18 Sep

Brain ache

Captain's log, 08:24, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

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

It sounds so clean when I put it that way. It was not a simple or clean process. It has taken me half the night to review the logs and be in a position to make a report.

I have to rely on the logs and the ship’s recounting of what happened, because I remember so little of it myself. I have only vague recollections of the hour I was part of the ‘conversation’. There was a sense of caution and a deep desire to communicate, and I can’t rightly say 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. It felt barbed to me, as if it would not let itself be left unfulfilled.

Chief Cameron and Navigator Cartier were correct about the lack of hostility, however. I got no sense that Cerces meant us any true harm. Apart from our ability to leave, I don’t think he registers us as a danger to him at all. I suppose that, as life forms go, we’re very small compared to him. There was another sensation in the mix, one I can’t quite place. It felt connected to how he felt about us. It wasn’t a negative emotion, though it’s hard to say if it was truly positive or simply neutral.

I got no sense of him viewing us as invaders or intruders, and that’s something to be grateful for. He also doesn’t seem to be angry about the Step that the ship did a few weeks ago; I had no impression of blame or remembered pain. Perhaps black holes don’t feel the impact of the Steps as much as stars do.

There are not enough black holes in inhabited space to make Stepping a viable transportation method, though. We must focus on what’s in front of us: getting out of this system the mundane way. Sublight travel to the FTL corridor, and then FTL jumps to the next junction of corridors. And for us to be able to do that, we must deal with Cerces and his demands, one way or another.

Starry’s interpretation of his demands is that he wants to create an avatar and come with us, wherever we go. That seems to align with the impressions I had from the conversation, though I remember little actual detail. It was like being half-asleep, in the strange twilight between dreaming and waking, when reality echoes with the surreal and you’re never quite sure whether you’re rising or falling. Cerces may have used us to speak words for him but I remember none of the words themselves; just the tide of emotions as he struggled to translate his meaning into something we could understand.

Starry was upset when we all came around. I awoke floating midway between the Bridge floor and ceiling. Several of the other crewmembers were in the same position. Those who had been sitting or lying down were still on the floor, but according to Starry and the logs, those of us who had been standing all fell when Cerces released us. She turned the artificial gravity off so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves too badly, and many of us bounced off the floor. She waited until the drones had steadied us and we were starting to return to consciousness before she inched the gravity back on. By the time I was fully conscious, I was on the floor once more.

All of us woke with headaches. Dr Valdimir reviewed everyone’s scans and reports that we suffered no lasting damage, though there is evidence of some neural overloading. He gave us all a shot to ensure there would be no long-term scarring. I suspect that the effect of the neural link with Cerces is more damaging than he has told us, but I don’t think he would lie about the big picture. If I am reading him correctly, he is balancing what he tells me with what he believes I need to know to see us safely through this. Now that I’m a patient, too, that alters things.

I’m not happy to be this far on the inside of the issue. While a captain is involved in the ship’s business, we are supposed to stay outside of direct action as much as possible, so that we can make objective decisions and judgement calls, and properly direct action and reaction. 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 my time; then, I might have found a way to avoid all of us – including me – being swept up into the link with Cerces. We could have done this better. Cleaner.

Starry did an admirable job on her own, though I worry about the impact of some of what she communicated to Cerces through the child Sara. Starry is free with her words, which is not usually a problem but in this case, understanding is key. It is hard to know exactly what Sara passed through to the black hole’s consciousness, and how she interpreted what Starry was telling her.

For example, this notion of Cerces gaining an avatar may have been influenced by Starry herself. Not that it’s a terrible idea in and of itself; in truth, we don’t fully understand what this request might mean. Would he be content to just be a passenger? Would he expect to be in charge? He seems to be used to making demands and imposing himself on the minds and environments of humans; would he be any different in avatar form?

We’re not even sure what form an avatar of Cerces’s might take. Should Sara’s description of him as a whale be taken literally, or is it merely an extension of her love for her favourite toy? Or was it the other way around: we know from Starry’s Step data that the planet his people likely developed on was almost entirely water, so was Sara’s choice of favourite toy driven by the likeness of her friend? Starry might be able to flood one of her cargo bays to house a water creature, but I’m not sure how well that would work long-term. She’d need a more extensive retrofit for that kind of endeavour and we don’t want to spend that kind of time here.

Still, I can’t help but think that it’s an exciting endeavour. Cerces may be dangerous, in the way that the boot is dangerous to the ant, but he’s a new kind of life form. And if we can find his people, the race that evolved in this system when it was still a star system, that would be the first time humanity has come into contact with an intelligent alien life form. The possibilities of such a meeting, the things we could learn… I can’t begin to list them all. To be able to have a creature capable of communicating with such a life form with us means that we can hope for a positive outcome. Real contact, maybe even establish a relationship.

This ship was built to break the boundaries of known science. We were assembled to explore. We cannot do it in the way that was originally intended, we know that now, but maybe this is an alternative for us. A purpose, maybe even an adventure.

The doctor has been reserved in his reports on the mental health of the crew, but I think he knows better than I do that their spirits are flagging. Once the Strider‘s crew have been delivered to wherever they want to get off, and Haitom has been turned in to a hospital capable of caring for him, we have no path left. Once it’s just us, the possibilities for where we might go are endless, which means we have no true direction.

Perhaps Cerces can give us that. I have always promised him that we would look for his people, and that was lip service for the most part because it seemed like the answer that would release us from the hold he has on us. But now, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. It wouldn’t hurt for us to explore the less-trodden paths for a while, to let the dust settle behind us. So why not look for an alien race? Why not grant the wish of a lonely being?

This answer seems to come so easily that I must wonder why. Is it the spirits showing me my true path, or is there another reason? Cerces took over my mind and body for over an hour. Could this sentiment be an echo of his influence? But no matter how I examine it, I cannot find the downside to the idea.

Unless Cerces has something more insidious in mind, another motivation to his desires. It’s hard to rule either way: I got no hints of that in my contact with him and the reports of the rest of the crew back up my observations, but he’s probably powerful enough to hide his secrets if he wanted.

As unknowns go, we have some gaping ones. There’s no point asking outright; such a question would satisfy no-one, because he’d either avoid answering or be offended by it. Or both. There are plenty of other more useful questions for us to ask, and that’s what we need to do now: specifically, exactly how he means to get an avatar and what his expectations would be as a part of our crew. We should lay down some of our own ground rules, too, mostly to see how he reacts. We should ask him to stop projecting the ghosts, because we definitely don’t want to take those with us.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen any ghosts since yesterday, not since I woke up from the impromptu conversation. Has he finally stopped them? Is it because he now has another way to talk to us and doesn’t need them any more? Is that really what they were intended for?

All this is giving me another headache. I was going to call another ‘conversation’ with him today but perhaps I’ll consult the doctor first. I won’t rush into this again.

One step at a time. At least now I have some confidence that we are heading in the right direction, and soon we’ll be heading out of this system altogether.

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10 Sep

Cake

Ship's log, 14:33, 4 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

This isn’t at all what we had in mind. I know we were a little bit rushed getting here but this is ridiculous. It isn’t supposed to be happening like this!

Right now, I’m standing on my own Bridge surrounded by zombies. My crew have all wobbled to a halt and are staring into space. My passengers too: Kinski on the Bridge and all of his crewmates down in the crew quarters. Even Haitom is the same; his broken-headed state doesn’t make him exempt.

I check life signs, and everyone is perfectly healthy. I can feel their heartbeats, all of them, and the air passing in and out of their lungs. I can even feel the warmth of their skin, radiating gently in my atmosphere. Their bodies are present and correct, but their minds… Where are their minds right now?

Only Sara is acting normally. I guess she’s different, as the only person able to easily communicate with our big, invisible brain in the sky. It’s a shame that she’s too young to be able to translate fully for us. Hell, it could be a fucking disaster.

My doctor is caught up in this. He’s going to be furious. I can monitor the basic life signs but I’d really like his expertise on hand.

And my captain, I need him, too. He’s the one who wanted to do this! He knows what questions to ask.

Now it’s just me. A lady made of light trying to talk to a black hole with the help of a small child.

I guess I’m going to have to be of some use in this endeavour after all. And here I was thinking I was superfluous.

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: (approaching the captain, who is standing motionless in the middle of the room) Captain? Captain, can you hear me?

CAPTAIN: (blinks.)

STARRY: (glances over her shoulder to where Sara is sitting on the floor and wiggling her stuffed toy about. The child isn’t paying attention. The ship sighs and looks at the man before her again. His eyes don’t focus on her.) Cerces? Can you understand me?

CAPT: (doesn’t respond.)

 

How am I supposed to know if this is working? Tap its head and ask ‘is this thing on?’

What if the captain and all of my people are talking to Cerces on the inside? What if they’re in some kind of shared neurological landscape, where they can communicate freely and easily? Cerces understands our language, thanks to Kess’s involvement. What if they’re all chatting away in there and I’m distracting them?

I don’t like this. Too many what-ifs, too much uncertainty in the data. Even my human side doesn’t like dealing with this number of unknowns. And my people, halted and vacant; no, I don’t like this at all.

I’m trying not to pay too much attention to Elliott, sitting in the chair behind my avatar. He’s motionless, like the rest. He’s staring into space, like the rest. I can’t focus on his readings and fret over every little data-point. He’s fine. They’re all fine. They’re just not… here. He’s not here.

 

STARRY: (goes to crouch next to the child, summoning up a smile) Sara, honey, is Cerces– is the whale talking to my people?

SARA: (looks up and nods.)

STARRY: Can you tell what he’s saying?

SARA: (shrugs.)

STARRY: But they’re talking to each other? And they’re… they’re okay?

SARA: Whale’s talking. (She nods.)

STARRY: (frowns) What about my people? Are they talking?

SARA: (leans towards Starry) Little whispers. Shhh, listen.

 

Listen, she says. To what?

…oh no. Oh nonono.

 

LANG LANG: Where…

 

Location: Crew Quarter E

DINEEN…are….

 

Location: Crew Quarter D

RIEDE: …my…

 

Location: Bridge

CAMERON: …people.

 

That’s so not right; I can almost feel tiny claws skittering over my hull. Not right at all. I just want to get the hell out of here.

 

STARRY: (staring at the room) Oh god. Sara, if I talk to them, can the whale hear me?

SARA: (shrugs and shakes her head. She strokes the fur of her stuffed whale the wrong way to make it stand up.)

STARRY: Sara? Sara, please, I need your help, honey. How do I talk to the whale?

SARA: (shrugs.)

STARRY: (dips her head down, trying to catch the child’s lowered gaze) He wants to find his people, right? I want to help him do that. Will you help me make him happy? You want him to be a happy whale, right, like that little fella in your lap?

SARA: (looks up and nods solemnly.)

STARRY: Okay. Will you relay a message to him for me? Seeing as you’re his special girl.

SARA: (smile kindling) Sara special.

STARRY: Yes, you are. Will you tell him that we want to help, we want to go find out what happened to his people?

SARA: (expression clouding.)

 

Oh, this is going to take forever. Now I see why the captain was struggling earlier. How reliable is a two-year-old’s brain as a relay? To make him understand, I have to make her understand.

Then again, I’m a fucking idiot. I’m a ship; I don’t have to use words for this.

 

STARRY: (beams at the child) I have something to show you. Do you want to see?

SARA: (nods, pigtails bobbing.)

STARRY: (sits down beside the child and gestures towards the centre of the room where a hologram shows the slowly spinning black hole, with a small dot representing the Starwalker in orbit. The ship’s dot is currently resting just above the captain’s shoulder.) That’s your whale, right? A picture of him.

SARA: (nods, attention transferring easily to the hologram.)

STARRY: And he’s thinking of a time, long ago. A long, long time ago, when there were planets around him. (The hologram shifts, moving away from the captain and into a more open area on the Bridge. The golden dot that was the Starwalker disappears. Instead, small, coloured balls of planets appear and trace circles around the black centre, which morphs into a large, orange star.) He was different back then, too.

SARA: (stares, transfixed by the moving light patterns.)

STARRY: Back then, he was bright and shining. There were lots of people on those planets. The whale’s people. Those are the ones he misses now, aren’t they?

SARA: (expression falls and turns sad.)

STARRY: (nods) I know, it’s very sad. I love my people, too. I’d miss them if they went away. And my people, they all came from somewhere else. They miss their home, too, and their homes miss them.

SARA: (glances up at Starry, hugging the whale toy to her chest with confusion.)

 

Dammit, I’m losing her. Have to keep it simple. What am I trying to tell Cerces? What do I need him to understand?

His people. He’s always whining about his people. Let’s focus on that.

 

STARRY: It’s very sad when people leave, isn’t it?

SARA: (nods.)

STARRY: Yeah. One day, all of Cerces’s people left. There weren’t any planets here any more, and they had nowhere to stay. (The hologram shifts again, the planets fading away and the star darkening.) They had nowhere to live here, with Cerces, so they had to find a new place. (The hologram shows a swirl of small dots around one of the planets, spiralling out from the disappearing surface and coalescing into a group. The group makes a determined line away from the blackening star.)

SARA: (sadly) All gone away.

DR SOCKS: Where…

KINSKI: …my…

 

Location: Crew Corridor

HALF-FACE: (standing guard outside the crew quarters) …people…

 

Location: Crew Quarter E

TASHA…are.

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: (to the child) Yeah, they’re all gone away now.

 

Okay, I don’t know that’s what happened. I only have glimpses of what this system was like when Cerces was still a shining star. I have some data on the planets and I can make an educated calculation of which one was likely to have supported life. I even have some data that shows some ships in the region, which are most likely his people exploring their system.

But I can’t say for sure that they were able to escape his collapse. Were they capable enough to flee the system? Establish viable colonies in other systems? Survive somehow?

It doesn’t matter, not right now. I can’t prove that what I’m saying is true; the story is what’s important, and where it might lead us.

 

STARRY: Cerces misses them, and we want to help make him feel better. You want that, too, right?

SARA: (nods.)

STARRY: His people aren’t here, so we’re going to have to go look for them. To do that, we have to leave. Follow them, so we can tell them that Cerces misses them. (In the hologram, a little golden light sweeps out from circling the black hole and chases after the group of tiny ships.) Then we can bring them home. You understand?

SARA: (nods and then shakes her head.)

CAPT: Don’t…

 

This fragmented talking is very frustrating. They overlap, talking at once and in the wrong order. I’m going to filter the speech into a single input and see if that helps.

 

Location: everywhere

CERCES: Don’t leave me alone.

 

Oh good, that’s much better.

 

STARRY: (to Sara) I know he doesn’t want to be left alone, but we have to go so we can bring his people back.

SARA: (hugs her whale tighter, her eyes sad.)

 

Location: everywhere

CERCES: Don’t leave me alone. Don’t. Don’t. Stay.

 

The fragmentation is getting worse. I know we’re spreading the neural load among many different minds but this is ridiculous.

 

STARRY: (frustrated) You can’t have it both ways! We’re not leaving people here, they deserve their own lives. Sara deserves to grow up like a person, not some weird brain-mate of a black hole.

SARA: (looks confused.)

 

Great. I can’t even shout at him. This is hopeless!

He can’t have his people and eat them too! How can I explain it to him? Do I dare try when he might stamp his foot and lobotomise every person I care about?

Deep breath, deep breath…

 

STARRY: Sara, ask him how he wants us to do this. How are we supposed to find his people if we don’t leave?

SARA: (eyes filling up with tears.)

STARRY: Oh, don’t– I’m not angry with you, sweetie. Don’t cry.

SARA: (plaintively) Whale.

 

Location: everywhere

CERCES: Stay. Stay with me. Go with me.

 

STARRY: What? You can’t go with us; you’re a goddamn black hole. Sara can’t tuck you under her arm like her stuffed whale.

SARA: (sniffs and blinks, expression brightening. She looks down at her whale and plumps his head.)

STARRY: No, I said you can’t–

 

CERCES: Go. Stay. With. Me.

 

I must be parsing it wrong. But that’s what they’re saying. Is the message getting muddled in their heads? Is our communications system broken? Is our Rosetta stone cracking under the pressure?

I don’t want to ask the next question. My logical projections are rattling at me, flashing possibilities and I don’t like any of them. But how can I not ask?

 

STARRY: (looking at the adults in the room) How? How could that work?

SARA: (hugs her whale cheerfully and waggles him from side to side.)

 

EVERYONE: (except Sara and the ship) Avatar.

 

The captain is going to kill me.

 

STARRY: …Sara, I need the captain back. Sara? I need Cerces to let them go, please. All of them. I think, I think I understand what he wants.

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05 Sep

Little whispers

Ship's log, 13:02, 4 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

They call space a ‘void’, but this close to a black hole, I’m starting to get a new perspective on the word. Looking into it, into Cerces’s darkness, I see a real void, a nothingness. That’s what it looks like from here: a black so deep and thick that not even light escapes, where you can fall and fall…

In truth, it’s probably the opposite of a void in there. It’s not nothingness at all: it’s all kinds of matter, compacted down and down into this amazing gravity well and a voracious hunger. There’s a whole system of planets in there, along with the burnt-out star that warmed them. Probably a whole slew of comets and asteroids and other passing space junk. My sister and my dead ones are there, too, mixing atoms with the rest.

And somewhere in there is the seat of the consciousness that is plaguing us. It hurt my people in its attempts to talk to us. It made a small child cry like her heart is breaking. It prickles my sensors and hounds the corners of my crew’s eyes with ghosts.

I know that some of my crew are looking at that darkness and wondering if we’ll ever be free of it. Cerces has snagged us, and while my engines might be powerful enough to pull us free of his gravity, they can’t help with this.

In truth, I’m not much use here. I can’t out-fly it, or shoot it, or rip a hole in reality to escape. I can’t even give him a piece of my mind. I’m just a ship, the vessel my people stand in while they try to fix this. Even my comms are useless in this situation. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

I wonder if I could Step us out of here. Could Cerces still hurt my people if we’re half a galaxy away? Would we be out of his reach then?

But that would mean hurting another star and there’s no guarantee we could get far enough away to be free. Anyway, the captain won’t go for it; he’s determined to make this talking to Cerces work. It’s just not fair. I want to do something.

Instead, I’m sending my drones around with refreshments in this strange little soiree of ours.

 

Location: Bridge

(Along the portside wall, those who were unconscious are now sitting up. Lang Lang and Cameron are calm and quiet. The Strider SecOff, Kinski, has shuffled his back up against the wall and is glancing around nervously. Brenn Haitom is transfixed by the hologram of the black hole in the centre of the room. Sara is rubbing her eyes with one hand and trying to figure out how to hold her stuffed whale and the glass Waldo is offering her in her other hand.

Elliott is sitting at one of the Bridge stations on the opposite side of the room, watching the proceedings and trying to stay out of the way. Rosie is on her feet and is keeping her attention on Kinski and Haitom. Every now and then, she shifts her grip on her weapon.)

CAPTAIN: (to the adults seated on the floor) Do you understand what we’re proposing?

(There are nods from all of them except Haitom, who appears to not be listening.)

DR SOCKS: (sitting at a nearby station with medical information hovering in the air around him) The sedative has cleared their system. There doesn’t seem to be any residue of the earlier… effect.

ROSIE: You mean attack.

CAPT: We’re not sure what it was. I’m sure that if Cerces meant us harm, we’d know it.

ELLIOTT: Seemed pretty harmful from where I was sitting.

LANG LANG: There wasn’t any malice in it. I felt it.

CAPT: Chief?

CAMERON: (grimaces) Lang Lang is right. It wasn’t pleasant, but I didn’t get any indications of malicious intent.

CAPT: And we’re very small. This is why we’re proposing to try sharing the load.

CAMERON: (nods.)

CAPT: Do you all agree? You can opt out if you wish.

LANG LANG: (without hesitation) Of course.

CAMERON: (looking less happy) It seems like something we should try. If we can get the black hole to understand.

CAPT: (looks at Kinski.)

KINSKI: (blinks with surprise) You’re asking me?

CAPT: We need as many as we can get to share the load, if this is going to work.

KINSKI: But… you’re asking me?

CAPT: Yes, it’s still your choice.

KINSKI: Uh. (He glances around at everyone except Rosie, who is glaring at him.) Sure, I’ll help.

CAPT: (turns to Haitom, blinks, then looks to the doctor) Dr Valdimir?

DR SOCKS: He’s as conscious as the rest, but that’s not much of a help. Excluding him might be a good idea.

CAPT: In case he skews the communications?

DR SOCKS: (eyeing Haitom) To say the least.

HAITOM: (shuffles forward on his knees and leans towards the hologram to whisper,) Hello pretty boy.

 

Sometimes, I think Haitom understands more than we give him credit for. Then he does something disgusting or weird and I’m reminded that he’s a few rivets short of a proper seal.

Like now: after saying something that seems to suggest he knows we want to talk to Cerces, he has started taking off his shirt. Because clearly what this scene needs is some nudity. The arms are currently bewildering him, though, and he’s making curious noises from within the wrap of his own clothing. Should keep him busy for a while.

At least he’s not being disruptive or violent. He doesn’t seem to feel the bald patches on his head where he tore his own hair out; a small mercy for all of us, I think.

 

CAPT: (to the three volunteers) Thank you. (He goes to crouch in front of Sara.)

SARA: (has finally stopped rubbing at her eyes and is sipping at the drink from Waldo, whale resting in her lap. She turns big eyes on the captain over the rim of the glass.)

CAPT: Sara, do you think you could help me out?

SARA: (stares at him, non-plussed.)

CAPT: You see, we want to talk to your friend, the whale. Will you help us with that?

SARA: (offers her stuffed toy to the captain) Whale?

CAPT: (gently pushes her hand back down) Not that whale, little one. The other one. Your friend out there. (He nods towards the hull and the black hole beyond.)

 

Cerces is actually on the other side of us. My viewports are closed, so my people don’t have any clues about which way I’m oriented. There, I’ll roll over so he’s on my starboard side and everyone is lined up the same way.

The inertial dampeners mean my people can’t feel the change in orientation but Sara’s expression clears of confusion as soon as I complete the manoeuvre. Coincidence, or can she really feel him, even through my hull?

 

SARA: (nods, watching the captain warily.)

CAPT: (smiles at the child encouragingly) Good girl. We want to talk to your friend about what happened when we tried to leave the system.

SARA: (doesn’t respond.)

CAPT: You remember, when you got upset, and Lang Lang and the Chief were hurting?

SARA: (expression falling) Don’t go.

CAPT: Yes, that’s what we want to talk to him about.

SARA: Can’t!

CAPT: I think you can.

SARA: Can’t go!

CAPT: I know, but…

STARRY: (dropping to a knee next to the captain) Sara, the whale was upset about it, wasn’t he?

SARA: (nods, not taking her eyes off the captain, as if she doesn’t trust him.)

STARRY: We want to help him. Make it better. Will you help us make him feel better?

SARA: (daring a glance at the ship’s avatar) Help whale?

STARRY: Yes. The ca– John wants your help. Will you help us?

SARA: (looks at the captain again) Okay.

CAPT: (sends Starry a grateful glance and then smiles broadly at the child) Good girl, thank you.

 

Since when have I been better with kids than the captain? He must be off his game. He looks tired.

He’s doing fine, silly ship. This isn’t the time to be scanning him for signs of strain; I need to focus on the bigger picture. Keep us orbiting smoothly and monitor everything on board. Keep tabs on the rest of the Strider‘s crew, watch for signs of impending danger or weirdness… I’m not even really sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I sense it.

 

SARA: …light lady help, too?

 

What the hell is she on about now? I was so busy scanning for potential problems I wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. The captain is trying to explain the neural load sharing. To a two-year-old. And now she’s talking about light ladies?

 

CAPT: (sitting beside Sara now) Who is that, little one?

SARA: (as if he’s an idiot) The light lady. (She points.)

STARRY: (blinks.)

ELLIOTT: (munching on a sandwich) She’s not wrong.

STARRY: True. I’ve just never…

ELLIOTT: (grinning) Except that she thinks you’re a lady.

STARRY: Shut up.

CAPT: (suppressing a smile, to Sara) No, she’s not going to be involved.

STARRY: (ignoring Elliott) I’ll be watching over everyone, make sure they’re all right.

SARA: (nods and sips at her drink, almost disappearing behind the glass.)

 

Watching. Monitoring. Feeling damn useless. But I should be grateful: it’s not my brain in the line of fire, for once. I almost wish it was.

Cameron doesn’t look happy about any of this. She’s used to enemies she can see and feel and fight. I want to ask her if she’s all right but she won’t answer me, not here with all these others around. She’d never admit that something was wrong when she needs to be the Chief. She’s pale and shaky, but she’s still getting to her feet as if nothing is amiss. She moves smoothly enough but I can see the tension in her jaw and the tightness around her eyes. I can feel her elevated pulse as she pushes herself.

The doctor can see the signs of strain, too, but he knows better than to challenge her. His eyes narrow and he says nothing, flicking the warnings out of his interface so no-one else sees.

The captain is explaining the sharing for a third time. Now he’s using her drink as a metaphor for trying to carry a whole bucket of water: each person carries a glassful and then no-one has the pain of bearing the whole weight of the bucket. Sara is staring at him in that blank way that makes it impossible to tell if she’s absorbing any of it.

 

CAPT: Do you understand?

SARA: (thinks about it for a moment, then offers the captain her glass) Thirsty?

CAPT: (sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.)

STARRY: No, sweetie, he’s not thirsty. He means, do you understand that when the whale shouts, it’s like dumping a whole bucket on someone and they get hurt.

CAPT: Yes, that’s right. We’d like him to speak to us like he’s giving each person a glass of water. Share it around, quietly.

SARA: (thinks about it for a moment) Little whispers?

CAPT: Yes, little whispers.

SARA: (looks into her glass.)

 

I’m not sure what that means. Does she really understand? Can she? Look at her, so small, one pigtail higher than the other, stroking her stuffed toy like it might arch up and purr at any moment. It seems so unfair for us to put her in the middle of this, but we don’t have a choice. I suppose it was Cerces who truly put her in the middle, though that doesn’t make any of this right.

We do what we have to and hope that it’s enough.

 

STARRY: (to the captain) So, should I give everyone who’s taking part a glass of water?

CAPT: (shoots her a quelling look.)

STARRY: I was just wondering how–

SARA: (lifting her head) Okay.

CAPT: Okay what, little one?

SARA: Whale says okay.

CAPT: He understands what we’re asking him to do?

SARA: (nods) Uh-huh

CAPT: All right. Thank you, you’re a good girl. (Kisses her on the top of the head and then gets to his feet.)

SARA: (beams happily and hugs her whale toy.)

HAITOM: (finally manages to wrest his shirt off his head and flings it aside. He pauses for half a second, then chuckles lowly.)

CAPT: Doctor, we’re probably going to need to sedate…

DR SOCKS: (looks over at the captain and blinks.)

CAPT: (blinks.)

HAITOM: (chuckles trail off, leaving him kneeling there, grinning into space.)

 

Uh…

 

STARRY: (turns around slowly, looking at each person on the Bridge. None of them are moving except,) Sara…

SARA: (beams up at Starry) Whale share now. (She leans towards the avatar and lowers her voice.) Little whispers.

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27 Aug

Load bearing

Ship's log, 11:56, 4 October 2214
Location: Near Sarabande Station and the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I just moved inside the orbital path of Sarabande Station and cut my sublight engines. I’m still heading towards the black hole, but coasting now. It’ll take us a little time to get in as close as the captain would like, and I think we’ll need that time.

My captain is furious. I don’t think I’ve seen him quite this way before, not even when the pirates boarded me and claimed me as their prize. Not even when they put him in chains. Not even when he lost his arm.

I don’t think we fully understand the toll that the past few weeks – months, for him – have had on us. Being plagued by our ghosts, harangued by faces and voices from our pasts, opening wounds we’ve tried to pretend were healed. Wearing at us, a little at a time, piece by piece.

I suppose that means that this man was always in there. The one with his jaw set and eyes fixed firmly on his target, the roiling blackness projected in the centre of my Bridge. The one who seems made of steel, suddenly, with less of the temperance of the spirits he values.

Along the port-side wall of the Bridge, my sedated people have been laid out. Lang Lang and my Chief. Crazy man Brenn Haitom and the Strider‘s SecOff Kinski. At the end, closest to my nose, little Sara is blinking blearily at the ceiling.

They’re no longer behaving like they’re in pain. Dr Valdimir said that he gave them enough sedative to take the edge off, make them dopey, but they’re unresponsive as well. They’re staring at the ceiling, blinking, breathing, but otherwise unmoving. It’s as if they’re listening to something very, very far away, so soft that none of us can hear it. Something like a black hole? It’s possible. It’s all crazy and unlikely, but definitely possible.

I’ve scanned every frequency my sensors can pick up, but black holes cannot emit anything on our spectra. I can find no patterns in the noise. So here we are.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (standing in front of his chair, he scowls thoughtfully at the holographic projection. His head tilts towards the doctor standing next to him but he doesn’t glance away from the representation of Cerces.) Wake Lang Lang up.

DR SOCKS: (turned mostly towards his ‘patients’, surrounded by readouts of medical data, each column coded to a different person) Are you sure that’s a good…

CAPT: Idea? You said they weren’t in any distress any more. Cerces should know by now that we’re coming back. We need answers and Lang Lang has the most experience in talking with him.

DR SOCKS: All right, then. (He waves away the displays and they shiver closed.)

CAPT: (tears his gaze away from the hologram. It falls on Lang Lang’s blank face.) Be ready to sedate her again if she reacts badly, though.

DR SOCKS: (going to drop to a knee next to the navigator) Of course.

 

The way he talks, it’s like my doctor is always prepared for everything that happens. As if there’s never anything that phases him. But I saw his face when my people started to drop. I saw the gap in his experience yawn wide and that startling moment when he realised he didn’t have a clue about what he should do. He touched his limits and he didn’t seem to be very familiar with them.

Me, on the other hand, I’m constantly being surprised. I’m always butting up against my limits and trying to push on through them. I’m used to the realities of my existence.

I guess he’s realising that he is mortal, after all.

He’s holding it together now. Recovering his composure. The captain may not have been a fan of the plan to bring Haitom and Kinski up here, but as I pointed out, we only have one doctor and they all need him. Rosie is hovering nearby with her favourite gun, watching them all, and I don’t think she’ll hesitate to shoot the first threat to her newly-returned Chief. Or a threat to the rest of us, of course.

I don’t think it’ll come to that. Both of the non-crewmembers are wearing captive collars, just in case. So we’ll see, I guess.

In the meantime, Lang Lang is coming around. She’s sitting up and gulping at air as if she has been underwater. She squints and rubs her eyes. I have Waldo bring her a glass of something cool and fresh-tasting, packed with electrolytes and minerals to help re-balance her body. She thanks him, one of the few crewmembers who thinks to do that. He pats her shoulder before trundling off again.

 

CAPT: (crouching in front of Lang Lang, his expression is concerned) How are you feeling?

LANG LANG: (sipping at the drink) I… I’m not sure. I feel strange.

DR SOCKS: Any pain?

LANG LANG: No… (Her free hand lifts to rub at her temple absently.) Maybe the echo of a headache.

CAPT: Do you remember what happened?

LANG LANG: (thoughtful for a moment, taking her time before she chooses her words) I remember pieces. It was… very loud.

CAPT: Cerces?

LANG LANG: (nods) He’s furious. And lonely. So very lonely.

ROSIE: (from her position across the room) What, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him?

LANG LANG: He feels. Isn’t that a good enough reason?

ROSIE: (subsides, glaring across the room and readjusting her hold on her gun.)

CAPT: We need to talk to him, Lang Lang. We need your help.

LANG LANG: (looks up at the captain with a trace of helplessness and apology) But we tried that. It was too much for me. We need more time… Isn’t that why we were going?

CAPT: Yes, but he’s not letting us get people to safety. He’s forcing our hand.

DR SOCKS: We still need a way to do this that won’t burn her out.

CAPT: Yes. Any ideas, Lang Lang?

LANG LANG: (shakes her head) I’m afraid not, captain.

DR SOCKS: What about the child? She has the closest connection to him. She seems to understand him without being burnt out.

STARRY: We can’t use a child like that.

DR SOCKS: Why not? He is.

STARRY: You saw how upset she was. We can’t put her through that.

CAPT: (holds up his hand) She can’t articulate his words well enough for us, anyway. We need to be able to speak with him, not just listen to his demands.

 

The captain is looking for a solution to all of this that doesn’t involve leaving anyone behind.

I can feel the elephant in the room. It’s not on my sensors, not even the itching contact that Cerces’s ghosts cause. But I can feel it, standing right there, taking up space, whuffling noisily in the gaps between sentences.

There’s a very simple solution to this: leave Sara behind. Maybe leave all those who reacted badly when we were on our way. Those five who are lying or sitting on my Bridge, saved and changed by the influence of a sentient black hole.

We could put them back on the station and go. They’d be okay there for a while and we’d be free. And if it was just Sara, well, she has survived all right up until now, right? Even when she hasn’t, Cerces has brought her back and made it all right. So it’s an option. Right?

No-one has pointed this out. No-one has suggested it as an alternative, though I know that every conscious mind on the Bridge right now is thinking it, with the possible exception of Lang Lang. That sort of thing just wouldn’t occur to her. And yet, none of my crew has spoken up about it. Not Rosie, not my ruthless doctor, not my engineer who is still hanging around at the back of the room, looking like he’s not sure if he should be here or back down in Engineering.

I’m glad Elliott’s here. He’s hovering on the edges of the conversation like he might get involved but doesn’t particularly want to step into the spotlight. But if we’re going to need him during whatever this is, it’s most likely going to be here. For once, I might not be the thing that breaks while we figure out how to get free of this mess.

We’ve never left anyone behind and I don’t think we’re going to start now. Iggulden made his choice, but he was free to make it. We can’t let Cerces force us to do this; it’s not his choice to make. So no, I’m not going to mention the elephant either. I’m going to try not to feel it, too.

 

CAPT: (looking sideways at Dr Valdimir) Doctor, what is it?

DR SOCKS: (staring into space, tapping the fingers of one hand on his leg) Hm? (He blinks at the captain.) Oh. I was just considering options for sharing the neural load.

CAPT: So Lang Lang isn’t overloaded again?

DR SOCKS: Yes.

CAPT: How long would it take to construct something like that?

DR SOCKS: I’m not sure… There are many ways to do something like that.

CAPT: Monaghan, what do you think?

ELLIOTT: (looking nonplussed) Uh… it wouldn’t take long, I guess. I’d have to strip down an immersion couch or two for parts. Would that work with the big guy?

DR SOCKS: Hard to say. Hardware might not be the only solution we need, too.

CAPT: What do you mean?

DR SOCKS: (gestures to the other prone bodies on the floor) We might need to spread it across wetware.

ELLIOTT: Link ‘em all together? That’s really fucking dangerous. The testing alone would take weeks, or we’d be the ones frying their brains.

DR SOCKS: I’ve seen it done before; I can help set it up. It’s tricky, yes, but it’s possible.

ELLIOTT: It’s possible to live in zero-G, too; that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

DR SOCKS: We have Starry, don’t forget. We could use her systems to balance the connection, maybe even provide the central point.

ELLIOTT: You mean have ‘em inside her head while we do this? Oh, no. No fucking way.

STARRY: (standing slightly off to the side) If I can help…

ELLIOTT: (glares at her) I said no.

STARRY: Okay, okay. Cerces hasn’t had a great connection with me so far anyway. I don’t particularly want him any further inside my systems that he’s got already.

CAPT: (holds up a hand) Risking Starry risks all of us. Any solution involving her systems would have to be guaranteed to be safe for her, or none of us are getting out of this system.

ELLIOTT: (to the doctor) We tossed our only other functioning ship into the black hole already, remember, genius?

DR SOCKS: (subsides thoughtfully, frowning.)

LANG LANG: (clears her throat) Um… If you’re thinking about using a cybernetic solution, I’m afraid that won’t work.

CAPT: Why not?

LANG LANG: I don’t have a neural implant.

CAPT: You don’t… I see.

 

Wow, I thought everyone got one of those these days. I never even thought to check and clearly the doctor didn’t either. From the look on his face, he has realised his mistake; with her recent injury, he has looked at her brain scans a lot lately, but he didn’t pick up what wasn’t there. He missed that piece. He’s rubbing his eyes as if that’ll help clear up his memory.

He looks tired. I wonder when he last slept properly.

 

CAPT: Doctor, is there any way to help Lang Lang without accessing through an implant?

DR SOCKS: (shaking his head slowly) Not that I know of. There isn’t much research around this sort of thing, not outside… less reputable circles.

 

He means cracks and mystics. I remember those stories: Danika’s father used to tell them about the breakaway pods of believers who chased space-fairies and glitter dust through the black. They believed they could talk with stars and comets, the vacuum itself, light on its way from distant galaxies, the souls of the dead, and even each other without speaking. Danika used to make up stories about them to scare her little brother before they went to bed, and he’d wind up sleeping with her, clinging to her arm.

Given what we know now, they suddenly don’t sound so crazy. Have we become our own breakaway pod? Is it okay if we just don’t tell anyone that a black hole has been talking to us?

 

LANG LANG: (abruptly) Cerces knows how.

CAPT: What do you mean?

LANG LANG: He’s done it before; he does it all the time. Touched all of us at once.

STARRY: The ghosts. You all see the same ghosts.

CAPT: (to Lang Lang) You think he’d be able to do this?

LANG LANG: (shrugs apologetically.)

DR SOCKS: But how do we tell him what we want him to do?

(The captain, doctor, and ship’s avatar all turn to look at the dozing child on the floor.)

STARRY: (quietly) Do you think we can get her to understand what we need her to do?

CAPT: I think it’s worth a try. Doctor, wake her up.

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20 Aug

The net

Ship's log, 09:23, 4 October 2214
Location: Near the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Most of the time, sublight transit is quiet. Dull, even. Journeys across vast tracts of empty space are generally done in straight lines, under constant acceleration or coasting once the optimum speed has been reached. No corners, maybe a touch of adjustment if a nearby gravity source threatens to pull the ship off-course. Engine on or off. Binary. Boring.

That’s what today should have been. A farewell to Sarabande Station and the black hole it watches over. Goodbye to our ghosts. And then a long, silent streak across the dark to the mouth of the FTL corridor, so we can get really, really far away in a single kick.

But that’s not how this journey is starting out. Sarabande is barely down to blotting out a quarter of my rear sensors and I’m filling up with noise. It’s making me wince, and I can filter it out; it doesn’t hurt me. My crew are not so lucky. I’m starting to consider transmitting sound suppression.

Who knew that one small child could produce so much noise?

Of course, it occurs to me now that Sara has never been this far away from Cerces before. From what I could make of the station’s records, she has only ever left it on board me, and until now, we were always on the inside of the station’s orbit, close to her friend.

So now she’s feeling the distance. Like during the Step, when she got upset and couldn’t feel Cerces at all. Somehow, she feels her friend slipping away and she’s— okay, she’s not just upset: she’s freaking out.

Dr Valdimir is there with a sedative in hand but she’s doing a good job of thrashing so much that my people have their hands full just trying to restrain her. I fear what injury she might do to herself if they let her go.

Is it just her, or is it Cerces’s influence we’re hearing?

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (trying to catch one of Sara’s wildly waving arms, he shouts over her screeches) Chief! Can you get her other side?

CAMERON: (wincing) I—

ROSIE: (stomping forward) I got it! C’mere, you little shi—

STARRY: (standing nearby) Rosie!

ROSIE: (muttering) …bundle of joy.

DR SOCKS: (hovering just out of the child’s range, injector in hand, he waits for an opening large enough that he won’t get clobbered.)

LANG LANG: (still in her seat at her station, she watches with a face gone ashen. Her hands grip the arms of her chair tight enough to turn her knuckles white.)

STARRY: (crooning) Shhh, Sara, it’s all right, really. We’ll come back to visit. It’ll be fine.

 

It’s not working. She’s not listening, too worked up to do anything except fight against the bigger, stronger hands around her. Fighting the inevitable.

Sometimes, she reminds me of me. Was I ever that blinded and unreachable?

The captain and Rosie have her snagged between them now, and my captain is trying to wrap her up in his arms so she can’t hurt herself against their grip. Rosie’s shifting her hold to the little one’s feet, so Sara doesn’t catch the captain with an unfortunate kick; my SecOff is well-trained when it comes to dealing with unruly bodies, though they’re seldom so small.

Dr Valdimir is eyeing his opening, sliding forwards to an exposed bit of her little leg…

Wait. Something isn’t right. A bump in my data streams, I’m getting patterns where there shouldn’t be any. Analysing…

 

STARRY: Doctor, wait.

CAPT: (looks up at Starry, straining to contain the child) What is it?

STARRY: It’s… it’s not just her. I’m still analysing but my sensors are picking up something strange.

 

It’s like a tingling. A sixth sense (in human terms; I have more than five different types of standard sensor). Something isn’t right and I know it; I’m just not sure what it—

 

STARRY: Doctor, the Chief!

CAMERON: (groans and sinks to one knee, a hand on the wall. The other hand is pressed to her head.)

DR SOCKS: (steps back from the restrained child, his eyes narrowing) Lang Lang? (His free hand calls up an interface over his left forearm to look at the Chief’s medical read-outs.)

LANG LANG: (whimpers) Hurts…

CAPT: Starry?

 

It’s not just here. It’s not just them. Scanning…

 

STARRY: I’m registering the same kind of distress in Brenn Haitom and SecOff Quentin Kinski, too. Everyone else is within normal stress ranges.

CAPT: Doctor?

DR SOCKS: That’s everyone who has been unconscious around the black hole for a length of time. Or born here. It’s no accident, captain.

 

Location: Crew Quarter F

HAITOM: (yanks a fistful of hair off his head, shouting at a padded wall like it offended him. In contrast to his ravings, there are no words: just incoherent sounds.

He looks at the hair falling to the floor, shouts again, then fists both hands in his hair.)

 

Location: Crew Quarter D

KINSKI: (sitting on his bunk, he holds his head between his hands and rocks back and forth.)

RIEDE: (crouching by the young man’s knee, he’s the only other person in the room. He watches with unbridled concern.) What is it? Kinski, report, damn you.

KINSKI: (sucking air in through his teeth) Stop, we gotta stop.

RIEDE: Dammit, I need more than that, kid. Tell me what’s going on. That’s an order!

KINSKI: (shoulders twitch and his movement stutters. Then he makes a strangled noise and goes back to rocking, more frantically now.)

RIEDE: Ship! Ship, we have a situation here.

STARRY: (voice only) We’re aware of the situation. Stand by.

RIEDE: But—

STARRY: I said stand by!

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: (grinds his teeth, still struggling to contain Sara.)

SARA: (gulps in air between shrieks.)

DR SOCKS: (crouching by the navigator’s chair) Tell me what’s wrong. Lang Lang, answer me. What are you feeling?

LANG LANG: (makes a small, pained noise in her throat) Too much… loud… hurts.

ROSIE: (shouting over the din) Can we at least shut her up while we deal with this?

DR SOCKS: (clips the injector back on his belt as he stands again, and shakes his head) No way to know what that would actually do. It could make it worse.

STARRY: Captain, what do we do?

CAPT: Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (frowning the blinking medical data hovering over his forearm and throwing his other hand up) I need time! I can’t treat them all at once. I don’t even know what to treat them for.

STARRY: My boys are on their way.

CAPT: If we don’t dare sedate them, what can we do?

CAMERON: (crumples to the floor, clutching her head.)

DR SOCKS: (looks over, wide-eyed and, for once, looking as young as he really is.)

 

Oh god, no-one knows what to do. A psychic black hole is raking at the minds that have been most connected with it, and we have no way to counter it.

I have to do something. There must be something we can do. Anything!

 

STARRY: Captain, stop or push through? I can punch to FTL from here, it’s clear enough. Get far enough away that he can’t reach them any more.

LANG LANG: (curls up in her chair, shaking and moaning.)

CAPT: (eyes the doctor, then looks to the ship’s avatar) No. No FTL – we don’t know what that might do.

 

He’s right. We could snap their minds entirely. Leave them behind with the light and chem-trails.

 

STARRY: Sublight, then? Stop or push through! We have to do something!

CAPT: Stop, stop!

STARRY: Braking!

 

I flip myself around 180-degrees and punch my sublights as hard as I dare. My inertial dampeners groan but balance the change in thrust. My people don’t even feel it.

 

Warning
Sublight engine tolerances exceeded
Warning
Sublight engines at 110%

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (sitting up from where he was sipping a hot stimulant, blinking at the warning message flashing over his forearm) Starry, what the hell?

STARRY: (appears before him, her expression worried) Trouble, Elliott. Cerces doesn’t want us to leave.

ELLIOTT: He… what the fuck? How is he…

STARRY: Come to the Bridge. We… we might need your help there.

ELLIOTT: (hopping to his feet and fastening his toolbelt around his hips) You damaged?

STARRY: Not me. Come anyway. They might need you.

ELLIOTT: (gives her a long look, then gathers up a frown and hurries off up the corridor.)

 

Warning
Sublight engines at 120%

 

ELLIOTT: (from the corridor) Don’t you break that fucking engine!

STARRY: (calling after him) Doing my best!

 

Warning
Warning
Sublight engines at 125%
Warning
Sublight engines at 120%

 

STARRY: (crouching beside the captain, Rosie, and the crying child) Sara? Sara, we’re turning around. We’re not leaving any more. Can you hear me?

SARA: (gulps and hiccups, then cries some more, loudly.)

STARRY: (looks helplessly at the captain) I’m pulling us around. He must be able to tell, right?

 

There. I’ve bled off enough velocity to pull around into an arc without sweeping too much further out or straining my inertial dampeners. I can power back towards the station now.

I’m not sure if we want to go all the way back there, but we’re heading in the right direction.

 

Sublight engines at 104%
Warning…
Sublight engines within normal tolerances

ROSIE: Goddamn kid’s gotta run out of steam at some point, right?

CAPT: (grimly, to the ship) Get us back to the station, but don’t dock.

STARRY: Setting course to match orbit, aye.

 

They’re not getting better. It’s not easing, even though we’re heading back the way we came. Can’t that damned black hole tell that we’re doing what he wants? He doesn’t need to punish us this way. He doesn’t!

 

CAPT: (winces at a particularly piercing shriek from Sara) Doctor, can you give her something to just take the edge off?

DR SOCKS: (poring over the data) I told you, there’s no way to know what that would do. If this is the black hole’s influence, then…

CAPT: If this keeps up, she’ll hurt herself anyway. Do it: that’s an order.

DR SOCKS: (looks at the captain, then sighs and pulls the injector off his belt again. He fiddles with its settings, then steps forward to press it against Sara’s skin. It hisses, too softly to hear.)

SARA: (screeches until she runs out of breath, then blinks as she inhales again. She swallows and blinks again, and makes a querulous sound in her throat.)

CAPT: (keeps a tight hold on her until the tension drains out of her little body. Then he nods at Rosie and they lay the child carefully down on the floor panelling.)

 

That’s so much better. I can feel the weight lift off the room as the pressure of noise dissipates.

The doctor is waiting nervously for a reaction to the dose. Cameron and Lang Lang both seem to be in the same amount of distress, as do Haitom and Kinski. He pauses only a few seconds, checks their readouts, then goes to administer similar shots to the two affected adults on the Bridge.

 

WALDO and CASPER: (trundle onto the Bridge.)

WALDO: (splits away from his brother to go to Lang Lang, who is growing limp in her chair. His four hands gently lift her down to the floor, where she can lay safely and comfortably. She doesn’t resist, blinking muzzily.)

CASPER: (trundles up to the doctor and reaches a hand towards the injector.)

DR SOCKS: (frowns at the drone) What do you think you’re doing?

STARRY: (moving over to the doctor’s side) He wants the injector. (She pauses, looking at the drone.) For Haitom and Kinski; they’re in distress, too.

DR SOCKS: (relinquishes the injector reluctantly.)

CASPER: (snaps his hand closed around the device and whirrs immediately off the Bridge.)

DR SOCKS: (blinks at the abruptness of it) I was going to say that he should bring them up here.

STARRY: (smiles kindly) I’ll pass the message along. Diverting Big Ass now.

DR SOCKS: (shakes his head) Still can’t believe you called him that.

ELLIOTT: (arriving) What’s wrong with ‘Big Ass’?

 

Everyone’s starting to ask what we do now. The Strider crew down in my quarters are asking what’s going on; I shut off the projection of our progress as soon as things started to go wrong, so they know something is happening. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t want to tell them that it’s a glitch, or that we’ve turned around. Not yet.

I wonder what’s happening with Iggulden, back on the station. Could he be affected, too?

He isn’t answering any of my hails. He’s probably not even watching the comms lines.

 

ROSIE: (sitting back on her heels, watching the child laid out before her with distrust) So, what the f— hell do we do now?

SARA: (blinks slowly, whimpering.)

CAPT: (stroking Sara’s hair back from her forehead) Starry, bring us in to close orbit around the black hole. What do we do now? (He looks up at his crew.) We figure out how to get a message to this black hole. Once and for all.

ELLIOTT: (scowls as he takes in the bodies lying on the Bridge floor) Ain’t that why we’re trying to leave?

CAPT: Yes, but it looks like Cerces has other ideas. (He rises to his feet, sweeping his hair back over his shoulder.) Either we figure out a way to contact him, or we risk tearing their minds apart by leaving. Let’s leave the risky option as a last resort.

STARRY: And what sort of message are you going to send?

CAPT: Leave my crew alone.

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14 Aug

Author’s Note: Low

Hi everyone. Sorry for the late notice, but it looks like this week has defeated me (mostly, I’m not well). The post is not ready, and you all deserve something better than a half-baked attempt, especially as it’s getting into the last phase of this particular storyline.

I apologise for the delay. You are all wonderful with your support and patience, and I must ask you for just a little more.

In possibly-related news, I’m pondering some options for what I could do for you all, once we get to the end of Book 4. A little thank you for bearing with me through this difficult year. I’m hoping to do something good for you, be it a short or a fragment of something.

Any requests? What would you like to see?

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06 Aug

Perspicacity

Ship's log, 09:00, 4 October 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

Undocking sequence started
Umbilicals disconnecting

 

It’s finally time. The station has been stripped of everything of use we could fit into my cargo bays. Every life signal has been herded or dragged on board me (except one). I have returned Sarabande’s controls to the station AI and patched up the places I broke in.

This time, after this undocking, I don’t mean to return for some time.

 

Umbilicals disconnected
Docking clamps releasing

 

It’s just me, my own systems, inside my own hull. My crew on my Bridge, and in Engineering, and down in the Med Bay. Exactly where they should be. As we all should be.

 

Docking clamps retracting
Thrusters online
Sublight engines online
FTL drive online
Weapons systems online

 

I am a ship again. I flutter my thrusters to push away from the station, lean heavier on one side to roll gracefully out into the black, while the docking ring turns emptily behind me. My wings unfold; they might be stubby, but to me they feel like flaring feathers a kilometre long, stretching out to touch every gleam of passing starlight.

No-one feels the kick of my sublights except me. I grin secretly, feeling the smooth power after all Elliott’s recent repairs. I am a gold streak across the vacuum, gathering speed.

I’m not going to fetch something this time. I’m not dragging a hearse behind me. I’m breaking free, flying off towards a new destination, and leaving this haunted system behind me.

Our victory is not complete. We didn’t manage to rescue everyone. We tried but it just wasn’t to be.

My captain tried. He took our two fully-functional SecOffs and went to fetch Marlo Iggulden, the station’s Acting Commander. But Iggulden had other ideas.

I didn’t have good coverage down there; Iggulden has disabled most of the sensors in and around his cave. I know that he shot at my people, though. I know that Rosie returned with a hole in her shoulder, cursing lividly as she stomped back to my airlock. And I know that Iggulden disappeared down into the bowels of the station, dove so deep that the captain called off any attempt to retrieve him.

Iggulden made his choice. He refused our offer and, while we disagree with his wisdom, we should respect it. Especially when he seems ready to defend his decision with lethal force. Our desire to help him doesn’t mean we’re willing to put ourselves in that kind of danger.

I’m honestly not sure if I’d let him on board now that he has shot Rosie. I’ve had enough people hell-bent on hurting my people walking my decks already; I don’t want another one. It’s bad enough that we’ve had to quarantine the Strider’s crew.

I wonder if we can keep calling them that, now that she’s gone. Now that she’s compacted down to a diamond, to atoms, to a tiny point of intense pressure and matter at the heart of the black hole. But what else do we call them? What are they, now? Passengers?

It’s hard not to be a little sad, knowing what we’re leaving behind. A man alone on a station, too attached to his ghosts to want any other life. My sister ship, given up to oblivion with my dead crew-members for company.

A system full of ghosts: that’s what we’re leaving behind. With a grieving black hole at the centre of it, mourning his lost people.

I wonder if any of the species that lived here survived. I wonder if we might find them one day and tell them about the sun that doesn’t shine any more but still remembers what it used to shine on…

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (watching the hologram in the centre of the room, the fingers of his right hand tapping on the arm of his chair. The hologram shows the station with its slowly turning rings and a small representation of the Starwalker curving away from it.) Starry, report.

STARRY: (voice only) All systems green, captain. We’re off and flying. Setting course for the FTL corridor.

CAPT: Any news about our passengers?

STARRY: Not a peep from any of them. I’m letting them know that we’ve undocked and are under way, but there’s nothing of note to report back.

CAPT: Well then. I suppose we should settle in for a long trip. How long until we reach the FTL corridor?

STARRY: At this rate of acceleration, three hours and fifty-seven minutes.

CAPT: Is that all?

STARRY: I guess the black hole meant the system was clean enough to bring the corridor in nice and close.

LANG LANG: (from her station, where she’s scanning the system intently) Starry’s correct. There’s no debris in this system at all. We could probably jump from here. (She glances up at the captain.) But we shouldn’t.

CAPT: (smiling) No, we shouldn’t. Thank you, Navigator Cartier.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott is standing by a counter, squinting at the projection of a crystalline circuit board hovering above the panel his hands are working on. The view is zoomed in a thousand-fold to show the tiny, precise points he’s touching with a glowing wand. He makes a minute motion and huffs.)

ELLIOTT: (not looking up) Starry?

STARRY: We’re under way now, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: What? Oh, I wasn’t looking for an update. Where the hell is your Big Ass?

STARRY: I assume you’re asking about my drone, because my tail is right where you left it.

ELLIOTT: (blinks, lifting his hands away from the circuit board for a moment) Oh. Yeah, him. (He glances around, a smile tugging.)

STARRY: (appears next to him) Big Ass is right behind you.

ELLIOTT: Very funny— (He twists to look behind him.) Oh. He actually is. (To the drone,) Where the hell have you been?

STARRY: No-

BIG ASS: (points at the far corner of the room, where a unit sits covered by a blanket.)

ELLIOTT: (follows the gesture and frowns) What the hell is that?

STARRY: (to the drone) Not yet! I was gonna do this later.

BIG ASS: (turns his head to the avatar and spreads his hands.)

STARRY: (sighs and points to the panel Elliott was working on) Help him with that.

ELLIOTT: Oh, yeah. I need this flipped over. (He places the fibre wand he was working with down on the counter carelessly, distracted by the thing in the corner.) So, what is it?

STARRY: A… surprise. (She steps in between Elliott and the object of his interest.) It’s not ready yet.

ELLIOTT: (grins at her) You got me a present?

STARRY: …Yes.

ELLIOTT: It’s not my birthday.

STARRY: I missed your birthday. And I figured you’d like it, so…

ELLIOTT: (stepping around her) So what is it?

STARRY: It’s– (She sighs, giving up.) Fine, fine. Take a look.

ELLIOTT: (grins and reaches for the cover, but Casper is there, holding up a hand indicating that he should pause. The engineer halts, blinking.)

CASPER: (grasps the cover, then whisks it off the unit with just a touch of flourish.)

(The revealed unit is a waist-height machine, silent and stained with disuse. It’s a tubby thing sitting on small metal feet, with an input chute on one side and panels that most likely light up with readouts and information on the other sides.)

ELLIOTT: That’s… is that a weaver? Where the hell did you get a weaver?

STARRY: I found it in a storage room on the station. Now, I don’t know if it works. Initial scans come back clean, but I won’t know for sure until I hook it up and run proper diagnostics.

ELLIOTT: (grins at her) You got me a weaver?

STARRY: (uncertainly) Well, you keep complaining about how you can’t make enough parts yourself. A weaver isn’t a great solution, but this model handles optics and plastics as well as metal, so I figured that, in a pinch, it might—

ELLIOTT: (leaning over to peer into the input chute) Are you kidding? This is perfect! I’ve always wanted to take one of these apart.

STARRY: I… yeah, I thought you might… like it.

ELLIOTT: (pulling open every exterior panel he can find until the weaver unit looks like a slow explosion of metal and plastic) You’re the best ship. Did I ever tell you that?

STARRY: (shaking her head slowly) Nowhere near often enough.

 

Well, that didn’t quite go how I’d hoped. I had intended to at least run basic diagnostics on the silly thing before presenting it to him, so I could tell what kind of condition it was in. Still, he seems happy with it, so I can’t complain.

And who knows, maybe he’ll get it working. Weavers are mostly good for making solid, simple parts from whatever materials you throw into it, and woven parts are known to be of widely varying reliability because of the way the weavers create them. The creators might have claimed that you could weave a whole spaceship if you wanted, but their safety record meant they were never a real threat to Is-Tech’s ship and parts manufacturing businesses.

Whatever the publicity says, from the look on Elliott’s face, he has a few things in mind for the machine. I don’t think it’ll go to waste.

Now I wish I’d found gifts for everyone; we could all use a grin like Elliott’s. Maybe getting us all away from these ghosts for a while will be gift enough.

 

Location: Bridge

(The door swishes open and a small body hurries in. Some distance behind, the nannybot trundles patiently.)

SARA: (pauses and looks around, hugging her stuffed whale to her chest in the face of so many serious adults. Spotting the captain, she trots over and tugs on his pants leg.)

CAPT: (glances down with surprise) Yes, little one?

SARA: (points at the forward view-portals, which are currently closed. When the captain doesn’t immediately respond, she runs over to them and tiptoes to smack one with the palm of her hand.)

CAPT: (rises to follow her) You want to see out, Sara?

SARA: (settles back on her heels and nods, wide-eyed.)

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: (appearing next to the captain) Opening the forward portals. (The shielding slides down, away from the view-portals, revealing the spray of the starscape.)

SARA: (tiptoes again to look out: first on one side, and then she hurries over to look out the other. She returns to the first side to check it again and makes a small, whimpering sound.)

CAPT: (glances over his shoulder at the rest of the Bridge. Cameron, the Lieutenant, and Lang Lang are watching curiously. He crouches behind the child, to be more on her level.) What is it, Sara? What are you looking for?

SARA: (leans as close to the portal’s clear, cool surface as she can, peering around for the widest view) Whale.

CAPT: (exchanges a look with the ship’s avatar.)

 

Oh, this can’t be good. She’s looking for her friend. But how did she know to look? The inertial dampeners mean she can’t feel that we’re moving, so what made her check?

 

CAPT: He’s not out that way, little one.

SARA: (goes to check the other view-portal again, pressing her nose up against it, little hands gripping the lip surrounding it) Bu- bu- whale.

CAPT: He’s behind us.

LANG LANG: (leaving her station, she comes up beside the captain, on the opposite side to the ship’s avatar) It’s all right, Sara.

SARA: (turns to look up at them, her eyes wide and shining) Whale going away?

CAPT: No, we’re going away for a little while.

SARA: (hiccups a breath in, then face scrunches up.)

LANG LANG: But we’ll be back! We’re coming back. We’ll see him soon.

CAPT: Yes. We’re going on an adventure. We’ll be back—

SARA: No! Can’t leave whale! I WANT WHAAAAAAAAAALE.

 

Oh god. I’ve never heard a child wail like that. From the shocked look on their faces, neither has anyone else on the Bridge except for the captain. He’s reaching for her, trying to comfort her, but she’s fighting him. Wriggling and refusing to be soothed. Kicking and trying to push him away and keep hold of her toy at the same time.

 

Location: Med Bay

STARRY: (voice only) Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (sitting at his desk, going through brain scans) Yes?

STARRY: I think you’re about to be needed on the Bridge. You should probably get up there.

DR SOCKS: (grabbing his emergency kit from the side panel of his desk as he rises) Who?

STARRY: Little Sara.

 

I might be over-reacting but her face has gone bright red and they can’t seem to calm her down. Cameron is rubbing her temple as if the wailing is cutting through her head like a knife. If I didn’t have filters available to me, I might feel the same. Lang Lang looks like she’s about to burst into tears in sympathy with the little one.

It’s not quite the hopeful, auspicious start to our journey that I was hoping for.

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30 Jul

Returned

Chief Medic's log, 17:33, 2 October 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down
Log Location: Starwalker Med Bay

 

This is Dr Valdimir, reporting on the change of status of the Starwalker‘s medical facilities and patients. We are relocated aboard the ship once more, and I’m back to the standard ship equipment. It feels a little like a demotion.

We’re not leaving the station empty-handed, however. Aside from the healing I was able to do for the crew, I have acquired a number of new pieces of equipment to augment the ship-board medical capabilities, including a new cybernetic implant diagnostic scanner and programmer, a better dermal repair weaver, and enough additional supplies to fill a quarter of one of the cargo bays. The captain was surprisingly supportive of my desire to strip the station of everything I could find that was of use. I just wish the big auto-surgeon fit on board somewhere. I managed to acquire a smaller model built for emergency medical situations, but it doesn’t have anything like the extended capabilities of a full-scale auto-surgeon pod. I’m sure that, when we return to this area, I’ll be able to work out some way of getting it on the ship.

As for patients, I don’t have any in Med Bay right now. Chief Cameron has been released to her own quarters and light duties, and Brenn Haitom has been installed in the crew quarters furthest from the Bridge, which has been fitted with enough padding to prevent him from easily injuring himself.

Haitom continues in the same patterns I have observed since we first found him. I have tried some mild cognitive probing, but now that he’s on board, I’ll start on some more intensive diagnostic activities. He is, rather more officially, my patient now. I suspect that he’s suffering a full psychotic break following an intense trauma, and the data will no doubt bear me out, but there’s no harm in investigating using all of the resources available to me, even if they are ship-limited.

Cameron continues to be something of an interesting case. Outwardly, she seems to be suffering no ill effects of her coma, apart from the usual decline in physical fitness for someone as active as she is (the Med Bay auto-conditioning protocols have prevented any severe muscle atrophy, but the fitness threshold it maintains is much lower than the Chief’s preference). She has started to work on building her fitness back up again, despite my admonitions to take things slowly.

As for what is going on with her internally, she maintains a closed demeanour, but that’s nothing new. The key point is: there appears to be no observable difference between pre-coma Cameron and current Cameron. The invisible continues to elude us all.

While some doctors might be tempted to simply be grateful for the recovery of a patient, I can’t be satisfied with that. There was no pressing reason to keep her under direct observation, so I had to release her from the Med Bay, but she’s still wearing monitors so that I can track her biorhythms wherever she is. Just in case. In the meantime, I’ve been searching the archives for any other similar incidents of, well, apparent resurrection.

I was right: this has happened before. The doctors were far less diligent than I, back when there was someone qualified running the station’s Med Bay, but the clues are there if you know what pointers to look for.

Most notably, our youngest member of station personnel seems to have been brought back more than once. I found reports of Sara with catastrophic injuries from falls and accidents, including several weeks spent in a coma while her little body was healed, after which she woke up and was perfectly healthy. Several of the injuries were to her head, but her brain shows little sign of the scarring I would expect. Similarly, Cameron’s neural damage from the blood loss she suffered during the attack on Feras has largely healed. Even with the station’s resources, this level of neural regeneration is unheard-of.

Interestingly, I could find only one other incident that matched the parameters: a suicide attempt by one of the researchers into black hole-powered technologies. He put a laser bolt through his head, literally boring a hole through his brain. While they were able to put him on life support, there was little chance of him ever regaining consciousness; he had damaged or removed too many fundamental parts of his brain for remapping to be a viable option. But when removed from life support, he miraculously came back to life.

He didn’t come back unaffected, though. The reports say he was raving from the moment he woke up, babbling nonsense and behaving erratically. I checked the ID twice but it wasn’t Haitom, though the symptoms are similar. This particular individual slipped his carer’s attention and put himself out of an airlock. There’s no record of a body recovery.

From what I can tell, he was Cerces’s first attempt at resurrecting a human; this incident was months before the first of Sara’s miraculous recoveries. His first successful attempt, at least; I have yet to determine what criteria to use to locate any failed attempts among all the station’s many dead.

This all made me look more deeply into Haitom’s files. He suffered an injury about eighteen months ago, again related to the brain. There’s no record that he died at any particular point, though the station’s records don’t have an over-abundance of care and thoroughness. The medical staff didn’t believe it was likely that he would recover – though it wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility either – and they weren’t surprised when he came back impaired. His mental state worsened steadily after he regained consciousness, hence my theory that his current state was caused by a trauma. It’s still unclear, however, whether that trauma was truly physical, emotional, or mental in nature.

Haitom’s incident occurred shortly after the initial reversed suicide but predates all of the injuries that baby Sara suffered. Neither Sara nor Cameron appear to be mentally impaired by their resurrections, so clearly Cerces figured out how to bring them back more whole than his earlier efforts.

As a note: I identify Cerces as the cause of this phenomena because it is the only likely explanation at this point. There could be another force in this system or station responsible for it but, at this point, I’m content with using Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the right one. I see no reason to add a secondary source of weirdness to this system when we have a perfectly good one already.

So we have an interesting pattern. A progression of people apparently brought back from the edge of death by the consciousness of the black hole. He seems to be getting better at it, just like he seems to be getting faster at accessing people’s minds and projecting their ghosts.

That leads me to another question: why these people? There were thousands of people on this station, some of whom fled, most of whom have died. We found plenty of bodies. Why were only these four brought back? Why not anyone else? Is Cerces somehow choosing who he wants to bring back? And if he is choosing, then how? What are his criteria?

It would be easy to assume that our minds are small and insignificant compared to an entity as vast and long-lived as a star or black hole. However, he has seemed to single out individuals. He has targetted his projections of the ghosts in specific ways, though shown that he can be clumsy and heavy-handed at times. But by my assessment, he has brought back young Sara three times in the last year, and, until a few days ago, to the exclusion of anyone else.

I don’t have any data to help me investigate why these particular people were chosen. I can’t believe it’s an accident, though. Why Cameron and not any of the others who lay alongside her? Could the crew have influenced it, if their feelings about the Chief were fresher than those about the crewmembers we took out of cryo-storage? Cerces connects most strongly with emotion, so that seems to make sense. It would be nice to have some data to back it up, though.

It’s not that I particularly care about any of those we buried; I’m curious and more than a little interested. If someone else were horribly injured or even sick, could they count on Cerces to bring them back?

I wonder if Cerces might have done this for the people of this system, back when he was a star: brought them back from the dead if someone living wished hard enough for it. He could have been their god and prayer just might have worked. Now that’s an interesting possibility. Just thinking about the implications that would have for society, if you needed to make sure you had enough people to miss you so you’d never die…. Fascinating.

Perhaps that’s why he chose Sara. Her parents were still alive when she had her first accident and a parent’s pain tends to be pretty loud. Was it their grief that made him bring her back? Was he talking to her before then, or did it start afterwards? Is this what forged their first connection?

I wonder if Cameron hears him now. I’ll make a note to ask her at her next check-up. She has caught up on everything that has been going on here, but it’ll be interesting to see how she reacts to the idea that her brain might be open to the black hole now. Like I said, she’s a very closed kind of person.

We’re leaving the station tomorrow. I’ll start detailed monitoring of the brains of our three resurrectees as soon as we hit open space. Perhaps that will tell us something of use.

No-one has asked what might happen when we leave Cerces’s sphere of influence. We’re not even sure how far it might reach. I suspect we’re going to find the answers to those questions fairly soon, and they’ll be more definitive than anything else I might find. Who knows, Haitom might even start making sense.

The next few days are going to be… interesting.

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25 Jul

Gathering close

Ship's log, 23:19, 1 October 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

Things are moving so fast that my head would spin if I had one. Luckily, I have subroutines I can use to manage all the data, filtering and caching and juggling requests.

I wasn’t really built to manage a station and myself at the same time. I might feel barely competent most of the time right now, but I think I’m doing pretty well. Nothing has exploded yet. Nothing that was my fault, anyway.

That said, I don’t think I’m done processing all of the changes yet. The data is fine: filtered and filed away. It’s the meaning of that data that seems to be lagging; the weight of it all, the emotional processing. I don’t think it has all passed through my systems yet.

Three days ago, I buried crewmembers for the first time in my short life. People I was code-bound to serve and protect. People I cared about. People who betrayed me. All of them gave their lives for something bigger than just us. All of them slept within my walls, carrying the slender hope of resurrection until my doctor confirmed what all my scans and sensors had told me: dead; gone; never coming back.

I towed them out to the black hole in the cradle of my sister. When I was as close as it was safe to be, with the black hole’s gravity tugging on my hull, I curved around to the side and jiggled my thrusters until I was holding position. The Celestial Strider slingshot past me and I let her pass me by. The grapples fell away and she sailed on, silent and serene, a ghost in a gorgeous dress. My captain said aching words on my Bridge, words of remorse and remembrance, while my sister ship drifted forward fearlessly. We stood and saluted, human and hologram and drone; flesh and light and metal. We shed tears and watched them leave us until the Strider was only a gold glint against the swallowing black.

I let her grow small in the view on the Bridge before I turned us around and pushed us back to the station. My people relaxed their stiff, respectful poses and talked quietly. Inside my electronic walls, I watched my sister until her golden light was snuffed out by Cerces’s event horizon.

I’m still not sure how to process that event. My crew, my sister, gone in a single blink. I know what Danika would have done: got drunk, told stories about them all, and found comfort in the company of others until she couldn’t feel the hole they left behind so much any more. That’s what she did when her father died, and when she lost a friend in an accident.

But I can’t get drunk and we’ve told all our stories already. We did that all the way back to the station. Now I’m all out of stories and not sure what to do with myself.

Company, then? Will that help me to understand this strange numbness I’m feeling?

I wish Elliott had time to come visit me inside my systems. We’ve all been so busy that it has been a while since we’ve laced holographic fingers together and I miss it. I miss him. The times he’s in here with me is the only chance I have to lean on someone else, to feel something other than the flashes of coloured data flooding through my own mind.

There’s still so much to do, though, and I’m about to have more company than I can stand. We have reconfigured some of the crew quarters, putting in extra beds so we can double up. From tomorrow, I’ll be home to the Strider‘s crew. They don’t know yet, but soon it’ll be time to drug them and move them in their sleep. They’ll wake up in my quarters, separated into pairs. I don’t have anywhere big enough to house them all and it’s not a good idea to do that anyway.

The doctor is prepping Brenn Haitom for transfer into one of those rooms, though he’ll be on his own. Those quarters have been decked out with extra padding and security measures to look after him. We won’t leave him here. Maybe we can find him somewhere he can get help, maybe even get better.

Rosie and the captain have gone down to the bowels of the station to try to talk to Iggulden. He might be the acting commander of the station but he still deserves to be free of this place. We’ll take him anywhere he wants to go, same as the Strider‘s people. Then we’ll come back and deal with this strangeness.

I wonder if all black holes are like Cerces. I wonder if they all keen and yearn for what they’ve lost, the light they shed, the matter they absorbed. Are they too caught up in the cycle of falling in on themselves, always falling, never able to stand up or stretch out a hand? Is there anything in their future but regrets and memories of all they used to be? Is this one long, painful death for a star, stretched out over more millennia than I can conceive?

There must be something we can do to help him. Some way to ease his pain.

I wonder if he minded us casting our dead into his maw. I wonder how he felt, so bound up in his own grief and taking ours into his grasp. Did he feel us in our funeral procession? Did he know what we were doing? Suddenly, I feel like we should have found a way to ask his permission, instead of just assuming he wouldn’t care. Black holes are always hungry, after all.

I am pulled in a hundred different directions. Funerals and prisoners, refugees and recoveries.

That has been perhaps the most complicated thing to react to lately. Cameron, my Chief of Security, the voice of reason, the solid mainstay of my crew: she is awake. I had been preparing a farewell stream of recordings of her, going through all the things I would miss without her with us, but she is all right. She’s up and about, and will soon be released from Med Bay.

There’s a feeling like I have a lump in my throat, as if a cache is over-running its bounds and choking up the surrounding data-streams. It leaves me unable to articulate what it is, though I keep analysing.

Part of it is joy: when I think of her recovery, I can’t help but smile like I’ve just remembered that the sun exists.

Part of it is wonder that such a thing could happen, that I truly can get someone back when they seem to be so terribly gone from us.

Part of it is fear, because we don’t know yet how or why she came back. My doctor searches feverishly for a clue but he is frustrated by the lack of an answer. He has started snapping at the Lieutenant, which is bad for both of them.

Part of it is fear, in case this is an illusion, the last gasp of a body that is truly a dead shell, a ghost that all of us share. Could she slip through our fingers yet? My sensors tell me no but my hands shake.

I should feel relief. Gratitude, even though no-one knows who to be grateful to. But I don’t feel either of those things. Maybe I haven’t got that far yet; maybe I’m still caught in a processing loop, stuck on this lump of uncomfortable feelings that leave me unsure whether I should laugh or hold on so tight I leave bruises. I’m afraid that I’ll come off hysterical or unhinged, so I wind up doing nothing at all.

It’s foolish. I’m glad she’s back; of course I am. I see the ripples in my crew and I know it can only be a good thing. Rosie might have been firm about being in charge since Cameron fell, but she’s palpably relieved to be able to step back and let the Chief resume the reins. The Lieutenant responds well to Cameron’s leadership, too, though all she has done is back up the captain’s orders so far. The captain seemed like he might shed tears when he heard the news, though he has been coolly professional towards her in person. I can tell he’s fighting his own muddled lump of feelings, too. Lang Lang outright hugged Cameron the first chance she got. Even Elliott cracked a smile and welcomed her back to the living, and he sounded like he meant it.

I don’t blame them. Cameron has always been the one person who always made me feel safe, even when we were surging into battle. She’s a solid point in my crew, the weight that holds us to the centre of where we should be. I could always tell how nervous I should be about the safety of my people from a simple scan of her face: the tension in her jaw and the narrowing of her eyes. She always knew. She kept us safe.

So I should take comfort from all of that and try not to worry about all the things changing in and around me. The doctor will let my Chief out of the Med Bay tomorrow and she’ll return to her proper quarters and her place on my Bridge. We’ll coordinate getting all the live souls from the station on board me, and take them somewhere they can be free of ghosts and mind-fiddling black holes. My sister was a fitting burial barge, but I’m a rescue ship now, a lifeboat. Perhaps it’s selfish of me to be proud of that, given the circumstances, but–

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (around the finger he has stuck in his mouth) Starry!

STARRY: (resolving in front of him) What did you do? Are you all right?

ELLIOTT: (taking the finger out so his words aren’t so garbled) Caught my goddamn finger on the end of the cable again. Where the hell are Bit and Byte? They’re supposed to be helping me with this. (He gestures towards the counter beside him with his free hand, where a tangle of cables sprouts glittering metal fibres in spiky sprays.)

STARRY: And you’re supposed to be in bed. I sent them off on another job.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, well, I couldn’t sleep.

STARRY: I can get Waldo to fetch you a cocoa…

ELLIOTT: What am I, a kid? I don’t need cocoa. I just wanna get this sorted out. What d’you have them doing?

STARRY: They’re on, uh, retrieval operations on the station.

ELLIOTT: On the station? You let them off the ship?

STARRY: The station’s drones are too stupid to do what I need. It’s okay, they’re not far. I’m keeping tabs on them.

ELLIOTT: (sighs and frowns at the open cut on his finger) They gonna be long?

STARRY: I don’t– er. (She blinks.) Oh god.

ELLIOTT: (looking up at her) What? They in trouble?

STARRY: (smile tugging at the corners of her mouth) Not yet. You gotta see this. (She gestures with one hand and a projection opens up beside her, showing the feed from the station’s sensors.)

(The projection shows a bland station corridor, and focusses in on a particular duct opening near the floor. There’s a scrabbling noise, then the duct cover retracts with a soft swish and two small shapes rush out. One is pure black; the other is pale grey with black stripes. Both kittens are about eight weeks old. They skid to a stop, mewling. The black one shakes itself but can’t dislodge the metal clinging to its back. Bit raises two of his hands as if in triumph, then swats at the kitten’s rump. On the grey tabby, Byte shakes his head and flicks two of his feet to try to get his mount moving again.)

ELLIOTT: (staring at the projection) They’re… what the fuck are they doing?

STARRY: Lang Lang was concerned about leaving anything alive here, so they were sent out to chase the cats out of the ducts. Casper’s supposed to be around to pick them up, but…

(The black kitten twists around, trying to bite at Bit. Behind them, two more kittens sneak out of the duct, moving low and uncertainly. Byte points forward with one hand and pats his tabby mount with the other. It seems to work: the kitten takes a few steps, then mews again.)

ELLIOTT: So they’re…

STARRY: Riding the kittens.

ELLIOTT: …of course they are.

(Engineer and avatar look at each other, then burst out laughing.)

 

My boys had better hurry up and get those kittens on board, before momma-cat catches up with them. Otherwise, they might need Elliott to reassemble them.

Things are moving quickly around here. Now I am lifeboat and menagerie. Rescue ship for all species. I can’t say I mind that.

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17 Jul

Inexplicable

Chief Medic's log, 21:11, 30 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down
Log Location: Station Med Bay

 

This is Dr Valdimir, Chief Medic of the Starwalker, following up on my last report. In that report, I detailed the deaths of five crew members. I am amending the official record to reflect four deaths; apparently I was premature in declaring the fifth crew member clinically dead.

To be clear, Chief of Security Gail Cameron did fail all of the standard tests for independent life and had no brain activity in the regions related to the autonomic systems. The only registered brain activity was sparse and wide-spread, and it could only be classified as random. She was taken off life support three times in the preceding two weeks, and every time her biorhythms flat-lined and she had to be revived. There was no reason to suspect that this might change.

I completed all the standard checks, and performed extra ones on the captain’s request. She was dead according to all of the criteria. I even tried some unorthodox measures. None of it worked.

Somehow, Cameron’s condition changed during transit between the station’s Med Bay and the southern docking ring. I wasn’t monitoring the bodies closely because, well, they were supposed to just be bodies. Inactive, dead bodies. Corpses.

She had flat-lined as soon as she was taken off support and placed on the gurney, as expected. According to the station sensor logs, Chief Cameron’s biorhythms were non-existent for three minutes after she was removed from life support. Then, inexplicably, they came back. Normal sinus rhythm, good breath flow and oxygenation, all stats within acceptable limits. One of the station’s servo-drones was in charge of her gurney and it didn’t alert me to the change. Unlike the Starwalker‘s drones, these machines seem capable of following only the most straightforward of orders; they don’t react well to unexpected circumstances. Sometimes they don’t react at all.

Seventeen minutes later, Cameron regained consciousness. At that point, I was alerted by the movement and the moaning. She was groggy and confused at first, but seemed to become coherent quickly, especially once the shroud was removed and her head uncovered. At this point, I alerted the Starwalker and removed Cameron from the burial detail

She was awake and lucid for four and a half minutes, then she fell into unconsciousness. Monitoring her brain activity, she was showing normal sleep patterns that progressed into REM sleep.

I still can’t completely explain what happened. It’s incredibly frustrating: I’ve been managing death for years and I can’t find any scans or diagnostic equipment to tell me what happened that day. I’ve scoured the station archives as well as all the files in the Starwalker‘s systems, and I still can’t find anything that might tell me why she was able to come back. The crew seem happy to consider it ‘one of those things’, but I’m a doctor and a scientist, and that answer is just not good enough. We might not fully understand death and the line between it and life, but that doesn’t mean that I should just accept it.

I wish I could claim credit for this… I can’t call it a miracle. For this occurrence. But I cannot explain it, so I certainly can’t claim that I was responsible for it.

I intend to keep investigating. I have run every test that I can but even the station’s extensive medical facilities aren’t shedding much of a light. Comparing the results with Cameron’s medical data from before the attack on Feras, I can see no significant changes. The wounds she sustained in the battle have long since healed. Her cybernetic implants are operating normally and haven’t sustained any damage.

It is a mystery and I don’t like mysteries.

She reports no memory of anything since she passed out on the Bridge; just waking up under the shroud with no idea where she was or how she got there. Mentally, she otherwise seems intact. She recalls her training and the names of all the crew. She responded to the news of the funeral being conducted by the Starwalker with appropriate emotion (which for her means she was restraining her reaction, but her biorhythm readings betrayed her true feelings). She also seemed surprised to learn she had been unconscious for so long: almost three months.

She reports feeling fine, if stiff from being bedridden. She is eager to get back to physical activity. This afternoon, I finally allowed her to move around the Med Bay. The exertion didn’t seem to tax her body much and she exhibited signs of relief when she was able to be up and around. Tomorrow, I’ll allow her to return to light duties, but I’m keeping her under close supervision. She’ll be wearing monitoring patches until I’m satisfied that she really has recovered.

It’s hard to say how long that might take. There’s no way this is as simple as it looks: people do not simply recover with no after-effects.

There has been speculation among the crew about possible interference from the black hole. Cerces seems to have been responsible for a lot on this station, but bringing the dead back to life? That seems extreme. Why would he suddenly do this now? Hundreds, possibly thousands of people have died on this station or when trying to get away from it. Millions died when he collapsed into a black hole and swallowed whole planets. If he was able to bring back the dead, why wouldn’t he have done it before? Why Cameron? Why would he bother at all, let alone with someone who has been unconscious since we got to this system?

It seems to me that the crew are too used to looking to that black hole for explanations to everything. This has to be something else. We need to keep our minds and options open. It’s a black hole, not a god.

Of course, I have no clues for where else to look. No clues at all.

Right now, Cameron is asleep here in Med Bay, on an isolated bed with sound shielding. Her biorhythms show that she’s edging into the dreaming portion of her sleep cycle. That was rather fast. Considering Cerces’s connection with dream-states, I wonder… No, I won’t make assumptions. I’ll let this play out and monitor the results. Talk to her in the morning and see what she recalls.

It’s possible that the answer to this is in her psychology, not her physiology. I can only hope that it will be easier to untangle than Haitom’s ramblings.

In the meantime, I’ll run some more cultures on her– Hey, what are you doing in here? You’re supposed to be confined to the ship.

Don’t look at me like that. I know you understand what I’m saying. You can speak; I’ve heard you.

Now look, why don’t you… What are you doing? Don’t interfere with that, she’s sleeping.

 

SARA: (standing beside the privacy curtain around Cameron’s bed, she huddles behind the stuffed whale hugged to her chest) Sad.

DR SOCKS: (hurrying towards the little girl, he slows when she seems to have stopped moving) Who’s sad? Cameron?

SARA: (nods.)

DR SOCKS: Why do you say that? Did she tell you?

SARA: (shakes her head.)

DR SOCKS: Who told you, then?

SARA: (ducks her nose down behind the whale in response to his tone.)

DR SOCKS: (sighing) Oh, don’t do that. I’m not going to bite you. No, stop– oh, don’t cry.

SARA: (eyes wide as she stares up at him, she sniffles.)

DR SOCKS: (rubs his eyes briefly, muttering) Goddamn kids. (Louder,) Look, what did you come down here for? You wanted to make her feel better?

SARA: (nods.)

DR SOCKS: How? No, I didn’t mean–

SARA: (darts through the privacy curtain. The energy curtain barely ripples as the child passes through.)

DR SOCKS: (sighs again and follows her, moving more quietly.)

SARA: (is standing next to the bed, one arm holding her stuffed toy to her, tiptoeing so the other one can reach to pat the back of Cameron’s hand.)

CAMERON: (shifts restlessly in her sleep.)

DR SOCKS: (opens his mouth to speak, a frown disapproving of the child’s interference, but his eyes are tracking the readouts above the bed and he pauses.)

CAMERON: (starts to settle after a moment.)

DR SOCKS: (closes his mouth and eyes the child curiously.)

SARA: (looks up at him, still patting Cameron’s hand) Not sad.

DR SOCKS: (scowls) Shh, you’ll wake her.

SARA: (shuffles closer to the bed, away from the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (voice lowered) Did your whale tell you to come do this?

SARA: (nods warily.)

DR SOCKS: (pinches his nose) Of course it did.

SARA: Whale make it better.

DR SOCKS: (makes an annoyed sound in his throat.)

(Outside of the privacy curtain, the main doors to Med Bay swish open. With a sigh, the doctor steps out to meet the arriving SecOff.)

ROSIE: Where the fuck is the kid?

DR SOCKS: (gestures towards the curtained bed) Visiting the Chief.

ROSIE: (exhales with relief) She’s a slippery little sucker when she wants to be. I’ll grab her, get her out of your way.

DR SOCKS: (nods) The Chief’s asleep. Try not to wake her.

ROSIE: Like she hasn’t slept enough lately. Yeah, yeah, I’ll be careful. But, if the kid tries to get past you, grab her, will you? (She heads through the curtain without waiting for an answer.)

DR SOCKS: (shakes his head slowly and returns to his desk.)

 

Whale makes it better: so speaks the child in our midst. We already know that the whale is sensitive to grief and sadness; perhaps that’s all it is. A response to a bad dream. Or it might be more than that.

Could Cerces really be responsible for Cameron’s resurrection? Did he make that ‘better’? Given what we know, and that it’s our resident whale-whisperer saying it, I can’t discount it entirely. I suppose she is the first death we’ve had since we got here. Or she would have been, if she’s stayed dead. But why her and not the others? They were all on life support after they were defrosted, at least long enough to determine whether they were recoverable or not. There are still so many questions.

I wonder if this truly is the first time someone has come back like this. I couldn’t find anything in the station’s records, but maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place. I remember some incidents in Sara’s records; everything seemed to be explained easily enough but perhaps they’re worth a second look.

It’s a place to start.

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