Things Fall Apart: Chapter 6, 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!

The shift had passed uneventfully, which all by itself felt like an event. Singer had made short work of the ship's books. Lieutenant Commander Maupassant, the late XO, and Captain Blinovic had both been capable administrators as well as leaders, qualities that did not always come together. The result was that the books were an orderly affair, with issues and anomalies clearly called out. The captain's official logs were similarly orderly, almost boring, although they did leave her privy to two disciplinary actions that had been pending, with two individuals who, as fate would have it, were still alive. Neither was for a serious infraction, but she was still going to have to think through whether to let it slide entirely, or let the two miscreants know they were not entirely off the hook.

For now, they were needed where they were. They were both middies, and the middies, having been isolated from the worst of the chaos by Maupassant's apparent clairvoyance, were doing a lot of the cleanup and repair work by virtue of being themselves the least damaged.

Singer was just about to declare herself "off" and go find a snack, when her console chimed. She sighed and hit the accept key, to find Chef gazing back at her from the screen.

"Good shift, Chef! What's up?"

"Skipper," he said, with more formality than she usually heard from him, "I have a compilation of the ship's current status if you're ready for it."

She looked quickly at the time, and realized that it was a little past mid-shift. She wondered if this was a routine the Blinovic had had, or something Chef was doing on his own.

As if reading her thought--which...that was supposed to be her talent--Chef said, "Sorry, ma'am, it just occurred to me: Lieutenant Alexander asked me to gate-keep for you a bit, have people route reports to me, and so on. Ze has already vetted the report, and would have come to make it zirself, but, as ze says, and I quote, 'I'm elbow deep in one of the time compressor coils, and if I get too distracted I'm never going to see those elbows again.'"

Singer, caught off guard, found herself simply laughing out loud.

Chef's formal demeanor turned into something more sly, and she asked, "Have you appointed yourself morale officer, on top of everything else you have to do right now, Chef?"

"No ma'am, but right now, I figure morale boosting's everyone's job, really. Takes a village, and all that."

She found herself smiling with real warmth at the AI. She had never bothered herself much with the philosophy of whether AIs were "really" people. Chef felt like people to her, and always had, even when some of the other AIs hadn't. But the ones that hadn't, hadn't felt like machines, per se, either, she realized. They'd just felt like...well, different kind of people, she supposed. Like Alexander or Cadotte, each in different ways, or for that matter, like the late Maupassant, who had been almost the textbook example of the hard-assed XO, the bad cop who let the CO be the good cop.

She'd been thinking a lot about Maupassant, the last hour or so, for some reason. Another tickle in the back of her head, like her hunch about listening for transmissions even this far out. She had access to the reports he’d filed with the CO; now, she wondered if she also had access to his logs, or if Alexander did. Or could have, if she actually remembered to appoint Alexander officially as acting XO.

She also realized she was woolgathering, again. "Sorry, Chef. Got lost for a moment. Please, give your report."

"Yes'm. First, I must report that my gumbo recipe is still missing, and my bread recipes all somehow have become mis-sorted, a matter of significant concern.

"Engineering reports that Fusion Three is in good shape; Lieutenant Alexander recommends we leave it in warm-backup mode, since we don't currently need the power, except that ze would like to swap them at some point, perhaps tomorrow, to give Fusion One a more thorough going-over. So far, it's been entirely nominal, but everything was a bit rushed when it was brought online, and ze would like to be sure.

"Ventral Boat Bay has been patched up. The captain's gig and both pinnaces—Dart and Flamingo—took no damage and report all systems nominal. Lieutenant Cadotte surmises that, since they were shut down, and don't have 'resident' AIs of their own, they were not caught up in the incident.

"PO Kasel, for Medical, reports the last of the five critical patients has regained consciousness, although they, along with about twenty others, will be on the sick list for some days to come. Alexander is still working on the shift roster, and promises ze'll have it for you by the end of Alpha.

"Kasel also reports, formally and officially, that 131 of the ship's complement, including Captain Blinovic, are unaccounted for and presumed lost in the decompression event. Another 127 are accounted for and deceased, including XO Maupassant.

"Bridge reports that the helm continues to respond as expected, sensors have detected nothing of interest, and comms remain quiet. We are on course, cruising at 50:1, with hopes of managing 75:1 before the memorial service this evening."

Chef stopped there, looking attentive, clearly anticipating questions.

First on her mind was Maupassant. "Chef, do we know how XO Maupassant died, where he was? He'd apparently had the foresight to have you and the middies isolated for training, but he wasn't actually in the training area with you?"

"No, ma'am. He'd been called away away. His body was found in a decompressed section on Deck Five, tangled up with environmental equipment that stayed behind when the bulkhead to starboard went. I can't say for certain, Skipper, but I think that timing was coincidence. I'm probably not supposed to have hunches, but I have a hunch he expected to be on the 'right' side of his precautions."

Singer narrowed her eyes. "OK, let's get specific here. Do you think he was in on it, or just that he had an itch in the back of his brain like I've been having about the comms?"

"The latter, I'm pretty sure. Among other things, his programming chops were pretty clumsy. He had access, of course, but he rarely did his own coding unless it didn't matter if it was totally brute force."

"And you don't think this qualifies?"

Chef visibly considered that. It occurred to Singer, not for the first time, that a great deal of effort went into gestures like that, slowing his apparent processes down to interact with people.

"No, ma'am, I don't think it does. The end results were pretty brute force, it's true--a nuclear explosion's about as brute a force as you can get without just wielding a really, really big hammer. But, even allowing for the quirks the XO seemed to see, that led him to take precautions, this was actually pretty subtle. I mean, did you see anything odd before hand?"

Singer shook her head. "No. I keep feeling like I should have, though."

"Nobody else did. I didn't. The Captain didn't. Only Maupassant, and honestly, even that's guessing--why else isolate me, and the middies, for a training exercise?"

"Can I get access to the XO's logs, Chef?"

"Sorry, ma'am. Protocol to allow the XO to remain something of a check on the CO means only the XO and someone of flag rank can have that access."

That's what she'd thought, so she didn't try to argue. "Can I appoint an acting XO?"

"Yes'm. The security systems have accepted you as Acting Captain, and we're out of touch, which gives you broad authority over personnel. You'll have to back up your decisions when we get home, of course, but then, that's part of what a log is for anyway."

Singer lapsed into thought for a moment, although she mostly knew what to do next. Sorting it out into orders, looked again at the time. About 37 kilos until the memorial. She still had to figure out what to say.


Finally, she roused herself. "Alright, Chef. Please ask Lieutenant Alexander to come see me here in 3 kilos, assuming zir elbows are still attached. There are some things I want to go over with zir before I take some time to get ready for the memorial."

"Yes, Skipper!"