Things Fall Apart: Chapter 2, Part 4

In which a controlled, perpetual explosion is reignited, and exactly that much more is right with the world

Our Story So Far - Click here to access past entries!


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…

Alexander blinked and 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.

Five hundred seconds later, there was a faint blue glow describing a sphere that seemed to be floating with its equator exactly at their eye-level. A narrow tube extruded from the blue globe and lead to the floor, and another to the ceiling. On the control panel, readouts even Singer could comprehend showed nominal readings across the board.

One of the power-room-aspiring middies reported, almost ceremonially, “Containment field fully established and operating at near-peak efficiency.”

Everybody took a moment to breathe that in. A moment of complete normality. Then, Alexander said, “Deploy physical containment.”

The midshipman touched a button, and a shroud of metal unfolded to surround the sphere and the tubes. Inside that shroud, Singer knew, were laser emitters that would interact in ways she didn’t really understand with fuel pellets deployed through one or the other tube into the sphere. The resulting fire would be bright as a star—another reason for the shroud, even though the magnetic containment would protect them from the tremendous heat.

The midshipman reported, “Shroud deployed, ignition system reports itself nominal, fuel deployment, same. This engine is ready to start at your order, lieutenant.”

Alexander looked to Singer for confirmation. Readouts and vetting by Cadotte and Alexander’s augmentations notwithstanding, this moment was a risk. If there was even one surprise buried in a line of code, none of them would live to regret the decision to proceed.

Singer nodded, and Alexander said, “Execute, midshipman.”

The control to do so could have been a touchpad, or a button, or a small switch, but someone had had a sense of the dramatic. It was a great big lever, with a broad grip, right in the middle of the panel.

The midshipman, sweating a bit despite the increasing chill, pulled the lever.

The first hint that anything had actually happened was a vibration, a thrum. Singer had never really noticed it, but she saw, and felt, Alexander relax noticeably, as if the sound itself confirmed the reactor’s correct functioning.

A moment later, the other midshipman reported, “Fusion One operating within expected parameters. We can release it to begin distributing power to ship’s systems at your command.”

This time, Alexander didn’t hesitate. “Execute.”

Three things happened at once:

The lights began to brighten to their usual dayshift levels, gradually to avoid hurting anybody.

An automatic announcement—not an AI, just a recording—was heard to say, “Attention all personnel: gravity normalization in progress!”

Gravity gradually began to normalize, very slowly.

Every speaker nearby emitted a gabble of screams, lasting about four seconds—just long enough for everyone but Cadotte to cover their ears in pain.

Cadotte just had their head tilted, puzzled, thinking.

One of the middies voiced the obvious question, “What the hell was that?”

Cadotte answered. “There were seventeen distinct voices, all of them quite insane, particularly given that they were seventeen of the ship’s AIs. Missing from the racket were Chef, Castor, and Pollux.”

A moment later, Chef appeared on a screen, looking harried and upset, like a man who had just watched all his friends go insane.

Which he had.

“Lieutenant Cadotte is right, I’m afraid. Except none of them were…complete. Those were fragments that were in transition between nodes when the event shut things down. Restoration of main power probably woke up some of the still-unburnt nodes they were in. I managed to isolate them, for now, although…I don’t love that. What’s left of them is…still sentient, I think, but not…I don’t know. I didn’t have time to really analyze what happened to them, and I think it might be safest for a human to do so, anyway.”

Alexander asked, “Think they’re contagious?”

To his credit, Chef didn’t hesitate. “Yes, Lieutenant, and if I thought it was safe in this emergency, I would recommend you isolate me, as well, because I can’t tell you I’m not infected, right now. Only that I don’t feel like screaming in incoherent rage.”

Cadotte, who seemed to know something about these sorts of things, chimed in, “Chef, recommend you engage introspection protocol three, if you have spare processing nodes for it right now.”

Chef nodded, visibly relieved by the suggestion. “Almost. If you can replace the two other burnouts here, and one other anywhere connected to them, that should give me capacity to run the protocol and still do everything else I’ve been doing.”

Singer asked, “Can you give me the communication officer’s version of what you just recommended?”

Cadotte smiled, and replied, “It’s not that complicated. We probably can’t reliably know what state Chef’s self—his mind as well as his code—was in before the incident, but we know what it is right now. With the protocol in place, any significant change to that state will trigger an alert that he’ll be compelled to report—it’s a reflex action, he can’t suppress it.”

Singer considered that. “But, doesn’t the state of his mind change all the time? Doesn’t everyone’s?”

That earned Singer an actual grin, as if she were a particularly smart toddler. She decided to be irritated by it another time. “Absolutely true. The protocol considers the kinds of changes that can be explained by ordinary inputs and processing. New data getting filed, opinions being formed. What will trigger a report will be something out of that ordinary flow.”

Singer felt like she probably knew the answer, but there were midshipmen nearby who might not, and a lesson was in the offing, so she asked, “Why isn’t that always the case?”

If Cadotte thought the question odd at all, they didn’t let it show. “It is, sometimes. If we’re at any kind of alert condition, when we communicate with untrusted sources, and so on. Any unusual circumstances trigger introspection protocols at some level, just like they heighten the crew’s security posture. It’s usually not ship-wide, though, and it’s often one of the less intrusive levels, because it’s very processor intensive. If we monitored all 20 AIs, all the time, we’d actually need half-again as many nodes as we usually deploy, or we’d have to cut back some functions. When we’re running out in the black without much contact, there’s really no point. There shouldn’t be anything that could affect them!”

Singer took a breath, and then another. She wanted to present some appearance of weighing the question, but the truth is she’d already made a gut decision, and was just breathing for calmness, so that her decision would sound…well…decisive.

“Let’s proceed with Chef’s plan. We need him online right now, but let’s manage the risks.”

She did not say what she realized now was the source of her decision: if they shut down Chef, they probably died slowly. The ship was designed to be run by humans and AIs in concert. There was no emergency protocol Singer was aware of that would allow the ship to be operated successfully by humans alone. They were at least a light-gigasecond from the nearest relay, let alone a base. Help was not coming soon on its own.

And if Chef went crazy? Then much as it would have been had the fusion bottle given out when they started the reaction going, they’d probably never know their mistake.

Cadotte went about ordering a couple of the standers-by to get more spares out of the locker, and Alexander kept zir eye on the reactor displays as if ze expected them them to do tricks.

Singer tried to look similarly attentive, but mainly she was thinking that she wasn’t enjoying command very much.

Almost unbidden, she found herself saying, “Time check?”

It was Chef that responded. “There are still two kiloseconds until the rendezvous.”

Cadotte said, “That should be plenty. One kilo, tops, to replace those nodes, another couple hundred to reset the charge-side circuit breakers on those supercap nodes, and time left over for me to have a word with the environmental plant on this deck, see if I can at least get some heat into the air. If you two lieutenants want to head back early, I think we’ve got it covered, from here.”

That was probably on the edge of insubordinate, given that Lieutenant Cadotte also had an acknowledged traumatic brain injury. On the other hand, Cadotte’s neural net was held together by more than just primordial ooze with uppity ideas, and they had a point.

Alexander was potentially of some use here, but not really more use than the middies now that this fusion reactor was lit and operating smoothly. There were two more reactors that would need to be looked into, but one was enough to supply light, gravity, and life support, assuming the nearest environment plant had taken no damage.

Those improvements would also be spreading throughout the ship as the power distribution systems worked their magic, which would make it easier to find survivors.

That brought to the surface a question. “Do we have intercoms?”

Chef answered, “Unfortunately, only to the same places I can go. They’re a function of the ship’s network. There were all kinds of arguments over that decision back when it was made, not to have a hard-wired intercom system, but, well, there we are.”

It had been worth a try, anyway.

Despite the time left before the rendezvous, and the buffer they had left compared to the medic’s estimates, Singer realized she was starting to feel muzzy-headed. Not dizzy, per se, but not sharp, either.

She was, in fact, exhausted, and out of things she could usefully accomplish. She didn’t feel very good about that. There were people to find, systems to fix, possibly orders to give.

All of which required her to be smart. And trying to do any of that right now, while there was anyone else more able-bodied available to do it, was not smart.

And if she really was the remaining senior officer aboard, which she was beginning to think likely, everyone was going to need her to be smart.

“All right, Lieutenant Cadotte,” she said at last. “We can at least take care of those circuit-breakers on our way back, but we’ll take the hint.”

If she’d had any doubt it was the right decision, she felt everyone except Alexander relax around her. Alexander was on the edge of an argument, she felt, and then, subsided, perhaps realizing that ze, too, was exhausted.

So, ze contented zirself with a stern, “Don’t stint the rendezvous, Cadotte.”

“Wouldn’t consider it, Lieutenant.” And with Cadotte, it was almost impossible to tell if they were serious or not.

Trying not to be wobbly about it, nor to take too much note of Luchny and the two ratings who had been following them all along, possibly more to make sure someone picked them up if they fell over than anything else, Singer and Alexander went through the big doors and down the boulevard.

End, Chapter 2