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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2211212
Sci-Fi story of a deserted spacecraft. Co-winner, the Writer's Cramp 01/25/2020.
The Parrot Knows

“I’m getting a faint signal from twenty-four light years ahead, bearing 9 degreees starboard, 3 degrees vertical.”

I turned to regard my navigator. This was my first trip with a Navalese parrot as a crew member and I wasn’t sure that I trusted his judgement yet. This drive towards inter-species integration was great but that didn’t mean I should trust every alien foisted on me. Maybe this was a chance to test Doodle, my resident parrot.

“What is it? Direction indicator or message? Can you understand it? I don’t want to be delayed by a false reading.”

The parrot shrugged. “It’s a bit broken and faint, as I said. But, at a guess, I’d say it’s a distress call. It looks like the standard code for that.”

I cursed under my breath. This was bound to throw off the schedule and it was tight enough as it was.

“Okay, I guess we have no option. Set a course for its coordinates, Doodle.”

“You got it, Boss.” The parrot bent to his computer.

Two hours later, we arrived at the location. The signal had remained faint but it became clear that it was a distress call. The strange ship it led to was not of a type I’d seen before. In fact, its construction was so weird, it was definitely not of this world. Doodle looked up from the monitor.

“It’s a strange one, Boss. No sign of it in Jane’s Spacecraft Recognition Guide.”

“First contact, d’you think?” I asked.

“Looks that way.”

“Better break out the weapons then,” I said. “I’ll get the umbilical attached and meet me at the hatch when you’re ready.”

The alien ship’s entry code was a difficult one but Doodle had it solved after a brief consultation with his portaputer and the hatch opened. Inside, all was dark. I switched on my headlamp but nothing happened. Then I remembered that I’d had trouble with it when prospecting on Gannymede. My mental note to fix it when I returned to the ship had obviously joined all the other tasks that I’d get around to one day.

“You don’t have a flashlight on you by any chance,” I asked the parrot.

“Don’t need one,” he responded. “I’m a parrot and we have pretty good night vision.”

“Hmm, I guess you should lead the way then. Hop up on my shoulder and you can give me directions as we go.”

All I needed now was an eye patch and I could audition for a part in a pirate movie. We moved further into the ship.

It turned out that I didn’t need Doodle as a guide as much as I’d thought. Once my eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom, it was possible to see where I was going. We searched the ship but found nothing of particular interest, although everything was so alien that we may have overlooked all sorts of wonderful technology. It’s hard to find things when you don’t know what you’re looking for.

In the control room it became clear that the ship had only enough power to keep the distress beacon flashing weakly. The parrot leaped from my shoulder to sit down in something that could have been a chair.

“Well, looks like this has been a wasted journey,” he said. “The ship’s deserted and, if anything aboard is worth salvaging, we have no way of knowing. It’s all way beyond me, at least.”

I had to agree with him.

“Maybe someone arrived before us and rescued whatever was driving the thing. They should have stopped the distress signal but I guess they couldn’t work out how to do it.”

“Yeah,” said Doodle. “We should do that while we think of it.”

He rose and waddled to the distress beacon.

It looked like a lollipop; a disc mounted on a tall column rising from the floor. One side of the disc sported a flashing red light, the other had a set of rubberised buttons that, to me at least, invited pressing. Doodle looked at me.

“Do we try it?” he asked.

“I’ll do it. If everything self-destructs, it’s better that I take the blame.”

I crouched and considered the keypad. There were six buttons, completely unmarked and without any hint as to their functions. Guided entirely by instinct, I pressed the first on the left.

Above our heads, a spotlight came on and shone a narrow beam on to the keypad. Each button lit up with a glowing message. The one I’d pressed now advised me that it was for the LIGHT. Whoever the aliens were, it was apparent that they weren’t as bright as we’d thought.

The next button claimed to be the ON switch and the third announced it turned the beacon OFF. I hit number three and, dutifully, the red light stopped flashing.

Growing in confidence, I read on. The fourth button said, rather enigmatically, A/C. Normally, I’d have assumed that meant air conditioning but, in an alien ship, can you rely on your experience? I left the button alone and went on to the next one. Inscribed on it was a single musical note. That might have meant access to the day’s hit parade but I wasn’t going to try it. The last button beckoned.

Number six glowed with the information that it was for the JUMPER.

Now that was tempting. “Jumper” could mean just about anything. A cosmic rabbit out of a hat? A connection between two necessary electrical circuits? A hurdling athlete? I had to find out. My finger hovered over the button for a second and then stabbed at it.

In the centre of the floor, a hatch opened and a strange shape emerged. It was a sweater, green with a large letter G emblazoned on its front. It was so unexpected that I could say nothing until Doodle breathed, “The Brits call sweaters “jumpers.”

It was a long detour just to collect a sweater, I’ll admit. But that jumper is fantastic for ice planets.

Word Count: 1,000
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