A Sea of Stars - Ch. 4 - Troubleshooting

          yet
         even
     when the stars
    high in the sky
        go dark
      it's   easy                 for
     to         see              deep
                           in your heart you
                             know that it's
                                not the 
            that             star    light
           shines
       brightest, but the
         light of your
        smile      and
      warmth      of your            
                                    heart


As they walked in, Commander Bryant was the first to notice them, “I thought you were trapped.”

“We were,” Lillian said.

Jacobs cut in, “But there must have been some sort of safety override on the door. I just kept requesting that it open and eventually it did.”

“Huh, why didn’t we think of that…” Bryant replied, thick with sarcasm.

Jacobs either didn’t notice or, more likely, completely ignored it. “I don’t know sir.”

Bryant nodded and turned to address the entire room.

“Well, now that we have our entire engineering staff with us, we should be able to make quick work of repairs. We have to get the gate operational for the scheduled opening this afternoon.”

“What if we don’t?” one of the security officers that had been standing near the Commander asked.

“Standard procedure. Triton Station will assume that we’re in trouble. They’ll wait 24 hours and try to contact us again. And keep trying every 24 hours until they get through. No–one wants another Hermes.”

There were general nods at this. The Hermes had been the first manned interstellar mission–before the era of the Gateships–and had mysteriously disappeared en route to Alpha Centauri. When the Daedalus, the first Gateship, was sent to the Centauri system 12 years later, no sign of the Hermes was found.

He turned to address the four of them–at some point Hans had come over to join them without Lillian noticing. “I want this fixed. Whatever resources you need, I’ll make them available.”

“Yessir,” the four of them chorused.

“First,” he continued. “We need to know what happened. So far no one on this bloody ship has a clue and the computers are all over the place with unhelpful information.”

“Commander…” Madeline started.

“Yes?” he rounded on her, towering over her.

Madeline squeaked. Lillian stepped in, “Well sir, it started when we were checking out the broken conduit in the storage area of the ship.”

She spent the next few minutes bringing the Commander up to speed on everything that had happened up to when the blast doors came down. The rest he doesn’t need to know. While she talked, the rest of the crew that had gathered in command were obviously listening to her story, although she didn’t make any special effort to make sure they could hear here. She could hear whispered murmurs passing information back.

“Well that’s quite a tale there Missy,” he rumbled. He turned to Madeline, “That’s how it happened?”

“Yessir.”

“Sounds like sabotage.” A collective gasp rose from the assembled crew. “A series of bombs throughout the ship, rigged to go off whenever someone triggered a booby trapped panel.”

Both Madeline and Lillian nodded. One of the other crew–Lillian thought she might have been the communications officer that usually took the night shift–asked, “But who could do such a thing?”

“Well the four of you for starters,” a voice from over Lillian’s shoulder started. Lillian jerked, startled. She hadn’t heard anyone approaching over the general din of too many people in too small a space. She turned to see who the speaker was and saw the head of security.

Jeff Johnson was a tall man and had the lean look of a boxer getting into his middle years, with short cropped salt and pepper hair. Rumor had it that he had the option of going pro some years ago but had decided to go into private security instead. Lillian didn’t doubt a word of any of it. Rumor also had it that the selection committee for the Borealis crew had put him second in line for the job of head of security until a shuttle accident around Mars Station. Either way, he was an intense man and a heck of a security officer

“What do you mean by that?” asked Bryant.

“I mean the four of you know the nooks and crannies of this ship better than anyone. If I had to bet on someone capable of causing this much damage, I’d bet on one of you.”

“Unlikely…” Lillian could see the a slight blush rising in the Commander’s face as he stalked closer to Johnson. Johnson was big, but the Commander was bigger and madder to boot. But he didn’t back down. “I personally verify each member of my crew. If anyone was capable of something like this, I would know.”

“Be that as it may…” Johnson started.

“It is. If you’re going to question their integrity, you’ll be questioning mine as well.”

“Be that as it may,” he continued, essentially talking over the Commander (not an easy feat), “I’m well within my authority to send one of my security officers with each of you as you conduct the repairs. You can use them however you see fit, but know that they’ll be watching you.”

He turned and called over 2 of his security detail–a man and a woman. “Adrian. Bel.”

“Fine. We can use the extra hands anyways.” The flush was still rising towards his face, turning his neck an interesting shade of deep purple. “Lillian and Madeline?”

“Yes Chief?” they answered nearly simultaneously.

“Take the storage and living quarters. See how bad the damage is and what parts we’ll need to replace it. Take her with you,” he pointed at the at one of two security guards, seemingly at random. “Be back here in an hour.”

“But Commander”, Madeline started, paused for a moment and continued, “the blast doors between the two sections are still sealed.”

“No they aren’t,” Jacobs cut in. “I’ve had a program watching the system reboot. We got back control a few minutes ago.” Lillian wasn’t sure this was entirely the truth, but she guessed in might have been.

The Commander rounded on him, “And you just now thought to mention this?”

“Haven’t had much chance otherwise sir,” he responded, holding his ground.

The Commander rumbled something under his breath in some Eastern European language and gestured at Hans, Jacobs, and the other security guard. “Jacobs and Hans? Take the facilities section. The damage there is pretty bad.”

“Got it.”

“The damage here in command is minimal. Whichever team gets back first can help with ours.” He seemed to be waiting for something, but no one seemed quite sure what. “Well? What are you waiting for? Go!” By this end, he was almost yelling.

They went.


As they left the command center, Madeline said that she had some business to take care of. She dashed off without waiting for Lillian or the security guard to respond.

The security guard–a short stocky woman, even shorter than Madeline, with more scars on her face than seemed possible–grunted but gestured at Lillian to continue with the repairs. So she went to the first panel on the wall. The damage was actually minimal. Lillian pulled out one of the collections of spares that she’d grabbed on the way and went to work fixing it. She had just finished when Madeline came sliding back into view.

“I’ve got this one,” Lillian said over her shoulder. “What where you up to?”

“Oh, just freshening up a bit,” Madeline replied. She was slightly out of breath from running.

Lillian looked over at her. She did look a little clearer. Most of the smoke and grime they’d collected in the explosion was gone and she was wearing a new jumpsuit.

She smiled. “You get the next one.”

Madeline nodded and they set off for the rest.


As they went, the found that the damage wasn’t as bad as they’d feared. The panel they’d first seen was by far the worse and appeared to be the only one that had been purposely smashed rather than blown up. Most likely to attract someone there to try to repair it in the first place. At each of the others it appeared that someone had used as little explosives as they could and still bring the system down.

“I’m actually impressed,” Lillian said. “Whoever did this have to really know the systems really well. I don’t know if I could have even done it.”

“I know I couldn’t,” Madeline agreed.

The security guard that’d been assigned grunted in what could as easily have been agreement as disbelief. A short stocky woman–even shorter than Madeline–the scars on her face stood out in a lurid pattern. She hadn’t said more than two words together then entire time. At first, they’d tried to be friendly, but after the first 5 minutes of the silent treatment, Lillian gave up. Madeline lasted longer, but after half an hour, she was wearing down as well.

When they passed the door where she’d seen the briefcase earlier, Lillian paused. She stood staring at the door long enough that Madeline started fidgeting and throwing glances back and forth between Lillian and the security guard.

“Come on Lillian, we don’t have all day.”

She turned to see Madeline and security guard watching her. “Huh? Oh. Right.”

She knew she’d have to come back later that evening. It had been there! The briefcase had been there. She hadn’t so much as seen it since that last hectic flight from Earth so many years ago. When they’d finally reached Gemini Station, they’d been bustled off the Squill without even time to grab their luggage–the Station personnel insisted that everything would be taken care of. When things finally calmed down, Lillian managed to track down her backpack, but she’d never found her father’s briefcase.

The rest of the inspections went by quickly. They had just finished inspecting the last broken panel–right outside Lillian’s bunk–when Jacobs’ voice came over their comms.

“Can you meet me by the kitchen? I have something I want you two to take a look at.”

“Sure, we’re done here,” Lillian replied. She turned to their guard, “We’re done here, but we’re going to meet up with the other team by the kitchen. Care to tag along?”

Grunt.

“All right then.”

At the kitchen, they found Jacobs and Hans leaning against the wall opposite the panel, talking quietly with each other. Their security guard, a dark skinned man with wild beard and shaved head–Adrian, Lillian thought she remembered his name–was inspecting a series of burns along the wall where the broken conduit was.

“Take a look at those,” Hans said. “Tell me what you think.”

“Those are plasma burns,” Madeline said without a moment’s hesitation.

Lillian turned to stare.

“What? My father was a big game hunter on Europa.”

She kept staring.

“Even now there’s not enough oxygen in the atmosphere to support combustion. Plasma weapons are the only thing that works reliably.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“Not on Europa.”

“Huh.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Jacobs interjected. “But what is a plasma burn doing on the Borealis? Aren’t plasma weapons banned on Gateships?”

“Sure are,” the security officer stood up. “On just about any starship actually. They’re too likely to punch a hole right through the hull if you don’t know what you’re doing.” He had a surprisingly resonant, almost musical voice. “Someone’s broken the rules though. That’s definitely a plasma gun. Pretty powerful one too.”

“How could you hide something like that?” Lillian asked.

“Easy enough,” he replied. “Plasma guns don’t have to be big. Just get an external power source.”

“Like this?” Jacobs asked, holding up what looked like a long black cylinder, maybe fifty to fifty-five centimeters long and four across. From the way he was holding it, it must have been heavy.

“Exactly like that,” the officer said. “I wish you had not touched that. Your prints are all over it now.”

A faint flush crept up Jacobs’ cheeks. “Oh. Right.”

“What’s done is done. Here, hands that over.” Lillian noticed that he didn’t seem to mind touching it himself, no matter how he’d admonished Jacobs.

Jacobs handed over the cylinder. The officer looked over it quickly, not moving his hands on its surface. “Yup. Definitely a power core. Could easily be used for a plasma gun. Get 5, maybe 6 shots off it too.”

Lillian felt her eyebrows rise at that. A power pack that bulky and you’d only get 5 or 6 shots? That must be one heck of a gun to overcome that. Then she turned where everyone else was looking–towards the wall. Four long burn marks marred the surface.

“I’m going to need to report this,” he continued.

“We were just finishing anyways,” Jacobs said. Hans nodded agreement.

“And we were already done,” Madeline added.

“Good. You’re coming with me.”


At first, they walked back in silence. Then Madeline sidled up beside Lillian, watching her. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Oh, I don’t know if they’re worth even that.”

“Sure they are. You always have a unique perspective on things.”

Lillian turned to look at her.

“I mean…”

“It’s alright. I was just trying to figure out the plasma gun. All of the rest of the damage is so precise. The plasma damage just seems so sloppy by comparison.”

“You have a good eye,” Adrian with his resonant voice had come up to join them. “Maybe they ran out of time.”

“I don’t know. Anyone that knew the systems that well would have to know the crew schedules as well,” Lillian countered. “They’re publicly posted after all.”

“How long would it have taken to do all this?” he asked.

Lillian and Madeline turned to look at each other as they calculated. Madeline started, “With the proper tools and no interruptions, no more than 10 minutes per panel.”

“And only six of the eight panels were damaged,” Lillian continued.

“Five,” Jacobs countered. “The panel with the plasma burns didn’t show the same damage.”

“So, maybe an hour?” Hans continued.

“That’s assuming that whoever did this was worked alone,” Adrian added.

Lillian shuddered. “I don’t even want to think of there being one person on this ship that would want to sabotage it, let alone two.” Madeline nodded.

The guard nodded as well. “Nevertheless. We must consider the possibility.”

By then, they had reached command. Most of the staff had already left, but the Commander and the Head of Security were still standing off to one side, discussing something. Noticing them enter, Commander Bryant turned and asked, “So what did you find?”

He seemed to be looking at Lillian and Madeline, so Lillian answered first. She gave a quick description of the state of the panels and her estimation that the work was too precise for someone that didn’t know the systems. She turned to Jacobs and Hans and gestured for them to continue with their part of the story.

Instead, the security guard interrupted by lightly tossing the power canister to the Johnson. At some point during their walk, he had managed to wrap it in some sort of clear, transparent sheeting. Protecting the evidence, Lillian thought.

“Where did you find this?” Johnson asked.

“Just outside the kitchen,” Adrian answered. “There were four plasma burns across the panel.”

Johnson stared at him for a second. “Well that answers a few questions.”

“Sir?”

“One of the cooks–Jenkins–was found dead in storage room five a few minutes before you got back.”

That’s the room where I saw the briefcase, Lillian thought, he must have been in there when we went by! She turned to see Madeline looking at her with wide eyes.

Johnson continued without a pause, “Got a call from one of the communications officers on the way back to his room. Said he heard some strange sort of gunfire. We got there as quick as we could. When we got the door open, Jenkins was lying in the middle of the room. Or what was left of him at least. He had the plasma gun in his hand. It looks like a suicide.”

Gasps went up from the engineering crew. The two security officers masked their surprise better, but Lillian saw Adrian’s eyes widen at least slightly.

“But surely he could haven’t done the rest of the damage. He was just a cook.”

Lillian thought back to all the times she’d seen Jenkins in the mess. “No he wasn’t,” she said out loud. “He was an engineer back on the Daedalus.”

This time everyone turned to look at her.

“Before Borealis, I served on the Daedalus’ maiden voyage. I was an apprentice mechanic. I didn’t see much of the other mechanics, but now that I think about it, Jenkins was there. Just for a year, in the middle of the voyage then he transferred off again. It was strange actually, he didn’t serve an entire shift.”

“You can confirm this?” Johnson asked.

“I’m sure the crew manifest is available somewhere. It’s been a few years.”

“Well that sounds like a case then,” Commander Bryant said happily. “A few rough edges, but problem solved.”

“We have someone with the technical skills and the weapon used on one of the panels,” Johnson responded, “But we still don’t have a motive.”

“I’m sure you find something. I’ll leave that to you and your men.”

A curt nod was Johnson’s only reply.

“Meanwhile,” he turned to the maintenance crew. “I took a minute to go look at the panels around here while you were gone. The only one that’s actually blown out is just down by the storage section. It’s mostly superficial. A simple swap with the replacements should get everything up and running again.”

“We’ll get it,” Jacobs replied. “We’ve already done everything else. Except for the plasma damage. That will take a little longer.”

“Can you do it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. You and Hans, go take care of that panel. Lillian and Madeline, see what you can do about the plasma burns. We may not have the walling to replace it entirely, but I’m sure you can find something to patch it with. I want to have the gate operational again by the scheduled connection time. You have 2 hours.”

There was a chorus of yes sirs and the crew headed back out. The Commander was correct, it was a simple matter to replace the panel with spares. With how critical the gate was to the ship’s mission, there were backups in triplicate of all of the gate components. Enough to build a spare gate twice over, Lillian liked to joke. It was a quick matter of fetching the components from storage and swapping them out.

As for the plasma burns, they had torn completely through the wall and burnt into the kitchen in places. One of the scars kept going right through to the opposite wall where there was a deep black mark that almost went through far wall, not that terribly far from the outer hull. Lillian shuddered. But they had enough spare sheet metal to weld of the damage at least for the time being. Some minor electrical work inside of the wall itself and they were done. Well within the 2 hours the Commander had requested.

“Do you still want to be there when the new crew comes in?” Lillian asked as they were finishing the last panel.

“Of course. Do you think any of them will back out with what happened?”

“I doubt it. It’s good money serving on a Gateship. If they made it this far in the process, I don’t think they’d back out–particularly when the responsible party’s already been dealt with.”

“If you say so. Want to clean up and meet at the observation deck in 15 minutes?”

“Sure.”

Madeline walked shortly down the hall to her own room and Lillian to hers.

The responsible party’s already been dealt with, she thought. But then how did the power core end up by the kitchen?

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