A Sea of Stars - Ch. 3 - Inspection

          when
        you want
      nothing more
     than to go home
       and nothing
      else      will
     be           good      enough
            some
            times
       you just might
    find that you are already
       there      they 
      say           home
               is
              where
       the heart is but in
         reality home is
           where    your
         friends     are

After lunch, they set out towards the damaged power conduit that had been reported earlier. The power conduits mainly fed the gate generators along the inner ring of the ship. Seeing as there’d be no reason for Borealis to exist if it weren’t for the gate–there were backups after all–but they still needed an occasional look over.

Not to mention that if the gate failed completely, they would be stranded in interstellar space until–if–another gate ship could reach them or they could fix the gate. In all likelihood, it would never happen.

They’d decided to actually go through a routine inspection of all of the power conduits that they could access from the corridors–most of them. Hopefully that would help keep the Commander at ease about the upcoming connection. And although it was probably nothing, they’d decided to start with the damaged one.

“So what’s got you all in a knot?”

Lillian looked up to see Madeline watching her.

“Not much. Thinking about what would happen if we lost the gate.”

Madeline made a face, “Aw. Don’t be such a downer. Today’s supposed to be a good day. And there are all sorts of safeguards in place to protect it.”

“I guess.” She turned to the panel.

Madeline stretched up to her toes, looking over Lillian’s shoulder at the panel. “But what do you think could so wrong that the maintenance bots couldn’t fix it?”

“Oh, all sorts of things. That’s why they have us.” Always so cheerful, Lillian thought as she removed the last magnetic clamp and lifted the panel.

She gasped.

The usually neat rows of cables and panels within the conduit had been smashed apart, several missing entirely. In the middle of the mess a trio of maintenance bots–each a hand-sized collection of legs and tools–sat together, perfectly still. At first, it looked as if they’d just stopped working but on closer look the central processor from each had been smashed. A faint crackle of energy revealed that some of the cables at least were still live.

Lillian jerked her hands back and turned to Madeline, “I guess that explains why the bots didn’t handle it.”

Madeline’s reply was breathless at first. “I guess. Do you think we should we call this in?”

“I don’t think that we even have the gear to repair something like this. Perhaps if we took the time to look at it more carefully down in the workshops. Either way, we’ll have to bring up one of the spares.”

“Oh. Right. At least we can shut off the power.” Madeline turned and began to walk down the hall to another access panel a few meters away.

Just as she reached it, Lillian felt a twinge. Something was wrong. It took her a moment to realize what it was, but just as Madeline was reaching out her hand, it hit her. “Stop!”

Her hands resting a fraction of a centimeter from the keypad, Madeline turned back. “What?” she said, with a touch of exasperation in her tone.

“Look, down at the base–” Madeline drew back her hand, a puzzled expression on her face. “–there’s scratch marks. Someone forced it open.”

Madeline shrugged. “Someone probably just forgot their access code.” But she dropped her hands to her sides. “Well, we do need to turn off the power.”

“Here, we can do it remotely.” Lillian queued up the maintenance program on her augs and logged in. It would take longer to get through the system and disable power, but she just couldn’t shake the feeling.

By the time she was logged in to the system, Madeline was standing by her side, looking into the wreckage of the panel.

“What do you think…” she started as Lillian hit the control to disable power in the section they were standing in.

As she did, there was a resounding roar as the power control panel that Madeline had been about to use blew off the wall. There wasn’t any fire, but the shock wave knocked both of them off their feet and across the corridor. Immediately, the hallway went dark.

Fractions of a second later–although it felt far longer–the emergency lighting turned on, bathing both of them in a red glow. Lillian looked over to Madeline and could see her mouth moving, but realized that she couldn’t hear a word she was saying. Couldn’t hear anything. She reached up to rub at her ears, but it didn’t help.

She gestured to her ears and shook her head. Madeline got the hint and turned to her augs, her fingers wiggling so that her internal system could pick up the letters. A second later, a message popped into Lillian’s field of view.

What was that?

I don’t know, she sent back, But I don’t think we have to report back anymore. With an explosion like that, I’m sure there’ll be security all over in a few minutes.

I think… Madeline hesitated. I think you just saved my life. Again. She grabbed hold of Lillian and hugged her tightly.

That’s what friends are for.

Thank you.

As they talked, her hearing started to return. The first thing she noticed was a high pitched ringing. She turned about trying to find the source, but it seemed to be following her as she did. The second was a warning klaxon attached to the emergency lighting. It’s too quiet, Lillian thought, no one will be able to hear it.

Then her brain caught up and she realized that if a warning was going off, there was probably a good reason for it. She brought up a ship’s map on her display. Almost a quarter of the ship was flashing red spread along the entirety of its inner ring–not just where they were.

Look at this, she said, sending the map to Madeline.

She glanced at the map on her own display. Those are all the power conduits nearest the gate generators. That’s almost all of them.

Knowing what to look for, Lillian checked her own display. She already knew that Madeline was right.

“We should head to command,” she tried speaking. Her voice sounded flat and oddly metallic, but at least she could hear herself again.

Madeline looked up at the sound of her voice. “Say what?” A pause, then understanding lit her eyes. “Oh. Yeah. We’ll have to use the maintenance access here and here though,” she sent the points to Lillian’s map, “Blast doors are down in most of the damaged sections.”

Looking down the hall, it didn’t appear that the nearest blast door had activated, so they set off towards command.


For the first bit of walking, the ship seemed nearly abandoned. While there weren’t that many crew currently stationed on the Borealis, you would usually see at least a few people walking about on their daily business. But everyone seemed to have vanished.

“Probably heading to command as well,” Madeline mentioned, mirroring Lillian’s thoughts. “I wonder why there hasn’t been any sort of announcement.”

“They’re probably still assessing the damage.”

“Still, a ‘please remain calm’ or a ‘report to stations’ would be nice.”

As she was talking, there was a flickering as the lights came back on. They both stopped and looked up and then around. It seemed that someone had managed to get the ship’s power rerouted without any trouble. Thank goodness for backup circuits, Lillian thought.

Shortly thereafter, she noticed someone near what looked like a solid wall placed directly across the corridor. A closed blast door, she thought. That explosion must have been even worse than we thought to trigger the blast doors. As they closed the distance, she saw who it was.

“Jacobs,” she called out. “What are you doing out here?”

“Hans is trapped on the other side.”

As if in confirmation, an abrupt rapping rang out on the metal of the door. “Do you have your engineering override codes? Mine aren’t working.”

“There’s probably a good reason the door is sealed,” Madeline started.

Madeline called up her display as Lillian walked up beside Jacobs. “How did this happen?” she asked.

“We’d just been tweaking the display for one of the navigation computers in command. We were heading back down when the power went out. I heard the door sliding shut and when the power came back on, Hans was on the other side of it.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.”

“My codes aren’t working either,” Madeline cut in. “Lillian, try yours?”

“If neither of yours worked…” she started, but pulled up the commands anyways. As she’d expected, the door refused to budge for either her standard access code or her emergency override codes. Oddly, it wasn’t listing any reason for staying shut, it just refused to open.

“Can we get around?” Madeline asked.

“No. The blast doors divide the ship into sections–they go all of the way through the hull.”

Lillian turned to Jacobs. He appeared to be talking with Hans over his comms. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to get the door open. Go ahead down to command. We’ll have to go the long way around.”

Madeline looked up from her display. “That’s not going to work. There’s three more just like this one spread around the station. They’re designed to lock off each of the four sections of the ship if anything goes critically wrong.”

“But we’re not that bad off… are we?”

“I’m sure we’re not. It’s probably just staying closed as some sort of safety precaution.”

“An annoying one.”

“Isn’t that always the case? Staying safe just isn’t quite as interesting.”

“So we’re stuck here?” Jacobs asked, interrupting that particular thread of conversation. He turned his head to one side, listening to whatever Hans was saying. “He says he’ll go ahead to command and radio back when he gets there.”

“Tell him to see if they can open the blast doors remotely,” Lillian asked.

“Aw, you don’t like being stuck here with me? I’m hurt.”

Madeline batted her eyelashes, “I don’t mind.”

Jacobs grinned.

Oh brother, Lillian though. “So what do we do until they get the doors open?”

Jacobs answered, although he was still watching Madeline, “Well, we still have access to the ship’s computers. Perhaps we can figure out what’s going on.”

“How?”

“Security cameras.”

“You have access to those?”

“Sure. Don’t you?”

He shouldn’t, Lillian thought. He’s with engineering–not security. “Why?”

“Why not?” Another grin.

Lillian sighed. Of course, she thought, at least it’s better than sitting around watching those two flirt. “Go for it.”

Jacobs’ fingers twitched as he accessed his augs and sent a shared display to Madeline and Lillian. Soon they were watching a bank of cameras throughout the ship–the hallway outside the living quarters, the kitchen, the men’s and women’s restrooms (Hey!), and finally command.

About half of the crew was already assembled in the rather tight quarters. She thought that many of those missing were either trapped like the three of them or had somehow slept through the explosions. The night crew–so far as the simulated shipboard day/night cycle was concerned–was minimal, so there probably weren’t that many in their quarters.

As she watched, Hans walked into the field of view. He had made pretty good time, she thought. He seemed to be speaking.

“Can you get audio?”

“Sure thing.” His fingers twitched again and the audio feed started playing.

”… are trapped behind a blast door.”

“Not much we can do about that,” Commander Bryant responded, “we’re locked out of all primary systems.”

“How?” Hans asked.

“We’re… not entirely sure.” Bryant hesitated. “Someone knew our systems damn well though.”

“Sympathizers!” someone called out from the crowd. “They’re back!” another voice echoed them.

Bryant turned and tried to identify the speaker and called back, “there’s no need for that.”

“Why not?” another voice called–one of the security staff judging by his black jumpsuit. “Someone had to say it.”

“But Sympathizers? What interest would they have in a gateship?”

“Who said it was the ship they were after?” Some in the crowd were nodding–Lillian was glad she didn’t have to deal with this sort of thing; people were notoriously unreliable, particularly in large groups.

“What else?”

“One of the crew?” someone called out.

“You can look over the roster, but no one has a record with the Sympathizers either way.” Was that a slight hesitation in his voice? The general crew records were available, but surely the Commander had access to any more specific details.

Even before he’d finished, another asked “Are we carrying any special cargo?”

“You knew as well as I that we aren’t. With the gate, anything we’d need to carry can be stored back home and brought through in an emergency. The only thing that we have besides the essentials are basic surveying equipment. And the only reason we have that is they just ran out of room to store back on Mars.”

A number of people were yelling now. Most of it blurred together into an atonal ruckus, but occasional words stood out. “Not now!” “the gate” “dead in the water” “broken” For the moment, the Commander turned from his crew and was talking with his Head of Security.

Jacobs dimmed the volume and turned to Madeline and Lillian. There was an unexpected edge to his voice. “So what do you think?”

“We’re stuck here,” Madeline asked. “Does it matter why?”

“I guess not,” he replied, “but what else could we do?”

“We could try to get that door open.” Lillian suggested. It was going to be their job eventually after all.

Both turned to her; Madeline with doubt clear on her face but Jacobs looking thoughtful. “How do you propose we do that?” he asked.

“We could cut through it,” Lillian had a plasma torch on one of her belts and she rested the palm of one hand on it. It could cut through a steel wall if needed, or weld one back together.

“That’d take hours,” he countered. “Blast doors are designed to be hard to cut through.”

“Explosives?”

“Lillian!”

“Just a thought.”

“Wouldn’t work anyways. Blast doors, remember?”

“Big explosives?” She raised her hands before he could protest. “Could we just wedge them open?”

“I doubt it. There’s nowhere to put a lever.”

Lillian could see that he was right. There were small panels in the walls, floor, and ceiling that slid open when the blast door was closing. The door itself was made of a set of curved pieces that looked like fish scales that closed into an iris shape. The joints between panels were perfectly smooth and the edges would be outside of the corridor, if they were accessible at all.

“There has to be some way.” She hesitated for a moment. “You could hack into the system. Try to override whatever program is holding the doors shut.”

“Me?”

Lillian smiled, “You have access to all those cameras. Don’t tell me you got that through official channels.”

“You heard the Commander. They’ve tried. Why do you think I can get through where they couldn’t?”

“You do have an advantage they don’t,” Madeline cut in, starting to smile again. “You don’t have to follow the rules.”

They don’t have to follow the rules…” He muttered, but they could all see his mental cogs grinding along. “What do you think that Commander would say if he found out?”

Lillian pictured their boss–a giant of a man with wild red hair and beard–who only seemed to know one volume: louder.

“I’m sure he’ll thank you for getting control of the ship back.”

Madeline snickered; Jacobs raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, he’ll probably curse up a storm,” Lillian confessed. Then, with her best old-world accent, “Are you brain-dead? Is my system not good enough for you? Hacking, it is not necessary.”

He smiled at that, but Lillian wasn’t sure it was enough. She had to admit–the Commander was kind of terrifying at times.

“But does it really matter right now?” she continued in her own voice.

“Plus, it’s not like they can do more than slap your wrist,” Madeline added. “We don’t even have a brig. And it’s not like they’ll send you back with 26 months on your contract. Maybe they’ll restrict your access to the ship’s computers…” He mock gasped at that. “…but I’m sure you can get around that.

“Very helpful,” Lillian scowled at her.

“It’s true,” she replied. “Even better, engineering has always been understaffed. With the extra trouble going on now…”

”…they need us.” They could seem him beginning to turn.

Lillian cut in, “The short of it is we can either sit her twiddling our thumbs or we can do something about it.”

“We can, can we?” Jacobs asked, putting a strong emphasis on the first word. “What will the two of you be doing?”

“Um,” Lillian turned to Madeline.

“Helping? How can we help?”

Jacobs smirked, although it seemed half-hearted. His mind was clearly elsewhere. “Stop talking.” He sounded like he’d wanted to say that for a long time. But even as he said it, Lillian realized that his fingers had been twitching like mad on his sides the entire time. After a bit his eyes refocused on the display only he could see and he was ignoring the girls completely.

Sensing that she was about to object, Lillian turned to Madeline and gestured down the hall. Both walked along far enough down the curve that they could still see Jacobs but hopefully not be heard.

“What?” Madeline asked when they stopped.

“Let him be. He may be annoying at times…” At least to her, he was. Lately he seemed to be paying particular attention to Madeline. “… But he’s our best bet of getting out of this mess. Plus, he’s usually not like this. You know that.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.” But she didn’t sound like she really meant it.

“Sure, but just try not to antagonize him.”

For a second she seemed about to protest, then her face turned to a wicked grin. Oh my, Lillian thought.

“Well we have some time to kill,” Madeline started. “Want to check out the storerooms?”

“You know we can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re not supposed to.” Madeline stood and waited, just watching until Lillian went on. “It’s all either private property or equipment for the ship.”

“Didn’t you just give Hans a speech about this?”

She shook her head. “That was different.”

“How?”

“He’s opening the blast doors. Trying to get us out of this mess.” She turned back to look at him and watched his fingers twitching just as madly as ever. “Dang he can type.”

“So maybe we’ll find something in one of the storerooms that can open the blast doors.”

“Uh huh.”

“Hey, it could happen.”

“Like what?”

“Um… a magic wand! Then we can just wave it and wish the doors open.”

“Not likely,” she said with a smile. “You heard the commander, all we’ve got is the extra surveying equipment.”

“Okay fine. Maybe we won’t find anything that can open the doors. But maybe there’ll be a clue to what’s going on!”

“A clue? You sound like one of those detective vids that were so popular when we were kids. And you heard the Commander, there’s no reason for the Borealis to be carrying anything like that.”

“Exactly. There’s no reason for it. But did he go right out and say it?”

Lillian shrugged. She couldn’t quite remember. Plus she couldn’t exactly picture the Commander lying about something like that. The Borealis had a rather singular mission. Take its gate to some other star so that future missions could cheat Einstein. And if there wasn’t any reason for a gate, they would continue on outwards.

“What about the survey equipment?”

She shook her head at that. “You can get the same sort of thing all over the place. Heck, it’s dirt cheap now. Most of the big corporations have staked out enough rocks that they won’t have to survey again for centuries.”

“But there could be even greater riches once we reach Epsilon Eridani.”

“But then why now? We’re still years out.”

“But if there really are Sympathizers…”

“What would Sympathizers want with surveying equipment?”

Madeline scowled at her. “Separate thought. If it was Sympathizers…”

Lillian cut in, “there aren’t. The Sympathizers have been quiet for years, why would they suddenly attack a gateship?”

“That’s why we should go through the storerooms!”

“What?”

“If there’s a Sympathizer agent on board they’ll surely have, I don’t know, orders or special equipment or something.” She turned and grinned. “You know we don’t have room in our bunks and the public sections are, well, too public. What better place than the storerooms?”

“All of this, based on the guess that the Sympathizers might have come back…” Madeline just waited. She was doing her best to keep a straight face, but Lillian knew that she wouldn’t be able to hide her smile much longer. “Oh, fine. Somehow I have this feeling that you won’t stop bugging me about it and at least if I go with you, I can keep you out of trouble.”

“Yes!” Madeline did a little dance of glee as Lillian turned back to Jacobs. Hoping to distract him as little as possible, she sent a message.

We’re going to look through the storerooms. Ping us when you get through.

Jacobs looked up for a second, a faraway look in his eyes. He looked first to where they had been standing and, not seeing them, looked up and down the hall. With how the ship curved, they were near the floor from his perspective so it took a bit for him, but he did. He nodded a short nod and then went immediately back to his work.

“So where do we start?” Lillian asked.

“Well, we’re here. How about this one?” Madeline gestured at the nearest door.

“Easy enough.” Lillian stepped forward and tried the door–locked. Madeline walked up to the keypad beside the door and entered her access code. A look of surprise crossed her face as the door sprang obediently open.

“That was easy,” she remarked and stepped into the room.

Lillian followed. Inside were a several rows of shelves, stacked full with a variety of crates and boxes. Madeline started down one of the aisles.

“Baking powder, baking soda, cornstarch …” she read off as she went. Lillian started down the other side. Everything seemed to be some sort of foodstuff. Everything was either compressed or preserved in some way to survive the months between supply runs.

“Madeline!” she called, “you were right. The Sympathizers are here.”

“What?” She came running over.

“And they’re plotting to steal all of the cooks’ secret ingredients.”

“Very funny.” She spun on her heel and looked down the next few aisles. “Next room?” she asked.

The next storeroom down the hall was another food storage room, this time containing almost entirely a wide variety of canned foods.

“So many beans…” Lillian commented. “Clearly a diabolical plot.”

But when Madeline tried her access code on the third door, it remained shut.

“Huh. Try yours?”

Lillian sighed. Having her access code on record was going to cause problems down the line. She typed in her access code and to her surprise, the door opened.

Inside, the room was painted a sterile white. The lighting was bright enough to make the walls seem to glow and was hard on their eyes. The only furniture was a single table, barely large enough for a person to stand along a side. On the table: a silver briefcase.


As she strapped herself into her seat, Lillian turned and looked for her father. Instead, she saw the friendly mechanic, strapping her father’s suitcase to a row of harnesses along the ceiling.


“Lillian? Are you alright?”


There was a tremendous feeling of weight on her chest as the Squill accelerated upwards on its magnetic track. Then the main engines ignited and the weight doubled. She could it pressing down on her. Crushing her. It felt like someone was sitting on her chest, slowly putting more and more weight on her. The Squill shook and Lillian shook with it.


Madeline was standing directly in front of her, stretching for every inch of height so she could look into Lillian’s eyes.


She looked over at the boy she had been talking with just before the launch. He looks as terrified as she felt. She reached out and took his hand.


She could see a faint sparkle at the corners of Madeline’s eyes and watched as she drew back a hand.


*The flight was surprisingly short. Before long, they were looking down on the Earth as the Squill rotated into orbit. *

Lillian sighed. She could see the curving coastline where she’d grown up and the lights of the city shining bright. She squinted and imagined that she could even see her house.

“Everything looks so peaceful,” the boy commented.

Realizing that she was still holding his hand, Lillian started to pull away. He held on for a moment, and then let her go.

“My name’s Matt Jacobs. But everyone just calls me Jacobs.”

“Lillian.”


Her stinging cheek brought Lillian back to the present. “You slapped me.”

“Oh Lillian,” Madeline wrapped her arms around her. “You had me worried there.”

“You slapped me,” Lillian repeated.

“I had to; you were so out of it.”

Lillian looked down and could see the faint traces of tears on her friend’s cheeks. “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay? You’re the one that just spazzed out when we walked into the room.”

“I’m sorry about that, it’s just…” she paused. The room was the same as when she’d first opened the doors, sterile white walls and overly bright lighting. But the table and briefcase were gone. “Madeline… what do you see?”

“It’s just an empty room, nice and clean. Bigger than my bunk. Wonder if they’d let me move in?”

“Did you see…” She hesitated. “a table?”

“A table? You’re not spazzing again, are you?”

She was saved having to answer by a chirp on her augs and a message from Jacobs.

Got it. You’re going to want to see this.

Lillian turned to Madeline, but she was already on her way out the door. Lillian turned to follow here, taking a single look back. Just as the door was sliding shut, she could swear that she caught a flicker of the briefcase.

Following Madeline, they jogged back to where they’d left Jacobs.

“I am a genius. Indisputably.”

“Undisputed,” Lillian responded.

Jacobs turned to her and widely grinned. “Made it through the firewall no problem. Took a little bit to figure out why I couldn’t access anything, but once I figured it out–someone just scrambled the system, nothing was actually broken–it was a simple matter of finding the right button to push.”

“And you found the right button?” Madeline asked.

Jacobs pointed at the door. He must have programmed the gesture into his augs because as he pointed, there was the hiss of pressurized air being released and the door slid open. “Tada!”

Always a flair for the dramatic, Lillian thought. “Come on. Let’s get to command.”

The others followed her through, Jacobs taking a quick bow for an imaginary audience as he did. It was a short walk to command and within moments, they were standing outside the doors.

As Lillian reached for the door, Jacobs put a hand on her arm. He had a serious look on his face. “Look, I know you don’t like lying to the Commander, but if they don’t ask–”

”–don’t tell,” Lillian finished. Madeline nodded. Together, they strode into the room.

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