Insula – Chapter 1: Unknown

“Aloe, I need you on the Bridge immediately,” a stern voice stated. “Aloe?!”

Aloe awoke to see the face of a squared-faced man hovering over her. Through sleepy eyes, she made out the holographic image of Ven, the ship’s Chief, appearing very life-like if not for its transparency.

She sat up lazily from her bed. “What is it, Sir?” she asked through a lengthy yawn.

The image was being produced from her Relayer – a small device at the end of her bed. Aloe had fallen asleep listening to the sweet melody it produced while the device projected soothing pictures of planets.

“Learn to answer your Caller,” he scolded. “I’ve tried reaching you three times already.”

She glanced over to check the gadget strapped to her wrist. The screen was black along with the light receiver. Normally, it would flash when accepting incoming messages. She tapped it a few times to try and awaken the device with no success.

Aloe sighed. “Looks like it’s malfunctioning, Sir,” she replied tiredly. “I’ll take it over to Lester to get it looked at.”

“Do it later,” he replied sharply. “I need you up here.”

“You can’t get Lenio or Eri to help?” Ordinarily, she would never speak this way to the Chief but she detested being awoken from her sleep – who didn’t? That and she was on break from her last shift.

“Lenio’s at Medical on check-up for that arm,” he answered, “and Eri’s dealing with the Syn-Cells. Besides, I need your eyes. It’s a report that needs to be looked at.”

“Reports are more of Faa’s lane.” She rendered another yawn.

“Yours too, last time I checked, Petty Corporal,” he answered.

Aloe scoffed. Why did I ever accept that vexing promotion? she thought.

“Besides,” Ven continued, “I can’t get a hold of Faa at all. I’ve tried her more times than I have you. I wouldn’t have bothered you if I didn’t have to.”

She cursed under her breath. That vexing girl. Where did she run off to? “I think I can locate her,” she suggested as a last ditch effort.

“No,” he said sharply, “I want you. You can thank Faa for it later. Get off your a*s and meet me on the Bridge.”

With that, the head dissolved into pixelated dust. The prior image returned with a large planet revolving to the sweet tunes of a piano. Irritated, Aloe hit the switch to shut it off. Where had Faa run off to? Breaks were a rarity on this ship and Aloe had been enjoying hers. She made a mental note to give her lip about it later. She rolled to the edge of her bed – letting her feet hang. Still attempting to fully wake up, she aimlessly stared around her quarters. The room was lit by illuminant strip-panels set to dim – as she preferred – allowing most of it to be veiled in shadows. Her quarters were cramp like a prison cell and bland to say the least.

The room contained but a single table embedded in the wall, hovering above a stool that could be retracted at a push of button to conserve space – even the bed. Aloe glanced down trying to find her boots, hoping to avoid touching the bitter coldness of the metal flooring. Her eyes were slow to adjust and she couldn’t see clear enough through the darkness. She cursed under her breath, knowing she have to brave it regardless to reach the control panel for the lights.

Out of all the rooms on this vexing ship, I had to get this one, she thought. Lester, the ship’s engineer barely stayed in his room and yet his panel was directly next to his bed. Some people didn’t appreciate their luck.

She finally slid onto the floor – cursing again under her breath for its coldness – hobbling over to adjust the light settings. With them on, she found her boots laying off to the side where she had cast them carelessly prior to getting into the bed. This was about the messiest she kept her room. Of course, she barely spent time in it, despite wanting to because of her duties. It was still more time than Lester had ever done. He practically lived in his workshop.

After slipping them on and rendering one final stretch, she punched a button to open the door.

Outside her room was a corridor lit by green illuminant strips. The corridor was long and appeared very confined. Columns of support beams ran along the walls in a pattern extending down to the end – each embedded with the strips of light. Thin clouds of white could be seen filtering from the grated path below, pushing up a cool breeze.

The long hallways always felt so claustrophobic even more than the quarters themselves. For one thing, you could almost touch the walls from the center of the path. Not to mention, the illuminants barely lit the way too, only shining where support beams were present, leaving gaps of shadows in between. It rendered an uneasy feeling as if something was watching from them. To top it off, an eerie buzzing from the ventilation resonated in the air like a deep hum.

Aloe quickly coursed the long path, making a sharp right at the end – her mind wandered as she did. It was easy to do so. She had been aboard this ship, the Insula, for several years now, which made navigating the corridors a second-thought. At the end of the hall, she came upon a set of closed doors with a small control panel to the ship’s main Ascender. Immediately upon pressing it, the doors parted open and she stepped inside, greeted by an automated voice:

Level for ascend? it spoke flatly.

“Main Bridge,” she replied out-loud.

Acknowledged, the voice responded, closing the doors.

She felt the Ascender tremor as it lifted. The illuminants – white this time – flickered as it moved. As it scaled each level, her eyes focused on the panel above the doors. It showcased digital numbers changing as it climbed, stopping at 15.

Main Bridge level reached, the voice announced.

She stepped out entering an open, white room filled with an abundance of display-panels decorating the walls. The Bridge had airy clean vibe as if it were an extension of the Medical Bay. White control panels hugged the walls of the room, all displaying holographic data – energy readings, blueprint of the ship, and even some with live surveillance of certain facilities. The back-wall displayed a panoramic close-up of the outside planet: PL-0490. They had been orbiting it for several Revolutions, extracting its resources. It was a huge planet that orbited around the giant sun of this system: Hale’s Eye.

The planet’s surface was actually quite breathtaking. It had a vast display of swirling colors from the gas covering the atmosphere: a bold exhibit of rich, vibrant reds twisting and molding into dark yellows and browns like an artist playing with watercolors. Aloe could admire its beauty for hours – it was brainless decision to add its image to her Relayer.

She spotted Ven towards the back glancing at a projecting display that hovered over a panel. His fingers danced across the screen, prompting various displays of data and graphs.

Ven was a well-built man who stood at a looming height with Aloe barely measuring up to his shoulders. It always puzzled her why he didn’t choose to enlist as a Legionnaire soldier instead of a Chief. For one thing, he had their dominant presence. Vexus, the man even kept his hair trimmed low into a square-top as the Legionnaires did. Of course, this wasn’t necessarily a negative aspect about him. She definitely respected him as the others did. It was good though – a respectable Chief meant the difference between a ship succeeding or failing.

When the doors shut behind Aloe, his eyes met hers.

“Good, you’re here,” he said, gesturing for her to approach. “Something’s off on this report – I’m not sure what to make of it.”

With a puzzled look, Aloe headed over to his control panel, standing across from him.

“This is from our latest pull,” he stated, tapping a button on the screen. Immediately, the keyboard and the image projection shifted to her perspective. “Tell me what you see?”

Aloe glanced at the image, typing on the screen to enlarge the projection. The file was a graph-reading, displaying the percentages of the ore extraction. The ground surface of the planet was very rocky and rich in it and made for a necessary ingredient when creating new ships.

Her brow furrowed even more when she noticed the numbers.

“This can’t be right,” she said, looking up. “It’s saying there’s a thirty percent increase in the pull.”

He nodded in agreement. “Knew I wasn’t seeing things,” he replied.

“But that’s impossible, Sir,” she continued, “How can that be… ?”

“How indeed?” he agreed, shaking his head. “I know the system over-estimates by a fraction sometimes – I can see an extra five, maybe even ten percent for compensation, but thirty?”

“It can’t be though,” she said, typing, attempting to locate a reason behind the abnormality, “maybe there was an unexpected inclusion?”

“Or… could be the Insula is just getting old on us,” Ven said softly, grazing his hand over one of the panels. “Eri mentioned that Syn-Cells don’t hold up like the used to. Not to mention another control panel is down this week.”

Aloe glanced at him.

He had a faint smile across his lips. She had never seen Ven smile – it was strange but it wasn’t really that disconcerting. It was the type of smile someone would exhibit as if reminiscing on the early days with an old friend. He walked away slowly, staring at the large display of the planet.

“She’s well over ten years – still fighting the good fight though, competing against these other younger ships… time flies by so quickly…” he said, his words fading.

“Sir?” Aloe said.

“Don’t mind me, Corporal,” he replied with his back turned, “I’m just speaking nonsense. See what you can find out about that report.”

Aloe knew how he felt though. She had only been with the Insula for three years, while Ven had served with it for ten. Even so, she felt attached to it just as he did – it wasn’t just another ship to her. No, even with only three years, the ship was more than that. Aloe returned her attention to the report. Digging deep, she managed to isolate the ore data with another element with a different signature reading. She tried to reference its contents to the database but the results pulled up “unknown”.

Strange, she thought. She decided to pull up past reports to compare the numbers only to discover the same unknown element was present there as well. For each one, Faa had signed off on all of them. Did she not know about it? How could she not notice it? From her lab, she would have easily been able to spot the abnormality.

“Any progress?” Ven asked, turning back towards her.

Aloe quickly closed the report. She didn’t want Faa to catch any heat if she did in fact know about the extra element. She was known to dive deep in her own research which sometimes interfered with her main duties. This wouldn’t be the first time Aloe had to cover for her. She attempted to download the files to her Caller, which surprisingly was successful. At least that function still worked on it, she thought.

“No, but I think I can get a better analysis if I head down into the labs,” she replied, “If I’m lucky, I’ll run into Faa as well.”

She needed to learn more and really did hope to find Faa. Vexus, she hated lying to the Chief. Ven nodded in agreement.

“Let me know what you find as soon as you can,” he replied.

“Will do, Sir,” she said, heading for the Ascender.