The last to arrive was Lieutenant Commander Fyodorovich, to no one’s surprise. He hustled into the conference room just seconds before the clock rolled over to 20:00 hours, his uniform still creased across his shoulders and under his arms in the way all uniforms were right after someone climbed out of an evac suit. In just the few days since the man had been promoted he seemed to have aged several years, new lines had appeared around his nose and lips and the shadows under his eyes told of new levels of exhaustion. Before he could slip into the last open seat in the conference room Craig said, “Thank you for making the trip up from Mars, Commander Fyodorovich. I know you’ve come a way already but would you mind briefing us on what you’ve found so far?”
Fyodorovich moved the chair back under the table with a nod and stepped over to the presentation display and slipped his AI into the slot at the base. A moment later the holoprojector was taking them on a rapid tour of Borealis colony, both the part the locals knew as “Old Borealis” and the inhabited portion known as “Bottletown”, with Fyodorovich providing a concise commentary on it all.
“While nothing in and around Bottletown looks more developed technologically,” Fyodorovic said as his brief talk wound down, “it is definitely newer. The fishers, as the Eldest called them, have certainly done a good job manufacturing parts to replace anything that breaks.”
“They haven’t upgraded anything at all?” Deveneaux asked, more than a little incredulous.
“To be honest, s-” Fyodorovich caught himself just before calling his fellow Lt. Cmndr. ‘sir’ and tried again. “To be honest, we’re not sure they really understand how a lot of their technology works. There’s a lot of rote procedure down there, but very few of them have a broad enough understanding of what they’re working with to adequately explain the principles behind the technology, much less how they might go about improving it. I think Naomi might have enough of a grasp on how a fusion reactor works to design her own but she’s a special case.”
“Thank you.” Fyodorovich ejected his AI and Craig gave his juniormost department head a moment to get back to his seat before sizing up his senior staffers with a careful eye. They’d broken up along rough areas of responsibility. Deveneaux, along with Commander Rand and Lieutenant Jiminez, occupied the three seats to Craig’s left, together they were those responsible for the safety and smooth functioning of the ship. While engineering might seem out of place along with tactical and security officers in Craig’s experience the two areas really went hand in hand.
To Craig’s right were Commander Oda and Lieutenant Commander Dhawan, his second in command and chief medical officer respectively. Together they saw to the health of the crew, although in Craig’s mind it was more a tug of war between Oda’s secretive attempts to drive people insane and Dhawan’s best efforts to see the crew stayed as they were. The two men almost never talked to each other, which Craig assumed was due to Oda’s malicious delight in watching people annoy each other putting off Dhawan’s medical sensibilities, but by the same token Craig didn’t know of any overt conflict between them either.
Finally, Lieutenant Hoyle from communications, Lieutenant Commander Tannish, chief flight officer, and Lieutenant Commander Wallace, the Quartermaster, made up the logistical officers that held the day to day functioning of the ship together.
And, of course, there was Fyodorovich himself, who looked a bit uncomfortable among them but otherwise was performing as well as could be expected.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Craig said, evaluating his crew. “Thirty minutes ago I filed my daily report with Admiral Carrington. I fully expect that, by 08:00 tomorrow we will receive orders recalling us to Earth.”
“I take it you think he’ll conclude that Mars has nothing to tell us about the situation on Earth?” Rand asked.
Craig grimaced. “I’m afraid that’s exactly what he’ll conclude. The situation down there is exceedingly strange, but it’s pretty clear just from what I heard today that the original purpose of our visit – to learn why Earth is hostile to us – is pretty much shot. Bottletown is as clueless on that front as we are. A mission under Rodenberry command would most likely stay to unravel the rest of the puzzle down there. I’m not sure Carrington will chose the same.”
“That doesn’t seem to be the most forward looking decision, Captain,” Oda said. “There is a great deal still to piece together here and there is still the possibility that whatever happened to the colonists here is a danger to us as well.”
“I doubt that,” Jimenez said. “Neither Borealis Colony nor Bottletown seem much more advanced than the Departure era. My understanding from Engineering is that they’re still running on their original generator. I doubt anything that Earth could have done to Mars in the decade or so after Departure is something we couldn’t easily deal with today. By the same token, if Bottletown is in no danger out here, I doubt we are.”
“But can we even explain what happened to Borealis?” Dhawan asked. “The account from Bottletown seems to be that everyone collapsed suddenly. Doesn’t seem to be a bioweapon, part of the colony survived and Earth took the bodies away. Long distance neural disrupters have been bandied about at the theoretical level before. What if someone on Earth found a way to propagate the necessary EM fields? Could we defend against something like that? Especially if the necessary technology has been advancing over the last two hundred years.”
“I don’t see how that kind of unfounded speculation helps us,” Jimenez shot back.
Craig hated to cut in there since it looked like he was taking Jimenez’s side but the conversation was quickly veering off course. “It doesn’t, I’m afraid.” He gave Dhawan an apologetic look. “Beyond being something that we could point out. What I want from each of you is a comprehensive list of reasons we could offer the Admiral to remain here. I also want to hear any reasons you might have for why we should leave – I’m not entirely opposed to that course of action although I admit I would find it very disappointing. So take your AIs, have them review the past few days of recordings from the landing team and bring me anything that jumps out. In the meantime, Commander Tannish’s suggestion that we bring some of the colonists to the ship has bought us some time. I don’t think the Admiral will pull us out with a major diplomatic promise unfulfilled.”
“Is he talking about Hellfire Carrington?” Hoyle’s whisper to Wallace was not as quiet as she’d probably intended it to be. Clearly she bought into the Admiral’s reputation as a hot headed, hard driving spacer who’d blown apart the alliance between the Gallilean moons of Diana and Minerva with a single heavy cruiser.
“Lieutenant,” he said with a practiced edge in his voice that immediately had everyone’s attention. “I know Vice Admiral Carrington’s past deeds make us all think of him as some kind of near mythical figure. I’ve heard ‘the spacer’s Patton’ bandied about before. But my personal experience with him suggests he’s also a man who values understanding the situations he’s in as much as any Rodenberry spacer. If we can make the case that there’s still something of value to learn here I’m sure he’ll be attentive to it.”
A look around the table confirmed that they all understood he wasn’t interested in debating this further. “Now, let’s move on to tomorrow’s diplomatic visit. Commander Fyodorovich will be playing host to our guests. I’d like him brought up to speed on what each of our departments is planning to present to the emissaries from Bottletown.”
What followed wasn’t exactly promising. The Stewart had been loaded with an abundance of experienced officers with considerable expertise in their respective field for the visit to Earth. They’d all hoped to learn more about the advances in their fields Earth had made in the centuries of enforced silence and Craig had been happy to have the best and brightest the Navy could give him. It had never occurred to him that he’d also stuffed his officer roster full of far more senior officers than a ship of its class would typically have on a deep space cruise.
Oda had realized this, of course, but he’d kept quiet because he knew too many chiefs and not enough Indians would result in his favorite kinds of command situations.
So now Craig was in the uncomfortable position of watching a very junior officer who’d jumped past half a dozen more experienced officers to head a department struggle to coordinate a very simple tour. There were already two or three people who’d started the cruise at the rank Fyodorovich now held provisionally who were complaining about his promotion and if he botched this assignment that was only going to get louder.
Fyodorovich had made serviceable, competent reports so far and seemed to be handling his people well. The Eldest had been receptive to him during their talks. But Craig knew if the rest of the senior staff turned against the young man he’d be forced to replace him. There were already rumors swirling about Fyodorovich. It was going to start hurting morale, to say nothing of the damage it could do to the career of a bright and promising young officer.
An hour and a half later the meeting was wrapping up, with most of those present doing their best to suppress yawns. Fyodorovich had been quiet for a while, focusing on making detailed notes with his AI and only occasionally interjecting to ask a pertinent question. A lot was hanging on how he performed tomorrow and Craig hoped he would live up to expectations. But tomorrow had time enough for those worries. He put them out of his mind and rocked forward in his chair in preparation to stand, saying, “If there’s no further business…”
Fyodorovich stowed his AI and said, “Actually, Captain, as I’ll probably be busy all day tomorrow with Naomi and anyone she brings up with her, I thought I should mention it now.”
Craig hesitated. “Mention what?”
“What you should tell the Admiral if he tries to withdraw us because Bottletown doesn’t know what happened to Borealis.” Fyodorovich spread his hands. “Tell them they might.”
Craig settled back into the chair, looking at the younger man skeptically. “Are you suggesting I lie to the Admiral?”
“No, Captain, remind him what we’re dealing with. I know they say they don’t know what happened and nothing in their archives speak to the subject. But consider. The Elders of Bottletown are all very young – the Eldest is twenty years old. I don’t know what happened to cause that but it’s clearly cost them a lot of institutional knowledge.” Fyodorovich held up his AI as if they could still see it projecting his report on the holodisplay. “Sir, I wasn’t kidding when I said they don’t seem to know how most of they’re technology works. They don’t even know how to fix simple hydraulics. They have to throw the whole assembly into a nanofactury vat and rebuild the thing from scratch. They have about three dozen people in a colony of fifteen hundred that study computer programming at all. They could have the complete history of the human race in their computer core and not know it. The historic archives Borealis left may be password protected or encrypted; if so no one I’ve met so far has the knowhow to bypass or decrypt them. Getting answers may be as simple as getting direct computer access.”
“And how difficult do you think that will be?”
Fyodorovich shrugged. “I’ve been avoiding even mildly intrusive suggestions like that so far because we didn’t know what we were dealing with. It didn’t seem wise to pry.”
Craig adjusted his opinion of the room’s youngest officer back up a notch. What he said had truth in it, although how much was anyone’s guess. Still, it was a good point to bring up to the Admiral, if he needed it. “If it comes to it, I will remind the Admiral that Bottletown might not know everything it has in its computers. Thank you, Mr. Fyodorovich. Now, let’s all call it a night and let you get back down to the planet. You have a long day ahead tomorrow.”