Things Fall Apart: Chapter 6, Part 4

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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!

Unlike the funeral, to which she had been the first in attendance and the first to leave, she was, by tradition Chef had had to explain to her, fashionably late to the wake. Officially, this was a matter of the CO's dignity. Unofficially, like the delay before the crew followed her out of the bay, it was a recognition that the CO might need some time in private with their grief. It was assumed that the CO was usually too busy to be human.

Singer was increasingly sure she didn't much like being CO.

She also didn't much like wakes, or funerals. There was no amount of shielding she could reasonably erect against so many strong emotions. As a junior officer, she could always put in the minimum amount of time to be seen as respectful, and then retreat. As CO, she had no such refuge. Once there, she would need to stay, probably until the very end.

She was still in her dress blues. She didn't have to be---she suspected several people would dress down for the wake, not least of which because some of them would be getting sloppy drunk and not want to mess their dress uniforms up. It was irrational, but she felt like the uniform, complete with the "acting-CO" chop Chef had talked her into, was now part of her armor. Wearing it, she had license to be a little aloof, if she had to be. She knew some COs who were remote as the moon, all cruise, and others, like Blinovic, who had the "common touch". She'd never really thought through which she would be given the chance, because she never expected to need to know.

Time to find out.

The wave of emotion hit her when she was still twenty meters away from Main Rec, and it was only then that Singer realized part of her reluctance to attend this thing stemmed from the fact that the incident had occurred there, for her. The real incident had happened several decks up, and then all over the ship, but for her, the locus of trauma was Main Rec.

Not for the first time, she found herself thinking that, when they finally made Norfolk Station, there were probably not enough shrinks on the station for the number of therapy sessions that were going to be needed.

The doors were open, and she could also hear more mundanely the mood of the crew. Grief, brittle hope, and a bit of "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry" nihilism.

Somehow, she needed to raise the "hope" part of that mix.

Walking through the doors, she saw that the usual "party" layout had been applied to the room. One corner had a double circle of chairs that was already congealing into a music circle. The haze of a sound field that would keep it audible, but not overpowering to the rest of the room, could be seen already, and some people were there tuning instruments or otherwise getting set up.

Idly, Singer wondered who had done this work, particularly when it involved unbolting and rebolting furniture to the deck. It occurred to her she had no idea who would usually have done it, let alone who did it now. She made a mental note to ask Chef, or Alexander.

To her left as she walked in from the boulevard, a small raised platform had been set up, which let everyone know there'd be a bit more ceremony tonight. It was being left alone, for now, except for one crewperson who was perched on the edge, cross-legged, drink in hand, talking with someone.

Kasel saw her, and came over to her, not quite in a bee line, but still clearly with intention. He was also still in his dress uniform, which made her think, increasingly, that either Alexander or Chef had let him know what was coming. For that matter, she saw that Alexander and Cadotte, in conversation at a table, were also still in their blues.

Singer felt absurdly warmed by the solidarity, deliberate or not.

When he reached her, Kasel said, quietly and simply, "Skipper, do you need something for the 'headache'?" Somehow, she could hear the quotes, and fought not to double-take. Kasel had been reading service jackets, too, apparently.

"No, PO, but thank you. It's too easy to get addicted to the silence." She knew that would be a little cryptic, but hoped he'd get it.

He did, or seemed to. He just nodded, and stepped out of her way to let her proceed into the room.

She walked past the buffet, picking up a plate and a few items. She wasn't particularly hungry, but she had an example to set, and it would do people good to see her taking care of herself in the basic ways, like consuming a calorie. Reaching the drinks portion, she decided upon fizzy water rather than anything either caffeinated or alcoholic. There was no message in this---if anything, she hoped people would mistake it for a gin and tonic. She had no problem with off-duty crew members getting drunk as long as they didn't get disorderly, and if she had, well, tonight, she was willing to cut a lot of slack. But she, herself, was going to need her wits about her for the foreseeable future.

In the past, she would have picked a table at random, as long as she knew at least one person at the table. Tonight, she deliberately aimed for the table Alexander and Cadotte had staked out. She would mingle later. She would have to.

Alexander saw her coming and waved to the seat next to zir without hesitation. Singer got the impression they'd been saving it for her, anyway.

Singer wondered what it said that, right now, the ship's resident empath's two closest associates, her refuge, were two people whose neurodivergence meant they were less sensitive than usual to emotion. Not quite two peas in a pod, these two, Singer thought, but definitely two of the heroes we need right now.

She took the proffered seat, and was not at all put off when the two officers acknowledged her with a nod, and then picked up a conversation they'd already been having.

"Look," Cadotte said, "I know all the risks. I've taken them before."

"And spent three months in a coma."

"That was a mistake, one I've learned from since."

"But that's exactly the problem with this tech. 'Mistake' can mean serious neural trauma, and the probability goes up each time you use it."

"We have to know what went wrong!" That was probably the most emphatic statement Singer had ever heard from Cadotte.

"We do, but we have not yet exhausted other avenues."

Singer was beginning to think she'd walked in on an argument that had already chased itself around in a circle two or three times, so decided to use her genuine ignorance of the subject as an excuse to interject. "Since we're talking about risking the brain-meats of one of our few remaining officers of any seniority, mind telling me what we're arguing about?"

Cadotte, with their usual blissful ignorance of protocol, blurted, "I want to use an NDI to dive into the ship's net and try to debug Chef."


"Neural debugging interface. AI coders use it all the time. It's...not exactly an upload, or download, of actual consciousness, but it's probably the closest we've come. A trained operator can use it to walk a network more the way an AI does, and even get into an AI's innards."

Singer nodded. "And you're a trained operator?"

Cadotte had the grace to look sheepish. "Not...really."

"So this is a good idea...why?"

After a pause, they said, "It's not the most bad idea."

"No, but there have to be better ones."

"Sure, but do we have time? Chef's...well, he's not dangerous, I don't think, but he's definitely distracted. The whole thing with the gumbo and his files being mis-sorted. That shouldn't even be possible, you know."

"You're afraid he might be affected by whatever set off the other AIs, caused the accident?"

"Or damaged by it, at least. The equivalent of a traumatic brain injury, maybe? I don't know. And that's the point, I'm not sure we can know from the outside!"

Singer could see Alexander was absolutely set against the idea, or at least, the idea of Cadotte trying it when there had clearly been a past incident that had not gone well. Singer was not prepared to take a tool off the table, but she shared the basic sense of caution. Right now, nobody was expendable.

"Lieutenant, right now, I need everybody's brain intact. Let's see what else we can do to sort Chef out. I have a couple of ideas to pursue, myself, including one fairly low tech one I'm going to try in the morning. If we don't get anywhere in a day or two, we can revisit the question of using the NDI, and of who takes the risk."

That was the best way Singer could think of to split the baby, just now, and as expected, neither of her officers seemed entirely satisfied with her solution, but it did wind down the argument.

The conversation steered to less fraught topics, Singer being particularly keen to actually not talk shop just now. It was always a danger, living inside the fragile bubble that was a starship, to talk about it all the time, but there were other topics to talk about.

Eventually, the room cycled into one of those lulls that seem to naturally happen, not exactly quiet, but a bunch of conversations seemed to peter out at once. Singer decided this was as good a time as any for whatever ceremony she was going to have, here, and so, she excused herself from the table, and headed to the stage. Alexander joined her, and she saw Alexander had a small box in zir hand.

She had the room's attention almost immediately. Keep this short, she thought to herself. This crowd is still brittle and on edge and needs its time to work things out.

"Folks, we're here, of course, to remember those we've lost, but also to commemorate that life goes on. In that vein, I have two announcements I want to make, and then, I'll let you get on with things.

"First, I want to announce that I have formally asked Lieutenant Alexander to stand as acting executive officer, and ze has accepted."

There was applause at this, even some cheers. That brought Singer some secret relief. She had made the choice based on a combination of seniority, and how she felt about Alexander herself, but she had no idea how anyone else would feel about it.

"Second, would PO Kasel please come forward?"

Kasel was back near the music circle, and stood uncertainly, and possibly a little unsteadily. Briefly, she hoped he was not about to embarrass both of them by turning out to be seriously drunk already.

She needn't have worried. When he came on stage, she sensed nor smelled no inebriation on him. He was just bone-tired.

"Petty Officer Kasel," Singer began, "Lieutenant Alexander has been reviewing the records, and discovered a serious lapse that we are now in a position to correct."

Alexander handed Singer the box, which Singer opened, taking out a silver pin in the shape of a seven-pointed star. Singer had to admit she was probably a bad officer in that she did not know the significance of the shape beyond that it designated a Chief Petty Officer when worn on the collar.

Without being ordered, Kasel was suddenly at attention, as Singer reached up to place the pin on his collar.

"Bellerophon, please congratulate our newest Chief Petty Officer, Terrance Kasel."

This was met with truly raucous applause. Kasel, it seemed was popular. What's more the ratings knew as well as she did that this also made him the senior non-comm, their advocate and liaison with the officer corps. Apparently, they approved of the choice.

Truth be told, he looked a little stunned by it all, and Singer wasn't sure he fully grokked the implications of his new status, despite that he'd acted the bosun's part at the funeral. No matter, she was sure he'd figure it out after some sleep.

She concluded the ceremony by offering her hand for him to shake, which he did, after which she dismissed him formally, returning his salute as he returned to his table to be pounded on the back by his mates.

"That's all the time we need for formalities, now, people. Except that I want to acknowledge and thank you all for your efforts these last 300 kilos. We all came out here knowing our jobs could be dangerous, but we never really expected this particular danger. You have all risen to the occasion, and together, we're going to make it home."

This brought one last round of cheers, and Singer and Alexander left the stage.

Singer just wished she felt as sure as she'd just made her crew feel.

End Chapter 6