Things Fall Apart: Chapter 4, 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!

As luck would have it, Singer and Wasserman had nearly 4 kiloseconds of uninterrupted time to work on this unpleasant task. By unspoken agreement, Wasserman re-rendered the model as simple line art, green against black for what was currently still present, faint amber lines to show what should have been there. It felt very primitive, but it also allowed them both to approach the task with less emotional involvement.

The first thing that was clear was that Fusion Two was gone. Located on deck two, almost equidistant fore-to-aft, just starboard of the long axis, it had actually gone critical. That should have destroyed them, but instead, it just blew an oddly shaped chunk out of them. It probably also accounted for their odd tumbling spin, although it should have imparted more acceleration than it seemed to. Neither of them being fusion engineers, they could only guess until Lieutenant Alexander or one of her techs, or Chef, could be brought to bear on the question.

The one thing they were pretty sure of was that the explosion was responsible for everything about the ship that was currently missing.

Lieutenant Cadotte came in just at the moment when Singer and the PO had slumped forward in near unison, drained. They both continued to stare at the wall screen and Wasserman’s tablet, heads on their arms, decorum thrown to the wind. Before Cadotte looked at the screen or fully took note of the posture of the other two people in the room, they said, “Skipper, looks like all the remaining H4s are in good shape. No obvious software issues, which also means no obvious internal causes for the one that seems to have gone haywire in TC Control. There’s also still no accounting for the other two missing ones, but the two holes, one starboard and one port, in the boat bay are awfully suspic... Holy crap!”

Singer’s posture did not show any evidence that she’d registered either the report, or the outburst.

“Skipper? You OK?”

Cadotte was known ship-wide as being someone who really didn’t understand, or try to understand, people very well. If Cadotte was asking after the state of a person’s being, it must look pretty dire, Singer thought. She mustered the energy to say, “Physically, tired and a bit achy. Painkillers are wearing off. Otherwise? I’ll be honest with you, Lieutenant, not really, no.”

Cadotte sat down on the other side from Wasserman. “PO, can I borrow the tablet?”

Wasserman grunted---not an impolite grunt, just the grunt of someone who was not particularly verbal right now---which Cadotte took for assent, reinforced when Wasserman made no effort to pull the tablet back as Cadotte claimed it. They proceeded to go through many of the same evolutions of the image Wasserman and Singer had just done for the last little while, but Singer could somehow tell they were looking at it with a more expert eye, stopping to peer at things they had merely taken note of, updating annotations they’d made with more detail.

“PO, are the drones still out there?”

Wasserman gave another affirmative-sounding grunt. Cadotte zoomed in and tapped certain points along the hull, which all looked similar, and then tapped a button on the tablet. The icons representing the drones began a new pattern, not a spiral, but going in up close to examine each of those points.

Singer managed to croak out, “Lieutenant?”

Before answering, Cadotte got up, went to a replicator, tapped in a manual order, and came back with two large bulbs of water, which they then placed down, magnetized bottom clicking to the table, in front of each of Singer and Wasserman.

Singer couldn’t speak for the PO, but she suddenly realized she was desperately dehydrated. The contents of her bulb were mostly gone about 100 seconds later. She felt significantly better afterward, and she could see Wasserman had, in fact, followed her lead.

Cadotte nodded in satisfaction, then finally answered the implied question. “Those points are all the external sensory nodes. Each node contains ‘cameras’, for lack of a better term, that would usually give us imaging of everything around us, but they also are the processing centers for what is essentially a nervous system for the ship’s hull. I’m hoping to determine by visual inspection if the sensory hardware is intact. The processing hardware we’ll need to access physically, which can be done by drone or EVA.

“If the processing nodes are intact, then they should contain at least some memory record of their perception of the incident. They might even give us some notion of what caused force-fields to go up, albeit somewhat unevenly, that directed the explosion the way we see here.”

Singer looked sharply at Cadotte. “You’re sure about that?”

“Yes, Skipper. No other way we could have survived that. And it would have had to have been AI driven---no human being could have reacted fast enough. Even if I had been plugged into the network at the time, I couldn’t have reacted fast enough---my augmentations are ultimately driven by my good, old fashioned, brainmeats.

“Speaking of AIs, why were you doing this by hand, anyway?”

“Chef’s in surgery. Seems to be taking longer than he thought,” Singer responded.

Although not actually summoned, Chef’s voice came over the speaker, without a visual avatar. “Just about done. There were a couple of complications, which is the bad news, but between myself and Kasel and his people, we figured it all out. All five critically injured crew will recover, although none will be up and about soon. We’ll need to talk about blood supplies, by the way.”

“Add it to the list!” Singer replied.

“Yes’m. Back to it.”

Singer turned back to Cadotte. “Any idea what caused Fusion Two to blow?”

Cadotte shook their head. “No, ma’am. That’s where my store of esoteric knowledge falters. The computer hardware and software that governs fusion plants, I know something about; the fusion plants themselves? Nothing. I am pretty sure it could not have been a complete accident, though. Even if there wasn’t the suspicious absence of the other AIs in the network, the burnt out processor nodes, all the other oddities, I’m pretty sure there’s layer after layer of interlocks and fail-safes that should prevent anything remotely like this from happening by accident. Lieutenant Alexander should be able to say for sure, though.”

With uncanny timing, Alexander walked into the room at that moment, looking exhausted, puzzled, and exasperated on several levels, and saying with clearly restrained calm, “There is absolutely no way any of this was an accident.”