Things Fall Apart: Chapter 8, 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, ripping a chunk out of the ship and leaving most of the senior officers and crew dead. Most of the ship's AIs are missing from the network, also presumed dead, with evidence pointing to a massive, internal "attack" by those AIs.

Now the survivors, including a single unaffected AI, are trying to hold their ship and their people together; figure out what happened to them, and why; and get to a safe port!

Singer looked over to the rating who was at the sensor station right now, a young, male-presenting person whom she did not know. "Specialist, are we close enough to see the beacon or...the wreckage?"

"Not yet, ma'am. A few hundred seconds more and we should, though, especially...well, especially if they had an explosive catastrophe like we did. The outer sphere of the debris...well..."

"I understand, specialist. Sing out as soon as you see anything interesting. In particular, you see anything that looks like an intact life-boat or pinnace, I want to hear about it right away."


A new grey, translucent sphere had appeared in the tank—the estimated sensor boundary, she assumed. She knew just enough to know that this, at least, was not a result of damage. This was just the normal limitations of the high-resolution sensors.

Singer found herself watching the tank with almost hyperfocus. She'd seen the late captain and XO each do this as well, when sitting in the command seat, and wondered if perhaps they got bored. She understood now that boredom was not really the problem. Waiting for things to happen was the problem. There was just long enough to wait to be irritating, but not long enough to make stepping away to try to do something else worthwhile. She could do some of her report-reading and paperwork here at the command station, but she knew she'd never really be able to concentrate on it.

When the specialist said, "Estimated sensor boundary in two hundred," Singer jumped a little.

"Sorry, ma'am."

Singer shook her head, but found her voice reluctant.

A few seconds later, the tank updated. The specialist said, "Getting signal a bit early. Looks like debris, ma'am. Oxygen snowflakes and shred so far." The specialist's voice was remarkably calm. Singer let her shields down just a touch. Yes, as she'd suspected—the calm was a facade. The specialist was determined to be professional, but was deeply affected.

Singer suspected there would be a lot of that to go around shortly.

Singer had a thought. "Chef?"

"Yes, Skipper?"

"I assume there's a standard procedure for a search pattern in a situation like this?"

The tank sprouted new lines—a projected course to follow for a search-and-rescue pattern.

She looked over to Wasserman. "PO?"

"Looks feasible, Skip."

Not for the first time, nor for the last, Singer deeply lamented not having at least one person who was actually trained for command, or even senior in their department, still available. If and when they made it home, there would doubtless be an inquiry, and while "I did the best that I could" ought to be a pretty strong defense, Singer couldn't help but be a little anxious when she thought about it.

Still, she had plenty of other things to think about right now. As they entered the pattern, the tank zoomed in closer and more points began to appear as the sensors picked up more debris. The trick now, she knew, was to manage a solid search pattern without overly disturbing the debris, or colliding with it. She saw the pattern actually adjusting for that, and wondered briefly if that was automatic, if Chef was basically collaborating with Wasserman, or if Wasserman was doing it himself.

Didn't matter much, but she'd want to know for sure later. There would be reports to write, she supposed.

She had not previously appreciated how much of command was paperwork, really.

A largish dot appeared in the tank. The specialist reported, "We've got the beacon itself on sensors. It's actually 'above' the epicenter, which, if it was jettisoned like it said, makes sense. Tracking it for pickup later."

Singer dug a bit and found her voice. She really would have preferred not to divert her attention even for an acknowledgement, but it was more than just protocol; the specialist deserved to know she was listening. "Thank you, specialist."

It had the desired effect. Knowing she was paying attention made the specialist sharpen their own focus just a touch.

Singer wondered briefly why empaths were not more routinely encouraged to command slots.

"Skipper?" That was from Cordé, sounding more brittle than ever. Right. That was why. She wanted desperately to delve and figure out if she could "fix" Cordé, or at least direct a ship's therapist or coach in that direction. Except none of those worthy professionals had survived, and Singer had no time to indulge in such an exercise.

"Yes, Ensign?"

"If there were any lifepods out there, shouldn't we be hearing from them by now?"

Singer shook her head, still having trouble with words as she stared raptly at the tank, then finally said, "Individual pods just have transponders. The disaster beacon is supposed to attract attention. There was a lot of argument about the design decision. The bean-counters won. I remember Commander Walsh doing an entire lecture on the subject when I was at the academy."

"Wasn't he...didn't he retire?"

"That lecture may not have been part of the original curriculum..."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cordé nod, eyes narrowed in anger. Singer didn't blame her.

"So...what, we just hope we bump into something big enough?"

Singer suppressed a chuckle. Dark humor had its place, but Cordé was just too wound up. "No, the pods have transponders. But this debris field is already large enough that, if they're on the far side of it, we'd have trouble picking them up."

What Singer did not say aloud, not yet, was this: the disaster beacon, with its intact, fully functional time compressor transmitter, should have been picked up by someone else with a similarly fully functional time compressor drive, before the debris field had gotten this diffuse. Only Bellerophon's currently limping state had hampered its response. Fully functional, they'd have picked up the beacon sooner, been here faster.

Given traffic to and from Norfolk alone, there should have been someone else here already.

Cordé asked no more questions, and Singer looked more fully over to them, to see them with a hand up to their earpiece, fiddling with signal controls with the other. Singer of course recognized the pose at once. Cordé was trying to refine what might be a signal.

Finally, after what felt like a megasecond but was probably just a few seconds, Cordé said, "I think I have a transponder."

The tank gained a new sphere, which was already shrinking as the ship's motion along its search pattern allowed triangulation.

"PO, can we get to it?" Singer asked.

Wasserman was messing with his local displays, looking for a path. "We may have to make a bit more use of navigational deflectors than I really like in a debris field like this. I'll try to keep it minimal."

The specialist on sensors was looking at Wasserman quizzically. Wasserman apparently caught it. "Too many possible side effects. What we've got out there is a lot of First Law of Motion stuff. Objects set in motion by the initial disaster are continuing in motion, outward, mostly in straight lines. We start shouldering things aside, we could set up a pattern that, for instance, results in a bunch of debris impacting another pod somewhere else."

Singer was glad for the reminder, herself. "Use your best judgment, PO."

On the screen, as they moved toward the pod, Singer could also see the narrow swathe they were cutting through the debris, a carefully shaped deflection field out in front of the ship.

The sphere condensed down to an icon, a lifeboat. The sensor tech said, "Ma'am, positive sensor contact with the lifeboat."

Singer looked around—Alexander and Cadotte were still absent, doing other things. "Chef?"


"Any idea how safe it would be to ping the transponder?"

"By itself, the transponder should be safe. There's an onboard AI, very limited, on the pod, though. That...I honestly don't know ma'am. It depends on how well thought out this mayhem is. For a lifeboat system, it'd be easier to just fry it and make the passengers have to figure out how to survive manually than to actually infect it."

Singer paused, then said, "Been thinking about that, have you?"

If Chef caught the implication, he chose to ignore it. "Been reading up, ma'am. Trying to figure out more of what happened. There's one monograph in particular that sounds suspiciously like what happened to us, but it was largely hypothetical, since at the time it was written, nobody knew of an exploit that would allow the code to be injected."

Singer took a breath. She wanted to know more, but right now was not the right time. "OK. Retrieve the pod, then open it and hope there's someone still inside. PO?"

"Thirty seconds and I think I can get a tow line out."

Singer touched a button she'd set up a few minutes before, and got an answer surprisingly promptly. "Boat bay, Midshipman Espinoza."

"Midshipman, prepare the boat bay for lifeboat recovery."

"Already done, ma'am. Bay is evac'd, me and Midshipman Parry are suited up, bay door is open."

Singer tried to decide if she should be proud or upset to be anticipated without orders. She decided pride was the direction to go. She'd have a word about anticipation later. "Excellent, Midshipman. Stand by."

End Chapter 8

This is as far as I had written the "novel" version of this story, when I decided to start posting it serially. Guess I'd better start writing what comes next! – MSS, 12 May 2024