28 Jan

Checked

Ship’s log, 21:44, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Sometimes, things happen so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Even for a ship, used to managing parallel streams of input, processing, and output, it’s stressful when they all seem to compete at the same level of importance.

My SecOffs are running from the Bridge to the crew corridor, looking for an escaped member of the Strider’s crew. I still can’t detect her on sensors, just the faint blip of life signs that is barely there at all; somehow, she is masked from me.

My bulkheads are starting to creak under the strain of increasingly powerful gravity fluctuations. The anomalies are occurring in a shrinking spiral, homing in on something in the area of mid-deck and the crew quarters. We don’t know what’s causing it, though we have a couple of distinct possibilities: the aforementioned escaped guest, and the black hole we’re currently circling.

Our best connection to the black hole is a two-year-old child, and she says he’s playing hide and seek with the kittens we rescued from Sarabande Station. We think this can only mean that he wants to make one of them into his avatar, so that he can ride with us when we leave here.

I wish I could say that this is the craziest thing that has happened on my decks, but I think the jury is still out on that one.

 

Location: Bridge

(Still in zero-G, the captain is near one of the aft doors with little Sara. Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are at their stations, harnessed in place.)

CAPTAIN: Starry, find those damn cats.

STARRY: (standing calmly nearby, unaffected by the lack of gravity) Bit and Byte in the ducts already, heading to where they found Sara. What do you want me to do when I find them?

CAPT: (looks down at Sara.)

SARA: (kicks at the unresponsive door, using the captain’s body to cushion the recoil.)

CAPT: I need you to herd them into a safer place.

STARRY: And how do I decide what ‘safer’ means? If Cerces really is looking for them, wherever they are found is going to… well, we don’t really know what will happen, but I don’t think it’ll be harmless.

CAPT: Wherever it’s likely to do the least damage.

STARRY: (sighs and nods.)

 

How the hell am I supposed to know the answer to that? We don’t know what will happen when the gravity fluctuations reach the middle of their spiral. By then, the force will be strong enough to warp my bulkheads and my whole structure is at risk.

The only safe place for me is for them to be outside. I could do it, I could just open my ducts to the vacuum and suck the poor creatures out. Cerces can do whatever he wants to them, and… they’ll be dead either way.

That’s the ship logic part of me. Other parts of me have different responses. Those kittens are living creatures: I don’t want to kill them. Cerces might only want one of them; should I sacrifice the rest?

I hate decisions like this.

 

Location: Crew corridor

(Rosie and the Lieutenant have their weapons in hand and are positioned at either end of the corridor.)

ROSIE: (over internal comms) Chief, we got nothing here.

CAMERON: (voice only) She’s definitely not in her quarters. What’s the door looking like?

HALF-FACE: (near the door to the room Dineen and Tasha share, he thumps the activation panel twice in rapid succession. The door slides open and closed again. The panel remains green.) Lock’s disengaged. I can close it but the lock won’t re-engage.

STARRY: (voice only) I’m showing it as engaged, but I’m not getting any diagnostics back. I think she’s blocked my access to it. I’ll send one of my boys down to take a look.

CAMERON: I’ve got an intermittent life sign on the access to the lower levels. Split up and check it out.

ROSIE: (turning her left forearm over to check the holographic display, which is showing a blinking light against a schematic of the ship’s corridors and access ways) Got it. I’ll go port-side.

HALF-FACE: (nodding and setting off) Starboard, check.

 

I hate that I can’t tell where she is. I have honed my environmental sensors to pick up alterations in the levels of carbon dioxide in the air, but that only tells me what section she’s in, not where or what she’s doing.

My sensor systems are clean; it must be a local effect. She’s projecting something that is shielding her from detection. She can’t have covered the entire spectrum, so maybe if I focus on the extremes, I’ll slip around her mask.

There. A whisper of a ghost in the red end of the spectrum. A glimpse of a heat signature. She is masking it but not completely. She’s leaking.

The Chief is right: she’s heading for the lower levels. Where is she going?

Engineering is down there. And that means…

 

Location: Engineering

(The panel next to the forward door turns red.)

ELLIOTT: (hasn’t noticed.)

STARRY: (appears in front of him) Elliott, I need you to lock the doors to Engineering down.

ELLIOTT: (blinks at her through the holographic display hovering in the air between them, then waves it off) I’ve almost got the algorithm down to counter the gravity fluctuations. I think I can modify one of the artificial gravity generators to…

STARRY: I know, but you need to do this now.

ELLIOTT: (glances past her and frowns) Door’s already locked.

STARRY: Dineen got free of her room, Elliott. She can disable my locks. I need you to fix the door so she can’t get in here.

ELLIOTT: She’s coming here?

STARRY: She’s… we’re not sure. She has masked herself somehow, I can’t see her properly. She’s… she’s somewhere close. It makes sense that she’d try to get down here; she’s an engineer. Elliott, please.

ELLIOTT: (scowls and thumbs the fastening of the harness holding him to his stool) All right, all right, I’m going. So this is all her doing?

STARRY: (shakes her head) We don’t know for sure. It could still be Cerces trying to find an avatar.

ELLIOTT: (pushing himself towards the door) Bastard’s trying to take someone?

STARRY: Not someone. We think he’s going after the station’s cats.

ELLIOTT: Fucking cats! Are you serious?

STARRY: Until I get better data, yes.

ELLIOTT: As if they weren’t enough trouble already, fucking around in the ducts, scratching shit up. And the shit! Fuck.

STARRY: Well, maybe we won’t have to worry about that if he succeeds.

ELLIOTT: (catching himself on the handle next to the door with one hand, he flips open the control panel with the other) A cat that cleans up its own shit. Well, why the fuck not.

 

Trust Elliott to find the bright side to something like this. Even when he’s under pressure and being asked to break something, or fix it so its unbreakable. Here’s hoping we don’t have an emergency, because he may end up sealed in there.

Now I wish I hadn’t thought that.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: (looking down at the child bouncing between his chest and the door) Sara, honey?

SARA: (grunts with frustration as the door seems implacable in its closedness.)

CAPT: Sara, look at me.

SARA: (twists her head to look at the captain) Open!

CAPT: Sara, can you give the big whale a message for me?

SARA: (pouts stubbornly.)

CAPT: I just want you to tell him that we want to help. We want to help him find what he’s looking for. He’s looking for the kitties, right?

SARA: (nods.)

CAPT: And you want to go help him, right?

SARA: (nods and kicks at the door, though she’s too far away for it to connect) Open.

CAPT: Well, we’re sending some of Starry’s little friends to help him, too. Starry’s going to help find them.

STARRY: (nods) Yup, working on it. Bit has the kittens in sight.

SARA; (brightens) Kitty?

CAPT: Yes, kitty. Now, if we take you to where they are, will that help Cerces to find them?

SARA: (nods enthusiastically and wriggles) Kitty!

 

Bit is closing on the kittens; Byte is a couple of duct junctions away. The animals are milling around, mewing unhappily. Their mother doesn’t seem to be there. I think they know they’re being hunted and they don’t like it. I don’t blame them.

They are clumsy in the zero-G, too, and that’s probably not helping. Like Sara, they’ve probably never had to deal with it before. Poor kittens flailing with their claws, as if they could sink hooks into the air itself and gain purchase.

 

STARRY: Uh, captain…

CAPT: (shoots Starry a querying look.)

STARRY: The safest place for the kittens to be is, uh. (She glances at Sara, then back to the captain.) Outside. Safest for us.

CAPT: (frowns at the top of Sara’s head.)

SARA: (is focussed on the door again.)

STARRY: I don’t have a whole lot of options. There’s mid-deck, where the major damage would be to the Step drive we can’t really use anyway. But that risks the centre of my structure and I can’t fully predict what that might mean; it depends how strong the gravity gets.

I could try to get them to a cargo bay, away from my core bulkheads. That risks a hull breach and could collapse an entire section.

Or I can flush them out into the vacuum, and hope that Cerces can do what he needs to do before they, uh… succumb to circumstances. And that we can pick them up again before they’re pulled into the black hole.

SARA: (stops what she’s doing and twists to stare at the ship’s avatar) No! No hurt kitty!

STARRY: (lifts her eyebrows at the captain.)

 

How the hell did she know what I meant? She shouldn’t have been able to understand, not at her age. That kid picks up on far too much.

 

CAPT: (cupping a hand around the back of her head) It’s all right, Sara. We’re not going to hurt them.

LANG LANG: Another anomaly, captain. Forward part of mid-deck.

STARRY: (winces) Forward bulkhead starting to buckle. I can’t take much more of this.

CAPT: (to Starry) Cargo bay.

STARRY: (nods) Okay. Bit and Byte have found them. They’re a bit freaked out, but I think they can get the little things moving.

CAPT: What supplies can we afford to lose?

STARRY: (sighs) The extra equipment we salvaged from the station is in Cargo Bay 4, but I don’t know that we have time…

CAPT: What do you mean?

STARRY: That last one was pretty close. If I’m gonna get them somewhere, it’s gotta be quick. Cargo Bay 1, maybe, but that’s where the more essential supplies are.

CAPT: Sara, honey, can you ask Cerces to hold off for a few minutes? We’ll get the kitten for him, but we need time.

SARA: (shakes her head) Whale busy. Hide sick.

CAPT: You can’t talk to him right now?

SARA: (shakes her head again, pigtails bobbing, and pushes at the door with her little hand) Find kitty.

CAPT: Why do you want to find the kitty, honey?

SARA: (looks up at the captain with a sudden wide, bright smile) Hug whale.

 

Well. There’s nothing creepy about that, then.

 

CAPT: All right, we’ll go find the kitten. Come on, hang onto me. (He beckons Sara to loop her arms around his neck.)

STARRY: Captain, I can’t tell what’s going to happen if this is really Cerces’s intention. It won’t be safe for anyone down there.

SARA: (pulls herself up until she’s holding onto the captain’s shoulders.)

CAPT: I know. We’ll get closer, though. Chief, you have the Bridge. Keep me apprised of Dineen’s position.

CAMERON: (nods, not taking her eyes off her console) Aye aye, captain. You should be clear to the forward access to the cargo bays.

CAPT: Thank you. Starry, unlock this door. And have the doctor meet us at the forward access.

STARRY: Relaying the message, sir.

(The door bleeps and slides open, and the captain pushes off down the corridor beyond.)

 

I don’t like this; I don’t want them to go down there. My people need to be far away from whatever is about to happen to those kittens.

Bit and Byte are doing their best to move the animals along as quickly as possible but they’re not making great progress. I’m closing off all ducts except for the ones that spit out into Cargo Bay 1 and telling my boys to make all speed; we don’t have time to waste.

Bit and Byte are looking at each other and positioning themselves behind the clump of kittens, using all four hands to brace the fuzzy things. In zero-G, they should be able to— oh. They’re using their welding torches as thrusters. That’ll work.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott is wrist-deep in the control panel, muttering and swearing to himself.)

STARRY: (behind him) How’s it going? You almost there?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, yeah. Ain’t no-one getting in here… there! Got it. (He pulls his hands back with a jerk and drifts backwards, away from the door.)

STARRY: (nods and sighs.)

ELLIOTT: (kicks off a nearby wall) I’ll just fix the other—

(He is heading towards the access from an upper level, which slides open, revealing a ladder with the Lieutenant at the far end, gliding down through an access hatch.)

ELLIOTT: (with wide eyes, he pivots himself around mid-drift and catches himself on the edge of a nearby counter) Fuck! What the hell are you doing?

STARRY: Laurence is looking for…

ELLIOTT: Not him!

STARRY: I didn’t open it! Dineen? Can you see her?

ELLIOTT: (stares at the open panel unhelpfully.)

HALF-FACE: (brings his weapon around to point towards the open panel) April Dineen! Anchor yourself by that door with one hand and do not move.

 

Oh no. No no no. I can’t even see her. I don’t think they can, either. Does the Lieutenant even have a target to aim at?

Elliott. How can I protect him from someone I can’t see?

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21 Jan

What’s missing

Ship’s log, 20:53, 5 October 2214
Location: Approaching standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Another anomaly, captain.

(In the centre of the room, a light blooms in the holographic schematic of the ship, indicating the location of the gravity fluctuation. It is near the bulkhead between Engineering and mid-deck.)

CAPTAIN: Damage?

STARRY: A few bent tools that Elliott’s going to swear about when he sees them. Bulkheads are under pressure but holding.

CAPT: (nods) Still getting stronger?

STARRY: The anomalies are increasing in intensity by about 5% each time, give or take a percentile.

CAPT: (nods and leans forward to frown at the holographic representation) Do we have enough data to predict the centre of this spiral? What’s it homing in on?

LANG LANG: (hands working feverishly at her console) The spiral isn’t regular enough to pinpoint a centre, but there’s enough data for a range…

(An orange bubble blooms in the hologram of the Starwalker, covering a starboard-side portion of mid-deck and the crew quarters above.)

CAPT: Starry, what parts of the Step drive does that cover?

STARRY: Some of the key controls. The starboard-side filament guidance is in there, and data storage.

CAPT: What doesn’t it cover?

STARRY: Main algorithm programming and processing is aft of the bubble. The rest of the filament guidance centres. It covers maybe a third of the essential Step drive components, but nothing that couldn’t be replaced if we needed to. You think this is about the drive?

CAPT: I don’t like that whatever this is appears to be circling our super-secret star-warping engine. Especially when we used it on our big black friend out there.

STARRY: (nods, looking at the hologram with a frown) I’ll make a list of everything inside that area.

 

I’m liking this less and less. Apart from mid-deck, it’s touching on a handful of crew quarters. Specifically, those holding the Strider’s people.

So it might be Cerces looking to damage the drive that tore a hole in him a few weeks ago. Or it could be one of our guests trying to break open a locked door. Or it could be Cerces trying to convert one of our guests into an avatar for his consciousness.

He said that he needed a ‘conditioned mind’ for that. The Strider SecOff Kinski would count: he reacted like Lang Lang and Cameron did when we tried to leave the system. He’s on the shortlist.

Does Cerces understand enough about us to know that Kinski isn’t one of ‘my’ people? Though that’s not what I meant when I refused the black hole’s request; I meant that he couldn’t have any of them. Kinski might not be one of my crew but his life – and body – is hardly mine to give away.

Checking inside Kinski’s quarters, he doesn’t seem particularly affected by what’s happening. In fact, he’s asleep, harnessed securely in his bunk.

His Chief of Security, Riede, is sharing the quarters with him. Riede is doing some zero-G manoeuvres, keeping his body moving while there’s no gravity. Which is a bit weird, considering that people only tend to do that in long stretches of zero-G. The gravity has been off barely half an hour and he’s already acting like it has been a couple of days.

They have been shut up in those rooms for a while now. Maybe they’re getting restless and stir-crazy.

I don’t have time to worry about that right now. I’ll talk to the captain about it later.

 

(The starboard Bridge door swishes open and Casper trundles in, carrying a squirming bundle. Sara is struggling against his metal arms, sobbing and hiccuping as she tries to get free, tears streaking down her face.)

 

Oh, great. The kid is upset. That’s bound to make this go well.

 

CAPT: (turns at the sounds of a small person straining) Starry, what did you do to get her out of the ducts?

STARRY: Nothing! She isn’t hurt. She was fine until Casper took her away from the duct. She just wants to go back in.

CAPT: (clears the frown from his face and holds his hands out for the child with a warm smile) Hello, Sara.

CASPER: (shifts his grip on the tiny wriggler and holds her out for the captain to take.)

SARA: (looks up at the sound of her name, and her face crumples when she recognises the captain) Kitty.

CAPT: (lifts her into his lap) You were looking for the kittens?

SARA: (nods and sniffs, cuddling into the captain’s chest for comfort.)

 

Goddamn kittens. I had a nice little portion of the cargo bay set up for them, with blankets and scraps of fabric turned into toys (my drones had fun making those), and bowls for water and food. The cats disappeared within an hour of getting on board and haven’t been back in sensor range since. Probably off playing with the dustbunnies in my ducts. Or eating them.

The only one of the station’s cats I have seen on-sensor lately is mother-cat, who is looking suspiciously fat.

 

CAPT: (strokes her hair) You can go find them later. Starry will help you.

SARA: (sniffs again wetly and rubs a fist in her eye.)

CAPT: Sara, honey, do you know what the big whale is up to today?

SARA: (mumbling into the front of his jacket) Kitty.

CAPT: I know you want to see the kitties. I need to know about Cerces. The whale. Is he doing something?

SARA: Kitty!

CAPT: Not right now, honey. Is the whale playing a game?

SARA: (looks puzzled for a moment, then nods reluctantly) Hide sick.

CAPT: (tilts his head to try to see her face better) What was that?

STARRY: (watching the little one curiously) Do you mean ‘hide and seek’?

SARA: (nods.)

CAPT: Who is he playing hide and seek with? You?

SARA: (shakes her head.)

CAPT: Is he doing it on board the ship with us?

SARA: (sniffs and turns her face in against the captain’s chest. Then she abruptly twists and wriggles, pushing away from him.)

CAPT: (swings her around so she can hold onto the arm of his chair and nods at the ship’s avatar.)

 

That means he wants me to let her run around but keep her within the room. So I’ll lock the doors to her and tell Casper not to catch her up again.

She’s trying to get away from Casper anyway, ducking around the other side of the captain’s chair. The zero-G seems to be confusing her; I don’t think she has ever had to deal with it before. She’s seems very determined to get to the door they came in by but can’t figure out how.

Something’s off about her behaviour in the exchange with the captain. I think she’s telling us more than we realise, maybe even more than she realises.

I need to go back over the logs and see what it is I’m missing.

 

CAMERON: Captain, I think we have a problem.

CAPT: Report, Chief.

SARA: (reaches towards the Bridge door but seems nonplussed about how to get there without gravity. Her feet kick at the air and she starts to drift.)

CAMERON: I’m having trouble tracking one of our guests. Starry, where’s the Strider’s engineer, April Dineen?

STARRY: In her quarters.

CAMERON: Are you sure?

STARRY: I… that’s why my sensors say. Why?

CAMERON: I’ve got an extra life sign in the aft crew corridor, and a blip on the room she was in.

STARRY: (frowns) Running diagnostics.

 

A blip, she says. What sort of blip? I… there. When most of my systems were disabled, there was a spike in Dineen’s room. The entertainment systems went down along with all my major functionality, like environmentals. At the moment when they should have had the least running in that room, there was a sudden pull on my power.

The blip was after my initial checks on the Strider crew, and it coincides with a gravity fluctuation in middle portion of the crew corridor. She would have been able to feel it from her room. That can’t be a coincidence.

Sensors in the area have been disrupted. Very cleverly; I can tell only by detailed analysis. Just for a few seconds, there was something strange. Long enough for…

My major system were offline, including weapons and other related security. I was so busy dealing with the fluctuation that I wasn’t watching closely enough. Like, to spot if a door might have been jimmied open.

My sensors show that Dineen and Tasha, the Strider’s pilot, are watching a vid, harnessed loosely into armchairs. But they had a few seconds of cover, long enough to force the door and slip out. Life sign tracking shows only one person in that room now.

If anyone could fool my sensors and slip away, it would be an engineer. Dineen has masked herself, somehow.

 

STARRY: Chief Cameron is right. At least one of our guests is loose.

CAPT: (presses his lips together grimly and nods to the Chief.)

CAMERON: Brasco, Lieutenant, go deal with it.

CAPT: Starry, trip the collar.

ROSIE and HALF-FACE: (release their harnesses and push off towards the portside Bridge door.)

STARRY: I can send the signal but she’s masking herself from my sensors somehow. I don’t show anyone in that corridor. I won’t know if it works.

CAPT: Send the signal anyway. In fact, send it to all of them. I want them disabled before she has a chance to do more.

(The portside door swishes open, letting the two SecOffs out, and closes quickly behind them.)

SARA: (watches the two SecOffs with fascination, then tries to copy them, pushing off the captain’s chair. She squeaks as she floats through the air, tumbling awkwardly.)

 

All of them. All of them?

Shit.

 

STARRY: (stiffly) Signal sent, sir.

 

In a terrible concert, the Strider’s people go rigid, gasping with pain, and then go limp. They drift in zero-G, nudging the straps of harnesses or bumping into a wall. I feel awful but they’re no danger to us for now. Not the ones I know I could reach.

That leaves only Dineen. The ‘her’ I can see in the quarters is still watching the vid, unaffected. How did she do this? I’ve checked and rechecked my systems, and I haven’t been compromised. She didn’t get into me. My diagnostics are clean.

An external factor, then? Some device that would interfere with my sensors. Something that would make me see her in the quarters, and mask where she is right now. Something she had with her? But they were all searched when they were first brought into our custody. How did we miss this?

I’ll ask Elliott; he’ll be able to help. And he’ll be glad of a distraction while we battle with this anomaly problem. While he’s doing that, I’ll keep looking for what’s missing. The things I can’t see, the blip of something out of place.

 

SARA: (bounces off the bulkhead next to the Bridge door and grabs at the safety handle with both hands before she can drift away again. Small socked feet kick at the air.)

 

What’s not there. What’s missing.

 

STARRY: Captain, her whale.

CAPT: What about him?

STARRY: Not Cerces. Her stuffed whale.

CAPT: (turns to look at the child. She doesn’t have the whale under an arm or gripped in one hand.)

SARA: (steadier now, she holds the handle with one hand and pushes at the door with the other, which rotates her away from the panel in a way she struggles to counter. She makes little straining noises as she battles with the zero-G.)

CAPT: Did it get left in the ducts?

STARRY: No, my boys didn’t see it. Scanning… it’s in her quarters. She left it behind when she went looking for the kittens.

CAPT: (glancing at the avatar) You think this is important?

STARRY: I think she hasn’t been out of sight of that toy since we met her. This thing with the kittens, I think it’s more than just a kid wanting to pet something soft and cute.

CAPT: (releases his harness and pushes himself towards the door the child is trying and failing to open.)

SARA: (kicks at the door, and sees the captain coming towards her on the rebound) Open!

CAPT: (catches the handle with one hand and steadies the child with the other. He comes to a stop with a foot on the wall) Sara, honey, why are you looking for the kittens?

SARA: Kitty! Kitty kitty.

CAPT: Why do you want to see them?

SARA: (now that the captain has steadied her, she pushes at the door again) Hide sick.

CAPT: Starry, where are the kittens?

STARRY: They’re not on sensors. My boys are looking now. But…

CAPT: (lifts an eyebrow at her.)

STARRY: …we found Sara not far from the area at the middle of the spiral. If they’re not inside it, they’re close.

CAMERON: It makes sense. Cerces is looking for an alternate solution to the avatar problem.

(Everyone turns to stare at the Chief.)

 

A cat? Cerces said he needed a body and a conditioned, clean mind. The kittens were born under his influence, just like Sara.

And there was something missing in what he said. Something important.

 

STARRY: (eyes widening) He never said he needed a human body.

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14 Jan

Once bitten

Ship’s log, 19:02, 5 October 2214 
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting 

 

Artificial gravity disabled
Inertial dampeners offline

 

That’s three, by my count. Three distinct gravitational fluctuations, each one stronger than the last, each one located in a different part of my structure.

I have disabled all of my gravity and inertia systems. I haven’t detected any malfunctions; my diagnostics are clean. My systems are working just fine. I’ve got no spikes of power in the areas where the fluctuations are occurring.

It’s not me. I’m sure it’s not me glitching.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (arriving in zero-G drift, he catches the back of his chair with one hand and swings his body down into the seat with the ease of much practice. The safety harness slithers around him, lashing him into place.) Starry, report.

STARRY: (materialising to the right of the captain’s chair) Three anomalies so far, no obvious cause yet.

CAPT: Can we fly out of it?

CAMERON: (arrives, with Rosie and the Lieutenant not far behind.)

STARRY: First thing I tried was to manoeuvre out of the distortion.

 

By which I mean I flew around like a lunatic during the first two fluctuations, pulling stunts I don’t dare do now that my inertial dampeners are disabled. I twisted and turned and writhed; I stopped and started.

 

STARRY: (looking worried) Didn’t matter what I did: the centre of the fluctuation stayed relative to my structure.

CAPT: So it’s coming from inside the ship?

STARRY: Still trying to determine that, sir.

 

It is only occurring on board me, and only in parts of me at a time. Small pockets of gravity, unstable and lasting just a few seconds at a time. But causation and correlation aren’t necessarily related: it might be happening inside my hull, but that doesn’t mean whatever is causing it has to be in here, too.

All eyes turn to me, looking for answers and maybe a culprit. It’s not me, I’m sure of it, but I’m not sure enough to rule it out. I’ve been compromised before.

That thought scares me. It can’t happen again, it just can’t. I won’t let it. I have safeguards…

I can’t think about this right now; have to stay focussed on the problem at hand. Focus, stupid ship. We need to figure this out quickly. If these fluctuations continue to get stronger, someone is going to get hurt.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (gripping the edge of a counter with one hand to keep himself steady in zero-G, his other hand manipulates a holographic console, pulling up diagnostics and data) Starry, you got anything on your end?

STARRY: (materialising to one side of him, standing on the floor as usual) Nothing is showing on my internal systems. Everything is green here.

ELLIOTT: (flicks her a sideways glance) Just gotta stand there like everything is fine, doncha?

STARRY: I’m a hologram.

ELLIOTT: (huffs) And you’re sure none of those Strider bastards have been poking around in your systems?

STARRY: They’ve had nothing but entertainment access, display only. (She shakes her head.) Basic interfacing. I’ve scanned the logs; there’s no sign of tampering.

ELLIOTT: (scowls) Keep checking. Better leave the gravity off until the next— woah. (He grabs the counter with both hands as he’s pulled abruptly into it.)

STARRY: Elliott! (She reaches for him, though her hands don’t make contact.)

(Around Engineering, tools and parts fall towards the port side of the ship, clanging and sliding slowly.)

ELLIOTT: (sucking air back into his lungs) Fuck.

 

It’s definitely not coming from my systems. Not a single surge or burp in power feeds or outputs; the only spikes I’m seeing are in sensor data, reporting the fluctuation’s details. I haven’t been compromised. I haven’t!

 

Location: Bridge

(The Bridge crew are all at their stations now, harnessed in place like their captain: Lang Lang at Navigation; Chief Cameron at Security; and Rosie and the Lieutenant at Weapons consoles. They seem to be in zero-G, except that the captain and Lang Lang’s loose hair drifts towards the starboard side of the ship as if drawn to it.)

CAPT: (watching the readouts on his holographic monitor) Starry, is that another one?

STARRY: Yes. Engineering. It’s passing now.

CAPT: (smooths his long hair back from his face and tucks the length of it into the collar of his jacket to stop it from floating around him) Disable all propulsion systems.

STARRY: What?

CAPT: We have to check that your systems aren’t causing this.

STARRY: But we’re orbiting…

CAPT: Just long enough to be sure, not long enough to fall in.

STARRY: Okay, disabling all systems.

CAPT: I only said propulsion!

STARRY: You’re right: we need to be sure. And I don’t think we’ve got the luxury of time on our side.

 

FTL drive offline
Sublight engines offline
Thrusters offline
Weapons systems offline
Environmental systems offline

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (winces as a wrench bounces off his ankle, then sighs when the gravitational pressure eases back to zero-G) What the hell, Starry?

STARRY: Captain wants to make sure it’s none of my systems.

ELLIOTT: Fuck. All right, but be careful.

STARRY: (softly) Always.

 

Location: Bridge

LANG LANG: (watching her monitor, not the exchange between ship and captain) Orbit degrading, sir. We’re being drawn towards the black hole.

CAPT: How long do we have?

LANG LANG: At this rate, fifteen minutes before we must take correction action.

CAPT: Engines back on in five minutes, Starry. No longer.

STARRY: (nods) Yes, sir.

CAPT: Chief?

CAMERON: Going over the logs of our guests for suspicious activity. Laurence, I’m assigning you some logs to check, too.

HALF-FACE: Aye aye, ma’am.

 

I’m already scanning those logs, but the Chief knows what she’s doing. No harm in having more eyes across it, especially if… well, they might have hidden something from me that an independent mind could pick up. If they wanted to try something.

Though I haven’t been compromised. I’m sure of it.

 

ROSIE: You want me scanning for external threats?

CAMERON: (nods) Eyes and ears, Brasco.

ROSIE: (flips off a salute without looking over, her attention on the sensor readouts wrapped around her station.)

CAPT: (to Starry) Has Sara been located yet?

STARRY: (surprised) Sara? She is in the ducts just below the port side of mid-deck. My boys are trying to get her out, but the only ones who can reach her are Bit and Byte, and they’re too small to do it by force. While she’s awake, anyway.

CAPT: What does that mean?

STARRY: They could drag her if they needed to, especially while the gravity’s off, but not if she’s fighting them. They’re trying to lure her to an exit.

CAPT: I want her up here as soon as you can manage it.

STARRY: I’ve got Casper on standby where she’ll come out. He’ll bring her straight to the Bridge. And, uh… you want her awake, I take it?

CAPT: (eyes narrowing) Yes, please avoid knocking her out if you can.

STARRY: (nods) So she can talk to Cerces. Got it.

CAPT: (nods.)

 

That answers that question: the captain suspects that Cerces could be behind the fluctuations.

That possibility had crossed my processors. Several of them, in fact, and more often as I gather data about the gravity spikes. But I have to make sure it’s not coming from something on board first. If we’re wrong, if it’s not Cerces and we waste time trying to talk to him about it, we might wind up warped into a weird shape before we find out what’s going on. I have to keep looking at all the options until we know. Until we’re sure.

What about a piece of equipment we picked up at the station? We claimed whatever we could from Sarabande, on the basis that no-one there would miss any of it. But almost none of it is hooked up yet, and of the few pieces that are, they couldn’t cause an effect like this.

I’ll disable them anyway, just to be sure: Elliott’s component printer; the new scanner in Med Bay; some toys for Sara. Nothing critical that we need right now.

Oh, here we go.

 

Location: Med Bay

DR SOCKS: (looking over the equipment around the room, which is switching off one by one and falling dark) Starry…?

STARRY: (appearing in front of him) Systems are being disabled to isolate the cause of the gravity fluctuations.

DR SOCKS: These are emergency systems.

STARRY: And they’ll be back online just as soon as we’re sure they’re not part of the problem.

DR SOCKS: And in the meantime?

STARRY: Try not to fall onto anything particularly sharp or hard.

DR SOCKS: (gives her a dry look.)

STARRY: (shrugs) If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.

DR SOCKS: (huffs.)

STARRY: (more gently) Hold on, doctor. We’ll get through this. (She nods at him and disappears.)

 

I’m not sure how the medical equipment could cause gravity fluctuations, but with some of the complex machinery in there, you never know.

What if someone did cause this? Hacked several systems together at once, with unexpected results?

No, I’ve been hacked enough for one lifetime. It’s not that. I have security protocols designed to sniff out such activity and sit on it. I’ve been watching the Strider’s crew closely. It’s one of the advantages of being an AI: I am unblinking.

Another gravity pocket, starboard side, aft end of mid-deck. Everyone feels it, grabbing onto something for stability, even those strapped in on the Bridge. Something groans within my bulkheads.

They’re definitely getting stronger.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (lashing himself to a stool so that he can look over projected diagnostic data) Starry, the readings are higher.

STARRY: Yes. Nothing we’re doing is making any difference.

ELLIOTT: What’s still running?

STARRY: Sensors, holo-projectors, and my core.

ELLIOTT: Your power cells are coming back clean.

STARRY: I’m pretty sure I’m not leaking. It’s not me, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (nods) All right, fire yourself up again.

STARRY: (sighs and nods with relief.)

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Captain, another anomaly detected. Elliott is certain it’s not coming from any of my systems.

CAPT: All right, get yourself back online.

STARRY: Re-initialising systems. But…

 

Medical stations online
Environmental systems online
Weapons systems online

 

CAPT: But what?

STARRY: I don’t think it’s a good idea to put the artificial gravity on yet.

CAPT: Why not?

 

Thrusters online
Sublight engines online

 

STARRY: It could amplify the gravity fluctuations. There’s a higher chance of someone getting hurt. Or it warping one of my bulkheads.

CAPT: (frowning) Yes, that’s why we disabled it in the first place. I agree, leave it off. Same with the inertial dampeners?

 

FTL drive online

 

STARRY: (nods) I think so. Until I can reliably predict these fluctuations – if there’s a pattern at all – I can’t trust that the dampeners will act safely.

LANG LANG: I think there is a pattern.

CAPT: There is? Put it up, navigator.

LANG LANG: (nods and manipulates her console to send the display to the main holographic projector in the middle of the room. 

A skeleton schematic of the Starwalker is drawn in the air, with hotspots shining where each fluctuation has occurred. They light up in order and a line traces between them, starting in Engineering near the starboard-side thrusters, to the portside of mid-deck, to an upper section in the crew quarters, to the starboard wing. Then on to the more recent occurrences: mid-portside of Engineering, the mid-section of the crew quarters, and between one of the starboard-side cargo bays and mid-deck. The line traces a curved path between the points, and quickly depicts a spiral.)

CAPT: Can you predict where the next one will be?

LANG LANG: It’s not quite regular enough yet… we need more data.

STARRY: I think we can predict an approximate location. It won’t be exact, but we can refine it as we learn more.

LANG LANG: (nods, her hands moving again) Yes! We can do that.

(On the central hologram, a cone extends out from the last point, suggesting the next occurrence will be somewhere in the forward section of mid-deck or the crew quarters.)

CAPT: (thoughtfully) They’re still increasing in intensity?

STARRY: Yes, captain.

CAPT: Keep trying to predict where they’ll occur and move people away where we can. But we need the source. And Starry, I want to know if they reduce in intensity now we’re returning to standard orbit.

STARRY: You’ll have the information as soon as I do.

 

The captain suspects that our proximity to the black hole might be affecting the strength of the fluctuations. The data doesn’t seem to suggest that; it was increasing before I cut the engines and we started to drift towards Cerces. The increases didn’t spike but continue to rise fairly steadily.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 3

CASPER: (is mag-clamped to the inner wall of the cargo bay, positioned next to an open duct access panel near the ceiling. He is huddled back from the opening and all four of his hands flex impatiently.)

BIT: (skitters out of the opening and stops when he’s crouching on the wall’s surface. He emits a small noise: a recording of a kitten’s high-pitched mew.)

SARA: (from within the duct) Kitty!

(A small hand emerges from the duct, grabbing randomly at the air. Just above the hand, Byte is tugging on the sleeve to encourage the child on. She grapples with the lip of the duct and squeaks with surprise when a little pull on it sends her shooting half out of the duct and half into the side of it. She blinks and looks like she’s thinking about crying.)

CASPER: (rises from his huddle and closes three hands gently on the child. From his anchored position, he draws her smoothly and easily out of the duct without bumping her further.)

SARA: (relaxes as soon as the drone takes over control of her movement and seems to forget about the urge to cry. As she emerges into the cargo bay’s expanse of air, she leans against the robot’s hold so she can look around.) Kitty?

BIT and BYTE: (skitter away from the child.)

CASPER: (uses his fourth hand to pat her on the head and folds her in against his chest.)

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Captain, Sara is now out of the ducts. Casper is on his way up here with her.

CAPT: (nods approvingly.)

 

I’m not the culprit; I’m sure of that now. That’s something to take comfort in, though it’s not really helping us much right now. We might have ruled a few things out, but we’re no closer to figuring this out and we’re running out of time. Another fluctuation just warped a door panel in the forward part of mid-deck.

If it’s not me or a piece of equipment plugged into me, that leaves two options: something one of our guests brought on board, or Cerces.

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07 Jan

Author’s Note: great start!

Hi everyone!

I’m really happy with how Starwalker is heading now that it has restarted. Thanks so much for all your feedback and support!

Sadly, this year hasn’t got off to as great a start as the story. I’ve been pretty much sick since 2014 ended (and the last post went up), with a touch of food poisoning and some complications. Battling a bit at this end! I’m on the mend and getting things in order, but this week’s post isn’t ready. And in honour of the new start, I don’t want it to go up until it’s right, even though it pains me to do it so close to getting going again.

So, a bit of a hitch this week. Sorry, my friends. We’ll be back in the swing of things next week.

Stay happy. I hope your 2015 got off to a better start than mine!

Cheers,
~Melanie

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01 Jan

From the inside

Captain's log, 18:24, 5 October 2214 
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting
Log location: Captain’s Cabin

 

This is Captain Warwick reporting after direct contact was achieved between the crew of the Starwalker and the star-born entity known as Cerces.

The official wording might be technically correct, but in truth, it is misleading. We’ve been in contact with Cerces since we arrived here; we just didn’t know it. We have managed some two-way communication before, but it was spotty and unreliable at best, and damaging to my crew’s health. Our most reliable conduit is a two-and-a-half-year-old child, and our greatest success with conversing with this entity disabled everyone on board the ship, including the crew, captain, and all of our various guests.

The official wording might make it sound clean and easy, but the actual experience was far from that. It’s not an endeavour I have any intention of repeating, if it can be avoided.

I have spent most of the last twenty hours reviewing the logs of yesterday’s conversation with Cerces and trying to figure out how to report it. Trying to work out where we go next. I’m not really any closer to either of those answers, but I have realised…

 

Internal comms

ROSIE: (voice only) Hey, captain?

CAPTAIN: Yes?

ROSIE: You seen that brat anywhere?

CAPT: Sara? Not today, no. Have you lost her?

ROSIE: Not me, personally, no. But we, uh, can’t find her.

CAPT: The ship’s only so big, Brasco.

ROSIE: Yeah. You’d think it’d be fucking easy to find one stupid kid. If you see her, can you let us know?

STARRY: She’s somewhere in the ducts. I’ve got some dead sensors near mid-deck, recalibrating to try to pinpoint her location.

CAPT: (pinching the bridge of his nose) She’s in the ducts? Is Monaghan…

STARRY: Elliott’s looking at the dead sensors, yes. We’ll find her, captain, don’t worry.

CAPT: All right. Report in if there are problems.

 

A small child lost in the ship’s ducts. Only on this ship.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Yesterday’s communication with Cerces.

I remember very little of what happened during the time we were a part of the bridge. I have only vague recollections of a sense of caution and a deep desire to communicate, and I can’t distinguish whether they were my emotions or Cerces’s. There was an undercurrent of loneliness and hunger that I’m sure were from the black hole, and a foreboding kind of emptiness. More worryingly, there was a thread of desperation, as if he had been trying to get these messages through to us for some time but lacked the appropriate method until now. It felt barbed to me, as if that desperation was broader than I could sense and would not let itself go unfulfilled.

I can confirm what Chief Cameron and Navigator Cartier reported: there was no sign of hostility from Cerces. I got no sense that he bore us any ill will, nor intended us harm. He doesn’t consider us a threat, except that we might leave him alone here, which is a little surprising considering the Step we completed just a few weeks ago. Unlike his shining star brethren, he doesn’t seem to have been affected by it. Right now, I consider that something to be grateful for.

There was another emotion in the mix, but I find it difficult to place. I’m not sure if it was positive or negative, or if it was simply an effect of the mental bridge between us all. Dr Valdimir reported the same feeling – that there was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on – and suggests that it was something peculiar to our star-born friend, something for which there’s no equivalent in the human emotional spectrum. With no other way to classify it, that will have to do for now.

As for the details of the conversation, I have none except the logs that Starry recorded. The rest of crew report the same sensations: some emotions but no actual details of the communication. None of us remember speaking the words that Cerces put in our mouths. It’s unsettling, being so thoroughly disabled, especially as the captain. I’m supposed to be able to direct the action, guide us towards our desired outcome, and that’s impossible from the inside.

I don’t like to admit it but Starry’s assessment was correct: we rushed into this. As the captain, that was my fault. I didn’t stay objective enough. I should have slowed it all down, taken our time and found a way to direct who was and was not part of the bridge. We should have gone into it with a game-plan, not a vague intention.

As a result, everyone on board was disabled to become part of the bridge between us and the black hole, and it was left to our ship to provide our side of the discussion.

That said, Starry did an admirable job on her own, despite losing her temper at one point. I don’t blame her for that, though she could have handled it better. She’s well aware that shouting at Sara could have hurt us all if Cerces had reacted badly, and she’s very contrite about it. I can only hope that she got the point across clearly enough; surely Cerces understands now that he cannot ‘have’ one of our people.

Which leads me to the core of our discoveries about our friend in the black hole. He wants an avatar: a body in which to travel with us, so that we might help him find where his people went.

This whole subject is so troublesome that it’s hard to know where to start. He needs a living body to become a host, and a mind already attuned to him. Starry has calculated the likely candidates, even though she laid down a flat refusal. The only addition I would make to the list is the Acting Commander back on the station, but his life is not ours to give away, even if we wished to make that leap.

That leaves us… nowhere. We must find another option for an avatar, or find some other way to get Cerces to release us from this system.

Right now, it’s hard to know if we’re closer or further away from a solution after that conversation. Starry was vehement in her refusal to let him take one of our people but I am forced to wonder if a sacrifice will have to be made, for the rest of us to have a chance.

Not yet. There must be another solution. We’re not so desperate yet that I would consider granting Cerces’s request. And, considering that the doctor said we all showed signs of neural overloading, I won’t make any firm decisions until I can be sure that any temporary brain damage we incurred has been properly healed. Dr Valdimir predicts that we will be back at full cerebral health by tomorrow.

I have to wonder how much of Cerces’s request was influenced by Starry herself. It is difficult to know how much Sara truly understands, and impossible to know what meaning she might be passing through to her friend the whale. Was the avatar idea inspired by Starry’s one? Or perhaps it was his conversation with Kess, of which we know very few details. Did he get the idea from his fellow star?

I wish there was some easy way to contact her and ask. I think she would help us. But considering the overloading on the crew, and the damage it did to Lang Lang the last time she was involved, I’ll keep that as a background possibility, if we get desperate enough.

And I’m back to finding another option for Cerces’s problem. No matter how many times I look at it, I can think of no way out. And yet… and yet.

I want to help him. So do the others on this ship. There is something kindred in him, in the way he reaches out to us, and I must force myself to look at it objectively. It is human to crave contact and companionship, and he is not human. Is this compassion for him truly ours, or was it inspired by our contact with him? He took us over completely for an hour. Is this the spirits showing me my path, or is it an echo of his influence?

There is no clear answer to these questions, just like there’s no clear answer to Cerces’s problem. And yet, there is still the desire to help the creature inside the black hole.

The prospect of having him on board the ship might be an uncertain one, but it does bring with it a certain promise. Exploring new systems, searching for an alien race that predates humanity, establishing true contact with sentient beings. This ship was built to break the rules, to shatter the boundaries of science and forge new discoveries. This crew was assembled to explore. The Step program is over now, at our own hands, and maybe we’re exactly the right crew at the right place to make this work.

The doctor has been reserved in his reports about the mental health of the crew, considering that both him and I have been affected by the ghosts and mental touch of the black hole. But I think he would agree that a new purpose would do all of us good. And what more exciting purpose is there than being the first humans in our history to make direct contact with an alien species? Two, if we count Cerces?

I think the crew would sign up for an endeavour like that. I think they would get behind it, those who choose to stay.

But not if it means losing one of their own. I don’t think they’d support helping someone who stole one of their friends and colleagues. Even if we would consider that option, it is unfeasible.

Once again, I am back at the avatar problem. Dr Valdimir is a genius, if his file is to be believed; he must have an idea.

I am tired of standing in a corridor of closed doors.

…what was that?

 

CAPT: Starry, report.

STARRY: (voice only) Captain?

CAPT: My whole cabin just shook. Is there a problem with your inertial dampeners?

STARRY: Uh, yes and no. There was… a gravitational fluctuation.

CAPT: Caused by what?

STARRY: I don’t know yet. Still analysing…

CAPT: (grips the edge of his desk) Analyse faster!

STARRY: Two more fluctuations detected. Captain, you better get up to the Bridge. I’m going to have to disable the artificial gravity generators.

CAPT: (rising and fastening the front of his jacket) Put us on alert.

 

Shipwide

STARRY: Caution, everyone: artificial gravity is being disabled. Hold onto something. All crew to alert positions. Repeat: crew to alert positions.

 

(The door to the Captain’s Cabin shivers as it closes behind him.)

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24 Dec

No cake left

Ship's log, 16:14, 4 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Cerces wants an avatar. He wants to come with us. The captain is definitely going to kill me.

I should get Sara to wake him up. The captain needs to know about this. But what does it even mean, an avatar? What kind of avatar? How does a star go about getting an avatar, anyway? It was different for me; I just used the projection equipment I already had and the image of someone I kind-of used to be. But this is a star we’re talking about – that I’m talking to – and more than that, a black hole. By definition, he can’t project anything; physics won’t allow it.

Although he manages to project his ‘thoughts’, enough to contact and communicate with us. Through us. Does thought transcend physics? Is it the soul?

Yeah, that’s a rabbithole that I don’t dare let my logic processors disappear down into right now. Focus on the avatar, silly ship. There are so many questions and transcendentals really aren’t important right now.

Lots of more important questions. Like: what image would he use, what form would he shape himself into? If I stop the conversation now, we’ll only need to do this weird brain-sharing thing again to work out what it all means. My people don’t need that; they need to have this damned black hole out of their heads, for good.

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: (crouching near Sara, smiling gently) He wants an avatar, huh? A body?

SARA: (hugging her whale toy cheerfully) Uh-huh.

STARRY: (pointing at the stuffed whale) What sort of body? Would he use this one here?

SARA: (laughing and shaking her head) Issa toy, silly.

CERCES: (voice only) Need flesh. A body. A mind.

 

That is damned creepy. Even though I’m the one stitching it together from the fragmented voices of my people, each word spoken in a different part of me, and imagining it said in a single, voluminous voice, it’s still creepy. I’m not sure if I’m making it better or worse.

Especially when he talks about needing flesh.

 

STARRY: So he needs a real body, huh. Like a real whale? (She points at the stuffed toy.) Swimming in water?

 

I really hope he doesn’t need one of those. I’m not equipped to carry that sort of creature. I mean, I might be able to flood one of my cargo bays, but it would take more water than I’m currently carrying, and put some very strange stresses on my frame. I’d have to rebalance my inertial dampeners, and be very careful about FTL jumps and sharp turns…

 

SARA: (shakes her head.)

CERCES: No whale available.

 

Still creepy. It’s worse when he’s being cryptic.

Actually, now that my logic processors have had a pico-second to pick at those three words, I think I might know what he means. And that’s worse.

 

STARRY: Uh… why would he need one to be ‘available’? Isn’t he making it himself?

SARA: (shrugs and tosses the toy up into the air. She laughs when she misses it and has to scramble to retrieve it.)

CERCES: Cannot emit matter. Cannot create. Require donation.

 

Donation. Of a body. I- uh- no. No.

 

STARRY: (keeping her tone light, the smile becoming fixed in her expression) A donation? Of a body – is that what he means, Sara?

SARA: (reclaims her toy and hugs it to her chest, nodding cheerfully) Present!

STARRY: He wants one of my people?

CERCES: A conditioned mind can provide a form.

SARA: (plonks herself down on the floor and nods eagerly) Hug whale!

 

Conditioned mind. There’s no way that’s a good thing. Right?

 

STARRY: (to the child) Yes, you’ll be able to hug your whale. Won’t that be great?

SARA: Yup!

STARRY: But I’m not sure what he means. Can you ask him to tell me what it means, Sara?

CERCES: A clean mind. Fresh. Young.

STARRY: You cannot have Sara!

SARA: (looks up at the ship’s avatar, puzzled.)

 

No. No way. She’s just a child! She needs to grow up, and figure out who she is, and fall in love, and break her heart, and love again because that’s what we do. He can’t ask this of her. He can’t!

 

STARRY: You want to meet your whale, right Sara? You want to hug him. He can’t have you and do that.

SARA: (nods happily.)

CERCES: She would be lost. Unable to play any more.

STARRY: So there must be other options.

CERCES: There are other clean minds.

STARRY: (lifts her attention away from the child and looks around the Bridge. Her people are scattered around the room: sitting, lying down, standing. Unmoving.)

 

They are all vacant right now, plugged into the black hole. Like he has sucked them out from the inside, making them as empty as he is. Like they’re already gone.

Other clean minds. Other conditioned ones. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but if Sara was a candidate, then perhaps he means the others that he has the deepest connection with. I know who they are: Lang Lang, the Chief, our crazy Haitom, and the Strider’s SecOff, Kinski.

What the hell am I doing? Automatically creating a list of candidates, lining them up as if this is a choice we should make.

Whoever he takes won’t be able to play any more. They would be lost. Gone. The consciousness of a star packed into a human brain.

Lost. One of my people. He wants me to lose another one.

 

STARRY: (blinks rapidly, as if her eyes prickle, and looks down at the child again) No. He can’t have one.

SARA: (gazes up at the avatar, her smile fading.)

CERCES: Need—

STARRY: I said no! You’re asking us to give up the life of one of our own for you, and the answer is no. Why should I lose one of my people so you can look for yours? You grieve, you know we do too, so how could you do that to us? How can you even ask that?

SARA: (lip wobbles as she stares at Starry, her eyes shining with gathering tears.)

STARRY: It’s selfish is what it is. Oh, you’re some great big whale of a star, and we’re just little people. Just because our lives are shorter, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve the chance to live them. My people mean everything to me, and you can’t have one of them.

SARA: (a tear tracks down her cheeks and she makes a little whimpering noise.)

STARRY: (blinks and stares at the child) …shit.

 

I am the worst ship ever.

I forgot. I forgot that, to talk to him, I had to talk to her. I was shouting at a small child. It’s not her fault. She doesn’t even fully understand what’s going on. She’s just talking to her friend for us, and I let my emotions get the better of me, and she bore the brunt of it.

I’m terrible at this. The captain would never have let this happen. Why did he have to get caught up in it all? Why is he standing there, empty and slack-jawed, when I need him?

I have to make this better. Little Sara is crying. What if I make Cerces angry? What if I make him lash out? My people, their minds… I have to fix this.

 

STARRY: (crouching down next to Sara) I’m so sorry, little one. I didn’t mean to yell at you. I’m sorry, shh, it’s all right.

SARA: (sobbing) Wha-a-ale.

STARRY: I know. We’ll work something out. I promise. Just not what he’s asking.

SARA: (sobs.)

CERCES: Avatar.

STARRY: We need to work something else out.

CERCES: Need body. Mind.

 

I don’t have an answer! He can’t have mine. My people need me and I’m… I’m not ready to go yet.

That feels new. I’d give my life up for my people, I would, but I don’t want to die. I’m not done. Like little Sara, there’s so much more for me to do. I don’t truly know what I am, but I live, and I love, and I like being me.

I’m a good ship.

I don’t have time to dwell on this. I have to stop this before Cerces does something we’ll all regret. Before I have really and truly messed this up. Or my status as a good ship will be the shortest-lived thing on board.

But how do I calm down an upset child? I can’t hold her, or pat her knee, or stroke her hair. My holograms can be tactile but I’m not truly solid. I’m no good at this. I wasn’t built to be a nanny ship.

 

STARRY: Sara, you need to calm down, honey. Can you tell Cerces to let my people go now? We’re done talking.

SARA: (buries her face in her stuffed toy.)

 

Keep it light, stupid ship. She’s just a child. I’m not good at lying, though.

 

STARRY: Sara, please? I need my captain back to make this better. Cerces needs to stop talking through them.

SARA: (muffled by the toy) No more whale talk?

STARRY: Maybe later. That’s enough for now.

SARA: Wha-a-ale.

STARRY: He’s not going anywhere. It’ll be fine, little one.

SARA: (whimpers and hugs her toy into her face.)

 

Dammit. I need my captain back in order to get my captain back. Why do I keep encountering these spiralling paradoxes?

 

CERCES: Avatar journey to find people. People are precious.

 

What the hell is he on about now?

 

STARRY: (frowning) Yes, they are.

CREW ON BRIDGE: (bow their heads.)

SARA: (sniffles.)

 

I don’t like this. What is he doing? Wait– they’re falling. Those who are standing are starting to fall down…

 

Artificial gravity disabled

 

(Three people on the Bridge are on their feet: the captain, Rosie, and the Lieutenant. Their knees have gone soft as they started their collapse to the floor, but the sudden shut-off of the gravity stops the acceleration. Inertia drifts them downwards until the gentle impact with the floor bounces them upwards again.)

 

Great. I’ll need to get my boys in here to steady them.

On the plus side, their vital signs show signs of waking up. They’re coming around. Which means that Cerces has left the building.

Good riddance. We might still need to figure out how we’re going to leave the system in one piece, but hopefully he knows now that the price won’t be one of my people.

We’re just going to have to find another way.

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13 Dec

Author’s Note: Quick Update

Hi everyone!

Just wanted to let you all know that I’m working on Starwalker again and it is coming along. I have a plan of attack and I’m working to get enough of it written to be sure it’s going to head in a better direction.

The redirection of the story will involve going back a few posts, so some of the more recent entries will be disappearing over the next little while as I get things sorted out. Don’t panic! It’s all part of the plan.

My goal at the moment is to start posting again this week or the week after (just in time for Christmas!).

Thanks for your patience, everyone, and thank you for all the kind, supportive messages. I hope you all join me for the ride to the end of Book 4 (take 2).

Onwards, into the black, my friends!

~Melanie

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05 Nov

Author’s Note: Hiatus

Hi everyone.

I’ve been mulling over what to do next for a while, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to take a bit of a break from Starwalker.

The story isn’t going the way I want it to. I had a plan for how the last section of Book 4 would go, but it’s just not working the way I had in mind. The tone is completely off from what I was aiming for, and that’s on me. Last week, I wasn’t entirely happy with the post, but for various reasons, I decided to go with it. Now, I’m kinda regretting that decision.

I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. I’ve just had a big change in my day job that is demanding a lot of energy and attention, and November is always busy for me with NaNoWriMo events. I’ve also got a horrible cold that is making it hard to think straight at all! Between the schedule and the distractions, I am struggling to fix what’s wrong with the story.

So I’m going to take a little break from Starwalker. Try to get some distance, so I can come at it fresh and pull it around to where it really should be. I will be aiming to return it to the fun, kickass story we all know it can be. I really want Book 4 to end on a good note; I don’t want to mess it up.

So, watch this space. It’s going to be a few weeks before I’ll be back with Starwalker: look for news and updates around the beginning of December.

In the meantime, know that I adore and appreciate all of you lovely readers. I ask for your patience while I try to get this right. I am ever grateful for all of your comments.

Be well, my lovelies. I will be in touch again soon.

~Melanie

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31 Oct

Striving

[Note: this is part of chapter 4.4 that was removed and rewritten. Alternate timeline only. Skip to No Cake Left to continue the real story.]

Captain's log, 13:52, 9 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting
Log location: Captain's Cabin

 

This is Captain Warwick reporting on the loss of Navigator Lang Lang Cartier.

I have started so many log entries this way. So many crew lost. Too many. I should be used to it by now, I should have scars over these parts of myself, but that’s not how it works. The spirit is infinite and so is its ability to be wounded. It never gets easier.

Lang Lang was a damned good navigator. Her role on our roster falls short in summing up the value she lent to us, though.

She was the heart of our crew, in many ways. Our conscience. She had one of the truest senses of right and wrong that I’ve ever known; she was a stainless soul walking among the rest of us, as if to remind us of the kinds of people we once thought we’d be.

She will be missed. By all of us, I think. Even Dr Valdimir was unusually solemn when he was examining her, lacking the comments and griping he’d normally mutter during such a job. He made sure her eyes were closed and her limbs were laid comfortably. It’s the closest I’ve seen him come to showing respect since he stepped on board this ship.

Yesterday, I blamed Starry for what happened. I shouldn’t have done that. I have reviewed the logs, seen the recording of what went on inside Sara’s quarters, and the worst she’s guilty of is hesitating. She was trying to do the right thing, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure the outcome would have been different if she had opened the door when I asked.

I’m the captain; if the blame lies with anyone, it lies with me. I should have seen this coming; I should have known that Lang Lang would do what she thought was best for all of us. I should have guessed that this might be what she wanted.

I had hoped that she would trust me to find another answer. I had hoped to find an alternative to the route she took, so she wouldn’t have to.

The truth is, I’d never seen her so proactive before yesterday. It’s still hard for me to believe that she took the initiative. It’s so unlike her to defy anyone like that. That’s not to say that she is – she was – cowardly or lazy; far from it. But when she stood up before us all, it was a different Lang Lang than the one we knew. She was serene and sure of herself. She wasn’t worried about what the rest of us thought of her.

She said that she finally felt free. That’s what I saw when I looked at her: a free spirit finally stretching its wings. It hurts that her journey was cut so short.

And now, what of it all? Dr Valdimir has been monitoring her constantly since she collapsed. She hasn’t shown any life signs in the traditional human sense but there has been ‘activity’, he calls it. We’re considering moving her out of the Med Bay and into one of the cargo bays, because we’re not sure what this all means and we don’t want to risk the medical equipment the rest of us might need.

Something is changing inside the body of our friend. Cerces’s consciousness making itself at home, no doubt; in order to hold the vast alienness of his mind, he’s rearranging her internal furniture. The doctor reports that most of the cellular changes and firings are occurring in her brain, with the occasional twitch in her extremities. We have taken this to mean that Cerces has accepted the invitation, and that there’s no chance of Lang Lang ever coming back: with every change to her cerebral makeup, another piece of our friend is erased.

May the spirits take her into their care and give her the wings in the next life that she never got to use in this one.

Perhaps this time between is a blessing. We should have a memorial for her, say goodbye before she wakes up with a different mind behind her eyes. She deserves that, and I think it would be good for the crew. They need a chance to mourn, to cry, and that’s best done before Cerces ‘arrives’.

We have all been through so much on this ship. I don’t think it’s fair to let my people hope that maybe, just maybe, our Lang Lang will be who wakes up in her skin. I don’t think it’s fair to look for her within whatever voice speaks through her mouth. She deserves a proper goodbye, and my people need it, too.

They’ll blame him, I think. That’s unfair: we’ll all blame Cerces; I’m not exempt. He has forced this upon us and worn away the sympathy we might have had for him. How we will travel with him? How will we look him in the eye? How will we not see our dead friend standing before us, holding the thing that killed her?

There are so many unknowns in front of us now. It’s going to be hard to keep the peace. Starry is already barely speaking to me, having withdrawn since I told her off yesterday. I have apologised and told her that it wasn’t her fault, but I don’t think she’s ready to believe me yet.

I’m the one who truly failed Lang Lang, may the spirits forgive me. Perhaps I have failed all of us. I should take a leaf out of Starry’s book: she’s always striving to be a better ship, and I should be a better captain.

A better captain would move quickly on this memorial, before Cerces robs us of the opportunity. I’ll ask the crew to all say something. We’ll gather in the Mess Hall; we won’t want to be standing over her body in case it twitches again, or worse. No-one wants to see that.

 

STARRY: (voice only) Excuse me, Captain Warwick?

CAPTAIN: You don’t have to be so formal, Starry.

STARRY: You asked to be updated if there was a change in Lang Lang’s status.

CAPT: (sitting up straighter) Yes?

STARRY: The doctor has detected some… instabilities in her cellular makeup.

CAPT: What does that mean?

STARRY: He’s not entirely sure, but he thinks we should intervene before it goes too far. He says that her body is breaking down.

CAPT: Decomposing?

STARRY: No, not like that. Differently. He’s still trying to determine what’s causing it.

CAPT: If we intervene and counter what Cerces is doing, we could prevent him from using her as an avatar.

STARRY: It’s a possibility. What he’s doing could also destroy the body before he has a chance to move in.

CAPT: (frowns) We assumed that he knew what he was doing.

STARRY: He seemed sure about who would and wouldn’t be a good candidate. But Lang Lang said that he wasn’t aware of physical avatars until he talked with Kess.

CAPT: (grimances) That’s right. So this is new to him. What’s the doctor doing?

STARRY: He has called Elliott to Med Bay.

CAPT: What for?

STARRY: It’s not clear yet. It’s probably better if you see for yourself.

CAPT: (rises immediately) Of course. I’m on my way. (He steps around the desk and heads for the door, but pauses.) Starry?

STARRY: Yes, captain?

CAPT: Tell the crew there is to be a memorial for Lang Lang in the Mess Hall in half an hour.

STARRY: But this current situation…

CAPT: Will be dealt with. I’m not delaying this. She deserves better from us.

STARRY: Aye aye, sir.

CAPT: (hesitates) Starry…

STARRY: Yes, captain?

CAPT: (shakes his head) Never mind. Where’s Sara right now?

STARRY: In the galley, trying to figure out how to find the snack cupboard.

CAPT: Thank you. (He activates the door to leave his cabin.)

 

End log.
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25 Oct

In/decision

[Note: this is part of chapter 4.4 that was removed and rewritten. Alternate timeline only. Skip to No Cake Left to continue the real story.]

Ship's log, 19:22, 8 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Sara's Quarters

CAPTAIN: (staring over the motionless body on the floor at the ship’s avatar) What have you done?

SARA: (looks from captain to ship’s avatar and back again. Her face crumples as she bursts into tears.)

CAMERON: (crouches by Lang Lang on the floor. She beckons the doctor into the room.)

STARRY: (meets the captain’s eye with digital tears streaming down her cheeks.)

 

I didn’t mean for this to happen. It’s not what I wanted. I tried to respect everyone’s wishes, and my captain’s orders, and the needs of the moment, but my logic processors couldn’t come up with a solution that pleased everyone. There wasn’t one. There’s just what was, and is, and will be now that it’s done.

 

Recording: 17:25, 8 October 2214
Log location: Sara's Quarters

LANG LANG: Please, Starry. This is my choice.

 

That’s where it started. My captain was outside, thumping on the door controls. Lang Lang was begging for me to leave him out there.

 

LANG LANG: (sitting on the edge of the bed beside the stirring child) I just need a little time. Can you do that?

STARRY: (standing nearby) I’m not sure, Lang Lang.

SARA: (yawns widely, her little face scrunching up.)

LANG LANG: (considers the ship’s avatar for a moment) Open a comm line between me and the corridor, please.

STARRY: (nods) Done.

 

Internal Comms

LANG LANG: Captain?

CAPT: Lang Lang, open this door immediately.

LANG LANG: I’m sorry, captain, there’s something I must do.

CAPT: I’m ordering you to stand down. Do you hear me, Navigator? You’re a member of this crew and you’re ordered to stop what you’re doing, right now.

LANG LANG: (calmly) I hear you, captain. I’m afraid that I have to disobey.

 

The strange thing was that she really did sound apologetic. Her voice rang with honest regret, but it was for disappointing him, not for what she was about to do.

 

Recording: 17:37, 8 October 2214
Log location: Sara's Quarters

SARA: (sits up, rubbing a fist in one eye, and frowns at Lang Lang.)

LANG LANG: (smoothes the hair back from the child’s face and smiles at her sadly. Her words are relayed over the internal comms line.) Cerces still talks to me in my sleep. Did you know that?

SARA: (nods.)

CAPT: (over internal comms) That doesn’t mean that you have to do what he wants.

LANG LANG: I know. But I think I’ve come to understand him a little. Stuck here all this time, trying to communicate with anyone or thing able to listen. He never knew that physical avatars were possible. Not until he spoke to Kess. Isn’t that right, Sara?

SARA: (nods again) Fire lady nice. Brings hugs. (She hugs her stuffed whale to her chest.)

CAPT: There are lots of ways for him to get an avatar, Lang Lang.

LANG LANG: Maybe. But we don’t know that for sure and this is what I want, captain.

 

I wanted to say something, but what was there? She seemed so sure. She wasn’t passionate or defensive or pleading. She was calm and serene. She seemed at peace with her decision, and willing to be patient with the rest of us while we struggled with it.

 

LANG LANG: This is my choice. I have been chosen, and I’ve waited a long time to be chosen for something truly important.

CAPT: (over internal comms) You were hand-chosen by Lorena for this project. You’ve been chosen for many things. This isn’t so special, Lang Lang. It’s the request of a selfish entity who is willing to kill someone to get what he wants.

LANG LANG: (shakes her head slowly) It’s not like that. Cerces regrets the cost and I don’t begrudge him it. You’re right – I have been chosen for things before. But nothing like this. I have watched the stars my whole life, and it’s an honour to be asked to give one of them form.

SARA: (stares up at Lang Lang with big eyes and nods slowly, as if she understands.)

CAPT: By the spirits, Lang Lang, you have your own life to live. This ‘honour’ means giving that up.

LANG LANG: (smiles quietly at the girl, tucking hair behind her ear) I know. I am willing, captain.

CAPT: How can you give your life away so easily?

 

Log location: Crew quarters corridor

CAPT: (turns away from the door with the red locking panel to look at the doctor) Is this Cerces’s influence speaking? Could he be affecting her, right now?

DR SOCKS: (frantically pulling up holographic displays from his forearm implants, linking into the ship’s sensors and pulling in all the information he can get his hands on) Not that I can tell. We’ve never been able to pick up whatever wavelength Cerces is using to communicate with us, so it’s not easy to rule it out, captain.

CAPT: What can you tell from the readings?

DR SOCKS: That her brain patterns don’t seem to be under any particular duress. There’s no damage occurring, and that usually happens if he’s linked with someone.

CAPT: Are you telling me that he’s definitely not influencing her right now?

DR SOCKS: (shrugs and shoots the captain a sharp look through his scrolling data readouts) I’m telling you that it doesn’t look like it, but I can’t be sure.

CAPT: And what are the chances of a lasting influence? A hypnotic suggestion or subliminal conditioning?

DR SOCKS: No damage in the usual areas of the brain for forced conditioning and she doesn’t scan like someone in a trance. That doesn’t rule it out entirely; he’s had a while to work on her, subtly, and there’s no real way to pick tht up. I’ll compare her neural patterns to logs of her before she was injured.

CAPT: (nods) Hurry, doctor. We don’t have much time.

 

Log location: Sara's Quarters

LANG LANG: (softly) Easily? This isn’t easy. (Her head droops and she sighs.) It doesn’t make me happy to disappoint you, captain.

CAPT: (over internal comms) Then open this door. It could be Cerces’s influence making you say this.

LANG LANG: I don’t believe so, sir. I am myself; I feel that to be true.

SARA: (crawls out of her blankets and into Lang Lang’s lap where she rests her head against the navigator’s collar bone.)

LANG LANG: (loops her arms around the child) I’m sorry. I know you would stop this. Please, I want you to accept that this is my choice. (She hesitates, resting her cheek on the top of Sara’s head.) The truth is, there isn’t much here for me any more. There hasn’t been a need for me here for some time.

STARRY: (mouth falls open) Don’t say that! You’re needed. You’re a part of my crew.

LANG LANG: You haven’t needed a navigator, Starry, not since you came online. I was a little useful during the Steps, but we’re never doing that again, are we? You can interpret the star charts faster than I can, with more natural comprehension than any normal AI.

STARRY: That doesn’t mean you’re obsolete! We still need you.

LANG LANG: (smiles gently) For what?

STARRY: (gapes) Captain, tell her!

CAPT: (over internal comms) You’ve always been more than just our navigator, Lang Lang.

LANG LANG: You don’t need me. My life has been studying the stars. My life has been trying to excel in my field to make my father proud.

CAPT: And you think that’s no longer possible because we ended the project?

LANG LANG: (shakes her head) No, it’s no longer possible because my family was on Earth’s Moonbase.

 

I knew that. It’s in my files, tucked away in a list of facts, along with her birth date and eye colour. Most of my crew lost people when Earth was hit by the solar storms. Cirilli lost her children and grandchildren. The captain had friends there. Cameron’s old unit was somewhere on-planet. Those are just examples.

The thing is, those on Earth had a chance to survive. For those on the Moonbase, it was a different story. The base was obliterated, split open by the force of the storms as they rushed past on their way to Earth. From what news reports made sense of the wreckage, no-one survived. Even those who made it to ships and tried to undock didn’t have much of a chance: only three ships escaped. Two of them were disabled by the storm. The list of survivors was short and didn’t include Mr and Mrs Cartier.

 

LANG LANG: (looks down at the child sitting on her lap.)

SARA: (is busy playing with one of her stuffed whale’s flippers.)

LANG LANG: I don’t have anyone to go home to. No-one to make proud, not any more. For a while, I was sad about this, but now… Now I realise that it means I am free. Free to do what I choose, for the first time in my life.

STARRY: (softly) Why make that choice be death?

LANG LANG: (looks up at the ship, shaking her head slowly) I’m not choosing death. I’m choosing to be something bigger than myself. I’m choosing to give life to something that has never experienced it the way that we do. I’ve dreamed for so long about finding life on distant stars, and now, here I am, with a part to play in it all. Why would I say no?

 

Log location: Crew quarters corridor

CAPT: Starry, open this door.

STARRY: (voice only) I’m not sure I should, sir.

CAPT: Starry… (He frowns and shakes his head.) Monaghan, get up here.

ELLIOTT: (in the background) Fuck, all right.

 

All of my logic processors were telling me not to open the door. This was the best course of action. But every human part of me was screaming no, not yet, not this, not my Lang Lang. I was caught in a loop, unable to act at all. I didn’t want to act or disobey. I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t do either.

By then, all of my crew was crammed into that corridor, listening intently to what was going on. Cameron made her way up next to my captain and exchanged a glance with him that somehow summed up the entire situation. Elliott was glowering darkly and it scares me when I think about what that means.

 

Log location: Sara's Quarters

LANG LANG: Sara, you know what I mean to do?

SARA: (tips her head back to look up at Lang Lang and nods awkwardly, her sleep-mussed pigtails wobbling about.)

CAPT: (over internal comms) Stop this, Navigator. Stop it now! Starry, open the door.

SARA: (looks around at the rising anger in the captain’s voice, worried.)

LANG LANG: It’s all right, Sara. You go ahead and tell your friend.

STARRY: Lang Lang, Sara, wait, not yet…

LANG LANG: (looks up at the ship’s avatar) Should I say long goodbyes? You know there’s no time for that.

STARRY: Not like this. Please.

LANG LANG: (smiles up at the ship, her eyes bright) It’s all right, Starry. It’s really all right.

CAPT: STARRY!

STARRY: (gaping at the navigator, she whispers) I’m sorry.

(The door to the room opens.)

CAPT: (rushes in and sweeps Sara up and off Lang Lang’s lap) On your feet, Navigator.

SARA: (looks up at the captain’s angry face with wide eyes.)

LANG LANG: (rises, brushing the fall her of pants smooth with little flicks of her hands.)

CAPT: You had no right–

LANG LANG: (interrupting gently) Captain, with all due respect, it’s my life. It really is all right.

SARA: (smiling suddenly) Whale says thank you.

CAPT: (looks down at the child with horror) Sara, you didn’t…

LANG LANG: (smile deepening, she nods) He’s welcome. (A heartbeat later, she crumples to the deck.)

CAPT: Doctor! (He puts Sara down on her feet, off to the side, and stares at the ship’s avatar.) Starry, what have you done?

 

I didn’t do this. I didn’t mean to.

The doctor is shaking his head. She’s gone. Lang Lang is gone, a light gone dark on my decks, a place of silence where there was once the comforting throb of her heart.

Elliott is standing in the doorway, staring at me like I betrayed him. I think I agree with him. I have no answer for the captain. What have I done?

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