Things Fall Apart: Chapter 5, 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!

The auxiliary control center was a cramped space, compared to the erstwhile main bridge, although the fact that it was two decks tall helped. With its consoles currently dark, there was nothing to differentiate which station was which, except convention. Everything was ranged around a central, circular holotank. The seat facing ship-forward was usually for the helmsperson. If that was “noon”, then one o’clock was the navigator, two tactical. The officer of the watch sat at three, which faced the door in from the corridor through the holotank. Positions four and five were usually taken up by officers or ratings monitoring the ship’s sensorium, with a communications officer at six.

By instinct, Singer headed to that seat, and even almost sat down, before realizing that everyone was looking at her strangely.

She could, of course, have still sat down there---again, every station was convention, not requirement. The console in front of her would light up with the right settings for her current role, once she logged into it. But convention was a powerful motivator, and a bit of normality was needed.

She moved on to the OOW’s seat, instead, and sat down.

The other side of the circle was ordinarily vacant, providing secondary locations for when consoles malfunctioned, or when additional personnel were needed, say, to watch the sensorium more closely.

Notably absent, most of the time, were any kind of weapons officers. Bellerophon had weapons, but they were almost entirely defensive---a combination of point-defense clusters, a handful of missile tubes (two of which had been blown away with the top-starboard chunk of the ship), and gravitic shielding. Bellerophon was simply not expected to ever get into much of a fight, and if it did, it was explicitly expected to run away as fast as possible. It wasn’t very gallant, but it turned out that useful space weaponry was incredibly expensive, even when one was thinking in terms of replication mass and energy requirements, and not money. Given how rarely actual fights happened, it just didn’t seem worth it.

So it was that even on the main bridge, stations were only manned for weapons officers during ship-wide drills, and when the ship was at general quarters.

Absently, Singer made a note to actually read the roster, and figure out who was left who could stand as weapons officers, given that all the actual officers were dead.

She busied herself getting her station up, and acquainting herself with a set of displays very different from what she was used to. She recognized the setup commonly used by officers of the watch on the main bridge, although she distinctly remembered, one time she’d been there on beta shift, the XO had had an idiosyncratic arrangement, that presented all the same information, but organized in a way that made more sense to them. Singer suspected she might also customize things eventually, but for now, the default made sense enough.

She saw other people who had been assigned, almost by accident, to the new alpha watch taking their places. Cadotte was at Sensory One, to Singer’s left, while PO Wasserman, still limping, took up Sensory Two beyond them. At Singer’s old seat was Ensign Cordé, looking a little bewildered. Cordé had been one of the five who had needed surgery, but had bounced back quickly. However, she’d been unconscious for most of the last hundred-or-so kiloseconds, and had consequently had less time to really absorb what had befallen them all.

The seats to Singer’s immediate right were unoccupied just now, while the helm seat at “noon” was held by Alexander, which gave Singer momentary pause. It occurred to her she had no idea what skills Alexander was cross-trained on, but made a mental note to look. She trusted Alexander a great deal, but she was also the acting captain. It was her job to do more than trust.

That meant they had no navigator, just now, and no tactical. That was probably fine. Once they’d straightened out their flight and figured out where they exactly where, relatively speaking, a course for Norfolk Station was pretty straightforwardly figured out by the computer, even without an AI’s help.

It also meant that, with the CO’s privacy shrouds around her displays, Singer could look up what she wanted to know right now, and finally pulled up Alexander’s service record, suppressing any sense of guilt.

She needn’t have worried. Alexander, it seemed, was something of a polymath. Ze’d done a full rotation on the Claridge as relief pilot, stepping into the first shift role for a time before rotating off that ship and also into more technical pursuits. This helped to explain why Alexander was still a junior lieutenant. Having split zir time, their record was somewhat confusing. They’d now had enough time in their more technical role to probably earn a full lieutenancy, though. Assuming we make it home!, Singer thought.

Singer looked up, and saw that everyone had finished their own logins and settling in, and were looking at her. Right. I’m in charge. Whose idea was this?!

“Status reports.” This was routine, and would run clockwise from the helm. “Helm system reports ready,” Alexander said. “Sensor One ready,” from Cadotte. “Sensor Two ready,” from Wasserman. Cordé, who looked like she didn’t know why she was there, nevertheless had the most verbose report. “Comm diagnostics show primary normal-space transceiver is offline; secondary is online, but there’s not much to hear. With the time compression drive in its current condition, we have no network contact, and won’t have for at least three megaseconds, when we should reach the outer range of Beacon FX932, according to the course Lieutenant Alexander has plotted to Norfolk. Worse comes to worst, we’ll reach the beacon itself in five megs.”

Singer wanted to give her erstwhile colleague a cheer, or a big smile, or a thumbs up. But she was the skipper now. She allowed herself a small smile and a nod of acknowledgment. Finally, she took what she hoped was not too obviously a deep breath, and said, “Lieutenant Alexander, right the ship.”

“Aye, ma’am”, came the response. The holotank came alive with a wireframe image of the ship in its lazy tumble—Wasserman’s work, she was guessing, based on their work together on the inspection. Then, as Alexander delicately touched zir controls, the activity of the thrusters showed as red vectors away from the ship.

Singer didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until the tank showed no more tumble, and zoomed out to show their almost straight-line course for Norfolk Station, a large gold dot connected to the wireframe of the ship by a blue line, with the beacon previously mentioned called out as a smaller blue dot, just off the line of their projected course.

Alexander reported, “Skipper, the ship is righted. The helm is responsive, or at least as responsive as I’d expect with several thrusters missing. No sluggishness, no malfunction in remaining systems. Time Compression drive reads ready for up to 50:1 right now---I know we’d said 75:1, but the diagnostics are recommending we baby it a bit while the crews continue to work, and I concur.”

Singer weighed that. She had lost the habit of really thinking of her job as dangerous, but right now, every day in space felt like another day something could go catastrophically wrong. Still, she was not about to joggle the arm of the closest thing she had to an expert. “Bring us to 50:1, Lieutenant.”

“Fifty-to-one, aye, ma’am!”

Again, Singer found herself holding her breath. The shift to Time Compression Drive was usually seamless, but there was definitely a jiggle, a twitch, something, this time. She noticed, and could see that everyone around her did, too.

It passed, quickly, and everyone let out their breath. Not just me, then. Good.

Cordé wasn’t done with the moment, though. “What was that?”

Alexander was doing a lot of poking at zir console. To someone who didn’t know zir at all, it looked pretty straightforward, but Singer, even with her shields up, could discern a concerned frown. Finally, ze said, “We can maintain 50:1 for now, but I definitely want a chance to look at things myself before we try to take it up any further. It’s operating normally now that we’re ‘cruising’, but that...twitch. That shouldn’t have happened.”

Cordé did not exactly relax, but at least stopped looking spooked.

Singer looked to Alexander. “Lieutenant, is there anyone else who can sit your station while you investigate?” Or, Singer did not say, although she knew Alexander would infer, when you have to sleep?

“For the moment, I believe PO Wasserman would be of more use monitoring our course. Since no maneuvering should be necessary, the fact that he has navigation training, but not yet pilot training, should not matter.”

Singer let the situation kind of hang in the air for a moment. She was pretty sure it would not take Alexander long.

It didn’t.

“That’s not really enough, is it, ma’am.”

“No, Lieutenant, I think it’s not. Do we have anyone else aboard still who knows how to fly so much as a hang-glider?”

At this point, Singer was not being entirely fair. She already knew how to find the personnel files. She could look it up herself. But Alexander needed to come to terms with the reality that ze was the de facto executive officer, now, which made knowing these things zir job.

Alexander gave the appearance of thinking about it. Singer was pretty sure ze was taking advantages of zir implants to peruse the files without needing privacy shrouds.

Finally, ze answered, “Two of the middies have helm training and were due for rotation soon. One of them has also cross-trained in time compression drive mechanics---not extensively, but right now, every bit matters. The other one is currently off-shift after doing a lot of DC duty. One of the five folks recovering from surgery also has helm cross-training, although their current billet is botany. At the moment, I think our need for someone who can both monitor the helm and sit as an officer of the watch probably trumps our need for a botanist, unless we find ourselves stranded on a Mars-like planet and need to survive on potatoes.”

Singer didn’t get it, but Cadotte apparently did, from the snort that came from Singer’s left.

“All right, Lieutenant,” Singer said, hopefully smoothly. “Arrange the rotation, I’ll sign off on it. We’ll probably need to find similar backfills for other roles. For example, I realize it’s likely to be very dull duty, but, I want someone on comms, unless Chef’s got the attention to spare, ‘round the clock.”

Alexander raised an eyebrow. “Ma’am?”

“A hunch, Lieutenant. More of an itch at the back of my head.”

Alexander’s raised eyebrow became a head-tilt as well. To her left, she could sense Cadotte sitting a bit straighter as the penny dropped for them. Discipline being pretty lax, Cadotte blurted out, “What if it wasn’t just us?”

Alexander’s eyes went wide, then ze nodded, composure restored.

“We should be listening for distress calls, or really any other traffic that might indicate an issue.”

“Exactly. It might be a long shot that we’d hear anything given the state of our equipment, but the closer in to Norfolk we get, the denser traffic would have been.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Cordé somewhat timidly putting up a hand, not willing to blurt quite as avidly as Cadotte. “Yes, Ensign?” Singer said, turning toward her.

“Ma’am, if that’s a concern, we should be tightly limiting data traffic in. In fact, we may want to completely firewall ourselves from data traffic that isn’t clean voice-and-vid.”

Chef had been largely absent from the conversation---Singer had assumed he was busy elsewhere---but now, a small spot with his face appeared in the holotank. “Skipper, Ensign Cordé has a good point. I think you’re right we should be listening, but we have to be very careful.” The “very” was drawn out for emphasis.

Singer, of course, was a comm officer---or had been until about 120 kilos ago. “Quarantine Protocol One, then, Ensign. Lock it to your key, mine, and Alexander’s.”

She watched Cordé set it up, none of the hesitation she’d had since sitting down with the rest of them evident. This was Her Job, and she knew how to do it. “Set up, ma’am. Waiting for your and the Lieutenant’s palms.”

Singer saw the right-hand palm-pad on her chair give her the familiar prompt of an outline of a hand, and applied hers appropriately, and saw Alexander do the same.

The door across from Singer opened, and an ensign in sciences colors came in and moved to Alexander’s station. “You wanted to see me, LT?”

“Yes, Ensign. I know you’ve been happy in botany, but the Skipper has reminded me that we’re short on people trained on flight systems, and I can only be one place at a time.”

If the young man felt imposed upon in any way, he didn’t show it. “Yes, Lieutenant. Now?”

“Please, Ensign.”

“I relieve you, then,” he said, suddenly conscious of the formalities.

Alexander stood. “I stand relieved. Skipper, I’ll be in engineering having a long talk with the TC drive. I’ll have crew rotations for key shifts to you by tomorrow’s alpha watch.”

“Remember to sleep sometime, yes?”

“Yes, Skipper,” Alexander replied, with what sounded almost like a sigh.

After Alexander left, Singer decided to ignore embarrassment and said, “Ensign, I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

“Itzkowitz, ma’am.”

“Very well, Ensign Itzkowitz. Steady as she goes.”

It was entirely unnecessary, and entirely necessary. When she gave that command, he settled into the seat like he’d been sitting helm all along, and began doing whatever pilots did when the course was mostly locked in.

Singer looked around, and realized she was actually superfluous on the bridge right now. She had “captain” things to do---she needed to catch up on the ship’s books, the late captain’s logs, and other such paperwork. Oh, and she had to come up with words for the ceremony later.

It suddenly occurred to her that the next few weeks were going to be profoundly tedious. But at least, at the end of it all, they’d be alive.

On that hopeful thought, she looked to Cadotte. “Lieutenant, I’ll be office. You have the watch,” she said, and stood.

Cadotte stood in turn. “Aye, ma’am. I have the watch.” They sat themselves in the OOW’s chair.

Singer took one look back from the door at the crew—her crew—doing their jobs. She allowed herself a smile, and went to read the books.