Things Fall Apart: Chapter 9, 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.

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!

Despite the disappointment Singer was sure it would cause her superior, if she still had one, she got no further work accomplished in those two kiloseconds, either. Instead, within two hundred seconds, she’d realized that what she really needed, in order, was a shower, a really good stretch, and a snack with a cup of tea. And if that made her slightly late for the meeting, well, she was the skipper.

As it happened, though, she had managed to get through all of those things, except the cup of tea, by the time she was due in the briefing room. Beverages being quite permissible during a briefing, she felt no compunction bringing her freshly replicated mug along.

She was not the only one with a mug, she saw, as she entered the briefing room. Kasel was there before her, working on a mug of his own. “Did we wake you, Chief?” Singer asked.

“No, skipper. Off-shift, but not yet sleep-shift. This isn’t caffeinated, either. Sleep is definitely on my list for the very near future.”

Singer smiled. “I hope this meeting won’t go on too long then.”

She wanted to ask about the rescued personnel, but also did not want to pester the man. Fortunately, she was not going to have to, as he said next, “I got word one of the POs we rescued is awake…ish. Renata convinced them to go back to sleep for a bit before asking too many questions, and apparently they thought that was a fine idea.”

Renata, Singer assumed was the assistant she’d seen with Kasel earlier. She made a mental note to try to look that person up soon, or at least ask about her, but for now, the others were starting to file in.

It was mostly the same group as before: herself, Alexander, Cadotte, Cordé, Wasserman, Kasel. Her staff, to the degree she had a staff. Added to the mix was Luchny, who looked like she could have used a shower, stretch, and snack herself. She was still a bit grimy, presumably from tearing the pod apart, and looked a little impatient, or anxious, or both.

Singer called it to order. “OK, folks. We have some decisions to be made, sooner rather than later. Actually, I’ve already made one decision, but I’m willing to hear counter-proposals, so we’ll discuss it. The other item, we need some ideas on before we can decide for certain.

“Before we get to either, I gather PO Luchny has a report on the pod?”

Definitely anxious. She actually started, although surely, Alexander had told her why she was here. She gathered her wits quickly enough, though, and said, “Yes, skipper. I guess I do. I was only just done with the pod, at least for now, when Lieutenant Alexander asked me to come to the meeting, so I’m afraid it’s not going to be a very organized report.”

It was Alexander who responded, “That’s all right, PO. Just tell us what you can for now.”

Luchny took another steadying breath, and said, “First of all, every electronic system in the pod seems to have been destroyed by physical trauma, rather than by overload. My guess—and it’s only a guess—is that the passengers knew their ship had suffered from some kind of data contagion, and concluded they might be safer taking their chances without any computer assistance. The downside to this is that there is no record whatsoever to tell us what happened next. The upside is that there’s no functioning data core on which even a scrap of code could run, and thus, no contagion.

“There was blood on several surfaces, but not a great deal of it. More distressing was that, without any processor operating, there were only mechanical systems for waste recycling, which were not intended to run for long unassisted, any more than the air scrubbers were. At the risk of sounding squeamish, I went back and grabbed an environment mask, because I was having difficulty working in the pod. Midshipman Parry was joking that she was going to have to evacuate the bay again just to get the stench out. At least, I think she was joking.

“The pod’s only damage seems to come from deliberate action by the passengers, and wear-and-tear. The hull, of course, is completely intact, and many of the systems connected to the damaged electronics are still functional. The pod could, with a thoroughly cleaning, be refurbished.

She paused, finally, and considered. “I think that’s all I have right now, ma’am. I’ll need to go over my notes before producing a more regular report.”

Singer nodded, “Thank you, PO. That’s fine. Does anyone have any questions for her?”

There were none. Actually, Singer sensed there were several, but none that couldn’t wait. So, she turned to Kasel, who started talking before she could ask him.

“Obviously, we’ll know more when one of them is awake enough to talk coherently about their experience. But I have some circumstantial evidence to corroborate Luchny’s interpretation. All four of them, including the deceased Lieutenant, junior grade, Monica Wilder, had various marks and contusions on their hands and even their elbows, which I’d been puzzling over. All of them make sense if they were using themselves to batter all the electronics out of action, as do the various cuts I’ve found, which could be both from primary trauma—smashing panels—and secondary—encountering the broken shards they couldn’t really do much about afterward. The three survivors all show about the right amount of healing for assuming their…incident…happened the same time ours did, for most of their contusions.

“But most conclusively: Lieutenant Wilder died of electrical trauma, and was dead most of the time they were in space.” He turned to Luchny, “That is undoubtedly part of what we smelled in there, PO, although I make no doubt the waste system failure helped nothing at all.”

Cordé raised a hand, and Singer gave her the nod. “Chief, given…everything about that situation, how likely is it that they’ll be able to give any coherent account of things when they wake up?”

Kasel seemed momentarily startled, then nodded slowly. “It’s a fair point. They are bound to be traumatized, in their own way, as we’ve all been. One hesitates to compare traumas, so all I can say is, we’re sitting here, having a coherent conversation.”

Cordé picked up the ball, “So they may, also, or at least some of them. Thank you.”

Singer noted carefully that Kasel hadn’t promised anything, which was good. There were no promises that could be made here.

It was time to move things along.

“Are there other questions?”

Again, Singer sensed there were lots, but none that couldn’t wait, and nobody spoke up.

“All right, then. Let’s get to the easy question first, the one where I’ve made a decision, but want opinions before I make it into orders. It’s time we moved on, resumed course for the nearest relay in hopes of getting a boost to our comms to let Command know what’s happening out here, find help and then start providing it for picking up whatever pieces need to be picked up. Thoughts?”

Singer had been expecting at least one token counter-argument. She heard none. Alexander was right. The crew, or at least, the staff, were eager to get out of the graveyard and back on the road.

“Very well. PO Wasserman, as soon as we’re done here, please work with Cordé to determine if it makes sense to resume course for the same relay, or if our side-trip has put a different relay in closer reach. Use your discretion and get us going.”

“Yes, skipper!” Wasserman replied.

“The next question is trickier: what do we do about the distress beacon? Lieutenant Alexander informs me that the beacon itself recommends we destroy it—it does not have a self-destruct capability, or it would do so, to avoid passing along any contagion or damage. Ze also tells me that it’s evidence, and a possible source of answers. 

“Which leaves us with a dilemma. So, the question I have is a narrow one: if we bring it along, how do we do so safely?”

There was silence. Slightly uncomfortable silence. They’d all heard the beacon behave as if it were at least somewhat sentient. That made the idea of vaporizing it, even by its own choice, unpleasant, despite all the documentation that said it was just an “it”, a machine.

Finally, Wasserman spoke, asking, “Just how bad off is our time compressor?”

To Singer, this seemed a non-sequitur, but Alexander smoothly answered, “The field it generates is stable, and can be extended outward a bit; it just can’t sink us deep enough to get much past 75-to-1 right now.”

“So, could we extend the field enough to safely tow the thing?”

Singer wondered if she should have actually stolen a nap during her earlier break, because she almost laughed out loud as Alexander and Cadotte both got nearly identical “thinking” faces.

Cadotte came back first. “We do have the ability to tether and tow, in theory. We already used a tow line today, for example, to bring in the escape pod. In theory, we have another set aft that can be used for something like this. It’s meant to be accompanied by some gravity-generator magic that helps to keep our inertia matched, so maneuvering doesn’t sheer the thing off. If that’s still working, and the necessary tow-cables and assemblies are intact, then yeah.”

Chef popped up on the holoprojectors, showing he’d been listening, which was fine. He’d been invited, or should have been, certainly. “Diagnostics show that everything associated with the ventral boat bay—tow lines, gravity stabilizers, all of it—are good to go. Someone should probably give it an eyeball check, too, but I think we’re fine!”

Singer nodded lowly. “All right. So, we have an answer to the question of whether we can carry it with us in physical safety. What about the data safety issue.”

Cordé had that one. “Turn it off!”

Everyone in the room blinked, and looked her way.

And then, Alexander and Cadotte, once again eerily in synchrony, face-palmed.

Singer managed to hold off the laughter and just ask, “Lieutenants?”

Alexander was not trying to hold back laughter. Ze was chuckling, something Singer had never seen zir do, as ze said, “It never even occurred to me. We should be able to safely send a drone out to remotely manipulate the controls. There’s a physical circuit breaker we can throw, not unlike the ones we reset after the disaster to re-connect the supercaps.”

Chef looked a little unhappy, and said, “I don’t really love this idea.”

Cordé responded with more compassion for the AI than Singer expected. “I don’t love it either, Chef. I heard it. Whatever the books say, that beacon has some degree of self-awareness. But in theory, we can revive it, once we figure out a safe environment for its data-core. Not unlike what we’re already doing with what it transmitted to us.”

Chef looked skeptical, as if he doubted the effort would be made, but he still nodded reluctant agreement. “I see your point, Ensign. And the alternative really is to blow it up, which I like even less. So.”

“So,” Singer picked up the conversational ball. “I think we have a plan. We’ll let the beacon know and give it a chance to object. Lieutenant Alexander, I think that’s in your court. Luchny, ask the boat bay middies to make those inspections and rig to tow the beacon. Wasserman, as soon as everything’s in hand, get us and our tow clear of the debris and get us back on course for a relay. Anything else?”

There was nothing else.

“Thank you all. Dismissed.”