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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.
The disaster occurred during Alpha Shift, when all the senior officers would have been at their posts, and many of their junior relief officers were off duty, relaxing in the Main Recreation room, or eating in Main Dining. The largest single group of survivors found so far were in Main Rec, the people in Main Dining having had to contend with cutlery being jostled along with themselves. In addition, a group of midshipmen, and one of the ship’s AIs, had been deliberately isolated for a training exercise by the XO. The middies have been found alive, as has the AI responsible for matter synthesis and reclamation, nicknamed Chef. The XO has not, nor has anyone more senior than a lieutenant.
Uncertain whether it was an attack, sabotage, or purely an accident, the survivors—many of them concussed or otherwise injured—are working to set their ship to rights, or at least right enough to ensure they survive to find out what happened to them!
“I’ll entertain a hunch.”
“It’s not very entertaining, I promise you.”
It was Singer’s turn to snort. Well, she thought, at least morale’s improving. “I’ll take the risk.”
“It’s like the circuit-breakers, ma’am. I think they were actually blown to save the ones that are left. A firebreak. What I don’t know, yet, is anything like a motive. Was it to ensure Chef still had somewhere to operate, or was it to save some additional bad code somewhere for later.”
“You were right. That wasn’t very entertaining. But it’s the closest we’ve come to an explanation for absolutely anything that’s happened in the last 100 kilos or so. Thank you.”
“Next question—and here’s where you’re going to all see how little I know about actual space travel, despite about 300 megaseconds on starships. Do we have any real sense of where we are, whether we’re in any danger of bumping into anything while we’re drifting blind and helpless, anything like that? We’ve been very focused internally. Do we know anything about what things look like outside our little bubble?”
There were troubled looks all around the table. It was Chef that answered. “External sensors are still inaccessible. I can’t even tell if they’re intact. This is another reason for getting drone control access and getting at least a few H4s running. We need to get some eyes outside, both to answer those questions, and to get a good look at our own physical condition. We’ve inferred a great deal from just what doors are slammed shut, but there’s still a wide range of possibilities. We could have a few badly placed holes, or we could have whole decks sheered off.
“So far, while lots of processor and routing nodes are blown, no memory nodes seem to be. The bridge logs get backed up to four different storage nodes continually, so unless something deliberately fried them, we should eventually get routing to one of them. At that point, I can tell you roughly where we were when the incident occurred, and extrapolate how far we’re likely to have drifted, and on what vector, even if we don’t have sensors back.”
Singer sat with that a moment, then said. “All right. Assuming we’re structurally sound enough to actually move, do we know the state of our motive power?”
This was Alexander’s field, but ze’d been asleep the last little while, too, so ze consulted a tablet of zir own. “We’re still cut off from a lot things to get certain answers, but of course the main time compression equipment is just below Fusion One, so the middies had a look for us. There’s physical damage to equipment, which was obvious enough to report but which they lacked the expertise to evaluate, along with the wreckage of an H4 unit. Looking into that is going to be my first task once we’re done here. They were also able to get physical access to some of the thruster pods. Those look to be intact.”
Kasel spoke up. “It might be a stupid question, but if the time compressor is busted, we’re screwed, aren’t we?”
They were all thinking it, so Singer allowed it without comment, and let Alexander answer.
“Yes, PO. There’s no varnishing this: if the time compressor is blown, then unless I’m misremembering where we should have been, it will take us most of the rest of our lives just to get to a beacon to tell people something bad happened to us. We might be able to make planetfall somewhere with people on it sooner than that, but not by much.”
Singer decided to move right along and not let anyone dwell too long on that. “What’s our replication-mass situation?”
Chef answered, “The port-side tank, like most things port-side, was untouched and about three-quarters full. Ventral tank is inaccessible due to network issues, still, but given the search teams’ inspections of decks eight through ten, should be fine, in which case, it’s also about three-quarters full. The starboard-side tank is harder to determine. Given where some of the known breaches seem to be, it could have been blown open or even destroyed.
“On the upside, any debris we clean up can be fed to the recyclers. At the risk of sounding indelicate, in a survival situation, regulations do permit the bodies of the deceased to be recycled that way, as well, rather than burial-by-ejection. If the starboard tank can be repaired or rebuilt, and if we are indeed without time compression capability, this expedient may be necessary.”
Singer could tell who was, and who was not already versed with those regulations by expressions around the table. A few were clearly outraged by the idea, which meant they had not already come across that regulation and wrestled with it.
Singer, on the other hand, had survived Professor Karenski’s Command 301 class. The syllabus made a point of making everyone face that, and other “difficult” regulations, through several different scenarios. None of those simulated scenarios were nearly as dire as this one. She’d done well in the class, but it was still the class that made her decide not to pursue a command track.
See where that got her.
Calmly, she responded, “We’ll save that decision as long as we can. PO Kasel, we should probably look into setting up an actually holding bay for the bodies we have access to.”
“Already on that. They’ve all been brought up to the gym, which can be decompressed and the temperature lowered. Was going to give that order after asking you about it, so…”
“Go ahead, then, before you head to bed.”
He tapped something on his own hand-tablet. “Done.”
Singer looked around the table. “Is there anything else anyone wants to raise, or ask?”
Alexander cleared zir throat.
“Ma’am, under the circumstances, I believe we need to operate on the assumption that all the more senior officers are dead. As the next senior to yourself, I believe it falls to me to ask you to explicitly assume command.”
Singer’s brain skipped a groove for a moment. Then, she had a moment of wanting to ask, “What do you think I’ve been doing?”
But then, she understood what Alexander meant. Singer had been acting as a senior officer within a local area.
Alexander was talking about command. Of the ship. Or whatever was left of it, anyway.
Cadotte, the only other commissioned officer at the table, spoke next. “Ze’s right, ma’am.”
Singer was still a bit bemused by the idea. “I…don’t have full command training.”
Alexander responded, “You aced Karenski.”
Singer looked at zir. “How did you…”
“I was four rows back, same section. I was shyer then, and also a year out of my depth—I took it early, to get it over with. You probably never noticed.”
No hiding from that, then. She felt a bit ashamed that Alexander remembered her, when she hadn’t remembered Alexander being in that class, but she also realized she was deflecting.
“Skipper,” Chef said, “I think they’re right. Crew needs a CO.”
There it was. That word. “Skipper”.
Almost unbidden, she responded with the near-ritual words. “Under the circumstances, I assume command. Duty officer, so note in the ship’s log.”
Alexander almost ostentatiously typed into zir tablet.
There was a moment, and Singer realized everyone needed to figure out how to get past it. “All right, folks. We know what we need to do. Kasel, get some sleep. You have surgery in 20 kilos or so. Anyone who hasn’t had a proper rest break yet, get at least a quarter-shift rest, now. Everyone else, take a quick break, and let’s meet back here to start getting things done.”
As one, the table rose, and said, “Yes, Skipper!”
It was terrifying, or nearly so; except that every single person, no matter how worried or tired she could feel they were, was smiling, just a little. Even Cadotte.
End Chapter 3