047: HELP

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I glance around at the variously apprehensive, upset, and thoughtful faces of my crew. Nobody looks happy.

“Thoughts?” I ask.

“What is to say?” Denish throws his hands up. “We need best engineer to not die. He is best engineer. Even if he is bad, or even if he is good, is less important.”

“He’ll be our captain if we wake him up,” Adin points out. “Unless Tal can hack the AI or whatever?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say. “If we wake him up early on a broken down ship, he’s already going to be upset. Going out of our way to cut him out of a leadership position that the system thinks he deserves is needlessly antagonistic. Anyway, he might be a great captain.”

“I don’t like it,” Tinera says. “Those guys have zero respect for our lives. I’m not working under someone I can’t trust if I don’t have to.”

“We don’t know what kind of guy he is,” Lina points out. “He’s not a prison guard, he’s an engineer. He’s in the highest leadership group, but they needed to make up the numbers somehow – we can’t be sure he signed up for a convict state, necessarily. And even if he did, I’ve had good ones before. Haven’t you?”

“Only few and far between.”

“None of this particularly matters,” the Friend says. “If he’s a bad captain, we just won’t accept him. He doesn’t know that our kill switches are disabled. He doesn’t physically have the ability to make us do anything.”

“Yeah, and if he’s too much trouble, you can just cut a piece of his arm out,” I grumble, rubbing at the ID chip in my own arm. I’m still a bit sore about that little plan.

“Yes, exactly!” the Friend agrees, completely failing to pick up on my tone.

“Okay,” I say. “We’re doing it. We’re waking him up.”

“We can fix the coolant issue ourselves,” Tinera says. “We’ve done complicated stuff before. The schematics are in the computer. It’ll take a day to figure out; two, tops.”

“Patching the hole won’t save the biofilm,” the Friend and I say together.


“It’s an old Arborean saying,” I explain. “It… it’s too complicated to explain. Point is, yeah, we probably can figure out the coolant issue, and get it running well enough to get the oxygen back on, at least. But how much stress is the extra heat putting on other systems in the meantime? How much stress is being turned off or limited putting on other systems? We didn’t notice the coolant issue until the oxygen was turned off, even though the coolant system was flushed and cleaned nine months ago; how many other systems are failing in ways that we don’t have the training or experience to keep up with until they risk killing us? These systems are well past their use-by date and we’re servicing and maintaining them based on guesses, difficult-to-understand operation manuals and history’s most unhelpfully obtuse AI. The longer we limp along like this, the most systems are going to break down through sheer age, use, and stress put on them by other damaged systems in ways we didn’t even know they were connected. We’re lucky this time. Next time, it might be something that kills us before we can respond. Denish is right; we need more engineers. Trained engineers. Anyway, I’m sure we can integrate this guy into our group. We all learned to work together, didn’t we?”

Keldin is of average build, and though his profile says he’s 39, he looks mid-thirties at most. He looks peaceful, sleeping amidst the rapidly draining chronostasis fluid.

“Chances of survival?” I ask.

“Sixty two per cent.” The Friend reaches back and disconnects his cerebral stimulator. It comes away clean, and I find myself breathing a sigh of relief, even though I already knew it wasn’t going to stick; he’s not in the ten per cent group. Everyone else seems to relax, too, as the two doctors disconnect his various leads and lift him onto a stretcher.

“Everyone out of the way,” Lina demands as they get the stretcher rolling. “We’ll update you on changes.”

I watch our best hope for survival get wheeled out of the room. A sixty two per cent chance of waking up. That’s not bad odds. Half of the crew beat those odds.

“Okay,” I say to myself. “Okay.”

“What do we do now, captain?” Denish asks. I can’t help but smile. If all goes well, he won’t be calling me that much longer.

“Now,” I say, “you need to keep us alive for the next few days while Keldin recovers from chronostasis. Take whoever you need to help, have a look at our air system, and get it to store the filtered carbon dioxide and pump in fresh oxygen, or whatever. It must have the capability to do that, right?”

Denish shrugs. “Yes, it should. Is very simple; just pumps and air sensors. It should already be part of the system; if not, we make.”

“Right, then make sure it’s doing that. Or, or make one if it isn’t. Adin, for the next few days, you’re an assistant engineer too; you, Tinera and I are taking our orders from Denish on inspecting as many ship systems as we can so we have the most thorough information possible for Keldin. Tal, your job is to make sure the AI can’t do anything alone that it shouldn’t be allowed to. I don’t want any more surprises like today.”

“Tal said that somebody programmed in that it needed no authorisation,” Denish says. “That is very worrying. It should not have been programmed like that, yes?”

“It absolutely shouldn’t.” Tinera crosses her arms. “Nobody programs AIs like that, it’s suicide. They can’t be trusted to make decisions like that without actual intelligent backup even when they aren’t broken. If it’s different to the slash job that the AI did to itself fighting Reimann, somebody on Earth is either extremely stupid or trying to kill us.”

“That’s a leap,” I say. “There’s no reason to think anything actively malicious happened here.” Except that that is a very dangerous ability to give an AI… and the aft engine was inexplicably damaged… and somebody had to set up whatever the AI used to grow into and take data from the ten per cent revival group’s brains… “Anyway, when it’s fixed, we can look into how this even happened.”

“On it, captain,” Tal says, cracking kes knuckles and getting back to typing. I give kem a nod, but kes eyes are glued to the screen.

“Alright, Denish,” I say. “Where do we start?”

“Mm. Aspen and Tinera will check propulsion and stabilisation systems. Adin has some knowledge of old refrigerants and just looked at the oxygen system, he will come with me. We will check ventilation and air filtering when we are checking that air is being filtered and oxygen added. Then we will examine the coolant system as best we can to find problem for Keldin.”

I don’t expect to find any problems with the propulsion systems, beyond the broken aft engine that we already know about, and we don’t. I suspect that Denish gave us the easiest work on purpose, but I’m not complaining. They do need to be checked, after all. After a couple of hours of checking various other systems under Denish’s direction, we all seem to collectively decide that we’d given Keldin plenty of time to wake up and start just kind of sauntering in the general direction of the medbay. Tal catches up with us halfway there.

“According to Amy, the human authorisation requirement for the oxygen system and a handful of others was removed on day 12389 of the journey.”

“After launch? By the crew?”

“Kinoshita Keiko was the only one alive in the back part of the ship at that point, so it must have been her. What do you think? The ship’s psychologist was a secret plant to destroy the mission? Reimann was seeing her before he went nutso, right?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Captain Kinoshita doing that makes sense without invoking any wild sabotage theories. She’d been alone, so far as she knew. For reasons I still don’t understand, neither Kinoshita’s team in the back nor Leilea’s team up front seemed to have tried to cross to the other side by going outside the ship, and Kinoshita hadn’t revived a backup crew despite access to ample colonists. She must have known that it was very likely that she wouldn’t survive the whole journey. Giving the AI full access to systems to deal with emergencies makes sense in that situation. It makes a lot less sense than waking up help; even I’d decided to revive help fairly quickly, and I’m stubborn to a fault. But if you decide to let everyone sleep, and you know you might die, giving the computer the capacity to keep everyone alive makes sense.

She’d missed one, though. The AI hadn’t been able to reach the fore engine after what Reimann did to Chronostasis Ring 1, and had needed captain’s authorisation to eject a ring. That’s the only reason that I, and by extension the rest of our little crew, are awake.

Lina and the Friend half-heartedly glare at us in a resigned sort of way as we all shuffle into the medbay as casually as possible. The space isn’t designed to fit so many people, so it’s a little awkward to fit around Keldin’s bed. The man is awake, although judging by how groggy he looks, probably not for very long. He’s not even sitting up yet, head against the pillow as he blinks up at the crowd of people that have suddenly appeared around him. Most of him is hidden by his sheet, a concession to Texan sensibilities, but now that I have a chance to get a good look at his face and hands, I can’t help but notice how symmetrical he looks, in that no-room-for-errors kind of way that indicated either very high quality genes in the physical attractiveness department, or very high-end surgical work done. Probably the former, as he’s also missing two fingernails on his right hand, and anyone striving for perfection via surgery would’ve had those replaced.

Of course, everyone looks at me to explain things. At least when Keldin’s registered in the computer system, this sort of thing won’t be my responsibility any more.

“Good morning, Keldin,” I begin. “I’m Aspen. How are you feeling?”

“Fine. Have we arrived, then?”

“Ah. No. We’re still about four years away from Hylara. You’ve been revived early as emergency crew personnel.”

I watch the confusion and dawning dread flicker across his face as he does the same thing we all did, calculating just how far he is down the reserve crew priority lists and just how big an emergency there must have been to chew through that many crew members.

“The situation is currently stable,” I assure him quickly. “Nobody’s in any danger right now. Well, no more than the usual amount of danger for space travel. I suppose.”

“Except for the oxygen problem,” Tal cuts in.

“Yes, thank you, Tal.”

“I’m just saying, that’s an unusual amount of danger. Oxygen being important, and all.”

“Yes, thank you, Tal. Let the man recover from chronostasis. That situation is also currently stable.”

“What’s wrong with the oxygen?” Keldin asks.

“We’re experiencing some mechanical problems. They’re not so time critical that you can’t take time to recover.”

“Understood. What are the mechanical problems?”

I hesitate for a few seconds, trying desperately to find a way to explain that won’t freak him out, but then I catch the look in his eyes. I’m struck with a memory of Fir, watching a fire catch in the trees above us during a lightning storm not with panic, but with a calm calculation as we run for shelter. When I’d asked what ke was thinking of later, ke told me ke was planning out how the growth restoration plan would look.

Keldin wasn’t some random panicked colonist. He was an engineer. And we had a problem for him to solve.

I nod. “Denish, if you would explain?”

“Yes, captain.” Denish steps forward and starts to outline the problem. Keldin listens intently, occasionally interrupting him with questions.

I begin to relax. This should work out fine.

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2 thoughts on “047: HELP

  1. Very excited to see the switch to twice a week posts! This story is quickly becoming one of the most delightful parts of my Wednesdays


  2. Engineer is probably the most dangerous position for a slavery happy person to be in. Even without the ID chip, he’ll have the technical knowhow to kill everyone on the chip and revive other pro-slavery colonists. This man has huge villain potential.

    And poor Aspen is STILL doubting their abilities as captain. Aspen, sweetie, you’re way more qualified to be captain because the crew TRUSTS you. They don’t trust this guy yet.


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