Things Fall Apart: Chapter 4, Part 4

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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!

Alexander sat zirself down in the chair---the only actual chair at the table---Singer was not sitting in, and slumped into it. Like Cadotte, Alexander was not known for showing much emotion. Zir posture now spoke volumes, however.

“Before you start, Lieutenant, got any good news? Because we could really use some.”

“I do, actually! The time compressor’s not in fantastic shape, but it’s not a total loss, either. I spent most of the last twenty kiloseconds or so going over it with the engineering middies, all of whom, I’m happy to say, are looking very promising, and somehow managing not to freak out yet. My current thought is that we can get it into enough shape to manage a 100:1 field.”

Wasserman found his voice, if not his decorum, interrupting with, “That’s still going to take us an awfully long time to get anywhere. I think we’re at least a light-gig from anywhere useful.”

If Alexander felt the breach of discipline warranted notice, or was in any way surprised by Wasserman’s presence, ze didn’t show it. “You’re correct, PO. At 100:1, that’ll be 5 megaseconds of our lives in transit to the nearest beacon, and that’s assuming we can maintain a steady cruise. Longer, if we have to stop to make periodic repairs.”

Singer once again chose not to let people dwell on that just yet. “You were saying about the damage?”

“The damage to the time compressor was definitely caused by the H4 they found wrecked down there, but the H4 itself is damaged enough that I’m not sure we’ll ever know if it was being AI controlled or manual. Either way, it basically went on a physical tearing rampage until it hit a high-voltage component, which fried it and flung it into a bulkhead. I’ve been pretty focused, so I can’t speak about anything else.”

Cadotte caught Alexander’s eye, and wordlessly waved at the wall screen. Alexander huffed, levered zirself up out of the chair, and came around to stand behind the three others. Singer swiveled around, interested more right now in the Lieutenant’s reaction.

All ze said was, “Force-fields.”

Cadotte said, “Yep. Has to be.” They said in unison, “AI deployed.”

Singer actually laughed, which she was pretty sure was a sign she needed another nap.

Alexander was also smiling just a little, which meant zir morale was recovering a little, despite the picture the screen presented. “Looks like a lot of the sensors are intact, though?”

Cadotte looked back to the screen in slight surprise. The drones had finished their survey. “Yes it does. If we can get at the processors, and they’re not fried, we can maybe get some answers. Given the internal processors that are burnt out, there almost has to be a record along that ‘nervous system’ of the order to deploy force-fields.”

The next screen over lit. Chef was an AI. He should not be capable of feeling, let alone being, exhausted, at least, not as human beings thought of it. Nevertheless, Chef’s craggy countenance looked weary. “Hi, folks. Sorry that took so long. Five for five, though, at least, that’s how it looks. And now that I’m catching up with everything else that’s been going on, I think we’re one, maybe two nodes away from having access to that sensorium y’all are looking at on the outer hull, and maybe three away from a memory core.”

Cadotte looked over to the slumped Alexander, and said, “Send the list here?” They held up a hand-tablet. Chef mimed throwing a ball. The tablet went “ding”.

“Do we have spares, or need to replicate?” Cadotte asked.

“I have a stack of five on pad three over in the Rec Room.”

Alexander asked, “How are we doing on replication mass?”

“Still pretty good. The fact that people are still eating rations, but the waste disposal systems are working normally, is helping that. We also haven’t yet recycled any of the fried nodes, except for one or two where the POs or middies didn’t get the memo---no help for that. We’ve been holding on to ‘em to see if we can figure anything out about ‘em. Once we know, though, one way or the other, we can recycle those, too, so we trade bad for good, which is how it’s supposed to work.”

Singer had spent most of her career in space consciously not thinking about the realities of an environment where most things were pieced together by nanotechnology that might as well be magic to her, which broke down waste---including biological waste---to produce new things---including food. Now, she realized, she was likely never to be able to forget it, again. Like Alexander, she was going to have to get into the habit of wondering whether enough waste was being processed to support everybody’s eating habit.

Her mind was wandering. She was tired. She ached. Her ship had a giant hole in it-she’d already known that, but seeing it had really taken the wind out of her sails.

She didn’t realize she’d closed her eyes until she heard PO Kasel say, deliberately a bit loudly, “Yup. That’s what I thought?”

Her eyes snapped open, with a bit of a guilty start.

Before she could say anything, though, the PO, himself clearly exhausted, hands on hips, said, “Chef, is it fair to say that there’s nothing the people in this room can do right this minute that can’t be put off for a full sleep-shift?”

Chef got a downright conspiratorial look on his face. “With one exception, I believe that the people here in this room have probably done all they can do right now. Lieutenant Cadotte was just about to arrange for the replacing of the last five nodes I think I need to get us some really useful answers, and maybe even full control of the ship.”

Kasel nodded. “All right, that’s a valid exception, with one caveat: LT, I want you to arrange it, not do it, you understand?”

Cadotte looked like they wanted to argue, but Kasel gave every appearance of a man with a book he was preparing to throw at the lot of them. Discretion being the better part of exhausted valor, they finally said, “Yes, PO.”

“Good. Everyone currently on-shift, myself included, is medically ordered to have a ration, some water, and then 30 kilosecs’ shut-eye. The ship is stable, everyone who is going to be alive is alive, none of them are likely to be less alive 30 kilosecs from now. Eat, drink, sleep.”

Singer had a brief, irrational urge of defiance, and was tempted to look up regulations and find out whether a PO and nurse practitioner could actually issue medical orders, even if they were the senior medical personage on board. Then, her body betrayed her with a jaw-cracking yawn.

“All right, PO. Point taken.” She stood, and noted with satisfaction that the others followed her lead without protest, although Wasserman was leaning against the table.

Kasel noticed this. “I’ll help you back across, PO. Skipper, tomorrow, we should probably talk about cabin reassignments and the like. We’ve got a handful of people sleeping over in the Rec Deck not because they’re injured but because their cabins are gone.”

Singer nodded tiredly. “Tomorrow, yes.”

And with that, and not much other ado, everyone stumbled back to their sleeping places.

Singer remembered laying down. She did not remember falling asleep. Nor, just this once, did she remember any dreams, which, once she was awake enough to think about it, she considered a blessing. She didn’t like the thought of what she might dream about, given the last...120 kiloseconds, she had to suppose it. What was that in days?

How long had it been, now, since she’d even thought in terms of “days”?

She knew some of her crew never had, growing up on ships and stations or tidal locked planets where time was completely arbitrary. She’d grown up on good old Earth, with minutes and hours and days and weeks and so on. One of the first orientation sessions at the academy had basically been a 3000 second primer on the fact that spacers used metric time, with the SI unit based on the second. It had been necessary, because even though the first two terms at the academy were still on Earth, all time at the academy, including class periods, was also on that cycle. A duty shift was 25 kiloseconds. Most ships had four duty shifts, which meant crew had 75 kiloseconds “off”. This seemed extravagant until you remembered that included meal time, physical fitness time, actual recreation, study to improve one’s skills, and about 30 kiloseconds of sleep.

Everything was counted in that metric time system. A ship’s mission was measured in megaseconds; distances between stars in light-gigaseconds. Time compression drives didn’t eliminate time dilation effects entirely, which meant that, if one tried to stick to an Earth-based calendar, two ships meeting up at random were going to have a different idea of what day it was. Everything was measured in ship time since the second they left dock, and synchronized between parties when they met. A ship coming to a station adopted and synced to station time, and started counting from zero again when they left.

And so, as Singer finally opened her eyes, the clock on the ceiling showed a simple comma-delimited number: 83,120,327.

That’s how many seconds it had been since they’d left Norfolk Station. They had been returning from a long exploration loop that had included finding a good site for the next “big” station, the next equivalent of Norfolk, a new base for ships like Bellerophon to call home.

If the incident hadn’t occurred, they’d have reached the outer communications boundary in another megasecond. Three more megs would have seen them back at Norfolk.

Now, that trip would probably take them a lot longer, and that assumed the ship could take any real acceleration at all.

She sighed, watching the clock tick upward. Physically she felt much better. Not great, but better. She was stiff, but stretching would help that. She felt grubby, but even a sonic would improve that. She felt rested, which was the point of the exercise, after all.

She also, however, felt daunted, and there wasn’t a lot of help for that, except to keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope her crew would catch her if she was about to fall into a hole.

Time to get to it.

End Chapter 4