Things Fall Apart: Chapter 3, Part 3

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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!

Singer made herself get through one whole bar and at least half her coffee, by which time, most of the rest, even the late-comers, had also gotten through all, or most, of their ration. Sharpening her focus, literally and metaphorically, she said, “All right, folks. Let’s get started. Chef, do I remember correctly that there are rations stacked across the hall, too?”

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“Then close the door, please.”

The door slid closed, and Singer resumed. “I know many of you have been up while some of us rested, so we’ll try to keep this briefing actually brief.” She pulled a mini-tablet out of a pocket, where she’d scribbled a list in her last moments of consciousness sixteen kilos earlier. She was pleased to note that it was mostly coherent.

“I’ll be honest. I don’t know exactly who has been taking care of what, with a couple of exceptions. Which is what I get for trying to be in charge with a concussion. So, instead of going around the table, I’m going to go by areas of concern, and whoever knows best, speak up.

“Let’s start with environment.”

Cadotte raised their hand, which caused Singer to raise an eyebrow. “I thought you were sleeping the last few kilos, Ensign.”

“I was, ma’am, but I set people to work on it, and I’ve digested their reports along with my breakfast.”

Singer fought to keep her reaction to a small smile appreciating the wordplay. “All right, Ensign. Let’s hear it.”

“The environment plant on this deck is entirely intact, except for processing nodes. Those have been replaced. The environment plant started rebooting itself as soon as we got the supercaps back on-circuit, and was pretty much ready to roll as soon as we got Fusion One back online. In addition, the environment plants on decks five and nine are intact, but currently on standby.”

Alexander asked the question that was next on the list, anyway. “That brings up a point: how many of us are there, now?”

Kasel, who had miraculously not fallen asleep yet, although it was clearly a fight, said, “One hundred and forty seven.” It was matter-of-fact, almost flat, which had more impact than if he’d shouted it, or sobbed it.

There was a collective wince at that news. For a moment, everyone was breathing as one. Singer asked, “How definitive is that number.”

Kasel met her eyes. “We still don’t know for certain what’s what from deck four upward. Nobody’s been outside yet, and Chef’s network access still doesn’t include any hull cameras or drones, although he says he’s close. So, we could still find some people in pockets up there. There could be whole decks still intact above the known breach, doing what we’re doing, entirely separate. But we can’t get there, electronically or physically, yet. We’ve tried landing-party handhelds—we broke out some of that gear a couple of hours ago. No responses beyond our own people.”

Singer nodded, thankful that there was no trace of headache from the motion. “I should have thought about the handhelds sooner, myself, but…well, I think I’ve been on five ground-teams in my life.”

There were nods around the table at that. They were all gamma and delta shifters. Support personnel. The second team. The deep bench.

Except that they weren’t, any more. They were the team, now.

“All right. How many of those are able-bodied at the moment?”

Kasel smirked. “If I’m being strictly honest? None of us. Every single one of us is battered enough that, under other circumstances, I’d confine us to at least 100 kilosecs of bedrest. We can’t do that right now, of course, so under current definitions, I’d say we’ve got about one hundred able to perform at least light duty, maybe half of those fully able. Of the rest, I’d say most will recover, now that we can replicate medical equipment.

“There are five I’m less sanguine about, though. I’m not a surgeon, I’m not even a doctor. I’m a really good nurse-practitioner. Those five need surgery, which means not just needing a surgeon, but a surgery suite, which we can’t access at the moment. We could makeshift one from an empty cabin and replicated equipment, but we’d still need a surgeon. Chef can actually stand in, in a pinch, but only if he can get drone-control online and get some H4 units working.”

Singer blinked at that. “Chef, that so?”

Chef appeared on the screen, looking a little stressed. “Yes’m, I suppose it is. Eir—the sick bay AI—definitely could have, and frequently did even with human surgeons available, for both the very routine, and the very complex stuff. The software is there for me to access, but again, it’s not an area where I have much practice. If it’s a question of life-or-death, I’m willing to do it, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about the idea.”

“How soon do we need to make a decision?” Singer asked Kasel.

“I’d say immediately, except that, as I understand it, we don’t have drone control online, yet, so Chef wouldn’t have any ‘hands’ to work with. At that point, he’d have to talk me, or one of the other NPs, through it.”

“OK, so, how long until that becomes an imperative?”

“Call it twenty kilos. I’d love to do something sooner than that, honestly, but I’m not sure I’d trust myself or any of the others with a scalpel right now. We’re just too blown. Give me a half-shift of sleep, and then we’ll see.”

Alexander raised a hand. “I believe that, between myself and Lieutenant Cadotte, we should be able to get Chef routing to drone control well within that time frame, and verify that the drones themselves are in good order.”

Singer considered that a moment. “Can you delegate any of that?”

Cadotte was nodding. “I think by now, between the work I already did and Chef’s internal mapping, I should be able to put together a simple list of the minimal nodes that need replacing. Same for any other path we need. Ideally, we want to replace all the nodes, of course, but I think we need to be mindful of replication mass, and we’re running out of existing spares.”

Singer gave Cadotte her full attention. “That brings me around to my next topic—not in any particular order, mind you, but it’s on the list, and it’s come up, so: do we have any idea whatsoever what happened to the nodes that are crispy-fried?”

Singer was discovering a disquieting tendency in herself to try to bait the stoic Cadotte into any hint of genuine amusement. It worked, this time, winning a full-on snort before they responded. “Unfortunately, not yet. I have one nasty suspicion, but it’s just a hunch right now.”

“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.”