Things Fall Apart: Chapter 9, Part 2

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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!

In fact, in the end, three of the four people in the pod were alive, although the third had to be revived. Kasel expressed concern about brain damage, having no way to be certain how long they had been not-quite-dead. "They revived easily enough, but they didn't wake. I'm not going to lie, Skipper: I think this is the first time in a while I really wish Doctor Hardy was still with us."

Singer could sympathize, on both implied counts. On the one hand, while Kasel had done an amazing job, he was not a doctor, and no doctor had survived. On the other hand, Doctor Hardy was not an easy person to get along with, unless you were actually a patient in his sickbay. His bedside manner was great, but it was like he spent all his personality points on that performance.

With none of the three being conscious at the moment; nothing to be done for the fourth except eventually schedule another funeral; and PO Luchny, Parry, and the drone clearly sufficient in themselves to go over the pod to analyze its state and glean what could be gleaned from it; Singer returned to her office.

It wasn't where she wanted to be.

And that was odd, because until these events, she never would have been in the thick of things anyway. She’d have found out through the grapevine, or when some official announcement was made, or possibly if she was the comm officer who transmitted the report.

Now, however, she felt it was her business to know what was going on. Which was true, but that did not necessarily mean hovering over every person’s shoulder. Even Chef couldn’t do that, as he’d readily admitted.

So she was in her office. She’d told Chief Kasel to tell her when someone, anyone woke up enough to be coherent. He, in turn, had passed that instruction on to his aide, the same one who had accompanied him to the boat bay, as he was overdue to go off-shift.

Which left Signer staring at a queue of reports that had nothing to do with the pod. Some of them did at least pertain to the debris field of Almaty, which, under Alexander’s direction at the moment, they were still trawling. On the one hand, they were looking for any sign of another pod, or even a mostly intact data core. Not that a data core would be safe, necessarily, but they already had precautions in place, and they had to have answers.

On the other hand, frankly, they were also sweeping up. Her earlier decision regarding human remains still stood; anything that was obviously that, was to be avoided. But there was plenty of other shred out here they could turn into replication mass. They had a still-living ship with a still-living crew that now included at least three of Almaty’s. They had to stay that way. The priorities were clear.

She hated it. She hated being the one who had to make those decisions.

At the same time, she realized she had been relieved upon discovering none of the survivors in the pod outranked her. They were two ratings and an ensign, all three out of Supply—people who would have worked with that ship’s instance of Chef, or whatever AI held an equivalent role.

She hated the job she found herself in. However, she was not prepared to place her crew in the hands of a higher-ranked stranger. Not until they got to a proper base, anyway.

Her mind was wandering again. She wondered if she was the only one having severe attention issues. Nearly everyone of her crew had been concussed, and while they were all also cleared...

Well, there was trauma, and there was trauma. And no one still alive had any psychological specialty.

Reports having failed to gain, let alone hold, her attention, she left her desk and went to the bridge. There, she could at least stare into the holotank and feel like she was doing her job, even if her brain was all over the place.

Alexander saw her as she entered the bridge, and moved as if to give over the chair, but Singer waved zir to sit. By mutual consent, they had dispensed, without ever even attempting, any announcement of Singer’s being on the bridge. Nobody had time to salute, and “skipper on the bridge” sounded ridiculous. Singer refused to let herself be called “captain”. So there was just no point in that formality.

Singer did come around to Alexander’s chair to stand next to zir. If her XO thought it in any way strange that Singer felt compelled to be here right now, ze said nothing about it. Unasked, however, ze gave a report. “Chef tells me we’ve swept up about as much dust and debris as we can process and store. That puts us in better shape for the next leg, with room to spare. If we wanted to stay longer, we could start using what we’ve collected to replicate what we’d need to replace the starboard replication mass storage tank, and then continue to sweep to fill it.”

Singer was learning to read Alexander better, even with her shield up. “You would not actually recommend that course of action, though.” It wasn’t really a question.

“No, ma’am”, Alexander responded, not disappointing her. “The search pattern is almost complete, and the last thing we might want to consider retrieving is the beacon. No signs of any other pods or suited survivors. From a rescue perspective, we’ve done all anyone could in our condition.

“From a salvage perspective, we’ve done what we have to do to help ensure our own current mission, as I understand it: to get back into contact with command and, eventually, to get to a base.

“Therefore, to stay here any longer will, in my opinion, be bad for morale, for relatively small benefit. The port and ventral tanks are full and functional. We should decide about the beacon, and resume our course.”

Singer merely nodded, acknowledgment rather than agreement. She did agree, as it happened, but she’d been spending time reviewing what she knew about how the superiors she’d respected had acted; one of them was listening to the whole tale, and there was still one more chapter, here.

“And the beacon?”

Alexander actually sighed. “We need answers.”

Singer countered, without hesitation, “How certain are you that you can keep the beacon from infecting the ship?”

“I...don’t know. The virus seems to have stopped trying to transmit itself after we honey-trapped it. But it’s almost certainly still present in the beacon’s system. The copy it transmitted is inert in its container, which is now disconnected and airgapped from the network, awaiting analysis we’ve already discussed.

“It’s worth noting that the beacon, itself, recommends against either bringing it on board, or towing it along with us. In fact, it recommends vaporization, and says it would self-destruct, except that’s not part of its protocols.”

Singer replied, “You don’t want to leave it, or destroy it.” Again, it was not a question.

“It’s evidence.”

Singer nodded. “How could it be safely transported?”

“I’m not certain. I was hoping to raise the question at the next briefing.”

“Since you think we should be leaving soon—“ and here, she relented, “—and I agree, I think we should probably call that briefing, soon, rather than wait for ship’s morning. I’d love to have some answers from our survivors before we leave the scene, but you’re right. It’s time to move on.”

“Would two kiloseconds from now work?”, Alexander asked.

“It would.”

“I’ll notify the senior staff.”

“I’ll leave you to it.”

With that, Singer went back to her office, feeling like she could probably focus on her work there for the two thousand seconds she had until the meeting.