Author's note: "In the Core" fills a gap in the whole B5 series: who makes the station work? The engineers, of course! This story will follow Babylon 5's chief engineer from Season 1 until, well, that would be telling. Each chapter will relate to a particular episode or time period in the show, with cameo appearances by the "real" characters.
Acknowledgements: special thanks to TJW, engineer and beta-reader extraordinaire, for technical, stylistic, and moral support.
Disclaimers: Babylon 5 is owned by JMS, PTEN, Warner Bros, and Babylonian. I don't make a dime off this. Please don't sue me.Chapter 1: Broken In
"Personal log, computer, insert autodate. Glad to be rid of Captain Ellis Pierce, who I had hoped never to lay eyes on again after I transferred off the Hyperion. I never appreciated Sinclair more than when I heard he'd threatened to shoot Pierce's ships out of the sky if they approached Epsilon 3. Hah! Pierce was the worst CO ever. Everything had to be his way, even when he had no idea what he was asking for. Good riddance, bastard! Be a stranger!"
Sharon Miller, Chief Engineer of Babylon 5, stirred four sugars into her coffee and kicked up her feet onto the console.
"Of course, it would've been better if he had managed to NOT break half the station before he left, but what the hell, he's gone, and we can fix it." Miller swigged her coffee. "I think."
Miller scrutinized a hole in her sock, and continued her log entry.
"I don't know about this whole 'Great Machine' thing, though. Kinda makes me nervous, knowing it's down there on the planet, and not knowing a damned thing about it. But, hell, I guess there's plenty out there we don't know a damned thing about – you just don't expect it to suddenly appear beneath your feet, nearly kill you, then save your butt, and THEN tell you to forget it's there. Ambassador Delenn assures us all that with Draal in charge down there, we're at no risk. I just don't like it, though."
"Well, I s'pose we'll be busy enough fixing up the Core after the latest antics of The Powers That Be. Speaking of which, almost time for my meeting with Sinclair. Oooh, he would hate it if I called him that to his face. Let's practice: 'Commander Sinclair, good morning. Hello, Commander. Yes, sir, Commander. I can do that, Commander, I just don't know how long it will take.'"
Miller sighed, and swung her feet off the console. "Not convincingly military. Too bad. What you see is what you get, folks; same as yesterday. Computer, end log entry." Miller took one last look at C-shift's damage assessments, and sighed. "Time to face the music."
Muttering to herself, Miller looked around her quarters for her boots. "Under the bed? There's one. Needs a bit of polish. Too bad. Where's the other one?" She shoved aside a pile of stuff, wondering why she was looking under things for a boot she'd worn just last night. It finally appeared, by the door, right where it belonged. "Mom always said, 'first look where it's supposed to be.' Yep, she's right again." Miller put on her boots.
"Okay, looking pretty put together here, right? Mirror, mirror, on the wall, WHOA! Good thing I looked," said Miller, removing a large chunk of breakfast from her collar. Brushing smaller crumbs from her jacket, Miller headed out the door of her quarters to meet Sinclair in his office.
Miller had the lift to herself most of the way up, since nearly all the rest of the military establishment ran on a much earlier schedule than she did. "0900 shouldn't be such a stretch, should it?" Miller asked herself aloud, confusing the Centauri civilian who had just entered the lift. "Sorry," she said to the Centauri, "just talking to myself. There are two kinds of people: people who talk to themselves, and people who think it's weird when people talk to themselves. What kind are you?" The Centauri looked at her oddly, and exited the lift one level below C&C. "Well, I guess that answers my question," Miller said to herself as she got off the lift at C&C.
"Morning, all," she chirped with false cheer. "Break anything else yet?"
"Hey, Chief, give us a while; we're working on it!" said the officer at the operations station. This was their typical exchange of greetings. "Oh, the Boss is waiting for you in his office."
"Right-oh, on my way. Probably wants to know how long it's gonna take to fix all the damage from yesterday. He oughta know by now what I'm gonna say." Miller headed out of C&C, straight to Sinclair's office.
"Come in, Chief." Sinclair was seated at the table in his office, looking over a damage report on a monitor. "Please, have a seat." He motioned to the seat next to him, and Miller plunked herself down. "Thank you for your as-always very complete report on our situation. Where would you like to start this morning?"
"Well, Commander, I think the most critical area to focus on right now is the damage to the – um, sir, do you mind if I drive?" Sinclair had no objections; he knew Miller was uncomfortable in technical discussions when someone else was in charge of the touch screen. Miller quickly pulled up the diagram she was looking for in her report, showing damage to the zero-G manufacturing areas.
"Zero-G manufacturing?" Sinclair asked. "Shouldn't that be a pretty low priority compared to, say, Hydroponics or Waste Processing?"
"Okay. ZGM is not the area that looks the worst, and it's not the area that would shut us down first, but right now it's pretty much off line. If you want everything fixed, as quickly and cheaply as possible, ZGM has to come first this time. Almost all the parts we'll need to replace can be made there. If we do Hydro first, then we have to import 60% of our parts. If we do ZGM first, we only have to import 10% of our parts. Plus, if I read the gunnery reports right, those guys used up a lot of pulse cannon power packs yesterday. If you want more, and I assume you will, ZGM is where they come from."
Sinclair took this all in, and asked the next logical question. "How will taking care of ZGM first affect our food supplies and waste processing capacities?"
"Well, the quartermaster said that we can take 48 hours, starting from this morning, to work on ZGM without taking our consumables into the red. Operations says that we have 36 hours until we have to put first-level restrictions on grey-water use, and 60 hours until waste processing redlines." Miller braced herself for Sinclair's next question.
"How long will it take to get ZGM up and running?"
Miller sighed. "Commander, you know what I'm going to say. It's not the same as asking the QM how much food we have. He can just pretty much look that up. With damage repair, first I have to find out exactly what's broken, and then I have to figure out what's wrong with it, and then I have to figure out how to fix it quickest. Then, and only then, can I give you an estimate." She tapped the monitor to bring up the report she looked over at breakfast.
"Okay, C-shift was on the 'what's broken' part of it all night, and got partway into the 'what's wrong with it' part. We're talking major repairs in ZGM, moderate in Hydro and Waste, and minor in Blue and Green sectors. Those last two can wait – I know, I know, flak from the bigshots in Green sector. With ZGM, Hydro, and Waste all involved, whatever way we do it will involve some compromises. But, I think it can be done without redlining anything. Here's the plan."
Miller launched into her plan for the repairs, spending the next 15 minutes drawing up a rough schedule with the Commander, sparing him the technical details that weren't important for him to know, and that frankly, he wouldn't understand anyhow. She was pleased with Sinclair's patience with her scheme; it had taken her a while to break him in so that he accepted her ways of working.
"All right, Chief; get right on it. And don't let any of the ambassadorial parties slow you down; if they give you a problem send them straight to me or Ivanova. Dismissed."
Barely remembering to produce a sloppy salute, Miller left Sinclair's office and headed towards the lift that would take her to the shuttle to cover the five kilometers to the part of the station where her true work waited for her. On her trip, Miller looked back, almost fondly, to her very first meeting with Sinclair. "My motto, Commander, is 'Never confuse the important with the urgent.' That's how I get things done." It had taken a while – doesn't it always? – but Sinclair eventually got her point. When you're dealing with the station as a facility, it's different from dealing with the station as a group of people under your command.
Finally, Miller's shuttle car arrived at the last stop on the line, and she disembarked, heading around the corner to her office. She found her second waiting for her. "Hey, Cruz. Just got back from Up Front. How's it coming in ZGM?"
Luis Cruz had been her assistant chief since before the station went on line. At first, they had despised each other, and Miller came close to asking Sinclair to reassign Cruz. But, after realizing that despite outward appearances, Miller was the finest engineer he'd ever worked for, Cruz was able to let go of his distaste for her positively unmilitary attitude, and the two had become an unbeatable team.
"Let me guess," said Cruz. "You didn't tell him we already started."
"Nope!" Miller chirped cheerfully. "What's the point? He's totally broken in. He actually gets it, Luis. Not a single 'Couldn't you just,' nary a 'but I need a concrete timetable,' and 'isn't this more urgent than that' was nearly absent today."
"One of these days, Sharon, the Commander is going to realize that whenever you produce a proposal, you've already mentally stamped it 'Approved by Commander Sinclair' before you even set foot in his office, and half the time, you've already started the work!"
"Maybe," retorted Miller, moving a bin of tools to the other side of her desk, "huh, what's that doing in there? But, what's he gonna do?"
"Whaddaya mean, 'what's he gonna do?' Do you ever recall that you are a member of Earthforce? That you have a rank, and wear a uniform?"
"Luis, Luis, Luis, I thought we were done with this! I certainly know I'm not the military type, but man, this is where the action is! When do you get to run a project like this as a civilian contractor? Does the word 'never' spring to mind? Besides, I haven't been court-martialed yet, hardly at all, right?"
Cruz shook his head. "Let's forget it, all right? Anyhow, look at your board. Alpha and Delta teams are on ZGM repairs. Gamma's pulling up the parts lists for the repairs for ZGM. Beta's already suited up for EVA, to get to work on the hull breaches in Hydroponics. So far the ice patches over the leaks are holding, but they won't last through the day shift."
Miller was already at the digital whiteboard. "Okay, looks like ZGM is under control for now." She used her finger to draw a circle around the relevant portion of the whiteboard, and said "computer, save area and convert to table, save as ZGM parts list plus autodate."
"Converted and saved," the system voice confirmed.
"Erase board," continued Miller.
"Confirm: erase board?" asked the system voice.
Miller grumbled under her breath, "I swear I'm gonna reprogram you." Much more loudly, she continued, "Yes, erase board, would I have said 'erase board' if I meant 'make coffee?'"
"Confirm: erase board?" repeated the system voice.
"Confirmed, erase board!" shouted Miller.
"Board erased," the system voice added helpfully, as the board went blank.
"Computer, send to whiteboard: Power Allocation table, today, chart style Miller 1."
The day's power allocation schedule appeared on the whiteboard. "Okay, Cruz, here's the tricky part for today. There's a big power increase allocated to Medlab today; it's a legitimate need due to yesterday's casualties. Also, Hydroponics is pulling double their normal power, since the damage down there is making the water pumps less efficient. Your priority today is to get into the power allocation code and make it all work. I think you'll need to look at their use curves, interleave them nice and tight, and shave enough off the edges to make it work but not so much that they'll notice."
Cruz smiled. "Excellent. Give me the programming work any day. No skinned knuckles, no puking in zero G, and no 'space suit plumbing!'"
"Yeah, only don't be too happy till you've seen the code. Monkeys wrote it. Twenty years ago."
Cruz's smile faded. "And you're not gonna let me rewrite it today, are you." Cruz's shoulders slumped. "I know, I know, 'you want to let me as bad as I want to do it, but today's not the day.'"
"Never seems to be, does it. Well, things will have to settle down around here sooner or later, right?" Miller addressed the computer again. "Computer: erase board. Confirmed: erase board," she repeated, not waiting to be asked. "Computer, send to whiteboard: Waste Management damage report, today, chart style Miller 1."
"Okay, Luis, I'm gonna be on the Waste project. Will Peterman's in charge of Gamma today, and as soon as he's got the components together for Alpha and Delta to use in ZGM, he and the rest of Gamma will be heading to Waste to work with me down there. I think the worst of it is some pretty seriously trashed electronics down there that we have spares for, luckily, so I'm getting right on replacing the components we don't need ZGM on-line for. Here," she said, as she circled a column on the whiteboard, "is the parts list for what we'll need. Can you have Gamma gather these up from ZGM and bring them down to Waste when they head down?"
"Sure," said Cruz. "I'll be up here with the monkey code. Don't let them talk you into shoveling any actual shit, all right?"
"No way! See ya." Miller was out the door, and immediately back in again. "Whoops, need my tools."
Miller headed farther towards the low-gravity inner core of the station, where Waste Management was located. She entered the large bay that contained the four spherical waste vaporization chambers, on the carousel that sent each sphere in turn to the filling station, where the solid waste from the whole station was collected and delivered to a sphere. When the sphere filled up, the carousel rotated, so the full sphere lined up with the high-voltage assembly that discharged into the sphere, vaporizing the contents into a powder. The next station on the carousel cooled the sphere, condensed any water vapor, and recycled the waste heat into the station's water supply. The final station emptied the inert, cool powder from the sphere, and compacted it into cubes that were offloaded from the station as needed.
Miller examined the set-up in the bay more closely. From the C-shift's report, Miller knew that part of the ceiling of the bay had fallen in on the waste processing stations. The number four sphere, which was locked in at the vaporization station, had a gigantic crack down the side. The high-voltage discharge apparatus behind it was heavily damaged. The acrid stench of melted electronic components hung in the air, like the smell of death in a morgue.
She looked around, finding it odd that the bay appeared empty. "Bill? BILL!!!"
Miller heard a rustling coming from inside vaporization chamber #4. A helmet emerged through the crack in the sphere, and then a thick insulating suit pulled itself stiffly into view. The mummified occupant held a plastic bin of garbage. He slowly bent his elbow to tap his helmet by the ear, and then tapped his own hand. Miller's combadge bleeped. "That you in there, Bill?" she said to her badge.
"Hey chief. Just mucking this lot out so you'll have a clear path. It's incredible what people throw away – you should see some of the good stuff in here!" Bill Watson, the A-shift Waste Management operator, had a collection in his quarters of perfectly useful objects he found in the waste stream from time to time. "If we fall on hard times, I could open a market stall in the Zocalo with this." He plopped the bin down and removed the helmet from his suit.
Miller grinned. "You go right ahead, Bill. So, what have you got for me?" She had seen C-shift's report, of course, but knew the value of a qualitative assessment from the person who was most familiar with the damaged system.
"A bloody mess, is what. And bloody awful timing. The control circuitry in #4 got fried a split second before the electrode was going to discharge to vaporize this lot. So, sphere 4 is locked in place, and the toroid in the discharge assembly is fully charged. Now you can't even get close to the electrode without suiting up. And, we can't do a thing to repair the high-voltage discharge unit until the toroid is discharged."
"Remind me, what's the arcing distance at the electrode when the toroid is fully charged?" asked Miller. She knew the answer perfectly well, but wanted to make sure she and Bill were on the same page.
"Thirty centimeters, and that's cutting it close. I don't get within sixty, even suited up."
Miller smiled. That was the kind of answer she liked to hear. "Okay, Bill, any ideas how to discharge the toroid so we can get down to business?"
Bill frowned. "No chief, I haven't the faintest. Normally, of course, we'd just fire her up and discharge into a heap of garbage. But, with the sphere cracked, that would be a daft thing to do." Daft was, of course, an understatement – the discharge would wipe out most of the deck unless it was properly shaped and enclosed by a sphere. "And, with ZGM off line, we don't have a spare sphere." He was right; the chambers had to be perfectly spherical to shape the discharge arc to vaporize the entire contents of the sphere, and such perfect spheres could only be manufactured in zero-G.
Miller looked around in the bay, her gaze holding on the four spheres for a few moments. "Bill, I've got an idea, but you're not gonna like it. Not gonna like it one bit."
Bill gave her a look that seemed to mean that he probably wasn't going to like it, but was resigned to it being a done deal. "Well, chief, lay it on me."
Miller launched right into her plan. "Okay. We actually DO have a spare sphere – three of 'em, in fact – right here in front of us. What I'm thinking is, bust open the one that's empty now, and see which piece will suit our needs best."
Bill winced at this. "Right, so we'll have two bolluxed units. How will that, as you said, 'suit our needs?'"
"Aha, this is the tricky part. One of the pieces of the unit we break on purpose will probably" – Bill cringed again at this qualifier – "fit right over what's left of sphere #4 once we hack off the chunk that's cracked open. We weld on the better piece of the other one we broke, and let 'er rip. It won't make a nice sound, or a nice smell, but that toroid will be discharged, and then we can get down to business." Miller grinned widely at Bill, and pointed at herself with both index fingers. "Am I good, or what?"
Bill rubbed his forehead, as if trying to ward off an incipient headache. "And, we're down to half capacity on Waste Management. Do you always have to break something to fix it?"
"Omelets, eggs, et cetera. Plus, half capacity is infinitely more capacity than zero capacity, which is what we're at until we can get this operation going again."
Bill sighed. "Chief, it's bloody brilliant. Except, how long till you get me two new spheres?"
Miller squinted, looked up to her left, and muttered to herself for a moment. "Eventually. And I can say that without reservation."
"Never mind, sorry I asked." Bill said, resigned to the further destruction of his equipment, all for the greater good. "What next?"
"I figure it'll take about an hour to break sphere number three, another hour to get number four ready for the transplant, and another two hours to get it set up around the breach in number four. Then we let 'er rip, give 'er half an hour to cool down, and then start up the carousel with just the two good spheres operational."
Bill followed along, nodding to agree with her estimates. "So who's coming down here to bust my balls, so to speak?"
Miller grinned at that. "Nobody but the best – Gamma team, minus Peterman." She remembered that Bill wouldn't know who was on Gamma team, and listed their names. "Andrews, Petrovic, Mkundu and Chen. Andrews is an ox and proud of it; he'll be able to do the heavy stuff."
Bill pondered for a moment, putting faces to the names. "Right. Well, I'm just about through with clearing out this lot, so I'll get back to it." Bill suited back up, and went back to #4 to finish hauling out the impressive pile of solid debris that needed to be removed so they could finish the job.
Miller addressed one of the larger of Bill's many found objects. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to sit on you, whatever you are." Miller tapped her combadge, and nearly instantly heard, "Peterman, what's up, Chief?"
"Hey Will, I'm down in Waste. Are you about ready to send Gamma down here?"
"Yeah, we just fed your parts list to the inventory 'bot; it oughta have our order up in 15 minutes or so," Peterman replied over the comlink.
"Great," replied Miller. "Have Gamma check out a forklift, a pneumatic hammer, and a set of hydraulic jaws from the machine pool. Andrews is going to get to have some fun with heavy equipment."
"Do I even want to know what you're up to down there, chief? Never mind, I'll find out soon enough. What've you got on deck for me?"
Miller quickly summed up the plan for Peterman, and then gave him his assignment. "So, your task is to get into the Waste Management carousel code, and make it work so that just the #1 and #2 spheres are active. We're going to have to totally bypass #3 and #4 until we have ZGM up and running, so we can replace the spheres."
"Okay, chief; I'll let you know if I run into any problems. Peterman out."
Ten loud, sweaty and smelly hours later, Miller was finally back at her office. She kicked off her boots at the door, and said to them, "You'll get some polish eventually, don't worry." She unwrapped her take-out dinner, fresh from the Zocalo cafe, and tossed the packaging into the waste chute. Hmph, don't think I'll ever look at garbage quite the same way, she thought, while setting her sandwich on her desk. She called up and read the reports from Alpha, Beta, and Delta teams, munching on her sandwich.
"Okay, computer, open daily report, Miller, insert autodate. Status update. ZGM repairs: estimate completion and return to full operating capacity by 1200 hours tomorrow. Waste Management repairs: operating at 50% capacity pending replacement of two vaporization spheres; these are at the top of the list for ZGM. Redline of Waste Management not anticipated. Hydroponics repairs: hull breaches repaired; water and nutrient circulation restored. Minimal loss of mature plantings. Station greywater system: nominal. Power allocation: nominal. Computer: save as Engineering Report plus autodate, and close; send to C&C."
"Report submitted," the system voice announced.
"Thanks honey, I love you too," replied Miller. "Not a bad day's work, huh?"
"Please clarify," the tremulous voice responded.
"System off," Miller clarified dutifully. She put her feet up on the console and ate her supper. "Not a bad day's work at all."
Next up: Chapter 2: "The Core is Mother, the Core is Father."