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I leap to my feet. The first stupid, stupid thought to go through my brain is, “Oh no! Zombies!” Which is, of course, ridiculous. It’s not zombies. That’s the alarm for…
Um. I’m not actually sure what that alarm is for. It’s not one of the few I was trained for as a colonist, and being the Galaxy’s Worst Captain, it hadn’t even occurred to me that now that I was in charge of a spaceship I should probably, you know, make sure I know all the emergency procedures.
A glance at everyone else’s faces tells me that no one else knows what it is, either, which is another testament to my failure. I should’ve been drilling people on this stuff. Fortunately, someone’s there to make up for my lapse; Tal, whose first response to any kind of confusion is to reach for the nearest computer terminal, has minimised the movie and is typing away at the medbay terminal.
“It’s a problem with the oxygen system.”
“Not good,” Denish grumbles, taking over the terminal. Lina sighs and stands up.
“Friend, Adin, can you guys help me lug in some space suits? Just in case.”
“Should… should we be panicking?” Adin asks.
“No. It’s a big ship, there’s a lot of oxygen to use up before we all die.”
Denish asks the computer for specifics on the problem, frowns at the answer, switches the language to Texan, and tries again. His frown only deepens. He’s still frowning at the screen when the others come back wheeling the suits on a dolly.
“Any idea what’s going on?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “Is… chemical problem, I think. The… the…” he waves his hands about helplessly and says something in Texan. I don’t understand the words, but it’s clear from the expression on his face that he doesn’t understand the problem.
I turn to Tinera. “You grew up in artificially oxygenated environments, right? Care to take a look?”
Tinera squints at the screen. She and Denish have a brief, presumably technical discussion in Texan. She shakes her head. “The oxygenation system isn’t producing enough oxygen,” she says. “It looks like the problem is probably in the atomic exchange filament; it’s a chemical process and it’s not working as fast as it should. We don’t know why.”
“Chemical?” Lina asks, perking up. She and the Friend take a look, but give up quickly. “This isn’t the sort of chemistry I’m used to. Sorry.”
“Can we open the machine up and take a look?” I ask.
Denish shrugs. “If it is loose cable, might help, but probably won’t. I think problem is chemical; seeing it does nothing. Opening machine I do not understand will probably just break it.”
I nod. “Alright. ‘Nish, find the blueprints for this oxygenation machine and start studying. See if you can understand it. Adin, take one of the doctors, whoever’s the best at oxygen respiration stuff, and find out how long we can survive if we do nothing. I want to know how long we have to solve this. Tal, take the other doctor and go through our sleeping colonists. This is a colony ship sent to terraform another planet, it must be chock full of engineers for life support systems. I want a list of experts to choose from if we need help. Tiny, you’re with me. We’re checking storage for replacement parts for the oxygenation system – there must be plenty of replacement parts. And replacement systems, if we can’t fix ours. There’ll be systems for creating oxygen on the planet’s surface; we can steal one of those if we need. Also, can somebody shut off that rotting alarm?”
Denish taps at the keyboard. The alarm stops.
“Right. Thank you. Let’s get to work.”
We don’t dramatically disperse to our individual jobs or anything, because we all have computer jobs, so we just kind of awkwardly head towards the nearest ring full of terminals (Network and Engineering Ring 1) and then dramatically disperse to different terminals.
There are, of course, the parts to make several different kinds of life support systems tucked away in crates in storage. Nobody had been exactly certain what the atmosphere of Hylara would be like; data on its gravity and orbit suggested that it was almost certainly within a comfortable pressure and temperature range, and scientists had thought that it probably had a carbon dioxide atmosphere, but even with modern equipment (well, old equipment now, I guess, but modern at the time of launch), it was difficult to get that kind of detail on exoplanets. We have several designs at our disposal, and some of them, anticipating the possibility of a low-carbon atmosphere, are built to recycle the gases inside an atmospherically isolated hub, like the systems used on Luna. Or like the systems used in the Courageous. They’re much bulkier, more power-intensive, and require more maintenance than the Courageous’ system, but we can make use of them. If we can’t fix the existing system, they’re decent replacements.
Not that it should come to that – we have plenty of replacements for parts of the existing system, too. Of course we do – this ship was designed with the knowledge that it would never again receive outside help after launch. Of course there’s plenty of replacement material for critical systems.
Yeah, this… this isn’t a big problem. Or at least, it isn’t as big a problem as it could be. We can handle this.
“This is a big problem,” Denish announces.
Oh. Well then.
“You’ve figured out the issue?”
“Not sure. Tal, can you come and look?”
Tal lollops over and squints at Denish’s screen for a few seconds. Then starts typing rapidly.
“What… what’s wrong?” I ask, trying not to panic. Asking for Tal has to mean a computer issue, which probably means our unstable AI is involved. If the dream logic of the colonists has told the AI to shut off our oxygen supply and kill us all or something…
“Hmm,” Tal says. “That’s annoying.” Ke doesn’t sound panicked, but with Tal, that might not mean anything.
“What’s annoying?” I ask, doing my best to also not sound panicked.
“We’re going to have to redo our entire list of potential revivees,” ke scowls. Ke trumps back over to the Friend and starts silently typing at that computer instead.
I give up. “Denish, what’s wrong with the oxygen system?”
“Everything is wrong with everything,” Denish grumbles, which is about as helpful as Tal’s answer.
He raises his hands helplessly. “Oxygen is not working properly. Air temperature system is not working properly. Some external sensors are offline, others are not. Much larger machinery is not working properly.”
“Main engine and rotary adjusters are working normally.”
That’s a relief, at least. “How can so many systems fail at once?”
“I do not know! Because I am not this sort of engineer! Ship is big and complicated, it is not what I know how to do, and the AI tells me nothing!”
“Okay, okay.” I raise my hands in a pacifying motion. Denish is right to be angry; he’s been warning me that this kind of engineering isn’t his expertise ever since he woke up, and I’ve been putting off dealing with that, not wanting to wake more people unnecessarily, not wanting to ruin the equilibrium our crew had reached, not wanting to invite further problems. But ignoring something like this just brings bigger problems further down the line, like this. I should have trusted his self assessment in the first place.
No point in self-recrimination now. “Best guess?” I ask him.
“Only thing that connects the bad systems is power. “
Shit. “You think there’s something wrong with the reactor?”
Denish shrugs. “AI says no. But we already know. AI is big liar!”
“I don’t think she’d lie about that,” Tal says. “She’s been a bit fibby in self-preservation, but she doesn’t want – ”
“It does not want anything! It is computer! It is computer broken with sleeping brains, I am amazed it has not killed us by mistake by now! If colonist dreams say that breaking reactor and saying nothing is good idea then it will do that! Anyway, do you have better explanation?”
“Did you ask Amy what’s wrong?” Tal asks calmly.
“Of course! That is what I am doing! I ask for things wrong with ship, is gives me big long list. I ask for most urgent things, shorter list, still not useful! I ask for new problems, it tells me no new problems, even though this just happened! Giving this computer brains has made it useless!”
“In my experience, any AI you’re not trained to talk to is pretty useless for giving information,” Tinera says. “I’m sure the previous two crews wouldn’t have had these problems, colonist brain tissue or no.”
“I’ve found the root problem,” Tal says.
“You what?” Denish asks. “How?”
“I asked Amy about it.”
“I already asked the computer!”
Tal shrugs. “Well, you asked wrong. Amy limited the power to those systems.”
“Hang on,” I cut in. “She cut off our oxygen without telling us? And then sounded an alarm about the oxygen? And then didn’t tell Denish what she’d done when he asked about the ship’s condition?”t
“Oh, yeah, she’s super broken,” Tal nods. Ke types some more. “Yeah, it’s a coolant issue. Everything she shut off generates a lot of heat, and the cooling system can’t disperse it fast enough any more. She cut it back to avoid cooking us alive.”
“So we can suffocate instead,” Tinera mumbles. “Wonderful.”
“The AI left the lights on but cut off the oxygen?” Adin asks.
“The oxygen system generates a lot of heat,” Lina points out.
“Still, that’s – ”
“It’s another butchered emergency protocol,” Tal says, still typing away. “She’s definitely supposed to ask for confirmation before she – huh. This one is butchered differently.”
“I thought you fixed those broken protocols?” Tinera asks.
“I have been fixing them, yeah. There are just so many emergency protocols on a long-range spaceship. There are so, so many ways for us to die out here. Did you know that a mere two per cent reduction in – ”
“How is this protocol butchered differently, Tal?” I cut in.
“Oh, it looks properly rebuilt into something different. The other broken ones I’ve looked at, from the Reimann fight, they’ve mostly just had chunks ripped out of them, probably by Amy herself so she could stop Reimann from killing colonists. I think a programmer did this one.”
“Why would a programmer let the computer decide whether the crew gets oxygen or not?” Adin asks, a hysterical edge to his voice.
Everyone’s stressed and upset and we can’t afford panic. “That’s a problem for later,” I say firmly. “How long do we actually have to solve this problem, in terms of our oxygen supply?” Please let it be good news.
“Um,” Adin says, “so long as the atmospheric filtering system still works, we actually have more oxygen than we need. If we’re careful, we can make it to Hylara on what we have. This ship contains the supplies to start a colony; it has oxygen, although using it up on the journey will make actually settling the planet harder. But, um, if the filtering systems also break, we have about six months before we suffocate.” He glances at Lina for confirmation. She nods.
“With our luck, that will happen,” Denish grumbles.
“Six months?” I ask. “This ship has supplies for a permanent colony! That can’t be right.”
“A permanent colony doesn’t need all that much nitrogen,” Lina explains. “We do, in fact, have a lot of nitrogen. More nitrogen than we could ever conceivably need – so long as the air filtration systems are working. The issue is that carbon dioxide is toxic.”
“Right, of course. And if we can’t filter, we have to flush.” I know how atmospheric gases work. I’ve never been much of a scientist, but I know history, and the removal of excessive carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere had been the single most important factor in the formation of my nation and, arguably, our greatest achievement. (Yes, everyone talks about the salt-filtering plant systems as Arborea’s greatest achievement, but while that’s scientifically a lot more impressive, it’s not nearly as ecologically important as atmospheric management.)
The three most important gases in a breathable atmosphere are oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Oxygen and carbon dioxide can be exchanged for each other, assuming a working exchange method, either natural (photosynthesis and respiration) or artificial (the ship’s life support systems). Nitrogen is almost inert in normal conditions; while it plays some small roles in microbial respiration and tiny amounts can be lost through leaks or the use of external airlocks, very little of it should be lost no matter the length of the journey. We have spare nitrogen, for emergencies and filling up habitats on Hylara and necessary industrial processes and soforth, but we shouldn’t need it on the journey.
Unless the CO2 filtering systems break beyond repair. Because carbon dioxide is toxic, and if there is no other way to remove it from our air, then our only choice will be to flush the air into space or into a storage tank and replace it. And air is seventy per cent nitrogen.
I file the thought away. Its an edge case; no reason to think we’ll need to do anything so drastic. Our problem is oxygen. And we have plenty of oxygen. Moreover, even if this takes a long time to fix, we shouldn’t lose any oxygen; the carbon dioxide in the air can be filtered out and stored, and the ship will turn it back into oxygen later once the systems are up and running again.
“Okay,” I say. “Our filtration system is currently working – right, ‘Nish?”
“So this isn’t a huge problem.”
“The broken experimental AI being able to shut our oxygen off without human authorisation isn’t a huge problem?” the Friend asks.
“Okay, that’s a huge problem. Tal?”
“You want me to comb through and make sure Amy needs human authorisation for the stuff she’s supposed to need human authorisation for.”
“As quickly as possible, please. I’d rather not freeze to death because some colonist is having a nightmare. But first – you two have a list of engineers for us?”
“I still think we should redo it,” Tal grumbles. “If it’s a coolant issue instead of an oxygen issue – ”
“It doesn’t matter,” the Friend cuts in. “Other things are going to break. We made the list in light of that.” It gestures me over to the computer terminal; everyone else follows, until we’re all crowded around the one tiny screen.
“The bottom five on our list of ten are oxygen specialists,” the Friend explains. “For geontal life support systems, but they should be able to figure out a spaceship one, I’m sure. As you already know, the engineers in both previous crews are dead and there’s a dearth of reserve specialists in javelin ships aboard, but we did manage to find a few general ship engineers. Unfortunately our best pick has been claimed by the AI, but these five have specialisations in some kind of ship management system. Positions two to five are such specialists, in order of most likely to survive chronostasis revival.”
“And number one? Tell me about your top pick.”
“Keldin Sands. He’s a manufacturing and systems chemist with a background in electrical engineering. He was actually on the design team for the engines of the javelin ships.”
“Is that good?” Lina asks. “I mean, it’s not bad, but the engine we’re using isn’t a problem.”
“It’s fantastic,” I say. “Fir, my tyber, was on the engine design team, and they tend to pick up a bit of everything. Ke would talk my ear off about disagreements the AI team were having over camera placement and stuff like that. A chemical and electrical engineer from any javelin design team is our absolute best bet in terms of both general engineering knowledge and the most likely specific problems. But I’m guessing there’s a downside, isn’t there?”
The Friend hesitates before nodding. “I checked his position in priority for captaincy. He’s 96th in line for the position.”
“So he – ?”
“Yes. If Tinera’s model for how that priority system works is correct – and I think we can be pretty sure it is, based on the maths – then he’s well and truly in the ‘building a convict slave state’ leadership group.”
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