Things Fall Apart: Chapter 6, 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!

Three kilos later, almost exactly, Lieutenant Alexander buzzed for entry to the Singer's office. Singer realized she had no trouble thinking of this space as hers, as opposed to the late CO's, probably because she'd never actually been in it. This was the "backup" after all! She could only think of two, maybe three occasions she’d ever been in the CO’s primary office. As a delta shift, junior officer, even as occasional officer of the watch, most of her dealings had been with Maupassant, the XO.

Singer hit the desk control to open the door. Alexander looked tired, but a little triumphant, Singer thought. Then she realized no, she had her shields partially down. Alexander's face was its usual fairly flat affect, but triumph was emanating from zir, anyway.

"You wanted to see me, Skipper?"

"I did, Lieutenant. Please have a seat. Before I get started, do you have any news for me?"

At that, Alexander actually let the triumph show on zir face. "The time compression drive is now in significantly better shape. The H4 did a lot of damage, but whomever was controlling it was apparently going for brute force, and didn't think through what would happen when it hit that high-voltage line. That caused damage of its own, of course, but most importantly, it stopped the H4 doing any more, and in the end, the biggest problem was the power line itself. The biggest reason we had to limp this long was that we just couldn't get enough actual energy to the system. Fixing the power run solved that."

Singer entertained a brief hope. "Can we make our usual speeds, then?" If so, that would get them to Norfolk significantly faster, days instead of weeks.

Alexander's triumph faded, but only a little bit. Ze had never really had such a hope. "No, ma'am. One-hundred to one is still going to be the best ratio we can manage, but I believe we'll be able to sustain it, whereas before, I feared it would be bursts, only."

Singer did not let her disappointment show. "A win is a win, and that's definitely a win. Thank you, Lieutenant!"

"Thank the middies, ma'am. One of the aspiring engineers saw through the chaos the H4 had left and realized that, if we cleaned up the debris, the power line was our biggest challenge. Several coils were damaged beyond repair, it's true, which is why we can't get to our full capacity, but, well, basically, it could have been a lot worse, a lot more complex."

Singer had to ask, "I suppose it's too much to hope we have the wherewithal to replicate the missing components?"

"I'm afraid so, ma'am. The key components involve some exotic elements, and the fabrication process is incredibly specialized."

Singer accepted that. "Alright. One-hundred-to-one it is. When we're done here, pass the word to the helm to step it up."

"Aye, ma'am."

"Anything else?"

"I'm still hoping to have a duty roster to you by the end of next shift, but the time compressor seemed like a priority, so it may take 'til tomorrow."

Singer nodded. "We seem to be staggering on without one, but I agree some formality and normality would be good. Still, it can wait 'til tomorrow if need be."

"I think that's it, then, ma'am."

"First thing from my side, then, is that you've been acting as XO, but I haven't actually appointed you. I want to. Do you accept?"

Alexander blinked. Then looked down at the pad ze had with zir that ze had not actually had to refer to up until this point. Ze didn't answer.

Singer gave zir a minute, then said, "Lieutenant?"

"Sorry, ma'am.'re right. Even when I started in on the duty roster, it was needed to be done. The fact that's the XO's job never occurred to me. It all makes sense...I'm the next senior officer surviving and all."


"I'm deliberately not command track. Ma'am, I know you didn't know me well before this...crisis. But I think by now you've gotten to know me well enough to see I'm not really a people person."

"Would you have called Commander Maupassant a people person?"

"That's just it, ma'am. I don't know!"

"OK, then, let me help you with that. Maupassant was not a people person, at least, not in the sense I think you're thinking. He mostly kept to himself, small talk drove him up a wall, and he deliberately played 'bad cop' to make the captain look better. However, people still loved working with him, especially the middies. He was stunningly competent, but never in a way that made you feel like less. Instead, he made everyone working with him think that they could be stunningly competent, some day, too, even if they weren't there yet. He could show you every mistake you made in minute detail and make you realize that he was doing you a kindness, because otherwise, you wouldn't learn now to not make those mistakes again."

Alexander took that in, nodded, and responded, "I'm not sure I can actually do that, ma'am."

"Lieutenant, from what I've already seen, I have no doubt whatsoever. It won't be easy, and I know it's a big step out of your comfort zone. I'm right there next to you. But it's what our ship and shipmates need."

Singer saw that hit home. She had, in fact, cribbed big-time from some of the pep-talks she'd heard Maupassant giving over the years, including during her own time as a midshipman. Steal from the best, she thought as she watched Alexander process.

Finally, Alexander's eyes met hers. "I accept, Skipper."

Singer held out her hand for a ritual handshake, and Alexander met it.


"Yes, Skipper?" came the voice, as his face appeared on a screen.

"Please note in the ship's log that Lieutenant Robin Alexander is now acting executive officer."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Before Singer could say anything else, Alexander said, "This being the case ma'am, I have a recommendation I was going to make a bit later, but feel like I should make now."

"Go ahead!"

"PO Kasel is legitimately overdue for receiving his chief's chop. According to a notation in Kasel's record, Commander Maupassant was literally planning to bring this up with the CO the shift when the incident occurred."

Singer's eyes narrowed. "That would make him the only chief surviving, yes?"

"Unfortunately, ma'am, yes."

"Which would make him the bosun."


"Think he's ready for that?"

Alexander gave Singer a look that was surprisingly good at recalling the entire conversation the two of them had just had about Alexander's self-doubt.

Singer took the hint. "Guess he's going to have to be, isn't he. We'll announce that, and your own step-up, at the memorial. Anyone else need a boost, you think?"

"I'll need to read the records more closely, ma'am. I had looked at Kasel's specifically because I was curious about how far his medical qualifications went. He's done a superb job, which made me think he was playing himself down. His formal qualifications, however, are exactly what he's claimed. Informally, the medics he's worked with over the last several years all note that he would more or less fly though medical school at this point, and the only obstacle seems to be himself. In the meantime, we're in good hands as long as nothing really exotic happens to us."

It was Singer's turn to blink back at her exec.

"I'm talking, like, multidimensional nanoviral mutogenenics or something, Skipper. Having a fusion drive take out a third of the ship due to sabotage is perfectly normal, explicable physics."

"I...concede the point."

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