2948-03-03 – Tales from the Service: A Glitch In the Gap
The Navy techs and cleaning crew had done their best to put the off-duty lounge compartment back into factory-fresh condition, but no amount of cleaning could purge the smell of space from the bulkheads and fixtures.
The command deck of Terence Morey didn’t have enough space to pace properly, so Marty had relocated his daily regimen to the leisure deck as soon as that had been repaired sufficiently that one no longer needed a vacsuit to visit it. The place was still as haunted as any part of a ship could be, and it reeked of the interstellar void so strongly that he was mystified that none of the Navy crewmen sent aboard to help him return to Maribel seemed to notice.
Those four men and two women, all younger than him by at least ten years, didn’t understand why Marty paced the ship in his off-duty hours, now that the treadmill – and indeed the entire onboard exercise space – was in working order. They didn’t want to understand, and he didn’t really want them to, either. Perhaps the accusations in their sidelong looks whenever he passed by were correct – perhaps he was crazy, part of his mind cracked from the long months of isolation aboard a ruined ship.
More likely, he thought, they would understand when they were older and wiser themselves, or perhaps it would take an experience like his to make them see why he did what he did. He paced the ship in his off-duty hours, even sometimes when he was supposed to be asleep in the makeshift cabin he’d set up in the bridge-deck parts storage compartment, because it gave him just the slightest chance to notice something going wrong with Morey before it became a serious problem.
Marty was no tech, but he had gotten a feel for the ship in his months aboard even before the incident which had killed its more technically gifted crew. He could feel and hear when things were running smoothly, and if they weren’t, he could usually detect that, too. Diagnosing and repairing such a fault was another matter, but the more time he had to do it, the less chance there was that the mangled ship would suffer a catastrophic failure.
That was the idea, anyway – at least, before the ship had been patched up by a civilian maintenance vessel dragooned into the Arrowhawk squadron. Theoretically, Morey was in as good a shape as she had ever been – good enough shape to cross the Gap, the Navy men had said. Theoretically, there was no more need to pace, to feel, and to listen, and the six new members of the crew never failed to remind him of the apparent futility of his diligence.
For a while, the techs seemed to be right. The automated monitors, now patched up, detected every problem long before Marty’s pacing and listening could. When they told him the ship was ready to cross the Gap, he had believed them. For weeks after creeping out of the comparative shelter of the Sagittarius Arm, Morey had bounced from one empty-space jump resolution to another, guiding itself only by minute stellar parallax effects measured by computer. Everything was working – if not as perfectly as when the poor ship had left Maribel for the outward voyage, then at least as well as it had just prior to the attack by the tiny, swarming strike-launches which the Navy men called Railsplitters or Coronachs. One of the two terms was the proper name for the machines, but Marty hadn’t bothered to learn which. He was leaving Sagittarius for a region of the galaxy devoid of such cruelties and would never see a swarm of the tiny, murderous vessels again.
So intent was Marty on relishing the fact that he would never tangle with that particular foe again that he almost missed the feeling that something was wrong somewhere between bulkhead fifteen and seventeen on the leisure-deck. He had to cover the stretch several times to pinpoint the spot where the sense was strongest, and even then, the exact nature of the disturbance eluded him.
“Hey, who’s on duty in command?” The novelty of having extra pairs of hands and eyes to watch the controls while he was off duty was still fresh, and he regularly called up there to check, just to make sure.
“It’s Rapallino, Mr. Westland. Do you need something?” The voice in his earpiece told him more about which of his Navy-donated assistants was on duty than the name. This was the easily bored female junior tech with the pretty face and the long, gangly limbs not quite filled out by adulthood.
“Something’s off down here.” This was not the first time he had made such a report. Usually, he noticed something wrong only after the techs had started to fix it. Despite himself, he always hoped he was the first to pick up on a potential issue.
“The board is clear, Mr. Westland. There’s nothing wrong with the ship.”
Marty almost jumped for joy. He had beaten the techs to a problem – not for a moment did he entertain the possibility that his finely-tuned sense of rightness on Morey might be wrong. “Wrong, kiddo. Something’s about to go wrong. Something big. Bleed the capacitors and start a full diagnostic.”
The young tech, probably groaning with her comms pickup muted, didn’t reply right away. Technically, the ship was Marty’s, so he was in command. Marty had been there when Captain Bosch had ordered the detachment to listen to him, and for a moment, he wondered if this was as far as they would be willing to do it. They thought he was deranged, after all.
After almost a full half-minute, probably just enough time to consult her associates, the tech complied. “Capacitors bleeding. Can you be more specific about what’s wrong?”
“I can try. Will you tell everyone to stay quiet and still?”
“We’ll be quiet.” No attempt to hide the exasperation in the girl’s voice was made.
Marty muted his comms, then paced in a small circle around where the sense of wrongness originated. Doubtless what of the crew was awake was running various diagnostics to try to beat him to the problem, but this time, his methods had them beat. They didn’t know what to look for. Marty didn’t either, but that put him in his comfort zone.
Five times, he paced his little circle clockwise, then five more counterclockwise. For good measure, he stood in the center of the corridor just aft of bulkhead sixteen, where the off feeling was strongest, and spun in a slow circle, trying to put a sense of direction to the sensation.
At last, he settled on a likely direction, then called up the ship’s diagnostics on his wrist computer. Tracing that direction from his position, he digitally passed through the pressure-hull, a mass of ductwork for the auxiliary atmospherics, a primary power conduit, and then...
“Aha!” Marty unmuted his comms. “I know what’s wrong.”
“Do you?” The girl on the bridge sounded characteristically bored. “All the diagnostics I can run from up here come up clean.”
“Something’s loose in the...” Marty looked up the official name for the module he had long ago nicknamed the Mechanical Mother-In-Law for its girth, complexity, and the long sequence of apparently malicious failures it had demonstrated early in his solitude. “...The primary phased matter condenser.”
“The PMC?” Though Marty didn’t know the significance of the device, the tech’s bored tone was instantly gone. All he knew was that it was connected to the main reactor, but either could run without the other. The ship certainly issued dire warnings if the condenser was ever inoperable, even if the backup successfully took over. “I’ll do a targeted diagnostic and send Mulryan out for a look.”
“I’ll go.” Marty volunteered. He’d spent enough time inside the Mechanical Mother-in-Law comparing its state to the schematics that he could almost certainly spot the issue in an instant. It would take the other techs several minutes, if they spotted it at all. “I’ve fixed that damn thing enough times already.”
“I’m sorry, what? Mr. Westland, are you telling me you have laid your untrained hands on the ship’s PMC?”
It was Marty’s turn to delay his response. Her tone indicated that such an action was sinful, even criminal. A machine was a machine to him – make it look like the computer’s schematics, then restart it. Repeat, if necessary. “Seven or eight times, the damn thing. Wasn’t even damaged in the attack, but it kept failing anyway. Why?”
“Stars around, Westland, I knew you were crazy, but tinkering with your PMC?” The girl shook her head. “I suppose it hasn’t exploded or poisoned the reactor yet.”
“I was careful. It’s not like – wait.” He frowned, finally interpreting her words completely. “Exploded? Why didn’t anyone tell me it could do that?”
We of course know from last week’s Tales from the Service that Martin Westland and his small replacement crew made it back to Maribel alive. I’ll put all you ship-techs at ease by mentioning that when Morey was overhauled there on its return, the Phased Matter Condenser was replaced wholesale, along with several other sensitive items which Mr. Westland had tinkered with, but which Bosch’s repair men had not been able to replace.
He was right about something being off, of course – something that was, at least this time, easily repaired. A more severe problem might have reduced Morey to backup phased-matter collection for the remaining portion of its return journey. Transit of the Gap is dangerous for this reason – there's a lot of time for things to go wrong, and all of that time is spent unimaginably far from any chance of rescue or assistance.