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Once the filters are in place, I drop by the medbay to meet our new doctor. Our Friend isn’t there (apparently it’s doing the autopsy in the other medbay, which is probably smart), but Tinera’s handing the patient a cup of post-chronostasis broth, and gives me a little wave as I enter.
“So,” I say. “You’re our new doctor. It’s Lina, right?”
She nods, warily.
“You’re the captain.”
“A reserve captain. The original crew are all dead.”
“I see the crew’s already got you up to speed on the situation.”
“Bits and pieces.”
“I’m sorry about this,” I say. “I know this isn’t what you signed up for. We’re still five years out from our destination – more, since it’ll take us some time to get in orbit around the actual planet – and the ship’s not in stellar condition. But we need decent doctors if we’re going to get to the planet at all.”
“Our Friend gave me a rundown on your medical emergencies so far. I can see why you need backup.” Lina’s tone was carefully polite and neutral. Cautious. If she was angry, she wasn’t letting me know it. (See, this is why it’s impossible to be captain and psychologist at the same time. I could try to figure out where her head was at, but as captain, that’d just be invasive. Our assistant psychologist is Denish, who as far as I’m aware has no training at all in the field, doesn’t speak the Interlingua fluently which could cause problems counselling non-Texans, and is far too busy with engineering tasks. Someone could break and pull a Captain Reimann, and we’d have no warning.)
“Well,” I say, “hopefully things will be smoother from here on out. Our critical systems are all back up and working again, so far as we know, and things should become a lot more relaxed. How are you feeling, by the way?”
She shrugs. “Well enough. Scans are clean. It’ll take some time to build my muscles up again, but then I’ll be fine.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No. The logistics officer has me well in hand.”
“Well. Okay then.” I figure asking Lina for details about her expected recovery timeline might come across ans rude and invasive. It’s the kind of thing a captain needs to know, but ‘oh hey, now that you’re most of the way through your traumatic recovery, when will you be able to work?’ isn’t exactly a welcoming line of conversation. But I have a way around that.
I’ll ask the Friend instead.
The Friend isn’t in the other medbay where I expect to find it. The only thing in there is Da-bin, covered by a white sheet, and an unnerving number of bloodstains. The computer tells me the Friend is in Laboratory Ring 2. With Tal, for some reason. Tal’s usual location is ‘whatever computer terminal happens to be closest to whatever ke was last doing’, so the only reason ke’d be in LR2 is to help the Friend. They must have found something interesting.
The pair are working quietly when I enter the laboratory. The Friend is fiddling with a microscope, and gives me a little wave as I enter; Tal doesn’t seem to notice my presence at all, typing furiously at a computer terminal, brows knitted. Some kind of small device, white with blue stripes and about the size and shape of a broad bean, is connected to the terminal by a thing wire; I wouldn’t have really noticed it, except that it’s covered in blood.
“What’s Tal doing?” I ask the Friend, curious.
“Just helping crunch some biometric data,” the Friend answers smoothly. “It’s complicated.”
“These misinstalled ports are… here, come have a look.” The Friend takes my hand and leads me away from Tal, towards its workbench. There’s some kind of… white mass there, covered in blood and bits of goop, like a tuft of rotting, waterlogged roots pulled out of red mud. It’s not large – maybe the width of a finger and twice as long, and that’s counting all the bits of goo in there bulking it up – and there’s something attached to one end of it. The Friend picks it up carefully in one gloved hand and tilts it to show me – it’s a cranial port for a cerebral stimulator. Presumably, Da-bin’s. Which means that the white ‘roots’ are a bunch of synthetic nerves, all tangled together to be thick enough to see, with bits of brain matter still caught between them.
There are so many of them. I know that the stimulator grew synthetic nerves into us and stimulated them over time to keep our brains and bodies healthy; that was the whole point of it. But I hadn’t expected so many. I touch the lump on the back of my own head, where my cranial port sits underneath my skin. Do I have that much artificial nerve tissue in my brain?
“This friend will clean this up properly for analysis later,” the Friend says, “but look at this.” It taps the edge of the port, where it seats in the skull. Bone fragments are still attached, sharp points of organic material jutting out from the smooth coated titanium. The Friend tries to move one back and forth; it’s firmly attached.
“Okay,” I say. “This means what, exactly?”
“Well, it looks like the port was firmly seated in the bone. We’ve been assuming that the ports were incorrectly installed, but here it’s clear that it’s the bone that’s fragmented. There’s no obvious way that that kind of trauma could happen during installation without it causing massive noticeable problems during the surgery.”
“So seventeen and a half per cent of our colonists have… really fragile bones?”
“Fragile skulls. They thrash around a lot when we attempt to wake them and the other bones hold up as well as you’d expect. It’s only the back of the head that’s a problem.”
“Well, maybe the bones are all normal, but they’re at the right angle to get specific leverage on the cranial port to rip out – ”
“No, because Da-bin didn’t rip hers out, remember? You held her head still. This friend took this out in the medbay, and it pulled right out. This bone is either pre-cracked or extremely fragile. This friend is running tests on different parts of her skeleton right now, and it would like to run the same tests on the one we have in the freezer who pulled their port out, too.”
I nod. “Good idea.” So either the skulls crack easily, or they were pre-cracked. Either these people had some mysterious skull-weakening condition that they’d developed in chronostasis, or some kind of event had caused massive head trauma to seventeen per cent of our colonists without creating any obvious external injuries.
“Anyway, what did you need?” the Friend asks.
I grimace. “I wanted to know when Lina will be up and about, but the question seems rather banal now.”
The Friend chuckles. “It depends on how well she responds to the drugs she’s on. Could be a week, could be two months, before she has her full strength back. She’ll be walking within a couple of days, but not very far and not for very long; this friend needs to poke around in storage and see if we have any wheelchairs. Frankly, given how much she atrophied in chronostasis, this friend isn’t optimistic on the drug response, but once she’s up in a wheelchair she can at least give medical advice and direct assistants until her arms are strong enough to work.”
I nod. “Good.” If we’re not going ahead with Project: Rouse As Many Colonists As Possible, then we’ll probably only need one medbay, so with both the Friend and Lina in action, Tinera won’t be needed to assist medically and will have time for other stuff. We’ve all been working way too hard recently, and frankly I’m amazed at how well the crew are rolling with it. I can see why a Public Universal Friend would shoulder a twelve-hour workday without complaint, and Adin is probably used to this sort of thing if he’s from the Texan penal system, but I’m surprised that the rest aren’t demanding that we slow down. Then, there has been a lot of urgency, recently; jobs that need to be finished as soon as possible, for everyone’s sake. It’s good to have a crew willing to pull up and put in a ridiculous amount of work when needed.
We desperately need to slow down soon, though. We have to hold it together for five years on this ship; I’m not risking long-term overwork becoming the norm. We’ll need to get back to a proper, sensible, four hour workday as soon as possible.
“This bone thing, do you think more colonists are at risk of it? If it’s something that develops over time…”
The Friend shrugs. “Impossible to say at this stage. This friend will let you know when it knows.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then. ’Bye, Tal!”
“What? Oh, hello, Captain.”
I leave the pair to their work and get back to doing random janitorial jobs. Everything about this ship is just getting weirder and weirder.
We’re taking twice as long as expected to get to our destination. (Twice as long in ship time, that is. I don’t know enough physics to calculate the time dilation to know how long it is from Earth’s perspective.) The second crew all died off after their captain had some sort of psychotic break and started sabotaging the ship and slaughtering colonists. Something happened during the second shift (one of the captain’s sabotages, maybe?) that meant that the colonists all suddenly took a huge drop in revival viability, except the colonists with a specific random geneset that increases someone’s resistance to atmospheric pressure changes and makes them react badly to citrus, and there’s a second group that reacted extra badly to whatever happened and have barely any chance of waking up at all for reasons we haven’t pinned down. And now, it turns out that some colonists have some kind of bone fragility problem and go into fits upon waking, then die. Which doesn’t seem to be related to anything else, so far as I can see.
Oh, and the ship is full of sleeping Texan convicts. Still not sure what that’s about.
I’m washing dishes when Denish walks in, gives me a nod of greeting, and heads over to the kettle. He fills his mug with hot water and dumps six heaped teaspoons of long-expired freeze-dried instant coffee into it, adds two ice cubes and gives a few perfunctory stirs with a spoon, then takes a big gulp.
“That kind of a day, huh?” I ask.
“Every day is that kind of a day, captain.”
“Things should settle down soon.”
“Bah! You say, but bad luck follows us. Tomorrow, something new will break. Is the way of machines.”
“Yeah. Hey, you wouldn’t have any thoughts on the length of our journey, would you?”
“That it is dangerous length and ship is not designed for it?”
“I mean, why they lied to us about how long it’ll take?”
“Hmm? Oh, that. No, they not lie. Was problem. Is logged in computer.”
“Yes. A bit over two years in, engine not working right. Accelerating too slow. Engineer try to repair, but cannot. Declare engine irreparable.”
I… vaguely remember the AI telling me about a broken engine, ages back. Okay.
“I imagine crew probably think, is worth going back to Earth and giving up, or is worth pushing on? Engine still work, just at less power. To use front engine is to risk wearing it out. However they think, they continue with less powerful engine. Less power means less acceleration means much, much longer to reach top speed. Less time dilation. Same journey but much longer. See?”
“… Oh.” Well. That’s anticlimactic. Which is a good thing, honestly, with everything else going on.
“More important is not why, more important is what we do now. I look in system for first crew’s secondary assistant engineer. Last ship engineer we have! Three engineers from second crew die with rest of second crew, senior engineer of first crew die in Chronostasis Ring 1, primary assistant is dead on our Friend’s autopsy table.”
Well, the operating table in a medbay, but close enough. “And our crew 1 secondary assistant?”
“Also dead. Richard Rynn-Hatson. Lost in space repairing a thruster, record says.”
“… Oh. So we have no engineers on board who are experienced in how this ship actually works.”
Denish shrugs. “Perhaps one of the colonist was spaceship scientist? I not know. But none that have worked on this ship, no. Only colonists.”
“Okay,” I say. “Thanks, Denish.”
A whole lot of mysteries remaining, and no experienced javelin engineers to provide any insight. Fantastic.
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4 thoughts on “030: BONE”
Derin, you’re great at building complicated twisty plots. I just wish I could untangle this huge snarl of a situation, but that’s what the rest of the story is for, I guess…
I found your writing last week and am currently binge-reading (caught up on TTO and am halfway through book 3 of Haven). Thank you so much for putting your stories out there, the settings and themes are god-tier and I’m enjoying myself greatly
I’m glad you’re enjoying them! There’s some short stories on the website too, if you like short stories.
I have. No clue what’s going on and I’m very excited I get to watch it unfold and figure it out 🙂