Things Fall Apart: Chapter 10, Part 1

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Starship Bellerophon was minding its business, on a long return cruise from an exploration and mapping mission, when it suffered disaster, ripping a chunk out of the ship and leaving most of the senior officers and crew dead. Most of the ship's AIs are missing from the network, also presumed dead, with evidence pointing to a massive, internal "attack" by those AIs.

The survivors' mission, now, is simply to hold their ship and their people together; figure out what happened to them, and why; and get to a safe port! En route to the nearest beacon on the time-compression network, in hopes of finally calling for aid, Bellerophon receives a distress call, and discovers that they are not the only ones to suffer catastrophe!

The beacon expressed reluctance when the question was put, but not refusal. The towing apparatus—cables and gravity stabilizer—checked out, and the time compression field generator also behaved itself. Thus, Bellerophon moved away from the wreckage of Almaty with the now inert beacon in tow, and things settled into a state that could almost be called routine.

Two megaseconds, Singer mused to herself, as she sat on the bridge for a turn as officer of the watch. That’s how long it took to establish habits. It had already been longer than that since the disaster, which was hard to accept. The memory was surprisingly vivid, for an event that had resulted in a concussion.

But the proof was in that sense of routine. It was no longer strange to be in this smaller copy of the main bridge, or to meet daily with her staff; no longer strange, at all, to think of them as “her staff”. They were not a smoothly functioning machine, but they were moving forward.

It was an open question whether they were getting anywhere.

As if reading her thought, as the speakers rang eight bells and a shift change, everyone’s shift relief came on deck, and after being relieved, Cordé came around with a datapad and silently handed it to Singer.

It read, “We really should have heard something by now.”

Alexander also came onto the bridge, to relieve Singer. Before getting out of the chair, Singer tilted the same pad so that ze could read it.

Alexander nodded that ze’d seen it, then aloud said, “Relieving you, skipper.”

Singer stood and continued the ritual. “I stand relieved; you have the watch.”

Alexander duly responded, “I have the watch,” and sat. Singer looked at Cordé, and headed across the hall to her office. The communications officer took the hint, and followed.

When the door closed, Singer sat, and motioned for Cordé to do so as well. “Report.”

“Skipper, we should be well inside the reception bubble for the relay. We should have made our handshake about three-thousand seconds ago. I double-checked our course, the relay’s expected position, all of it. I ran three separate diagnostics on our receive array, thinking we might have overlooked something in our focus on the transmitter and time compressor issues. It seemed like a long-shot—we already received a distress call, after all, without a problem. Nothing wrong from antennas inward. I’ve been listening directly, too. Nothing but background radiation.”

Of all her current staff, Cordé had been the most pessimistic all along, the one Singer most worried might, at some point, freak out on her. There was no freaking out in evidence here; just a solid statement of documented facts which Singer herself could verify without even glancing at her computer. This was, after all, her own area of expertise. She had not really wanted to think about it, but Cordé was absolutely correct.

Calmly, she replied, “Recommendations?”

“Honestly, ma’am, I think we keep going anyway. Our current vector will only need a small correction, already planned for, to head to New Norfolk. If there’s any evidence to be gathered, we should gather it. Hopefully, the relay is at least physically still intact, and even if we don’t dare connect to it, we can tow it like the Almaty’s distress beacon.”

Singer wasn’t sure if they actually had enough towing equipment for that, but that was about her only fault with Cordé’s reasoning.

“All right, Ensign. Let’s do it that—”

The comm chimed, interrupting Singer, followed by Alexander’s voice. “Skipper, you’re needed on the bridge.”

Cordé looked at Singer with a question on her face, but Singer had no answers, and just shrugged, before saying, “Be right there, Lieutenant.”

The reason for the summons was immediately apparently when they entered the bridge—Cordé had tagged along, despite being entirely off-shift at this point. On the speakers, they could hear, “…ess call from the civilian starship Grand Despot of Mauritania, two-point-seven-three megaseconds out of New Norfolk Station. We have suffered an engineering casualty and are unable to engage time compression. We have been adrift for two-point-two-eight megaseconds. Any ship, please respond. Message repeats. This is an SOS distress call from the civilian starship Grand Despot of Mauritania…”

Wasserman, sitting at the pilot’s station, opined, “They certainly suffered a naming casualty. What the heck…?”

Over at the comms station, the rating who had relieved Cordé was looking down at their display, and responded, “The ship appears to be a personal craft—a yacht—registered to…Ari ben Yosef Espinoza?” They looked up. “Really?”

Singer, however, was puzzled. “Should I know that name?”

Alexander, still sitting in the command chair, rescued her. “Heir to the inventor of the time compressor; still the majority owner of the main concern that makes T.C. equipment.”

“But not,” Cordé said, “an actual engineer, I guess?”

Alexander responded, “Actually, they are. Several modern improvements to time compression are directly attributable to Espinoza's own work. However, their expertise is in the TC hardware itself, and channeling power to it effectively. If their ‘engineering casualty’ is their fusion reactor and not their TC hardware, they might not have expertise on board to fix it.”

Wasserman asked, “Could it be a ruse?”

Alexander considered. “It could be. Civilian ships also have AIs to run them. But it doesn’t really change anything.” Ze looked at Singer.

Singer nodded. “I agree. The same calculus that sent us to investigate Almaty’s disaster beacon applies here. What we’re getting is a human-recorded distress call, or something that sounds like one, not a disaster beacon beeping SOS. Sounds like at least a potential for another clue or two, and if there are survivors, we owe them rescue.”

Singer looked to Cordé, not just because Cordé had been the main objector last time, but because she was currently next senior on the bridge. Cordé herself looked lost in thought, staring at the main holo, where another search sphere, almost familiar now, dominated the center. A fix was clearly in progress. Finally, she said, “We should call them back.”

“Yes, we should,” Singer responded. Cordé moved to the empty station next to the one she would usually occupy, leaving the rating who had been sitting there, so that she could shadow her.

Thanks to Melanie Gamble for the name Grand Despot of Mauritania, which came up in a random conversation as, I think, a band name. It was too random not to find a use for!