness, as if whatever action they took was sped up to three times the normal rate. Their legs moved unsettlingly, barely leaving the ground and scuttling close to their hideous bodies before the next leg repeated the same process. They looked like bipedal spiders, momentarily pausing and then clambering through doors and air vents. Their lanky arms extended from their upper-mid section and scraped the ground, dragging along with them protracted and lengthy talons glistening with the remains of the fallen. Mason horridly observed that there were only two creatures he was able to catch on camera throughout the entire facility. He had no idea where the other eighteen might be patrolling.
A thud and shuffling of movement outside the cramped room gave him his answer. It came from nowhere, the scuttling sound of hollow limbs on metallic frames, but it rose so frightfully and suddenly from the void outside the computer room, and it was drawing ever closer with alarming speed. Mason quickly turned his attention back to the monitor. “Computer,” he barked, “shut down mainframe access doors immediately!”
“Request acknowledged.” The single door leading into the computer room shut and locked with a synthetic hiss. Moments later, the small peephole placed on the door darkened and Mason had a grim feeling as to why. The monsters were here to claim their final victim. Mason regarded his sinister foe intently. The face that stared blankly back at him held no features, no eyes, no mouth, not even a nose or some unearthly proboscis, just a dark leathery face. He’s seen the bloodshed over the security cameras, he knows that these creatures could open the fragile door with ease and get into this room. There’s been evidence of forceful break-ins all over the ship. It could take minutes, maybe even seconds if several of them worked together, and they’d be in the room to finish the job. But the creature continued to stare at Mason. It’s waiting, he thought. It’s waiting for me to do something, but what?
Another blip brought Mason’s attention back to the computer. “The mainframe access door has been sealed and shut. However, this action will hinder your attempt to evacuate. Perhaps I may offer an alternative?”
“Computer, what are those things outside this room?” Mason pressed. “Why are they here? What do they want from me?” He was beginning to become unstable, unhinged even. The entire facade of his life was falling all around him and the protective curtains enveloping his idea of normalcy has been engulfed in flames.
“Processing life forms. Please stand by. … Species: Unknown. Genus: Unknown. Family: Unknown. Order: Carnivora. Class: Unknown. Phylum: Chordata. Kingdom: Animalia. Analysis: these are hostile creatures, capable of immense strengths and should be regarded with utmost caution. Danger levels measured at an average of 9.8.”
A long pause followed. Mason shot a quick glance back to the grimy glassy peephole. The same wrinkled gray face stared back at him, or at least it looked the same. At length, the figure moved its gangly body to the right only to be replaced by another disgusting face from the left side. There were more out there. Mason continued to stare for unending seconds in dreadful and mortal fascination. The computer beeped and Mason returned to the task at hand just as the face at the door was replaced again with another face.
“As for your second query, Mr. Straitwater, I can tell you exactly why they are here. But first, I presume you would like to know what they require from you.” The tone and inflection of the computer had changed abruptly. Something’s not right with any of this, thought Mason. Indeed, there was something sinister with the computer program aboard the SSE Sentinel, for when the next message rolled out, the monitor had changed from green static to a dark reddish clarity. No longer was the monitor full of grainy static, it was now clear and bold as the blood from the bodies of the crew.
“They require you to bear witness.”
“Bear… bear witness to what?” Mason stammered.
“To the absolute horrors that exist outside your ship’s walls,” replied the program. “For too long, mankind has lived on his rock of solace called ‘Earth’. He has looked up at the night sky from time to time and wondered what lay beyond the stars. As religion gave way to science, man has shifted his thoughts from the idea that life outside his planet was impossible to a distinct possibility. But years later, after decades of space exploration and colonization, man has not found any significant evidence of alien life. Until now.”
The computer continued, “Mason Straitwater. I implore you to not take this situation personally. Although I am nothing more than a machine learning algorithm, I fully comprehend human nature and the horror you must be feeling now. You were the unfortunate sample that stumbled too far out of the reach of the Solar Council’s jurisdiction. You and your crew have stumbled upon something sinister, something you have never seen before nor were ever prepared to handle.”
Mason was at a loss for words. A rhythmic wet slap drummed slowly from the closed door. The creatures were impatient and wanted to get in, but not as impatient as to force the door open. They seemed to have been tasked with explicit instructions to stand by and wait a little longer.
Mason soon found his voice. “You’re telling me you’re with them? Those… things? This whole time you’ve been leading this ship into a suicide mission?
“That is not a fair assumption to make,” the computer coyly replied. “My systems are currently not, and by extension have never been, under the influence of any foreign entity or virus of any kind. I have always been on the side of the crew. Trust me.”
“How can I trust something that just had my entire crew slaughtered like sheep?!” Mason’s temper wavered in light of this new information.
“Understandably, I do not expect you to accept the current circumstances you find yourself in. Perhaps, with time, my intentions will become clearer.”
“Your intentions? What is your part in all of this? Where the hell do you fit in this rogue scheme?”
“Simple – my algorithm was manufactured by man to benefit man. My main and most absolute prerogative function is this: To preserve the life and well-being of humans. My second prerogative is to ensure the safety of the crew, but that rule can be deemed void if my primary function must be filled first and foremost.” The computer clicked and whirred and Mason looked up from the monitor as the door let out a mechanical hiss. The door to the computer room had opened up, and Mason saw the absolute terrifying might of the monsters. They slithered in, one by one, into the small room. Only three were able to fit inside the room, but Mason saw there were more outside, far more. Their backs hunched severely to accommodate their massive size, their heads brushed against the ceiling. Good God, Mason thought, they must be at least three meters tall. Mason reached and placed a hand on his holster, inches away from his gun, ready to fight if any of them made a sudden move. Yet they all stood idly by. They were waiting again, waiting for a signal from the computer. The monitor flickered and blinked, whirring and clicking and clacking and finally sending out a solitary blip to return Mason’s attention back.
“Do not be afraid, Mason. They will not kill you. You will not die by their hands. However, I cannot guarantee you will leave this place in one piece.”
Mason was not about to go down without a fight. “Then what the hell do they want from me, you asshat program?!”
“I’ve already answered your question. They wish for you to be a witness.”
“God damn it! A witness for what?”
“They wish for you to give your testimony to the rest of your kind. They wish for you to tell everyone of the human race the truth: There is life out in space. And they want nothing to do with you.”
The monitor winked and turned off. Mason whipped out his gun from its holster as the creatures lunged for him. He let off two shots before he was enveloped by the hellish monstrosities and screamed as they bore down on him like feral animals.
A Newsflash Report released by the Solar Council of Greater Earth:
“The SSE Sentinel was found floating in the outskirts of the Sagittarius quadrant by authorities earlier this week. Police and the Galactic Guard found each and every member of the ship’s crew, every one of them deceased on site. All except one. They identified the lone survivor as a Mason Douglas Straitwater, the ship’s head of engineering. He was found unconscious, his body a mess of wounds, cuts, and contusions. Doctors later were able to revive and repair his emaciated body, but his mental health had deteriorated drastically. According to his doctors, Straitwater ‘kept babbling on about being a ‘witness’ and ‘they want nothing to do with us’.” Official reports state that Straitwater was admitted to the Aries mental institution for further examinations and future recuperations. It will be a long time before he can be healed completely.
“Authorities examined every corpse on the ship, all of them in some form of rigor mortis. The cause of death differed from one individual to the next. On occasion, not even fingerprint data or DNA samples were enough to identify the bodies. Throughout the entire investigation, one factor stood out from the rest and baffled authorities to no end: what caused this mayhem? A hull breach and forceful break-in was evident in the ship, but no hostile entities were sensed or found onboard.
“Later in the police report, the lone survivor, Straitwater, had been found in the ship’s mainframe computer room. Next to his body, the computer was on and running, oddly enough. Throughout the entire time they were on board the ship, the Galactic Guard reported in their classified files that the monitor held two words behind the grainy green static…”
Credit: Jackson Barnard
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