Things Fall Apart: Chapter 9, 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, 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.

The survivors' mission, now, is simply to hold their ship and their people together; figure out what happened to them, and why; and get to a safe port! En route to the nearest beacon on the time-compression network, in hopes of finally calling for aid, Bellerophon receives a distress call, and discovers that they are not the only ones to suffer catastrophe!

Singer had never actually been to the room which was traditionally referred to as the control dome, although she had seen its observation windows from the floor of the boat bay, when embarking or debarking from a small craft. It was not, in fact, a dome, but more of a disk, with sides that slanted inward slightly to the floor. It was essentially an enclosed gallery, hanging down into the space, with an almost three-hundred-sixty degree view of the bay below. There was a blind spot toward the ship's bow, where the ramp one used to access the space came down from the deck above.

This struck Singer momentarily as odd, in a room so clearly designed for visibility, but she supposed the alternative would have been access by ladder, which was generally frowned upon on Tau Ceti Treaty Fleet ships except for maintenance-ways.

She was letting her mind wander again, but mainly at the moment to distract herself from the fact that the floor was also transparent, the intention being that the boat bay controllers at any given moment had full---nearly full---visibility into their domain.

They were trained for it, of course. Singer was not. Only the fact that the controller on duty in the dome---Midshipman Espinoza---was clearly standing on the surface and not plummeting. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the surface was also just a little glossier than the side windows, making it more obvious that there was, in fact, something holding a person up.

Espinoza was, as he'd reported, suited up and monitoring the controls that faced aft, toward the hatchway that was yawning open, his helmet on a rack on the console clearly meant for it. Unlike for the funeral, there was no forcefield enabled over the bay portal. Standard procedure for recovering craft was that the deck be in vacuum. Singer supposed there were reasons for that, but she had no idea what they actually were.

Down on the landing deck stood another suited figure—Midshipman Parry, she assumed. For all that she and Espinoza were both still technically cadets, they bore themselves professionally. In terms of things they'd been through recently, this was routine. On her way down, Singer had browsed quickly through their files, and learned both had trained for exactly this.

There were footsteps behind her, and Singer turned to see Chief Kasel coming down the ramp, along with another medic she didn't recognize, and PO Luchny. Kasel and the medic both had equipment bags slung over their shoulders; Luchny, did not. The PO must have seen Singer look puzzled at that, and just said, "There are tools in lockers down on the bay floor if we need them."

Luchny's presence explained, then—she'd been doing a lot of the repair work lately, and had shown herself apt to the tasks. Someone, Singer assumed Alexander, had sent her down in case something more than pushing a button was necessary to open up the pod.

Singer nodded, smiled, and turned her attention back to the bay's doors, where the small dot of the pod being towed into the bay was growing larger.

The operation passed without much incident. The pod was deposited gently on the bay floor, courtesy Espinoza's operation of the towing controls, with Parry providing periodic directional cues with glowing sticks.

Singer wondered why this wasn't automated, then remembered why they were in this mess, and realized it probably usually would have been. Fortunately, people were still trained in how to do it themselves.

Espinoza said, "The pod is secure." Looking at Singer, he expanded on this. "Ordinarily, a boat coming into the bay would maglock itself to the deck, and then we'd extend connections to it, power, fuel, so on. It occurred to me we might not want to risk remote control or connections of any kind with the pod, so instead, the deck itself is exerting just slightly more gravity than usual in the vicinity of the pod. I don't think it's going anywhere on its own, but..."

Singer could only nod and be glad her crew were capable of thinking for themselves, because it never would have occurred to her. "Good thinking, Midshipman, and well done. I'm no expert, but that looked like a gentle landing."

Espinoza blushed a little at the praise, and smiled. "If anyone's alive in there, they've been through enough shocks; they don't need to be jostled by their rescuers."

Singer's throat felt tight, so she contented herself with a nod and small smile to show her ongoing approval of his thinking.

Parry, meanwhile, had moved to a console on the deck. A voice, presumably hers, said "Bay doors closing, forcefield up, repressurizing!"

The process of getting the bay back up to a pressure where they'd feel safe trying to open the pod felt like it took a long time, but checking a clock on Espinoza's console, it had only been about 200 seconds before the appropriate lights around the bay lit green. The bay doors were ponderous, and still closing, but the forcefield was up. Kasel, his aide, and Luchny went back up the ramp without a word, and another 100 seconds. Later appeared through one of the inside airlock accesses to the bay.

Singer had momentary misgivings that they were not also suited up. She took as deep a breath as she could without making noise about it, and let it out slowly, willing herself to relax and observe.

She didn't really have to be here at all. She could have sent Alexander, or Cadotte, or simply left it to Kasel and Luchny and the midshipmen. It had never occurred to her not to come down, however. Whatever waited inside that pod, she didn't want a report about it; she needed to see it.

As if reading that thought, Espinoza touched a control, releasing a drone to sit outside the pod's hatch, and then projected the camera's view of the pod's hatch on the windows in front of them, which obligingly opaqued a bit to give the video feed precedence.

As if fearing a rebuke, Esponiza said, "No real AI in the drone, ma'am. Just enough smarts to do what I tell it from here. It's not even as smart as an H4."

"Understood. Proceed!"

Kasel, Luchny, and the other PO stood near Parry, their eyes on the console, which Singer realized must be displaying a copy of what Espinoza's console showed—hull temperature for the pod, which was almost warm enough to be safe to approach. Finally, as Singer saw that gauge go green, Parry nodded, and handed Luchny a headset, and a scanner.

Appropriately, Luchny went forward first, reporting as she approached the pod, "No expected indicators on the outer panel." Luchny waved the scanner around and then reported, flatly, "No external indications of power."

Singer didn't need to lower her shields at all to know that Luchny was steeling herself to engage the manual release. Assuming Almaty's catastrophe took place at the same time, or nearly so, as their own, if the pod had been unpowered all this time, there was no way anyone inside it was still alive.

Finally, Luchny said over the comm, "I'm triggering the manual hatch release," and did so.

For a wonder, the door slid open smoothly. Another wonder: there was light, albeit dim, in the interior, which was good, because Luchny had not remembered a flashlight. But then, Espinoza or maybe Parry did something, and the drone illuminated the way in, and began to drift forward, Luchny following behind.

Before Luchny could report, Singer saw on the screen that there were four human forms inside, none conscious.

Two, at least, were clearly still breathing.

This is actually the first new part of the story I've written in...a while. My cunning plan to use the long period of dribbling out pieces of what I'd already written to write well ahead of myself fell to that cunning demon, procrastination.

Good thing I have at least something like a plan for this story!