To her credit, Edith Tan treated the plaintive wail as a serious query; it was probably what most people in the room were thinking anyway. She nodded to Bruce Atherton, her second in charge, who stepped forward with an unusually grim look on his face.
"Well," he said carefully, "First things first. We're going to avoid making our position any worse. We will be performing a turnabout as soon as possible, so we can start deceleration early. Everybody should already know what to do, and I want Team Leaders' reports on readiness completion times within the hour, please, people."
There was a flurry of slightly furtive activity around the room as memopads, organisers and VR terminals were quickly brought into use. An early turnabout would take a certain amount of organisation. It would be the only point in the journey when the ship would be in free-fall - weightlessness, or something very close to it - even if it was only for an hour or two while the Endurance turned ponderously on its own axis to point its main drive along the direction of travel.
Before we could re-orient the ship, certain processes and systems had to be shut down or safeguarded as they were simply not capable of functioning in free-fall. The swimming pool would be drained, the hydroponics irrigation systems would emptied of nutrients, most bathrooms would be out of bounds. All loose items had to be securely stowed and the crew themselves strapped securely into chairs, couches or beds - not so much because they could not deal with weightless conditions but more to avoid injury if the main engines, or one or the more powerful secondary propulsion systems had to be deployed unexpectedly during the manoeuvre.
"A second high-priority action," Atherton went on, "Is the identification of alternative destinations, depending on the level of thrust which can be deployed without risking further fracturing. I have already asked the Navigation and Astronomy teams to give me a range of options, but it is almost certain that our journey will last much longer than we had planned, both for ourselves and even more so for those we left behind."
I knew this to be true. At our present velocity, only a tiny fraction slower than the speed of light, time back on Earth was passing nearly fifty times more quickly, thanks to Einstein’s relativistic time dilation. A whole Earth generation would have grown to adulthood under the light of our engines, and those of our sister craft heading in other directions.
"Thirdly, we will start the reinforcement of the Web which holds the Endeavour together as soon as possible. The necessary Engineering and Production teams have been asked to start this immediately."
This too would take some time. I knew that the manufacturing components had been reconfigured to produce other useful items: insulation and reinforcement for new accommodation sections, mainly. It would probably be a month or more before we could start spinning another web of reinforcing cables around the ice-ball that was our home.
Bruce Atherton paused, standing ramrod straight and scanning the room to left and right.
"Otherwise, well, I am open to suggestions. Anyone?"
There was that awkward pause familiar to anybody who attends professional meetings and presentations, when the speaker asks for questions and nobody is quite certain enough to make the first remark.
Then, Adele's voice sounded over the speakers. She was not one of those physically present, for some reason.
"Should we not send a message to Earth? Let them know what happened?"
Atherton looked nonplussed at the idea and looked around wildly at his colleagues for guidance. Captain Tan took over smoothly.
"That would be quite a long shot," she replied, "Even if it was successful, what could they do? Those back home will probably not be able to help us directly, unless their understanding of physics and propulsion engineering has advanced far beyond anything we have dreamed of. And, in any case, they might not wish to do so, given the recent hostilities."
"Maybe so, Captain," Adele's voice clearly over the speakers again, "But perhaps we owe it to the rest of our species to tell what happened to us, where we are going. And maybe it would mark our place in the histories."
Captain Tan smiled wanly and shook her head sadly.
"You know there is no way we can detect signals or even ordinary light from the Sun and therefore we cannot aim our own transmissions in a way which would be in the least bit reliable."
I was struck by a sudden thought. I put up my hand hesitantly. The Captain nodded in my direction.
"There might be a way to get a signal back to Earth, if we think that might be worthwhile."
"Go on," Tan said levelly.
"We need to decelerate to send a signal which would have the faintest chance of being received. And the Endurance can't do that. But we could use one of the in-system ships to relay a message."
I paused for a second before it was clear that from the Captain's direct look and severe expression that I should continue.
"I believe we could modify the inertial suppressors," I babbled, "To allow a smaller ship to hit a much higher deceleration than anything the Endurance could manage, even before our recent problem. It would need extra thrust too; perhaps we could fit additional engine pods and maybe some more propellant tanks" - there was no shortage of water to fill the tanks, even now - "and we would need to fit more powerful transmitters. I'm sure we have everything we need, even if we have to cannibalise some of the other ships."
One of the tenets of the Expansionist philosophy is that of self-sufficiency. We could manufacture anything we needed, anything that could be imagined and described to the design systems and automated factories. Even if we have to strip major parts from another craft in order to build the ship-cum-signal-relay I was describing, all these could be replaced, given time. And we were likely to have lots of time on our hands.
Bruce Atherton gave me a very sharp look.
"It sounds like a message in a bottle?"
"Yes," I replied, "That's exactly what it is."
Much to my surprise - and to Adele's too, I would later discover - the suggestion was taken up with incredible vigour. Perhaps it was just the effects of shock, or maybe people just wanted to be doing something, anything. All around the meeting room and its virtual adjuncts, people were shouting out ideas on how to engineer additional thrusters, or how to implement the sun-target tracking and aiming functions. There was suddenly a degree of real enthusiasm in the room, something than everybody could relate to and engage in.
Captain Tan and her cohort watched the suddenly-animated audience, gauging the depth of the feelings being expressed and the effect on crew morale. Bruce Atherton spoke briefly and privately into her ear before spending a few moments interacting with an information tablet he produced from a pocket. He shook his head and then spoke again into the Captain's ear. Finally, Tan stepped forwards again and addressed the crew, the communication system automatically and discreetly amplifying her words to cut through the hubbub.
"There is a big problem."
The room fell silent again, expectant.
"It seems likely," she said sadly, "That any such mission could not be carried out entirely by automatics. There are just too many variables. A human pilot is going to be required."
Into the stunned hush a voice spoke clearly, a voice I really didn't want to hear just then.
"I'll go," said Henry Harrington.