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Short Story Black Box Blues

Black Box Blues by Doug Bittinger Sci-Fi short story

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Just as we emerged from the gateway two indicators came to life on our car’s console. The green light indicated that this cluster’s nav data had been picked up and stored in memory. The red one, that a piece of the car’s micronics had fizzled out of existence.

Something profane immediately came to mind, but since the kids were on board, I kept the thought to myself.

“Something wrong, dear” Rhiannah, my wife, sat in the front seat opposite mine.

“I’m checking it out”

I typed a command on the keyboard and the computer ran a diagnostic check on all the car’s circuits. A moment later the results of the check-up scrolled down the console’s video screen. It displayed the part number of the defective module, what circuit it was in and on what board that circuit would be found. It also displayed a disheartening message:

THIS IS AN ESSENTIAL CIRCUIT IMMEDIATE REPAIR IS MANDATORY.

This time the profanity slipped out.

“Tighe, mind your words” Rhiannah admonished, ”What’s the trouble. Is it serious”

“Yes. A major component in the propulsion system fried itself” I keyed in a query. The computer checked and replied. “The computer can patch it with a bypass, but that won’t take the strain for long. We’ve got to get to a service station quickly”

“Are there any in this cluster”

I was already busy with the keyboard. “I’m checking on that now” The car’s computer went through the navigation data that had been beamed to us by the nav buoy posted just inside the gateway. No service stations were known to exist in this cluster.

Another inquiry. Only one planet, Vagan 4, held any technology and it was primitive. “Looks like we’re going to have to fix it ourselves”

“Can you do it”

If we had been using my vehicle, an older model, there wouldn’t have been any problem. I’ve kept it running by myself for years. Its simple, straightforward design is easy to understand and repair. If a few inexpensive spare parts are kept on board, I have what I need to patch up nearly any problem that could occur. These new ones; crammed full of high tech conveniences and gadgets, are being made with their components grouped, micro-miniaturized and encapsulated in blocks of hard black phenolic. You repair them by unplugging a burned out module and replacing it with a new one. Simple but very expensive.

I much prefer the older cars. Not only are they less complex, they are far sturdier. The new cars are so much smaller and lighter, that they just don’t hold up well. I know that they are made this way to cut down on manufacturing costs and keep the end prices affordable. But to sacrifice safety for the sake of gadgetry seems silly to me.

When Rhiannah decided to buy a new one, I urged her to look at a late model used car instead. She wouldn’t listen. The prospect of arriving at work in a sleek new starcar, making all her friends envious, had caught her in its web. When her emotions take control, reason takes a hike.

“I don’t know. We’ll have to set down somewhere and check it out”

“How could this happen,” she wailed, “this car is only three months old”

I couldn’t resist needling her. “I told you when you bought this thing; just because it’s brand new doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We should have taken my truck for this trip, at least it has all the bugs worked out of it”

“I don’t like the truck” She snipped, “It’s ugly and uncomfortable”

“True, it is something of an eyesore, but it is also dependable. And on the rare occasion that something breaks down, I can patch it up myself with the tools and spare parts I keep aboard”

“This car has tools and parts” She pouted. “In fact, there are trays and trays of parts back there, more than what you carry”

I didn’t see any point in arguing with her. She didn’t understand what went into a car’s systems, or the lack of interchange ability being built into the new ones. I think the manufacturers do it to keep their repair shops in business. “Besides,” she went on, “if we had stuck to the regular routes instead of taking this short cut of yours, we could just get it replaced and be on our way again. It’s under warranty, it wouldn’t even cost us anything”

“This short cut will take nine hours off the trip”

“Not if we get stuck here”

She had me there. I conceded the argument and returned grumpily to my keyboard. The computer plotted Vagan 4’s current position and calculated the shortest safe route to intercept it. I was glad it wasn’t the computer that had gone out. Normally we would have skirted around the clusters planets, moons, asteroids and what have you to get to the next gateway. Hopping from cluster to cluster this way is no big problem even with only one logic unit active, but going inside a cluster is tricky; not something to be done without two fully functioning computers constantly checking each others data. A deep space collision can ruin your day.

“Couldn’t we just wait here and ask the next car through to send back some help”

“This cluster isn’t used much. It might be a long time before another car comes through and we don’t have the stores to last that long”

I was about to mention that my truck, with its large cargo area for extra supplies, would have allowed us to do this, but the smug look in her eyes made me think better of it. I really didn’t want to debate my route planning skills again.

I kept the strain on the patched up circuitry down by loping along at half our normal cruising speed. It was a long ride. Vagan 4 finally loomed up before us; a bright sapphire masked behind white whorls of cloud. I punched up the nav-aid data on this little planet and its inhabitants. It wasn’t encouraging.

Several paragraphs on the composition of its soil and atmosphere, another couple on the animal forms but only two sentences on the intelligent life: “THOUGH POSSESSING A BASIC LEVEL OF TECHNOLOGY, THEY ARE VERY AGGRESSIVE AND SHOULD BE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS. CONTACT IS NOT RECOMMENDED” That was all it said. No port of entry, no recommended landing area, no cultural data, nothing. If we had had any other option, I would have taken it. A travel log entry like that is just too scary. But this was the only planet with life at all, let alone technology. If we ended up needing parts, this was the only place we could hope to find them.

I picked a large land mass, reduced speed and headed in. Deciding to avoid the areas of highest population, I set down in a small wooded area adjacent to some sort of agricultural plot. The day was just ending in this part of the world, the clusters single star just dipping below the horizon.

“Papa, are we there” Lothahn, my son, rubbed his eyes sleepily. His sister still snoozed in the seat across from him.

“No, son. We’re just stopping to fix the engine. You go back to sleep”

Rhiannah slipped out of her seat and followed me down the narrow aisle to the rear compartment. We didn’t bother with survival kits because the data file did say that the air was safe to breath. A bit thin, but safe.

I activated the hatch in the rear of the car. With a hiss the cover split in two unequal parts. The longer, top part cantilevered up out of the way as the lower section swung down to form a step. As quietly as possible, I removed the tool tray from its niche and stepped out into the alien dusk.

No amount of travel ever really prepares you for the sight of a totally new place. Unlike the trees of our home, these were squat, rough textured things. Instead of the high plumage and slender stalks that we were used to, the stalks of these split into several sections low to the ground and grew off in all directions. Each stem split again and again as it went higher up the tree. Small oval shaped foliage sprouted from the ends of the smallest stems. The stars twinkled brightly above as a huge moon peeked through the trees. Its light was sufficient to locate the correct body panel and remove it.

Once opened, the compartment’s interior light came on. I searched through the board ID tags. Finding the one I needed, I gently unplugged it and slid it out of its rack. Laying it on the narrow floor of the compartment, we read the tiny yellow numbers on hundreds of solid black modules, looking for A7-21ctq.

“There it is” Rhiannah put her finger on one small plastic block. I checked the number; that was it.

“Keep your finger there, while I get the extractor” The tool hummed softly as its tiny jaws snaked under the module, located the mounting pins and extracted them from the circuit board.

“It doesn’t look burned up” observed Rhiannah.

“All we can see is the plastic that the parts are encased in. Each module is a tiny circuit board molded into a solid block of hard plastic. Even if we could get it open, the components are so tiny that we would need a magnifier scope to work on them, so we couldn’t repair it anyway”

“Then how do we fix it”

“Check our parts trays and hope the builders gave us a spare” We went back inside and looked through the trays of spare modules.

“Here are the A7-21’s” I said, running my finger down a row in the ’A’ tray, “We’re getting close” I looked for the one with the ’ctq’ suffix. It wasn’t there. I looked again. It still wasn’t there. I asked Rhiannah to look. She didn’t see it either.

“Now what” she asked.

I leaned against a locker door, staring at the floor and thought about it a moment. “I suppose we’ll have to jerry-rig one”

“You said that the parts were so small that you couldn’t do that”

“I said I couldn’t repair this one, but I can try to build a replacement. A few standard parts, long leads and a plug that would fit the socket on the board ought to do it”

“But where will the parts go? The boards are so close to one another, there isn’t room for anything extra”

“The long leads will reach across and the new board will just hang out in the bay after the big board is plugged back in”

“Yeah, and if you mess it up, you could ruin my new car”

“Maybe”

She thought about it for a minute, then added, “We got this far with it like it is, couldn’t we just go on through the next gate? There’s bound to be a proper service station there”

“Making the jump would burn out the by pass and leave us without any power at all in this engine. To get safely through the worm hole, you have to keep a perfectly straight course, even the computer can’t steer properly with only one engine”

She scrunched up her face, weighing the facts. “Where are you going to get the parts you need”

“I should be able to pull them out of the tools that won’t be needed to build the new board”

“OK,” she sighed, “do what you have to. Just don’t hurt my car”

“First I have to find out what’s inside this thing” I held the black cube up to the silvery moonlight”

We went back inside and sealed the hatch. That thin air was making us dizzy. I dug out the car’s repair manual cartridge and plugged it into the computer’s reader slot. The moon had passed high above us and was dipping low on the other side before I had the knowledge and most of the parts I needed. After trying everything I could think of, one crucial component still eluded me. I was left with my last resort.

Even a low tech society like this one ought to use some basic parts like the one I needed, all I had to do was find one. With the right materials I could build it, if I had to. Rhiannah wouldn’t have liked the idea at all, but she was asleep as were the kids. I figured I’d be back before they woke, so she’d never have to know. I took the tools that still worked and headed for the dwelling I’d seen when we came down. As I neared the structures a small four footed beast charged at me.

It was obviously a carnivore, its sharp fangs bared in a menacing manner. Its thoughts carried no words, only instinct. I thought-spoke to it lightly, trying to calm it. The creature’s mood changed suddenly from defense to fear and it ran away. I could feel it watching me, but never saw it again.

There were several structures grouped together. All were made of plant matter fastened together with small pins of ferrous metal. Most of these sheltered a variety of machinery. I poked around, but found nothing that I could use. The other seemed to be the native’s home. I crept up and peeked through several windows before spotting what I was looking for. In this room were several pieces of furniture, also made of plant matter covered with synthetic padding and fabric, a variety of trinkets, and some communications equipment. That’s what I was looking for.

I examined the nearest hatchway. A panel hung on a pair of plain hinges and held closed by a simple latch. Rotating the handle opened the latch. I sensed several beings on the upper level of the dwelling. They were thought-speaking but their speech was disjointed and random. Apparently they were in a state of repose. I decided not to rouse them and went directly to the largest communicator in the room; some sort of video receiver. Its casing was held closed by simple mechanical fasteners which yielded easily. Inside I found the most bewildering array of junk you could ever hope to see. None of it made sense. Some of the components looked slightly familiar, but were monstrous in size. I had just set about the task of tracing out the circuitry of this thing, hoping to find a part that would do what I needed, when the cacophony from above me changed.

One of the speech streams became ordered and intelligible. It desired refreshment and was going to an adjacent room to get it. I wondered what it would be like to live in a world where every one announced their every whim as loudly as possible. It was clear that I was not going to get the part I needed easily. These were crude at best. Perhaps this being would be able to explain what some of the parts do, speeding my task considerably. Of course it may not want to give away any of the components of its communicator, even for a worthy cause. Dare I risk it? Yes. If I was going to figure out this tangled mess in time, I would need help.

I reached out and spoke softly to the being as it drank a vial of liquid it had drawn from a tap. “Hello, excuse me..” Its reasonably ordered speech-stream raged into confusion tinged with fear. Not what I intended. I tried again and got more of the same. I gave up. The being, however, seemed to feel threatened. It decided to have a look around and announced its intention of going to the lower level. I decided to wait outside. It descended the steps carrying a weapon of some sort. I think it was intended to hurl a projectile through a hollow tube. Just how it worked I wasn’t sure.

The creature itself was not too different from my own race; upright bipedal, with a pair of limbs mounted on the upper torso, and a head above that. It had two eyes, but they were quite small and set beneath a heavy ridge of bone. Its nostrils were cowled and there was a small, fleshy flap on either side of its head. The purpose of these was not clear, probably some sort of sensory organs. Most of its body was covered with a thin fabric. That which was exposed displayed a sparse covering of hair, particularly its head. Its mouth was large with a fleshy protruding rim. Jagged teeth showed that this being also was a carnivore. Most carnivores are dangerous. It noticed the partly disassembled communicator and its speech became confused again. Then it saw me watching through the hatchway. Its eyes opened wide and its mouth dropped open.

Afraid that the thing was about to attack, I stepped out of the way and prepared to run if needed. But instead of charging, as I expected, it turned and tried to flee back up the steps it had descended earlier, screaming of fear and monsters. It tripped. The clumsy thing fell and bashed its head. Though it lay quite still, it continued to speak, though much less frantically now. I watched from a safe distance for a while. Then spoke to it again, very softly.

These creatures were so unstable it was absurd. Slowly I got it to talk to me. I explained that my family and I were stranded here due to a failed part in our vehicle. I needed some things from his communicator. I need his help in finding the proper ones. He responded by saying, “Jack knows about that stuff. Not me. I’m just a farmer”

“And who is Jack”
“My son”
“Where would I find your son now”
“Asleep. In his room”
“Which one is his room”
“At the end of the hall”

I thanked him for his help and left him to rest, although I’ll never understand how they can get any rest when they are constantly babbling like that. I relieved the being on the stairs of his weapon, just to be safe, and went up the stairs to find Jack’s room.

They seemed to be easier to talk to when they were asleep, so I didn’t wake him. I spoke to him and he responded well.

We had a long discussion about what he calls electronics. His terms were different, but the basics were the same. Through this I was able to learn what components I needed to finish my replacement module. He told me to take what I needed, they were common parts that he could replace easily. I thanked him and promised to repay his kindness.

After removing the parts, I closed up the communicator, left a ten credit stone to cover the cost of replacement parts and hurried back to the car.

A new day was just about to break, the sky turning from black to grey. I worked quickly and had it done in no time. I woke Rhiannah and asked her to stow the tools while I mounted the repaired circuit board. We ought to leave before it was fully light. When I returned, the kids were awake and munching on some snacks Rhiannah had packed for the trip.

“Are we going to leave now, daddy” my daughter asked, eyeing the wonders outside her window.

“Yes, sweetie,” I responded as I slid into my seat. “We’re going to leave now, and we’ll be at Grandma’s in no time” The children cheered as I flipped on the power. Hesitantly I asked the computer for a diagnostic check. Those seconds seemed like hours, then it displayed:
“ALL SYSTEMS OPERATING NORMALLY”

What a relief! I made a mental note to buy a special gift for Jack while we were on Primus 3, and wondered how I was going to explain having to stop here on the way home to Rhiannah. Oh well, I’d worry about that when I got to it.

As we rose through the trees we could see long whisps of cloud, turned pink and red by the rising star.
“What beautiful colors,” observed Rhiannah. I agreed as the children oohed and aahed.

“Daddy,” inquired my daughter, “Do you suppose we could come here again? Maybe for our next vacation. This is such a pretty world, I’d love to see more”

“We’ll see, honey” The ground dropped away below us in a shrinking patchwork of green, yellow and brown. We passed through a group of clouds and watched them recede, billowing and soft. Soon the whole planet was a bright blue-green jewel set against the silver specked blackness of space.

“It certainly is a pretty little world. A shame it’s so unfriendly, it would make a great vacation spot.”

The End.

To see more of Doug Bittinger's work, click the link to his website or scroll down to the bottom of the page to view his member details Visit Doug Bittinger Website.

Images used for the story are
Pixabay Space Ship.

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