Circuit Breakers

… continued from An Open Door


After several trips to ferry their meager belongings through the water and up the shaft to the departure chamber, they used the suit helmet lights to illuminate the dark, dank, musty interior, surveying the ancient desks and panels, overgrown with lichens and long-undisturbed dust. How many years had this room lain empty? How many centuries? With a bit of shock, Anna realized this high-tech chamber had probably gone unvisited even longer than the primitive temple they discovered on Ar-Velen. She crouched down to brush the growth from the slanted desk by the elevator cab door that faced back into the room.

“I wish Tak was here. He’d have figured this all out in no time.” She ran her hand over the flat desk surface, then around the sides, looking for any sign of a switch or control.

“We all miss him, Anna.” Laxmi peered intently at the lichen on another desk, then scraped a small sample into a plastic bag, sealed it up, and put it into her pouch.

“You’re still taking samples? After all this time?” Jaci glanced back from his position at the elevator door, where he had been trying to figure out how to open it.

Laxmi shrugged. “The science never stops. Just because we’re separated from our ship is no reason to ignore the reasons we came here. Besides, we haven’t encountered anything like this lichen growth before. This is new to us. I’d like to make sure it isn’t toxic, for one thing.”

“Toxic?” Anna coughed as the cloud of dust and spores she brushed off the side of the desk settled to the floor. Laxmi just shook her head, frowning. “Anyway, I think this desktop is glass. It might be a touchscreen. That’s good news.”


“No moving parts, same as the controls in Aniara. Less likely to break down. With a bit of luck, the circuits will all be solid state, so even more likely to have survived. We just need to figure out how to get power to it.”

Ca-Tren sat on one of the low blocky chairs in the center of the room, watching the humans with interest. There was no doubt these chairs and desks were intended for Kwakitl, as everything was just the right height for the young avian.

“Where would the power come from?” Jaci asked. “If this were a human building, wouldn’t it all come off a grid from outside, and have a main circuit breaker panel or something in the basement? That’s all underwater, so we’re probably screwed.”

“Maybe.” Anna looked around the room, focusing on another door at the narrow end of the ellipse, smaller and less obvious than the others. “But this is a base station for a structure that reaches forty-thousand kilometers into space. They could get all the solar power they’d ever need from the cable itself. It also was probably considered critical infrastructure, so it might be on its own separate power grid from the rest of the city. It might even have been powering the city.” She stood up from the desk she’d been examining and went over to the small door.

Like the others they’d seen, it was round, with an inset pull and twist handle near the center. Unlike the others, it had no obvious framing around it, and it nearly disappeared into the grimy, lichen-covered wall. It was also only about two-thirds the size of the others, which would mean most Kwakitl would have to duck to go through it, while humans would need to crawl.

“What’s that?” Laxmi asked.

Anna gave the handle a tug, and the door opened outward toward her. “A utility closet.” She stuck her head into the darkness beyond. “Bring one of those helmets over here, would you?”

Jaci brought one of the two helmets, and Anna pushed it into the closet, then crawled in after it. Inside, she was able to get up on her knees without hitting her head, and there was just enough room to turn around and shine the helmet light on the walls. Though covered with more of the lichen growth, all of them other than the one with the small door sported glass panels similar to those on the desks. All the panels were dark, and none responded to touch, but in the center of the back panel was a small circular recession with a horizontal handle just like all the other door handles they had seen so far.

“I knew it. Nobody left any notes for us like you did on the shuttle, but this is a circuit breaker panel if I ever saw one.”

“You found my note! I forgot to ask you about that.”

“Yeah, that was clever, switching off the power so I’d go look there.”

“Well, I am a pretty clever guy, after all, and…”

“Yeah yeah yeah, you win an award, now stand back. Kids, don’t try this at home.” She reached out and grasped the handle.

“Anna, wait, shouldn’t we…”

She pulled and turned it.

A satisfying thunk, more felt than heard, emanated from somewhere behind the panel. A relay, Anna realized, shunting a larger load and controlled by the switch she had just turned. She let go of the handle, now positioned vertically, and it recessed back into its niche. Nothing else seemed to have happened, so she turned around to look at the other panels, and that’s when she realized she could see them without the helmet light. Looking up, she saw that the ceiling now gave off a dim light, not bright, but enough to see by. Anna switched off the helmet lamp.

“I think I found the mains. Anything happen out there?”

“No, it’s all still dark.”

Anna turned back to the main panel, the one with the switch in its center. Some of the lichen seemed to be glowing, or outlined by a light from underneath all the grime. Cognizant of Laxmi’s earlier comments about toxicity, she covered her mouth and nose with her arm, then used the hem of her shirt to wipe away the growth. As she swiped across the panel, circular sections of it lit up briefly beneath her palm, only to fade again as her hand moved away. Nothing else seemed to occur, however, so she didn’t think she had activated anything further.

With the panel mostly cleaned, she now saw eight illuminated circles in two neat columns of four. Each circle was about five centimeters in diameter, glowing yellow in a one-centimeter ring, and dark in the center. The main handle she had earlier turned had an illuminated turquoise ring around it. Above each of the yellow rings were small yellow marks, little slashes, curves, and dotted crosses. Labels, clearly, but of course she could not read them.

“How’s it going in there? Anything interesting?”

“I would say so, yes. Jaci, can you… or Ca-Tren, let’s get Ca-Tren in here.”


“Yes. I want to see if she can read this.”

“Wait, you found something written? Let me see!”

Jaci crawled in through the access door, crowding Anna in the cramped space. He hardly seemed to notice, so fascinated was he by the illuminated panel with its circles and labels.

“I… well, crap, I can’t read it.”

“Did you really expect to?”

“It seemed possible. I’ve gotten pretty good with the written language, better than I am with it spoken. And some of these characters seem familiar, but they’re jumbled together in odd ways, and others I’ve not seen before.”

“So you can’t read it?”

“No. It is thousand-year-old script, after all. The written language has probably changed just as much as the spoken in all that time.”

“So do you think that you could make room for Ca-Tren, to see if she can make it out, as I asked?” Anna smiled sweetly at him.

“Oh. Oh sure. Sorry about that.”

“Hey. It’s ok. I get it, this is your field, and it’s pretty exciting for you. I’d be pretty mean if I didn’t let you have a good look at it. But I do want to see if Ca-Tren can translate it for us. She was Li-Estl’s star pupil, after all, right?”

“Right.” Jaci crouched down and backed out through the doorway. A moment later Ca-Tren walked in, needing only to duck her head.

Anna gestured at the panel, and Ca-Tren peered at it intently. She seemed to know what Anna wanted of her without further explanation, examining the labels, but she said nothing for a full minute before squawk-whistling something.


“She said she can read the script, though it looks funny.”

“She can? That’s excellent!”

“But… she doesn’t understand the words.”

“Why not?”

“Well, think about it. One of those labels probably says something like ‘electricity.’ If you have no idea what electricity is, but you can read the letters, you still don’t know what it means, even if you sound out the word, right?”

“Ah. Right, of course.”

“Yeah, and that’s even if it’s the same language. We’re assuming this is a thousand-year-old variant of the same language the Kwakitl we’ve met speak today, but it could just as likely be a completely different language that happens to share the same script. Say, like French and English. Probably more likely, really, given they had a massive dark ages style break in their history between now and when this facility was built. But hey, it’s not all bad news.”

“Go on.”

“We can recognize the written words. Once you start pressing buttons and we figure out what they do, we’ll know what those words mean if we see them again.”

“Hold on,” Laxmi interjected. “Are you sure we should just start pressing buttons? Doesn’t that seem reckless? What if one of those labels says ‘pump out all the air,’ or ‘scram the reactor,’ or even ‘emergency nuclear detonate in case of alien attack’?”

“Alien attack? Really?” Anna crouched down to look out the hatchway at Laxmi.

“Well, they really did have aliens go to war with them here, didn’t they?”

“Laxmi, I’m pretty sure these buttons say things like ‘overhead lights’ and ‘HVAC’ and, my personal favorite, ‘elevator door.’ So, I’m starting with the one on the upper left. Here goes.”

Anna pressed the dark center of the upper left circle.

Nothing happened.

“Anything change out there?”

“Nope, we’re still in the dark,” Jaci replied.

Anna pressed the next one down. “Anything now?”


She pressed each of them in turn, all eight circles, and in each case, there was no visual change on the panel, and Jaci and Laxmi reported no change in the room. She sat back on her heels, frowning, frustrated.

Ca-Tren sat quietly beside her the whole while, looking back and forth between Anna and the panel. She quirked her head to the side, peering at Anna as if puzzled by something, then she stood up and faced the panel. She lifted one foot and easily raised it to the low panel height, reaching toward it with her claw.

Anna watched, startled. “Wait…”

Ca-Tren touched a claw tip into the illuminated ring of the upper left circle and traced it counter-clockwise around the circumference. She pulled her claw away and returned it to the ground.

The circle turned turquoise, matching the color surrounding the main pull handle above the columns of circles.

“Anna, what did you do?” Laxmi called from the main room.

“Nothing. I… Ca-Tren did it. Why, what happened?”

“Well, I think she found the one for ‘ventilation.’ A duct somewhere is blowing air into the room, and… well, after a thousand years, I think the filters need changing. It smells pretty rank.”

Anna grinned. “Circles. Of course. I should have known that.” She reached out and traced each of the remaining yellow circles counter-clockwise, one by one, until they all turned turquoise.


… continued with Decisions and Departures

header image credit: Mikhail Nilov / via Pexels License

© Matt Fraser and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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