Things Fall Apart: Chapter 7, 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!

"Good morning, Skipper!"

"Good morning, Chef," Singer returned as she entered her office. She'd already stopped by the bridge, finding everything in order. Their course remained uneventful, the ship's systems were still operating as well as they might under the circumstances. Now, it was back to paperwork for a bit. "Do you have a status summary for me?"

"Yes, Skipper. I regret that the issue with the missing gumbo recipe, and with the mis-sorted files, persists. Efforts at self-diagnosis have proven unsuccessful. Chief Kasel reports that all crew members are now sufficiently able-bodied to carry out at least light duty. All of this has been included for Lieutenant Alexander to build rosters from, and ze tells me a revised roster will be available within the hour.

"Repair parties have managed to patch all of the patchable holes in the hull. A decision was made overnight to replicate some plates rather than completely deplete DC stocks, against later emergencies. This was made possible by the recycling we've been doing of debris and damaged components that were not blown away by the initial accident. As a result, the actual net drain on replication mass was nearly nil."

Singer interjected, "Who made that call?"

"Lieutenant Cadotte, ma'am. They've rotated to gamma shift specifically to supervise that shift's DC team."

It was a good call, and more to the point, the right call. Singer tried to decide if it should have been her call, however, to make. An unexpected test of her command style was before her while the caffeine was still finding her synapses.

Trust your officers. You really don't have much choice.

And that's what it came down to in the end. She was an entirely untried, untrained CO, her XO was equally green, all of her officers pushed into roles with which they were unfamiliar. Maybe, just maybe, with a full complement of experienced officers shouldering the burden, the CO would have time to make calls like that. But then, with such a complement of crew, the CO would probably feel confident not making that decision themselves.

So: ego be damned, let the call stand.

"It was the right call. Note my agreement in the log."

"Yes'm. Everything else seems to be routine at the moment. XO asks me to say ze'll be on time for your meeting in three kiloseconds."

Three kiloseconds was a fair amount of time to possibly try to get at the bottom of something.

"Chef, can you please explain why the gumbo problem has been the top of your priorities every report since the incident?"

There was a pause. A long pause, especially for an AI who already had to slow themselves down just to talk to people.

"Skipper, I can't. It just feels...very urgent."

An itch at the back of his brain? Well, she's let enough of those guide her lately.

Without warning or preamble, she said, "Chef, display gumbo recipe file."


"I tell you three times." The override. If it was physically possible, the AI would do it even if their conscious volition would be against it. It was a bit of a dirty trick to play, and she knew it, but she was also playing Chef's own hunch about the urgency.

Her screen lit up


There it was. So simple, so complicated. Chef's indexing algorithms--already screwed up apparently, given the alphabetization problem he'd also reported--would have choked on the prompt, which indicated that someone very, very clever had pulled off a code injection hack in what should have been a fairly straightforward text file., it wouldn't be in the file itself. They'd hacked the display code to trigger here. She wouldn't have thought that would affect Chef, but maybe a different easter egg had been planted in Chef's internal interpretation code specifically to lead to this moment.

Curious, she asked, "Chef, are you aware of what's on my screen right now?"

Another pause, then, "I am, but I had to go an indirect route. I'm being blocked from seeing it from the inside, as it were. I had to use the display's camera and read the reflection off your glasses."

"What do you make of it."

"I think if Commander Maupassant were still with us I'd be pulling rank I don't have to put him on bread and water for a month."

"So you think he was the one who put this there?"

"Now that I see that something’s been done, I can find the commit in the code repository, along with the one that kept me from being able to interpret the recipe in the first place. However, thanks to his cleverness, there are other changes with his name associated, but which I am unable to look at."

"And yet, he left a passcode prompt. He wanted us to figure this out, I think. Like, he hoped that his precautions would mean he'd survive whatever happened, but he deliberately left a scenario that would lead us to question and try to dig."

"Looks that way, ma'am. But if you're hoping I know the passcode, I don't."

Singer smiled, the first really broad, genuine grin she'd smiled since the incident. It was actually even faintly wicked. "That's alright, Chef. I'm pretty sure I do."

Bending to the keyboard, she carefully tapped in: "filé". She made a special point of typing the accented last letter.

Several things happened very rapidly.

The first, most obvious, was that the gumbo recipe still was not restored, but the prompt was replaced with a terse message:


A second passcode. Singer was pretty sure she knew what it would be, but she waited, because Chef was on one of her other screens doing a very good job impersonating a person who just remembered several very important things. His eyes were wide and several emotions--leave aside whether they were real or simulated--passed across his craggy, digital visage all at once. Consternation, sadness, anger, and then...was that joy?

Yes. Joy. A smile, broad and friendly as her own had been wicked a moment before. He said, "You remembered the argument Maupassant and I had the other day?"

"I did! Although I hope he wasn't counting on that, because that was a pretty slender reed to lean on here."

Chef nodded back. The anxiety she'd seen in him over the last few days was gone. This was the Chef who confidently dished out food to satisfy 500 different palates, cultural, medical, and dietary restrictions, and made sure the ship's resources were in balance within the bounds allowed in a universe where entropy always increased. His voice was firmer. He was certain, and as a result, somehow, so was she.

How am I learning leadership traits from an AI? What a strange universe we live in.

"Skipper, can we call a meeting of all the command staff, such as they are? I need to get all Hercule Poirot here and it'd be better to do it all at once."

"Can I get a preview first?"

"Yes'm. Three bullet points: 1. Gumbo. 2. There are two other surviving AIs, currently isolated. 3. I still don't know how or who, but I know what happened, or at least, what Maupassant was pretty sure was happening."

She understood his smile, now. That was much. Two more surviving AIs would greatly reduce his burden, if they could be trusted; and if they were infected but quarantined, then they could be used to figure out more of how this had all happened.

Either way, Singer had a hunch Cadotte was going to get to play with their NDI after all.

"Is it important enough to postpone my meeting with Alexander?"

Chef just sort of looked at her. Yes, he was definitely feeling more his old self. There was definite sass there.

"OK. Wake up whomever has to be woken up and pull them together for two bells."

With an almost smug but definitely jaunty salute, Chef blipped off her screen to pull together his meeting.

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