Things Fall Apart: Chapter 5, Part 1

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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!

Main Dining was much as Singer had left it when she’d headed off-shift, although someone had tidied up further. Could have been crew, could have been Chef and an H4, now that they were working. Singer supposed it didn’t matter. Routine was starting to set in. That was good.

The screen that had been their main work screen last on-shift now held the master ship status display that would ordinarily be on the bridge. Singer took note of it, but did not look at it yet. Food, coffee, the usual things she would do in Main Dining before a shift, came first. There was a part of her that felt everything should be more urgent, but the simple truth was, the ship was stable. Badly wounded, but not getting any worse.

Thus: self-care, first.

So, she picked up two bars from the stacked rations, replicated a mug of coffee, and sat down not facing the screen with the master status display, but in “her” chair. As she did so, Lieutenants Alexander and Cadotte also filtered in, and followed a similar pattern---they glanced at the MSD, took note of its existence, and then went for food and beverage. The other people Singer was coming to think of as “alpha shift” were filtering in, too. Nobody was keeping a very tight schedule, yet, but it was more signs of routines settling in. Once they set to flying properly again, she would need to do some tweaking to tighten things up, but they had a good start.

As with yesterday, she deliberately did not address business yet. Alexander and Cadotte both sat near her. Singer allowed her shields to drop a bit, to confirm that the silence was as companionable as she intended it should be as they ate. It was. She sighed a small sigh of relief.

The non-comms who joined them were a bit more talkative. Kasel was actually bantering with Wasserman, who had not been at breakfast the day before but had certainly earned a place at this table, running the H4s yesterday.

Her tablet was still here, where she’d left it from yesterday. She tapped it awake, and as she’d half-expected, the master status display was replicated there. Chef may not have been a command AI until now, but clearly, he was capable of make sure the captain didn’t miss the hint.

She saw everyone else at the table starting to read their tablets as well, and guessed they were all seeing similar things, or more detailed reports, depending. She gave them time to digest, while she did the same. At some point, she realized their eyes were all on her, and took her cue. “Let’s start with today’s hard question: can we fly?”

As she’d expected. Alexander took the lead. “Actually, we can, Skipper. I won’t lie, I’m a bit worried about the spaceframe. If we had to pull any really serious maneuvers, we’d be in trouble. But if we just need to more or less fly straight to somewhere we can hopefully call for help, we can do that.”

“But only at 100:1?”

Alexander made a face. “Probably more like 75:1, at least at first. The middies helping me are sharp, but they’re still middies, and none of them have been through the full course on time compression drives. I’ve got two drive techs from the later shifts, and they’re trying hard, but all the real crack experts were on alpha shift, of course.”

Singer allowed herself a wry smile. “I will make sure to head my report to the Admiralty with a strong recommendation about better distribution of senior personnel around the shift schedule.”

That succeeded in getting a snort out of several people around the table, which Singer was pretty pleased with. Morale was going to be a problem for a while. Every little boost helped.

Alexander continued, “Thrusters below deck five are all intact, as well, which means we can pretty much stop our spin any time.”

Singer considered. “We’re going to need a new command center. Or...wait, auxiliary control is on deck eight, isn’t it?”

“Yes’m, deck eight, frame ten, port side of that deck’s boulevard.” Alexander poked at zir tablet. “It’s intact. It was unstaffed at the time of the incident, since the ship wasn’t on alert. I guess I should have thought of it sooner, but...”

“But we’ve all been busy with other things, and we didn’t even know if the ship would fly. Is there a briefing room there, as well?”

“There is, and one office each for CO and XO. All the accoutrement we’d expect up by the bridge are replicated, just smaller, and there’s a small mess hall in roughly the same position as this one, aft of it all.”

Singer nodded. "After this meeting, let’s relocate, so that the dining hall can be a dining hall again. We’ll right the ship, and get her moving. Which gets us to our next question. Where can we go?”

To her surprise, it was Wasserman who raised his hand. “I’ve got some hours sitting apprentice to the navigator, ma’am. Like the ship, I’d hate to have to pull anything fancy, but I’ve been studying the charts, and I have three recommendations, if you’ll hear them.”

Nobody else at the table appeared to object, or think they had a better idea, so Singer replied, “I’ll hear them.”

Wasserman sent a simple 2D chart to everyone’s tablets. “Nearest option is just one of the outer time-compression comm relays. Nice thing about that option is, we don’t even need to get all the way to it---just in range of it. But, with our TC drive limping, it’s not just our velocity that’s affected; our effective comms range is shorter than it would be, too. Anyway, I figure that relay is about 5 megaseconds out at 75:1. Downside is, all that will get us is orders to stand to and wait for a rescue ship, maybe a tow.

“Next nearest is Kurzweil Station. That’s about 7 megaseconds out. It’s also the last place we stopped on our way out of the Blob on this mission. We took on some software upgrades there.” He stopped there, clearly implying something.

Cadotte was the one who picked it up. “You’re thinking maybe they introduced a timebomb?”

“Or a vulnerability, or...something, yes, Lieutenant. I realize we have very little evidence yet, but a bunch of us who know bits and pieces about AIs have been talking. There were little oddities pretty much since we began the return leg of the loop, if you know what to look for.”

There were skeptical looks around the table at that, but Singer remembered something. “The XO had Chef isolated, along with the middies.”

Wasserman was nodding vigorously, and said, “And Lieutenant Cadotte, I think it was, suggested the other day that maybe the blown processors were actually a defense mechanism to try to preserve the rest.”

“OK,” Singer said, drawing it out a little while she thought. “So maybe bad code was introduced at Kurzweil. You think going there will get us answers?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I also don’t know if Kurzweil has the wherewithal to fix us up---from that standpoint, it might be no different than going to the beacon.”

“And the third option?”

“Home to Norfolk, ma’am. 12 megaseconds, but then we’re, well, not necessarily home, for all of us, but at least at a full fleet base. Repairs, forensics, extensive facilities for R&R, the lot. It’s probably where we’d wind up eventually, anyway. Actually, this option is a combination of two, because we’d go right past the same comms buoy anyway, so we’d be able to call ahead, as it were, let them know we’re coming, but go in under our own power...” he trailed off.

Alexander said, “I wouldn’t want pride to be our only reason for choosing that option, but I will admit my own morale would be improved by knowing we got Bellerophon home under her own power, even if it’s her final port of call.”

There were nods all around the table. “Can anyone think of a good reason not to just head straight to Norfolk, and call ahead as soon as we’ve got sync with a beacon?”

Cadotte spoke, but not to object. “Replication’s working, environment is stable. Right now, we have no reason to think we couldn’t keep flying indefinitely, honestly, except that 75:1 would get really tedious. Worst that happens is, we hit the beacon, make the call, and Fleet sends someone out to meet us between the beacon and Norfolk. We’re still better off than just sitting at the beacon waiting. I don’t think Kurzweil will net us any useful information---there were software upgrades at Norfolk, as well, and the Kurzweil upgrades weren’t AI upgrades that I can recall.”

A thought occurred to Singer. “Do we have routing to any of the storage cores, yet?”

“I’ve identified the last two missing nodes that will get us access to the core near auxiliary control. If we’re heading that way, anyway...”

Singer nodded with what she hoped was an air of decision. “Let’s do that, then. Get the pieces you need to complete that work, we’ll get aux control online, and set course for Norfolk Station. Chef?”


“How are we doing for replication mass?”

“To be honest, ma’am, I’d really like to find some way to do a scooping run, somewhere, except the charts don’t show any good systems for it along our projected course. Not with our speed so constrained, anyway.”

“Can we go back and recover what got blown away?” That was a from a PO who had been doing a lot of work, but Singer couldn’t quite place...Luchny. Danica Luchny.

She saw Wasserman and Alexander both shaking their heads, as Chef said, “Sorry, PO, but I don’t think so. We don’t have sensors fully working yet, but models suggest the force imparted would have scattered all of that pretty thoroughly, and it’s now had almost 140 kiloseconds to just keep dispersing. Objects in motion and all that. We could fly around in circles for megs trying to scoop that up, and probably spend more mass than we gained doing it.”

Singer persisted in her original question. “Are we in danger of running out before we can make Norfolk?”

“Probably not, ma’am, but there won’t be much margin for error. Another accident of any sort and we could be in real trouble.”

Alexander interjected, “I think that’s generally true.”

“Agreed!” said Singer. “Anything else?”

PO Kasel raised a hand, and she gave him the nod. “Ma’am, I’ve got all of the wounded out of the Rec Room and into quarters---I’ve got one of the enlisted barracks set up as a temporary sick bay for the folks who still need observation, now. That being the case, and the room being cleaned, I’d like to recommend...well, I’m not sure whether to call it a memorial, or a wake, or what, but...I think the crew could use some time together to really come to terms with what happened to us.”

Singer took a deep breath, let it out slowly. It wasn’t a bad suggestion, but, even with her walls up, memorials always made her want to hide in her quarters. As acting CO, she would not have that option, at all.

She also had a decision to make, she realized, about the dead. It made her flesh creep, but those bodies might provide a bit more margin for error.

She set that aside, for the moment.

“I agree, PO. Let’s schedule that to start at the usual start of gamma shift.”

Kasel nodded. “I’ll see to it.”

Singer realized the meeting needed something else, now. It wasn’t quite enough to just go back to their jobs. She looked around the table, saw a mixture of emotions. Determination, hope, fear, pride. What she needed to see more of, though, was confidence.

“Folks, we’ve just all been through something none of us really prepared for. Some of us trained for hard scenarios, but none of us imagined something like this. We’ve lost...a lot. Friends, superiors, mentors. What we have, still, is each other, our crew, and our ship. We may not have everything we want, but we have what we need. We’re going to get home, we’re going to find out what happened to us, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure nothing like it happens to anyone else.”

As inspiring speeches go, it was not the best, she thought, but she definitely saw people straighten up, just a bit.

“Let’s get to it.”