Things Fall Apart: Chapter 2, Part 3

In which more progress toward power is made

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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. Systems that should never fail, failed. Gravity fluctuated, slamming people against ceiling and floor.

Now, the survivors are working to set their ship to rights, or at least right enough to ensure they survive…

Cadotte blinked, looked around, saw Luchny, actually smiled, held up a finger in the still-universal gesture for, “Give me a moment”.

They turned back to the job at hand, and said, “Yes, ma’am,” and threw the physical switch, which made a very satisfying *clonk*. More lights came on, as some of the automatic power-routing systems—systems that depended more on hardware than software, deliberately—began to make choices.

So did the circulator fans. After nearly an 5 kiloseconds of silence, the sudden return of the background white-noise, even reduced as it was, seemed loud.

Cadotte stood up, a little wobbly. Luchny handed them a dermal patch. Apparently, she knew Cadotte was picky about physical contact. As Cadotte was applying it to their arm, Alexander asked, “What can you tell us about other nearby processing nodes, Lieutenant?”

Again, there was a sense of changed focus, and Cadotte very slowly turned around in place, scanning with their shifted vision. “I can’t exactly piece together the state of the network nearby, but I can see a mixture of nodes that are actually carbonized, and nodes that look intact.

“What I can’t tell is where there’s a clear path between intact nodes. Depth is a little hard to puzzle out in this mode. If we get closer to an area with a mix of the two, though, I should be able to find specific nodes we could replace, once we find a spares locker, to create clear paths. You said Chef is still around?”

“Yes,” Singer replied, “he’s currently doing sort of what we’re doing, only with the network. Mapping out the maze, flipping whatever switches he can actually flip, but he’s stymied by so many nodes being out.”

“That makes sense. Chef was supervising the middies, I gather?”

“You knew?”

“No, ma’am, but it sort of fit. I did know that the Training Center had been isolated—the XO actually asked me to do it.”

Alexander asked the obvious question, “Did the XO know something was coming?”

Cadotte came back to “normal” focus and looked actually chagrined. “Lieutenant, you know people aren’t my field of expertise. I really can’t say. It sure seems like he was expecting something, though, doesn’t it?”

The three of them nodded amongst them. In Singer’s case, she felt a twinge of the headache in doing so, which reminded her. “Time’s marching on us.” For Cadotte’s benefit, she added, “We set a rendezvous back at Main Rec for thirteen kilosecs after we left—in part because Lieutenant Alexander and I are doped up so we can function with our respective concussions. It’s going to start wearing thin by then. You’ll have a few more seconds more, having just been dosed, but still…”

Cadotte said nothing more, but simply took the lead back down the same corridor—now lit all the way end to end—to the port-side supercap station. When they all arrived, Cadotte knelt, wobbled a little, pulled the panel, and scanned. Then reported, “Same deal, here. Capacitor intact; breakers intact but open; several surrounding processing nodes showing signs of physical disruption, no obvious reason we can’t reconnect the discharge side. Unless you want to hold this in reserve?”

Singer considered that. “There are still, what twenty more supercaps scattered around the ship?”

Alexander answered, “Twenty-three, although at least one of those will have been lost in whatever exposed the starboard side beyond the Rec Deck to space.”

Cadotte visibly started. “Whatted the what now?!” It was, by far, the most emphatic thing Singer had ever heard Cadotte say.

“Starboard and aft doors were both cold to the touch,” was all Alexander said.

Cadotte nodded, slowly, and then, determined look on their face, threw the switch.

Once again, circuitry designed for maybe not quite this emergency, but plenty of others, did its work. The lights brightened a bit, and the fans perhaps also pushed a bit more air around.

Standing, Cadotte said, “Environment systems include some passive scrubbers that should pull some of the CO2 out of the air now that we’ve got things circulating on this deck. Heat is a bigger issue, and one that’s going to start affecting us soon, I think.”

Singer did not nod, mindful of her headache. “Let’s get to the aft power room, then.”

The aft power room was, if anything, worse than Main Dining had been.

For one thing, it was five decks tall, with the deck they were on being the middle, just as it was the middle deck of the whole ship. It was made up largely of catwalks around equipment, with areas open all the way “up” and “down”, and lots of things for bodies being thrown around to break upon.

Break they did.

Singer found herself drawing composure from Cadotte’s calm. The younger officer’s face was grim, but not distracted from their task.

They scanned the nearby walls—Singer was already learning the tells of Cadotte shifting their vision around—and said, “There are intact nodes there, and there,” they pointed at two small access hatches, ”and three more fried ones…but if we can replace just that one, there,” again, they pointed, “I think we can get mag-bottle control online. That the mag-bottle itself is offline, is another thing that’s perplexing, but we didn’t explode, so that means something or someone actually shut the reactors down. As long as they didn’t do it by dumping the reaction mass, we could have power in a few minutes. There’s a spares locker down on the lowest…”

They were about to say “deck”, when a hatch on that deck opened and someone halloed up at them.

Singer looked over the catwalk, and saw a knot of people in midshipman uniforms. Singer recognized her comms trainee. “Zhang, is that you?” she called out.

“Yes it is, Lieutenant. Chef found his way back to us and told us what was what. We thought you could use some extra hands in here. There are five of us here, then others on a search pattern, and they know the rendezvous plan.”

Singer found she could not help herself vocalizing, “Finally, something’s going right!” Then, louder, “Zhang, there’s a spares locker not far from you. Bring up a processor cartridge!”

Zhang made to do that, while the other four middies, looking a little green, began to look for signs of life among the tossed-around bodies of the power room crew. Singer quietly asked Cadotte, “They are obvious, right?”

Cadotte might have smiled just a small amount. “Yes, Lieutenant. They’re easy to find, and easy to swap out, deliberately.”

Zhang came up a ladder a moment or two later—more a pulling and swimming motion than a climb, given the light gravity, and evidence that Zhang may have grown up in a low-grav environment. He presented a small, square box, about ten centimeters on a side and three thick. Cadotte said, “Perfect, Midshipman.” They took the cartridge and pulled off an access panel, pulling out the old node.

It didn’t take any sort of expertise to see that the node had undergone thermal trauma.

Zhang seemed to look more green at that sight than he had at the bodies. “That…shouldn’t happen. Should it?”

It was Alexander who answered. “No, Midshipman. Definitely not. And apparently, it’s happened all over the ship.”

Cadotte slotted in the good cartridge. The console nearby lit, and Chef’s face appeared on a screen. Without preamble, he said, “It’s a good thing the mag-bottle controls are actually self-contained. A human or AI can initiate them, but the software and hardware are otherwise isolated.”

Singer asked, “Why should that be an especially good thing?”

“Well, for one thing,” Chef answered, “I haven’t done any engineering work since my basic template was laid in. All AIs can technically do everything needed, but like a human, we tend to get rusty on the bits we don’t practice. I need to study up. For another thing, the isolation means that none of the actual mag-bottle processing was fried. The software is loaded, it all reports clean, and the hardware also reports good. The other good news is that the reaction mass was not dumped. Bunker looks to be where I would expect it, as a lay-person, relative to when we last did a scoop. Lieutenant Cadotte may want to give it the hairy-eyeball before I flip the switch, but I think we can get power back pretty quickly.”

Cadotte was apparently already doing exactly that, once again turning place, and then instead walking the catwalk, looking downward toward the floor, peering the apparatus set there, and then again, this time toward the ceiling.

Taking a breath, they reported, “The middies have cleared the lower stage. Let’s bring the bottle up nice and slow first and be sure before we actually start a reaction going, but I agree that it’s looking safe. Of course, Lieutenant Alexander should probably give the sign-off.”

Alexander blinked at that, then said. “I guess I’m the chief engineer at the moment…”

“At least the senior one on deck, Lieutenant, yes.”

“Chef, do you have attention to spare monitoring it, until we can get more people with some training in here. I’m under medical orders…”

“I know, Lieutenant. I heard them. I can spare a splinter for this, for now. Maybe leave me a middie or two for company. I’ll see what we can do together.”

Ze looked at Singer, who carefully nodded. “I think that will work. We’re short-handed, and can’t really afford to be picky. Zhang, you have any aspiring power techs in your group?”

“Two, ma’am.”

“Give them the good news. The rest can form another search party. Same rendezvous.”

“Yes’m! Question, ma’am. What shall we do with with the…well…”

Singer took a hard breath, but kept her face straight. “If they’re dead, see if you can find an intact side-room, and make a point of remembering it for later. If they’re even a little bit alive, send someone to tell the medics in the Rec Deck and only move them if they’re in the way of something critical, like the fusion bottle!”


Zhang “swam” down the ladder to relay the orders.