Flash Fiction: Failure

Chuck Wendig has the flu rampaging through his household (get better, y’all!) but has left us this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge. Not surprisingly, it’s a request for “1,000 words or so” in the form of a “sub-genre smash-and-grab.” I rolled a 14 and a 2 which gives me the format “Technothriller Space Opera”. I can do that! I even did it in only 1,010 words, which is pretty good for me. In addition, as something of a proof of concept exercise, the story was 99% written on an iPad while out in the front yard setting up telescopes and handing out candy on Halloween. Whoo hoo, multitasking!

As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.

FAILURE

As the final circuit closed to activate the final relay in the final memory bank of the Planetary Defense System, everyone in the room unconsciously held their breath. There were no banks of blinking lights, spinning mag tape reels, or consoles showering sparks everywhere, just a sea of dark computer monitors slowly coming to life and displaying status readouts.

Everyone was relieved to see that all of the monitors were showing “green” as they activated. They were safe. At least, for now.

From their vantage point in the VIP box high above the operations center, the president and his staff could see the first monitors lighting up just below them, followed a few seconds later by a second group nearby. All of the other screens remained blank. Confused, the president turned to the chief engineer.

“Why aren’t they all turning on? What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing is wrong, Mr. President. When the system was initialized, the hyperthreaded activation codes and atomic clock synchronization signals were sent out to the surveillance stations all over the solar system. As each system starts reporting back, we’ll start seeing data displayed from that area.”

“I still don’t understand why those monitors are on and the others aren’t.”

“Sir, the first large group of systems there is data from systems in Earth orbit. We started receiving their data almost immediately, of course. That second group to come on was from the outposts on Luna. We’re limited by the speed of light, so it will take some time for the round trip signals to get back from the other stations.”

The vice-president, a technowonk from California before he became a politician, leaped into the conversation in an attempt to help clarify the procedures.

“Mr. President, you can see several large digital clock displays in various sections of the command center. Those clocks are counting down to the various EAOS times.”

“EAOS?” the president asked, knowing that the VP was just speaking in technobabble to show off.

“‘Estimated Acquisition Of Signal’, sir,” the chief engineer quickly replied, wanting to head off an argument. “You can see those two sections on the left controlling the systems at Mercury and Venus. They should be turning on in just a couple of minutes. We will data from Mars in about forty minutes, then Jupiter in another hour after that. We won’t start receiving data from Pluto until tomorrow afternoon.”

Mollified, the president settled in to watch silently. As the EAOS clocks counted down, groups of monitors activated with data from the L4 and L5 points, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Ceres, Vesta, and Jupiter. Always the screens glowed green and each time the president breathed a little easier.

As the data began flowing in from Saturn nearly four hours after system activation, the president rose and prepared to leave. He began to thank all of the system officials in attendance. As he walked past a gargantuan bank of high-resolution displays summarizing all of the detailed data from the command floor, he noticed one tiny square blinking bright red.

“What’s that?” he demanded.

“Nothing important, sir, it’s just an internal system diagnostic routine of some sort. Everything’s green, so that’s no doubt some kind of a faulty system data compilation sanity verification algorithm that needs to be recompiled. We’ll track it down.”

The vice-president reached over and tapped the crimson icon, bringing up a full display. “Nothing’s ever ‘not important’, especially when the fate of every man, woman, and child is at stake!” The display now showed “ERROR 337788” in bright yellow letters on a red background.

“What is that error code?” the president shouted.

The chief engineer quickly grabbed a binder from the shelf and flipped to the appropriate page. He read quickly before looking up, confused. “It says that as a double check to verify acquisition of accurate data, a small subroutine was inserted into the calculations for the EAOS times to deliberately make them inaccurate by a tiny fraction of a percent. But since all of the data has been received exactly ‘on time’, it….” He looked horrified, the realization of the truth cascading over him.

“It means the data being displayed is fake!” the vice-president shouted. “Do you have a backup system to reroute the optical data relay trunks to a secondary auxiliary subsystem and bypass the data formatting protocols into the mainframe?”

“Of course,” the chief engineer said, “but that’s not…”

“Do it!” the president ordered, cutting him off in mid-thought.

The chief engineer picked up a red phone and quickly barked an order. “Execute the Trojan Horse protocol! This is not a drill, I repeat, this is not a drill!”

Within seconds, all of the active monitors began to flash red and yellow, sirens and claxons ringing from every corner of the complex.

Mr. President, we’ve failed,” the chief engineer said. “The Klupthbiq must have known what we were doing all along. Their spies had the system infiltrated from the beginning. Their fleet is already inside Luna’s orbit and we’ve lost control of our defense systems. We’re doomed!”

The President was calm as he turned to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “You were right, General. They were more devious that we could have imagined. Can we still activate the Armageddon Device?”

“Yes, sir. That’s why we insisted on keeping it isolated from the Planetary Defense System.”

“Do you see any other options, General?”

“No, sir. They’ll be here in minutes. All we can do is take them with us.”

“But, sir,” the chief engineer pleaded, “there has to be an alternative! Isn’t there some way to surrender and plead for mercy?”

“You fool! Don’t you remember what happened to our science outpost on Europa? The Klupthbiq don’t take prisoners, but they do find us…tasty. General, set off the Armageddon Device while there’s still time!”

On the Klupthbiq homeworld, the FTL muonspace communications with the fleet were lost immediately. It was only ten years later, when the light of the supernova in the Sol system reached them, that they knew the dreadful fate that had befallen them.

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