Science Fiction Short Story Contest , July 2020
It started innocently. Some leaves on the apple trees were burnt on their edges.
“Perhaps the sun shields aren’t adjusted correctly. Go check,” was the advice of the botanist.
They were checked and found to be in order.
Then the incidence of skin cancer started to increase. Small little ones, actinic keratosis, basal cells, the kind you can easily treat, were seen by the doctor. They were burnt off with chemicals. The doctor said not to worry, probably had been there before the trip.
A few more people began to have vision problems. Once they had perfect vision and then within a matter of weeks, they complained of cloudy and hazy vision. The eye surgeon diagnosed cataracts. He mentioned it was unusual, but not unheard of, to have cataracts in a young population.
USS Daedalus Commander Legend Roman received daily health reports of all on board. The recent increases in skin cancers and cataracts were added to other ailments. He noted several more dozen on the sick list than usual, but not so many to sound any alarm. Any ship the size of the Daedalus will have its share of sickness. He turned attention to other pressing matters, the reactors needed maintenance again.
Eric Gofina tinkered with a clock. The guts of it were on the table.
“For pity sake, Eric. Clean that up. We have to eat on that table,” mother scolded.
Eric swept all the parts carefully from the metal square into a small plastic box.
“That’s better, now go clean up. Dad will be here soon.” Mom opened food boxes, put boxes into boxes to heat. She set the table with metal dishes and forks.
Nar Gofina rushed in. “Hey, honey. Supper ready? I’ve got to get back.” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“What’s that?” Glory grabbed Nar’s hand, looked at his neck.
“Doc says it’s just a small sore, skin cancer. Not to worry, Glory.” Nar sat, smiled that sparkling smile.
“Well, I worry. But now we eat. Eric! Come, eat.”
The small family ate the boxed food, then Nar rushed out. Glory cleaned the few dishes as Eric put them away. Eric then returned to working on the clock, parts spread on the metal table again.
“So let’s get this put back together so I can get my table back, what do you say, Eric?”
Glory and Eric worked on the clock the rest of the night.
As a few more months went by, trees in the garden started to die. Then crops failed. The farmers were alarmed. The botanist had checked the soil. Pests were non-existent. But now the sun shields weren’t able to be adjusted. He had to tell the commander.
“Come in.” Commander Roman turned from his monitor to greet the guest.
“Nar Gofina, Commander.” Nar saluted the Commander. “I’m the chief botanist on board.”
“Yes, Nar, I know. You have concerns, I hear.”
Nar approached the Commander. “It concerns the sun shields, Commander. There seems to be a problem with their alignment. We’ve had some crop failure due to radiation exposure. All the computer signals indicate improper alignment. We can’t get the sun shields back into proper alignment.”
“Could this improper alignment be the reason for increased sun damage to people as well?” This thought ran through Commander Roman’s mind last night.
“Well, I’m not a biologist, but seems that cells are cells, and sun damages DNA of all types.”
“Aha, as I feared. Let me get the repair team going on the sun shield problem. Thanks for the heads up.”
Gofina nodded, left the office. Roman contacted the repair team.
Lieutenant Commanders Andrews and Harlow arrived in a few moments.
“It seems we have a big problem. And now it’s you that need to fix it. The sun shields for the Daedalus are misaligned. They need to be corrected.”
Lieutenant Commander Vicky Harlow spoke first. “Commander, the Daedalus is too close to the sun now for repairs to be done outside the vessel. Since our mission is taking us on this path to the other end of the solar system, we will need to wait until we are further away from the sun.”
“Concern noted, Harlow. But we cannot wait on this repair. Sun damage is affecting our food supply and the health of the inhabitants of the Daedalus. If we wait too long, there won’t be anyone left to worry about. We need to do this now.” Roman paused for a moment. “What about you, Andrews? What is your take on the problem?”
Lieutenant Commander Hakley Andrews stood at attention, thought for a second. He was the chief nuclear repair officer, not really an expert on botany. But he did know something about radiation poisoning. “I agree that we need to fix the shields as soon as possible. We have space suits. We need to determine why the shields aren’t aligning. If that means a space walk, then we need to do one. We will need to have volunteers that understand the risks involved, and are schooled in the repairs.”
After an ill-fated repair trip outside the USS Daedalus, Commander Legend Roman again called for a meeting of the Lieutenant Commanders. The three sat around the circular metal table in Roman’s office. A monitor displayed the diagram for the sunshields of Daedalus.
“Consider this, Harlow and Andrews. Physical repairs were unable to be achieved. We now need to evaluate this another way. Perhaps it’s a software problem? Is it something gone haywire in the code that is preventing the shields from aligning properly. Who on this vessel can best troubleshoot computer code, any ideas?”
Harlow and Andrews took sidelong glances toward each other. Neither had an answer for the commander.
“Really? On this large ship, full of intelligent people, you can’t think of a one who could help? I thought everyone on board was here for a purpose. Surely someone has computer skills. Anyone?” The commander scanned their faces for a reaction.
Andrews said “Well, there was Vic Jorgensen, but he is gone. He died last year. Unfortunate incident. Anaphylaxis.”
“You’re right, I remember that. Horrible. He could’ve solved the problem.” Harlow reminisced, a far-away look for a moment.
“Shoulda, coulda, woulda won’t help us now. Concentrate! Do you or do you not know of anyone else?”
Harlow suddenly slapped the table. “I have heard of this kid, a real whiz in fixing things. He’s solved many a problem with computers on board. But he’s only ten.”
“We may be at the desperate, try anything stage. Who is this whiz kid?”
“Nar Gofina’s boy. Eric Gofina.”
The Commander stood, paced back and forth. “The botanist?”
“Yes sir. I personally had Eric fix some electronics for me. He does have a certain knack,” Lieutenant Andrews said.
“Have a seat, Eric. I understand you know something about computers.”
Eric Gofina took a look around Commander Roman’s office. It had little of interest to a boy of ten, except for the monitor in front of the seat he was given. Eric already had decided that it needed to be upgraded to a newer interface.
“I guess. I like to fix things. Mom says I have a knack.” Eric couldn’t keep his eyes off the monitor, something was a little wonky.
“Wonderful. I need someone to fix something broken. We think it’s the computer program. Could you do that?” Legend scanned the face of the child sitting in front of him. The boy hadn’t stopped looking at his monitor since he sat down, almost as if he was mentally taking it apart and repairing it.
Eric looked away from the monitor to the man sitting behind it, a man with a kind face, smiling at him. “What is broken, sir? Is it something on the ship?”
Commander Roman’s eyes wandered to the blueprint of the ship on the monitor, “Here, on the monitor, you’ll see a diagram of the sun shields for the USS Daedalus. We use those shields to protect us from the sun’s rays. Radiation from the sun is dangerous to humans in large amounts. Without those shields in place, we could all be in great danger.” He watched for Eric’s reaction. So far, just a steady gaze, no fear. He continued, “Have you ever heard of the Greek fable of Icarus?”
Eric shook his head. “No, not really.”
“Our ship is named after a character Greek mythology, Daedalus. He was an architect and craftsman. He is also a symbol of wisdom and power. Daedalus designed the labyrinth where he was then imprisoned with his son Icarus. To help them escape, he designed wings of wax and feathers. He warned his son not to fly too close to the sun with these wings, as the sun would melt the wax and the wings would fail.” Commander Roman noticed Eric’s eyes widen as he told the tale. “Our ship is flying close to the sun. It seems our wings are ‘melting’. We need to repair the sun shields or we too will fail.”
“What happened to Daedalus and Icarus in the story?”
“Icarus didn’t listen to his father. He flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he fell to earth and died. Daedalus flew away from the labyrinth and landed on an island.”
“That’s a sad story.”
“But it’s one with some morals. Listen to your father is the first one. And the second is trust in the science. Do you think you can help save this ship Eric? We don’t want it to fall. And if the ship falls, it won’t be to earth.” The Commander stopped and let his words settle in.
The silence in the Commander’s office remained for several moments.
“Where is the hard drive?”
Eric Gofina was as good as the scuttlebutt on the ship said he was. He found the problem in a day. The code in the program controlling the sun shields was corrupt, probably from sun damage. Easily corrected once it was found, and the shields quickly realigned.
Nar Gofina heard about his son’s work through the grapevine. Nothing was ever posted on the ship’s newslink. So that night at the meal, he surprised Eric with a small gift.
The small family sat down at the square metal table to eat the box meal heated in the metal box as usual.
“So, Eric, I hear that you did some really special work for Commander Roman.”
Eric looked up from supper. “Oh, that. Yeah, I just did some computer stuff for him. No biggie.”
Nar laughed. “You just saved the USS Daedalus from total destruction, and all you can say is ‘no biggie’? Son, you’re a hero! Glory, we have a hero!”
Glory gave Eric a big hug and kiss. “I know! So proud of you, son. Good job.”
“So to celebrate, we thought you needed a gift. You know, something to remember this special time.” Nar went to a closet and brought out a metal box. “Go ahead, open it.”
Eric looked at hundreds of little pieces of plastic, multicolored with knobs. “What are these?”
“Rare artifacts, antique toys from hundreds of years ago. You build things with them.” Nar and Glory smiled at each other. They’d brought these from earth when they boarded the USS Daedalus, many years ago.
“Interesting. Do they have a name?” Eric sorted the pieces into colors and shapes as he talked.
“Legos. They were called Legos. It’s an abbreviation of two Danish words, leg and godt. It means ‘play well’. Your mom and I thought that after all your hard work, you needed to play.”
“All boys need to play?” Eric tried to remember the last time he’d played.