Synchronicity, Chapter 2: 35 hours earlier

Content warnings
death mention

Sal woke in the cryopod to two things, neither were good. The first she expected. A knife-edge cold of a diminished body temperature, convulsive shivers only barely held in check by the muscle relaxers in her bloodstream.  Her body wanted to shiver, and the fact she was unable resulted in a secondary  cascade of adrenaline despite her mental efforts otherwise.

The second was far, far worse: silence.

One thing Sal learned quickly in training is that space is loud. Outside the ship may be vacuum and gamma and 400 degrees between light and shadow. Inside, it's small and cramped and stuffed full of equipment needed to keep otherwise planetbound creatures of protein and mineral alive. Life support systems, computer systems, cooling systems for the computer systems... Everywhere in the ship was persistent thrum, like being nestled between a refrigerator, an air conditioner, and a server rack.

Except...Sal didn't hear any of that.

Inside the pod, Sal forced herself to stillness. Just for a moment, just long enough to be sure.

"Fuuu-uu--uc-k..." her teeth chattered. More than the sound was missing, too. The room beyond the pod's hatch was dark, save for the occasional splash of wan, blue-green light. This is bad. Sal fumbled for the emergency release near her right hand, the fingers still numb and ice-cold. Just a little bit...

The pod swung open abruptly with a thunk, cavernous is the silence. Then, gentle warmth as the air inside the pod was swept aside. The life support had been functioning, and recently. Now everything was powered down save for the passive systems inside each cryopod.

Not even an alarm, Sal thought. She shoved herself out of pod and fell to the floor in a sliding, slow motion arc. The hab ring is still rotating, at least... That corroborated the theory forming in her mind. The hab ring would have continued to rotate for some minutes even when power was removed. A magnetic bushing of neodymium constrained the motion in any direction save for rotation. Lubrication and kinetic energy did the rest.

Sal surveyed each module as she made her way to one of the three reactors set equidistant along the hab ring. If one failed, the remaining two were more than enough to continue uninterrupted. Even if reduced to one reactor, there would still be amble electricity to power life support and essential systems. For all three to have failed, something truly catastrophic must have happened. Yet, there was no damage. No smoke, not even a whiff of ozone in the chill air. The blasts of blue-green light from the occasional portholes where dizzying in the darkness.

As the hatch to reactor module 2 opened, a reassuring thrum escaped. Indicators and emergency lights made Sal wince. That's something at least. Yet, the power wasn't going anywhere.

Breakers, Sal thought. Indeed, several subsystem breakers and and the main breaker were all tripped, the red and white chevrons barely visible in the emergency lights. Something hadn't damaged the ship, so much as something on the ship had overloaded. And not just this panel, but the other two panels in the other two reactor modules as well. Sal retrieved the electrical gloves from a nearby locker and tucked her feet into the loops on floor near the main breaker switch. Even when the hab was rotating, it wasn't enough simulated gravity to allow her to use her weight when pushing down. After resetting the subsystem breakers, Sal pumped the charge lever until an internal clutch told her to stop.

"Okay, here goes," wisps of condensation curled around Sal's face. She pressed the switch to power on the system. The snap of the breaker was like a thunderclap. A disconcerting 750 milliseconds followed before systems began to power on one by one. Sal slumped with relief.

"Damn that Marco!" Sal cursed, throwing her bags onto the hotel room's bed. What in the hell possessed him to send in an application in my name? Sal collapsed into the lone office chair in the room, livid. Few things pissed her off as much as having a decision made for her, having her agency taken away. She had come to expect that from jobs and governments and religions, but to have someone she trusted, someone she considered a friend do this...

"Dammit," Sal said, kicking her shoes into the corner. She wanted to stay angry at her former commander, use that anger to power some sort of righteous indignation to get through the next week. Then she could go back and find Marco and kick his ass.

It was a satisfying idea, but Sal knew it wasn't going to happen.

It wasn't only Marco she was angry with. Sal could have contacted the UA at any point in the process and put a stop to it. She could have claimed it was a "mistake", and that she wasn't sure how her application ended up in the Space Program's inbox. Yet, she didn't. Every time she told herself, "This time, I put an end to this," something held her back. Sometimes it was the allure of space. Sometimes it was just because the alternative was unemployment and uncertainty.

Sal was certain -- at least she assumed she would be certain if she had chosen to send in the application in the first place -- that space program take one look at her medical record and stamp a big red "REJECTED FOR REASONS OF NON-CISNORMATIVE GENDER" on it. A stamp that most certainly existed and was in no way a self-acknowledged hyperbolic figment of her imagination. Instead, they had seemed almost eager for her to participate when the call arrived. They probably just want a token, she had thought then, but went along with it all the same. After all, she really didn't have anything else better to do.

Sal sighed, got up, and began unpacking. The trials would last a week. Tomorrow would be a detailed medical workup, followed by three days of training exercises, and then finally a day of interviews with the program's administration. Fortunately, none of this was coming out of Sal's pocket. The UA was paying all the candidates consulting rates for their time, as well as covering their room and board.

None of that explained why they were so interested in her, however. Sal wasn't the best at mathematics. She did try when she was little. Over re-runs of terrible sci-fi on her mom's half-broken laptop, she poured over library books about orbital mechanics. If they where expecting her to do integral calculus in her head they were out of luck. She'd likely misplace a theta somewhere and Sal would find herself on intimate terms with a passing moon. So what, then?

Sal didn't consider the past five years of service with the UA exemplary, or even noteworthy. She wasn't a pilot or a scientist. She came to Marco at the beginning of those years with no other options. It was, in Sal's thinking, just another way to survive. Maybe a way to put some small pieces of this shattered world back together again.

The unpacking finished, Sal got up to shower before going to bed.

It took another 45 minutes for Sal to traverse the arc of the hab ring, resetting the breakers of the remaining two reactors along the way. The ship began to feel less like a tomb, and more like home again. Doing some quick math, Sal figured that she had another two hours before CHANDRA would come back online.

The AI wasn't powered exclusively via the conventional computing systems. Rather, it heavily relied on a pair of quantum computers to do most of their processing. Unlike the conventional systems, however, you couldn't simply turn on the power and wait for them to boot up. The qbits in each quantum core would need to be cooled, isolated, and reach state coherence. Only then could CHANDRA be loaded onto them. The cooling and coherence took the bulk of CHANDRA's three hour boot time.

At least the conventional systems would have finished their bootup and self-check by now, Sal thought while closing the hatch reactor module 1. Sal continued to on to the next module and pulled a tablet off of a docking station on a nearby bulkhead. The device looked cumbersome; a smaller than expected screen behind heavy, engineered sapphire held in landscape. The palm-straps helped to keep the device from wondering off, but were loose enough to slide out easily. Small thumbsticks on each side allowed for cursor or selection control, while a physical keyboard on the back allowed for quick typing. A chunky design, but rugged and user-serviceable. In normal circumstances, you could run the entire ship from one of these tablets. Wireless networking worked just as well out here near Uranus as it did groundside.

Sal brought up the ship's status screen. She hoped it would show something, anything obviously wrong. A missing module, micrometeorite damage, an infestation of gremlins, anything which could dissuade the growing knot of fear in her gut.

"All green. Typical." She opened the ship's operational log. Both CHANDRA and the conventional computers wrote entries to it whenever starting or completing a task. With any luck, Sal would find some obvious entry that would explain the tripped breakers. Noting the current ship's time -- the ship's clock had its own independent power supply -- she scrolled back through the entries to about the time of the power outage. It took a few minutes to find the right place.

14:14:22 > qbits.monitor: Quantum core(s) at coherence. Starting AI load.

That makes sense. The quantum cores weren't needed while the ship was in transit, so they were shut down to save power. Now that there were at their destination, the standard startup procedure was to boot up the AI as soon as it was possible so that CHANDRA could react if something went wrong with the crew's revival.

Scrolling down, Sal caught an important pair of entries.

14:32:13 > qbits.monitor: Loading complete, starting AI.
14:34:57 > cryo.d: Revive 90% complete. Body temperature approaching nominal.

The "cryo" in the log entry stood for the suspension pods, while "d" happened to be Sal's own pod. Most of the revive process could be handled by the pod itself. The last 10% was the most critical, as you couldn't return to a suspended state after that safely. You needed to finish the revival no matter what. At the same time, CHANDRA was going through the last phases of their bootup.

There was a familiar block of CHANDRA's bootup entries, noise from the cryo systems, data acquisition from the sensor array, and then:

14:35:08 > power.2: ALARM. Over-current detected!
14:35:08 > power.1: ALARM. Over-current detected!
14:35:09 > power.3: ALARM. Over-current detected!
14:35:09 > comp.a: Request vote to terminate non-essential systems.
14:35:09 > comp.b: Agreed, comp.a request.
14:35:09 > power.1: ALARM. Output at zero! Assume breaker tripped!
14:35:09 > comp.c: Agreed, comp.a request.


Sal stared at the log and blinked. Something on the ship had overloaded. The conventional computers attempted to save power by turning off non-essential systems, and then...nothing. No explanation. No clue. The next entry was when Sal pulled the main breaker in reactor 2. Whatever had happened happened so quickly that the three conventional computing systems barely had a time to complete their vote on a course of action before the power was cut.

The tension in Sal's gut rising, she scanned through all the log entries following the "SYSTEM START" up until now. They all looked as expected, and strongly resembled all the messages from right before the outage. Nothing stood out as different. She swiped back to the ship's status screen, but Sal already knew the display wouldn't have changed.

Sal slapped the tablet back into its dock. If nothing's obviously wrong, something non-obvious must be. Something electrical, Sal thought, folding her arms. Normally, Sal would have noticed anything amiss on the ship as she made her way though the hab ring. The smell of smoke or ozone from burned electronics would be obvious even in the heavily processed environment of the ship. But that assumed two things: Power hadn't been out for nearly two hours, and the person doing the noticing wasn't in the dark and shivering from a rough revival from cryostasis.

Sal started toward the next module, hoping that something obvious would stand out.

The next day, Sal found herself somewhere she dreaded more than vacuum and certain death: a doctor's office.

It wasn't that Sal hated doctors, not exactly, anyways. It was more that they were wrong so often, especially when presented with someone who's biology had been modified and who's skin was several shades browner than their own. Sal sat on the exam table and stared at her knees impatiently, her hand throbbed from the earlier blood sample. She wished this could all be over already. Then they she could go back to Macro and proceed with her delusions of ass-kicking.

The door swung open. Sal put on her best face and cursed Marco internally once more. Most of the exam at this point was what she expected. Blood pressure. Visual acuity. The icy press of a stethoscope; breathe in, breathe out, repeat. The process was so familiar she stared to relax, but she knew the dreaded question was coming.

"How often do you take your hormones?" Sal explained that since the collapse, her regimen hadn't exactly been regular. Sometimes she would find herself for days or even a week without a refill. It was frustrating, but she did what she could to even things out during her time in the UA. "What about injections? You're old enough now that's usually preferred." While Sal could self-administer a shot without a second thought, the problem was availability. A single vial of estrogen would last her some 6 months and was small and easy to carry. The needles, however, were more difficult to get while on tour. It simply wasn't as safe for her compared to a water-tight bottle full of pills, liver functions be damned.

"Will this be a problem?" Sal said with resign. She was still expecting that giant red stamp...

"I don't...think so," said the doctor while scribbling on a clipboard. "We had been thinking an implant instead of regular injections or tablets. Takes 5 minutes, lasts 6 months. Old tech, really."

Before Sal could process that no stamp was coming, she was instructed to dress in her exercise clothes and was escorted to a treadmill.

You bastard, Marco, Sal thought somewhere after the second kilometer. If I get through this, I'm still going to kick your ass... Even if I have to come down from near Earth orbit to do it.

Nothing obvious stood out. Sal had checked over the hab ring twice, and still nothing stood out. She turned over the log entries again and again in her mind.

Quantum cores ready for work.
Sal was waking in the pod.
CHANDRA was loaded onto the cores.
More revival, sensor array, nothing atypical.
Over-current. Computer panic. Breakers tripped in 2 seconds.

All of that combined with seemingly nothing amiss in any module made for a confounding puzzle. Signing, Sal checked the time. Plus 2 hours. CHANDRA's about to boot.

Sal could have used a tablet to talk to CHANDRA from anywhere in the ship, but preferred to use primary terminal in the AI's own module when doing anything intensive. The module was cramped, even more so than the rest of the ship. This, despite the fact most of CHANDRA was outside the hull in the pair of quantum cores, nestled under layers of insulation and heat exchangers. On the floor was a small service airlock, just big enough for one person. This allowed a technician allowed physical access without a lengthy spacewalk outside the hab ring.

The primary terminal wasn't anything special, just a laptop mounted on a swingarm bolted to the wall. Still, it had a physical connection to CHANDRA, and monitored the bootup. The screen showed a small dashboard showing the status of the cores, as well as statistics for CHANDRA. Sal arrived in the AI module just as a indicator on the screen ticked over from 99% to 100%. After a brief flurry of activity on the screen, it settled on ">> READY <<".

"Welcome back, CHANDRA," said Sal.

No response.

"Sal, I..."

The lights began to flicker. A distant series of snaps sounded throughout the ship before darkness and silence descended on Sal once more.