Things Fall Apart: Chapter 6, Part 3

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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!

Beta shift was ticking down to Gamma, and Singer stood alone in the boat bay in front of a podium. Arrayed before her were thirty burial pods--all they could afford to replicate right now, and anyway, all that would fit in the boat bay. The pods themselves sent the message that Singer had made a decision regarding the disposition of the deceased. She hoped it was the right one. Regulations had offered her no guidance in a situation with this many variables. She had chosen to risk their replication mass by not recycling the dead.

So she stood there, alone with thirty bodies, in her dress uniform. Her cabin had been entirely untouched, which meant her uniform was real wool, the uniform properly tailored for her, and the decorations real brass. Right now, replication would have had to have been in lighter weight, easier-to-recycle materials. It was vanity to care, but at the same time, she literally had an appearance to uphold, now. After all, she was the skipper.

Chef had insisted on that point, in fact, reminding her several times (along with fretting over his gumbo recipe) that she needed to add the aiguilette that marked her as Acting Captain to the repertoire. She didn't want to. It felt disrespectful, in the room with the people who should be in charge, to do so.

But that was irrational, and she knew it. They were gone. The reason she was here, the reason the surviving crew would soon be here, would be to bring that reality home.

The speakers sounded eight bells, shift change, followed shortly by a bosun's whistle, and Chef announcing, "All Hands bury the dead!"

People began to shuffle in almost immediately. Singer realized they had been waiting outside. The four remaining marines--a sergeant, two corporals, and a buck private--came in together and took up honor guard positions on either side of the three rows of pods, followed by the most ambulatory crew members, whom she'd assigned as color guard, who took up their own positions on either side of the captain's pod, draped in the Tau Ceti Treaty Fleet ensign. She could swear she'd read that one of them really ought to be on crutches, but you'd never know it from their march or their stance.

When everyone seemed to be gathered, another bosun's whistle sounded. To her surprise, given she had not actually bumped him to chief, yet, and named him bosun, the whistle came not from the speakers, but from PO Kasel. Somehow, he had found or replicated the real thing. It was Chef, however, who then called out, "Parade rest!"

Singer paused for the customary moment of silence, ran her tongue around her teeth to combat her dry mouth, and began to speak.

"'We are standing upon the seashore. A ship at our side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. We stand and watch until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and the sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone says, “There she goes.”

‘Gone where? Gone from our sight...that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left our side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in us, not in her. And just at the moment when someone says, “There she goes”, there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”’ Old Earth Poem, Nineteenth Century, Author Unknown.’”

She paused, and then began again. "Like the ship in that poem, our fallen have moved beyond our ken. We will not see them again on this shore. Let us take comfort in knowing that we are parted but temporarily, to join them again on the day we take our own voyage beyond that horizon."

With some uncertainty, she looked to Kasel, but he'd been waiting---either he'd actually done this before, or someone had coached him---and sounded his whistle again. The crew snapped to attention without further order, as the force-field came alight and the bay door opened. It was Chef once again who gave the verbal order, "Present arms!" The marines presented their weapons while the rest of the assembled saluted. The color guard raised the ensign above the captain's pod. Directly behind it would be the XO, and then the head of engineering, who had been next in seniority. There simply wasn't an ensign large enough for even the thirty assembled pods, so this was the protocol--the three ranking members honored on behalf of all the fallen.

"Though we commit their bodies to the deep, we commend our fellows to the stars. May their light shine eternal.” Singer drew her hand up deliberately, offering her Captain a final salute. A pair of H4s started the pod on a slow march toward the bay door, and Chef began to read the roll of the dead. “Captain Odgerel Blinovic. Commander Emannuel Maupassant. Lieutenant Commander Abel Smith. Lieutenant Commander...” The Captain’s pod broke through the energy field with a firm push to carry it beyond the ship, and Chef’s voice kept a steady cadence, carefully timed to match each flight of pods from the lower deck. A silent formation filled the view, and then the last flight launched, and Kasel sounded Pipe Down for the fallen.

Chef called out, "Order arms. Parade rest!". The marines returned their weapons to their sides, and everyone slowly dropped their salute.

The color guard neatly folded the ensign, and then their senior presented it to Singer. The assembly came smartly to attention as Singer turned, equally smartly, and exited the bay, the door sliding shut behind her. The rest of the crew would queue up and march out once she had cleared the corridor.

It was only after she'd left the room that she realized that the delay was to give the senior officer a moment's privacy while she choked back tears.

In the forward, I acknowledge the players of the game scenario that was the origination of this story, for their inspiration. In this chapter, I must specifically credit Briar Hayes for the text of the eulogy.

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