Things Fall Apart: Chapter 4, Part 2

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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 came back with a fresh dose of painkillers ingested and other things seen too, including as much stretching as her body would currently allow. PO Wasserman came limping in a few seconds later, tablet and keyboard under one arm. He set them down, gave Singer an awkward, bashful sort of salute, and sat down at the other end, clearly meaning to give her some space. She thought about telling him it was fine, but decided it might be as much for his comfort as well, and settled for saying, “PO, we’re going to need broad sense of what our physical condition is, from the outside, first; then, a quick scan of surrounding space.”

Any bashfulness didn’t reach his voice. This was, as Cadotte had asserted, his jam, and he was confident about it. “Can do, skipper. I should be able to get two going at once, and set them up to run a spiral pattern around the ship, with optical and radar imaging. In about 1500 seconds, we’ll have a pretty good model of the ship built.”

“Carry on, then, PO.”

Singer continued her way through the paperwork. She was a bit daunted by how much there was, actually, and more so by Chef’s earlier admission that this probably wasn’t all of it. She didn’t really have access to the ship’s books yet, for example, something she was going to need if she was going to start planning a long sub-light slog that they could actually survive. Although, she thought, *past accounting records aren’t really going to tell me much about what our future consumption is really going to be like, is it. There are a lot fewer of us, now.

She found herself listening with one ear as Wasserman watched the feeds from the H4s. He muttered under his breath a lot as he was guiding them, but most of it wasn’t really intelligible.

The sharp hiss of indrawn breath, though, was more potent than any swearing at letting her know he’d seen something he didn’t like the look of.

“Ma’ might want to see this.”

She got up to get a better look at the wall screen he was using as his main display. Sure enough, a partial 3D model of the ship was there. The garage was roughly amidships ventral, so the two drones had begun spiraling in opposite directions, one corkscrewing forward, the other aft.

But it had taken them almost no time at all to map out the significant chunk of ship that was missing to starboard.

The extent of it was still not fully mapped, but it already confirmed the worst of what they’d guessed from where they could and couldn’t get to without airlocks and suits. It looked like someone had taken a bite of the ship, amidships starboard.

As she watched, the drones kept moving, and more of the picture was revealed. The bite was not an even semi-circle, but jagged. Deck seven, where they were, was less damaged, despite being the widest deck of the ship, suggesting the bite had not come straight-on from the side. Deck four was more than half missing, and decks one through three, including the dorsal drone garage and boat bay on three, were almost entirely gone.

Singer lacked the expertise to really analyze what she was seeing. That was fine. Right now, she was just...witnessing. Witnessing the death of hundreds of her crew-mates, her friends, her superiors, for they were definitely dead. Witnessing how the ship---HER ship---had been eviscerated and yet, somehow, was holding together.

She saw codes on the screen---either the drones or Chef were starting to work out, from what they were seeing, the ship’s current ephemerides. They were actually spinning, slowly enough that the weakened gravity generators were able to counteract any sense of spin gravity. Which was good, since the axes of rotation were off-angle relative to the shape of the ship. Suddenly, some of the injuries from people in smaller spaces made more sense. They would have been banged around during the period when gravity was out entirely, more than people floating free in Main Rec. They were also still drifting forward along what had been their former course. Their velocity wasn’t very high---a translation from time compression to normal space bled off a lot of energy---but they were definitely still moving.

There was no sense of whether they were leaving a debris trail, since the focus was still on the ship, and not the space around them. In her minds eye, though, Singer saw bodies, strung out in a spiral trail behind them, or possibly blown outward in all directions.

She was suddenly very cold.

Paperwork forgotten, Singer stood near Wasserman, and just watched, as the drones continued their lazy spirals around her gutted ship. Heedless of who might come in and see the small breach of discipline, she let the tears spill down her cheeks as she let herself come to terms with the scope of the tragedy.

The entire process took maybe 750 seconds, then another 750 as the same two drones spiraled back inward, pausing to probe with their sensors anywhere there was a gap. Finally, they did one more spiral, this time with sensors trained outward.

If they had left a trail, they had also left it behind, some time ago, bodies and all, it seemed. Singer asked a question out loud, guessing she wouldn’t like the answer. “Do we have any sense of where we were, relative to our current trajectory, when the incident happened?”

Wasserman answered first. “I’m sorry, ma’am, The drones aren’t showing us anything obvious to work with, there. They are able to estimate our current velocity as about two kilometers per second. Acceleration is zero---no thrust and nothing pulling on us, so we’re pretty much in deep space. Good news there is that we probably won’t bump into anything anytime soon. That spin we’re seeing is pretty lazy, a few meters per second.”

She’d expected more from Chef, but she looked at the time, and realized that he must also be focused on surgery right now. Nevertheless, she asked aloud, “Chef?”

A still picture of Chef appeared in lieu of his usual simulated presence. “Sorry, Skipper. Can it wait a couple hundred secs. I’ve got an H4 elbow-deep in Crewperson Epstein’s abdomen and another trying to get some shrapnel out of PO Xue’s arm.”

Singer sighed, impatient but recognizing an area she couldn’t really push right now. “Come back when you can, Chef.”


As Chef signed off, Singer realized she was already showing signs of a dangerous dependency. Yes, Chef was a crew member, and yes, a CO should depend upon her crew, but she and Wasserman were perfectly capable of beginning an examination of the model the H4s had built without Chef’s help. She just didn’t want to, and been hoping to foist the duty off on the AI.

Taking a deep breath, she said, “OK, Wasserman, let’s make use of the time. Rotate the model, please, and let’s look at the worst of the damage.”