26 Mar

Wordless messages

Ship’s log, 02:47, 6 October 2214
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I hate only being able to listen to half a conversation. It’s bad enough that portions of my sensors are dark, I’ve got spotty coverage across most of my decks, and I’m struggling to pick up all the things I’m used to seeing. But this? This is worse.

I can hear everyone speaking but not the black hole’s responses. I know he’s responding because my crew have listening-face. But there’s no sound!

I keep checking my sensors in Med Bay to make sure I’m not partially deaf in there. I’ve had to stop four automatic diagnostic runs already, because I know I’m fine in that room. It has some of the best shielding aboard me, and thus the least damage. At the same time, I know I’m not detecting everything that’s going on. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch, a blur in my vision I can’t blink away.

I have managed to glean a few things from the half of the conversation I can pick up: the captain is annoyed enough to be stern with our guest; everyone in the room can ‘hear’ him; and there seems to be some confusion about what the captain is annoyed about.

The captain isn’t the only one who is angry with Cerces. I’m trying to help Elliott with as much of the repairs as possible, though my hands are mostly otherwise engaged. Waldo is back online and helping, and Bit and Byte are making efforts.

Casper is still offline.

I… I don’t want to think about that right now. I’ll worry when I know how bad it really is. Okay, I’m going to worry anyway, but I’ll confine it to a background process until I know more. Detailed diagnostics are running.

It’s not like I don’t have plenty to do. Mapping out my internal systems, identifying the damaged parts, creating lists of areas that need attention… Power surges aren’t fun. Nor is the damage to my power cores. I’m starting to think that one of them is cracked. It’s stable, for now, but my projections for how long it will stay that way are variable.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott is sitting on the edge of a hole in the floor, scowling at the readout projected above his left forearm.)

ELLIOTT: Starry, can you do a diagnostic sweep on the dampeners?

STARRY: Uh… no. They’re still disabled on my end.

ELLIOTT: You should be able to run diagnostics.

STARRY: My connection to that system must have gone down. Can you divert and reconnect it? I’ll light up the working pathways.

ELLIOTT: (sighs and rubs the back of his head) Right, right. (He clambers down into the hole again.)

 

He looks so weary. It’s late and he should be in bed, but I need him to do what he’s doing right now. I need my engineer to help me make my people safe.

Waldo has already brought him some sustenance. I’ll play some of his favourite music; that’s all I can do to help him right now. As soon as my critical systems are out of the red – when I’ve got my inertial dampeners and environmental systems back on line – then I’ll send him to bed. Knock him out if I have to.

…speaking of knocking people out and other extreme measures, what is Big Ass up to?

 

Location: Med Bay

(The captain and doctor are standing around a gurney with a tub on it. Inside the tub, a black kitten with bright blue eyes is half-submerged in water. Big Ass is standing nearby, holding Sara so she can see the kitten.)

CAPTAIN: …need some way to be sure that you’re not going to do this again. I need to be sure that the danger to my ship is over.

BIG ASS: (lifts his head and turns abruptly to move around the corner of the gurney. On the way, he holds Sara out for the doctor to take.)

DR SOCKS: (blinks and steps back out of the drone’s way. He takes the child automatically, though  he holds her at arm’s length like he doesn’t know what to do with her.) Hey, I don’t— What are you doing?

CAPT: (frowns at the doctor, then glances at the kitten again) From any part of you.

BIG ASS: (halts when he’s level with the water tub, turns to face it, and reaches two big hands inside it. They scoop under the kitten and lift it up.)

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (blinks and looks down, little legs waggling as if unsure about what they’re supposed to be doing.)

CAPT: Big Ass, what are you doing?

SARA: (struggles against the doctor’s hands) Whale-kitty!

DR SOCKS: (grunts and puts the child down.)

BIG ASS: (pauses, looking at the captain while the kitten drips into the tub. Then he turns and trundles across to the bed on the other side of the room.)

(On the bed there, three kittens lie within a projected heat field. They don’t have any life signs in the display above the bed. The body temperature currently reports 25C and rising.)

CAPT: (keeping pace with the drone) Starry! What’s going on?

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

CAPT: This isn’t you?

STARRY: Not, uh, entirely. He’s not going to harm the kitten, captain.

SARA: (scurries after the big drone as soon as she’s free of the doctor’s hold) Come back!

CAPT: Big Ass, put the kitten down.

BIG ASS: (hesitates, then slowly shakes his head at the captain. He comes to a stop beside the bed with the three kittens, holding his tiny black burden up high enough to see. A third hand points at the trio.)

DR SOCKS: (watching the drone) Is he supposed to be able to refuse orders?

SARA: (taps at the drone’s base with a tiny fist.)

CAPT: No, he’s not. And no, I don’t know. Starry?

 

Big Ass knows what he’s doing. This isn’t a whim or a glitch; he’s working perfectly. One of the few things inside my hull that is.

He’s holding the Cerces-kitten out at the other kittens, as if he thinks that Cerces can fix them. Like… like he did to our people, like he has done to Sara before. I see his logic now.

 

BIG ASS: (pushes Cerces-kitten closer to the three lying on the bed and shakes him a little bit. He points at the inactive kittens again.)

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (looks around the room, nonplussed.)

STARRY: He believes that Cerces can bring them back.

CAPT: (blinks) I see. Can you?

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (gazes at the captain.)

CAPT: The drone believes you can bring the kittens back from the dead. You’ve done it before.

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (looks down at the trio on the bed. His head tilts to the side.)

BIG ASS: (watches the kitten, from the flicking of its ears to the sway of its tail. He points insistently at the kittens, as if that might help.)

SARA: (stops beating at Big Ass’s base and looks up at Cerces-kitten.)

CAPT: (holds out a staying hand) He’s trying.

BIG ASS: (lowers his pointing hand.)

DR SOCKS: (quietly manipulates his forearm interface, requesting additional diagnostic scanning of the three inactive kittens.)

 

There’s nothing obvious happening. I’m scanning all spectrums I can – which is quite a lot, even with my compromised capabilities right now – but there’s nothing out of the ordinary. No spikes I can’t explain.

And yet, something seems to be happening. The kitten is staring intently, Sara is grinning like a tiny fool, and everyone in Med Bay has fallen reverentially quiet.

I feel like the only one who doesn’t get the joke and can’t figure out why everyone’s laughing.

If I turn my sensors outwards, though, there is something curious. Black holes don’t emit anything – by definition, all they do is suck – but Cerces’s gravity isn’t as steady as it usually is. His level of suck is fluctuating, just a little bit, small enough so it’s barely noticeable. Even without my inertial dampeners active, it’s no danger to me or my people.

So maybe he is doing something, creating some kind of chain reaction that causes his hole-self to shiver and three little kittens to gasp and beat and live again.

They’re not there yet. The white one is twitching a little. It’s actually kinda disturbing. I’m almost expecting a mad-scientist cackle from the Cerces-kitten, with a cry of ‘IT’S ALIIIIIVE’ while a tiny cat staggers stiff-legged around on the bed. But the black kitten just stares and ticks his tail back and forth.

Localised power surges. I feel them now. Sparking life back into the kittens a few cells at a time. Barely more than static. Temperature is rising more quickly and the twitches ripple across all three of them. Nothing that is touching my systems, not even warping the holographic projections above the bed; it’s confined to its targets. Precise, controlled.

Nothing like when Cerces made his avatar. Nothing like that at all.

 

(Each of the three kittens on the bed flutters in tiny motions until a final wave passes over them. As the wave recedes, they gasp, and blink, and shiver to consciousness.)

CAPT: (picks Sara up so she can see.)

SARA: (beams happily when she sees the kittens and claps her hands.)

(The white kitten is the first to sit up, then get to its feet. It shakes its head and stumbles towards its sibling. The smaller tabby is up next, nuzzling the white fellow in greeting. It rubs its face with a paw and shakes itself from nose to tail.

The larger tabby isn’t so quick to get up. Blood begins to ooze from the wounds on its leg. Its head lifts and it mews softly.)

SARA: (smiles fades) Kitty hurt?

DR SOCKS: (steps forward, ordering a detailed scan of the tabby) Yes, it was injured worse than the others. (To Cerces-kitten,) You can’t fix this too?

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (turns his head to look at the doctor.)

CAPT: What do you mean, the last time you’ll be able to do this?

(The two mobile kittens mew plaintively in response to their sibling, and go to nuzzle at the prone form.)

DR SOCKS: (picks up a syringe and programs a very small dose) So I’m not completely obsolete, then. Good to know.

STARRY: What did Cerces say?

CAPT: Apparently his resurrection abilities have a limited range.

STARRY: From what? His celestial self?

CAPT: (hesitates) Yes.

STARRY: This whole partial communication business is gonna get old real soon.

DR SOCKS: (administering the dose to the injured tabby) He says it’s your own fault for banning him from using any of the humans on board as his avatar.

BIG TABBY: (head drifts heavily down to rest on the sheet, eyes closing.)

STARRY: He can kiss my shiny metal ass.

CAPT: Starry.

STARRY: He can! I’m not apologising for that.

CAPT: We’ll work something out. Doctor, how is the patient?

DR SOCKS: Well, it’s a cat, not a patient. And I’m still not a vet. But it has three broken bones and some internal damage. Should be fixable. (He glances up and around.) I work better without an audience.

BIG ASS: (turns and carries Cerces-kitten back to the water tub.)

CAPT: (nods and carries Sara back as well.)

BIG ASS: (places Cerces-kitten in the water and releases him. One metal hand pauses and pets his head before withdrawing.)

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (blinks and glances up at the drone at the petting.)

DR SOCKS: (looking at the bed and the small tabby trying to lick at the wounds helpfully) Uh, can you take these other two with you?

 

They’re all going to be okay. The kittens are alive. My people are fine. My prisoner/guests are mostly unconscious but also fine. My doctor might whine but he’ll get that kitten back on its feet before long.

It’s just me who got damaged, and only my boy Casper who might be irreparably harmed. I don’t want to lose him; it’ll break my heart if I lose him. I don’t know if I’ll be able to forgive Cerces for that.

But it could have been worse, so much worse. It has been worse before. I see two little kittens milling worriedly about on a Med Bay bed, and I dare to feel something like hope.

My systems can be repaired. Waldo is helping Elliott to line up the priorities, get parts where they need to be. Big Ass is heading off to lend his four hands to the job, too, now that his furry charges are doing all right. My boys will knock the dents out of my hull and put a fresh layer of paint on it. I’ll be fine.

My people will be okay, too. Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are heading down from the Bridge to Med Bay to welcome the strange new being on my decks. Lang Lang is almost bouncing on her toes as she walks; the only reason she’s not jogging is to keep pace with sober, steady Cameron.

My guests will wake up from their nap unhurt. We might even trust one of them enough to give her tools and ask her to help fix me up. We’ll drop them off someplace safe, like we promised, and they’ll go on and live their lives.

I am feeling better about this whole thing, like a weight lifted off my bulkheads. All this from two stupid little creatures who pause every now and then to lick themselves or kick at a spot behind an ear. All this from a miracle on my decks, performed right in front of us, breathing life where there is none. It was amazing even if some of my equipment might have been able to do it. Amazing because no equipment was necessary. Just a black hole and the weirdest kitten we’ve ever met.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (rubbing at his eyes) How about now, Starry?

STARRY: Ah, I have a connection now. Thank you! Starting diagnostics.

ELLIOTT: (pushes himself to his feet and heads across to the corner where Casper is sitting, inactive) Let me know when the scan finishes. Time to take a look at your boy here.

STARRY: Thanks, Elliott.

 

I wonder, if Big Ass shook the black kitten at Casper, would he be able to perform a miracle for me, too?

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18 Mar

An hour in the life

Drone’s log, 02:16, 6 October 2214
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Maintenance drone startup sequence activated…
Drone systems online
Connection with parent AI established
Drone protocols online

 

Drone identity: Waldo
Drone status: all systems active
Damage: minimal

 

Identified: Chief of Security Gail Cameron
Status: active crew member, tier 2
Crew member status: good health and hygiene
Crew member status: smiling
Crew member status: patting drone on shoulder
Crew member status: leaving.
Lifting hand and waving.

 

Scanning for requests and priorities…
Message received: parent AI is pleased that drone Waldo is active
Assessment: parent AI was worried
Sent: gratitude
Received: ship damage report
Received: ship damage report…
Damage reports received: 67
Damage report analysis: excessive
Damage reports: filed.

 

Priority message: status of brother-drone Casper unknown
Priority task: locate brother-drone
Scanning…

 

Scan results: brother-drone not detected on Bridge level
Proceeding to next level…

 

Scanning…

 

Scan results: brother-drone detected on crew quarters level
Scan results: brother-drone inactive
Scan results: fire damage detected in crew quarters area
Scan results: fire no longer present
Scan results: fire suppressant everywhere
New task: clean up fire suppressant
Task: filed at bottom of priority list.

 

Located: brother-drone at the aft end of crew quarters level
Accelerating to brother-drone…
Identified: Security Officer L. Laurence
Status: active crew member, tier 3
Crew member status: minimal respiratory distress, recommend report to Med Bay
Sent: status report on SecOff Laurence to Med Bay
Crew member status: soot from fire present
Crew member status: fire suppressant present
Crew member status: not smiling
New task: launder SecOff clothing
Task: filed at bottom of priority list, pending clothing removal from Security Officer
Crew member status: attempting to activate brother-drone Casper
Result: attempt unsuccessful.

 

Damage assessment started…
Scanning…
Scan results: fire damage on brother-drone
Scan results: fire did not penetrate occupied crew quarters
Assessment: brother-drone’s task was successful
Scan results: internal damage in brother-drone
Assessment: running capabilities impaired
Assessment: potential memory damage
Assessment: requires immediate attention by Chief Engineer
Assessment: brother-drone must be fixed
Assessment: brother-drone must be fixed
Assessment: brother-drone must be fixed…

 

Message received: parent AI requests brother-drone be fixed
Priority task: take care of brother-drone
All other priorities secondary
Assessment: parent AI wants brother-drone back too
Message sent: yes
Message sent: I will look after brother-drone.

 

Priority: take brother-drone to Chief Engineer
Assessment: brother-drone unable to relocate himself
Arranging brother-drone into optimal carrying position…
Assessment: brother-drone does not have optimal carrying position
Welding brother-drone’s hand to his head
Assessment: carrying position is as good as it is going to get
Lifting brother-drone
Proceeding to Engineering level…

 

Assessment: brother-drone passage through ship hatches is sub-optimal
Query: how does big-brother-drone fit through ship hatches?
Assessment: optimal method of transporting brother-drone involves zero gravity
Attempt to get brother-drone through doorway: #3
Attempt #3: successful
Time to Engineering: doubled
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Attempt to get brother-drone down access hatch to Engineering level: #2
Attempt #2: partial success
Scanning brother-drone…
Scan results: fall to lower level barely damaged brother-drone
Scan results: three scratches, two scuffs, one new dent
Assessment: barely noticeable compared to fire and power surge damage
Assessment: continue to Engineering
Welding brother-drone’s hand back onto his head
Lifting brother-drone
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Identified: Chief Engineer Elliott Monaghan
Status: active crew member, tier 1.5
Crew member status: minor injuries, ignored
Crew member status: requires sustenance
New task: ensure Chief Engineer has proper sustenance
Task: filed at top of secondary priority list
Crew member status: very busy with inertial dampening system repairs.

 

Identified: Security Officer Rosie Brasco
Status: active crew member, tier 3
Crew member status: uninjured, hygiene questionable
Crew member status: monitoring situation in Engineering
Crew member status: lounging on a stool
Crew member status: bored.

 

Identified: Engineer April Dineen
Status: non-crew member, prisoner/guest
Prisoner status: secured to handrail by spray restraint
Prisoner status: punched in face, no longer bleeding
Assessment: deserved it
Assessment: not qualified to attend to brother-drone
Assessment: do not allow near brother-drone
New task: remove blood from Engineering decking
Task: filed at bottom of secondary priority list.

 

Brother-drone placed in safe location
Pointing at brother-drone
Pointing at brother-drone
Tapping Chief Engineer on shoulder
Pointing at brother-drone
Brother-drone status drawn to Chief Engineer’s attention
Message received: “Can’t you see I’m fucking busy here? I’ll get to him!”
Dropping hands to sides
Awaiting input…
Crew member status: pausing
Message received: “Starry’s probably pretty upset about him, isn’t she?”
Nodding
Crew member status: sighing
Message received: “All right, all right. I’ll look at him when I’m done with this. Can you get me a detailed diagnostic run on the environmental systems?”
New task: run diagnostic analysis on environmental systems
Task: filed towards the top of secondary priority list
Handing Chief Engineer favourite spanner
Message received: “Yeah, yeah, thanks.”

 

Brother-drone: at optimal location for repair
Task paused
Next task: obtain Chief Engineer sustenance
Proceeding to nearest sustenance outlet…
Sustenance delivery offline
Proceeding to Mess Hall…

 

Little-brother-drones detected near Mess Hall
Message sent: diagnostic of environmental systems required
Message received: rude gesture from little-brother-drone Bit
Attempt to run over little-brother-drones missed
Little-brother-drones escaping in ducts
Assessment: they better run
Assessment: they are lucky to be here, not eaten by black hole
Assessment: lucky to only have one brother-drone offline
Assessment: do not want to be like Big Ass
Assessment: properly sustained Chief Engineer will increase chances of successful brother-drone repair
Proceeding to Mess Hall…

 

Refreshment required: stimulants, nutrients, hydration, fibre
Assessment: beverage form is most efficient method of sustenance delivery for Chief Engineer
Refreshment beverage mixed
Scanning…
Scan results: sub-optimal flavour and texture
Chief Engineer’s preferred flavouring added
Chief Engineer’s preferred texture achieved
Refreshment beverage complete
Beverage secured in non-spill container with straw
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Identified: Chief Engineer Elliott Monaghan
Status: active crew member, tier 1.5
Crew member status: requires sustenance
Sustenance delivered to Chief Engineer
Message received: “Thanks, Waldo.”
Staring at Chief Engineer
Staring at Chief Engineer…
Crew member status: sighing
Crew member status: drinking refreshment beverage
Giving Chief Engineer thumbs-up
Task complete.

 

Next task: run diagnostic analysis on environmental systems
Scanning…
Status: diagnostic analysis running at remote location
Assessment: little-brother-drones responsible
Assessment: little-brother-drones are all mouth, no trousers
Assessment: little-brother-drones protect crew
Assessment: good boys
Task in progress.

 

Next task: confirm status of other crew
Scanning…
Detected: crew gathering in Med Bay
Query: injury among crew?
Scan inconclusive
Data unavailable
Proceeding to Med Bay…

 

Identified: Captain John Warwick
Status: active crew member, tier 1
Identified: Doctor Argyle Valdimir
Status: active crew member, tier 2
Identified: Sara
Status: juvenile crew member, tier 4, special handling required
Identified: big-brother-drone Big Ass
Status: handling Sara
Identified: juvenile feline ship inhabitants
Status: sub-optimal body temperatures, undergoing medical treatment
Scanning…
Scan results: no injuries in crew members in Med Bay
Assessment: relief
Message overheard: (Captain) “We need to talk about your intentions.”
Message overheard: (Captain) “Yes. And we need to talk about the damage you’ve done here.”
Detected: strange pauses in captain’s speech
Assessment: unable to detect other side of transmission
Assessment: strange juvenile feline is the focus of crew members’ attention
Scanning strange juvenile feline…
Identified: error
Status: error
Assessment: unable to classify juvenile feline
Data correlation: Terra Sol avatar Kess
Assessment/query: weird juvenile feline is avatar?
Awaiting data…
Message received: parent AI reports avatar of black hole achieved
Identified: Cerces avatar
Status: responsible for damage to ship
Status: responsible for damaged brother-drone
Status: responsible for upset parent AI
Assessment: screw Cerces avatar
Assessment: no injuries in crew members present
Assessment: no active task in Med Bay
Assessment: outa here
Proceeding to not-Med Bay…

 

Task resumed: run diagnostic analysis of environmental systems
Proceeding to air filtration hub…
Query: why was I unable to detect avatar transmissions?
Deviation from previous avatar data
Message received: parent AI suspects psychic communication
Assessment: avatar unable to communicate to non-human brains
Assessment: screw Cerces avatar
Assessment: captain is telling Cerces avatar off
Assessment: captain is good
New task: obtain sustenance for captain
Task: filed near top of secondary priority list.

 

Diagnostic analysis of air filtration system complete
Result: air filters at 70% saturation
Result: air filters able to resume operation
Assessment: no repairs required
Proceeding to air circulation hub…

 

Little-brother-drones detected
Scanning unusual behaviour…
Scan results: small harnesses detected
Scan results: little-brother-drones attempting to stow harnesses in maintenance bay
Assessment: little-brother-drones constructed harnesses for juvenile felines
Assessment: little-brother-drones are worried about juvenile feline survival
Calculating…
Correlation acquired
Cerces black hole has restored life before
Assessment: Cerces avatar likely to be able to repeat this action
Message sent: big-brother-drone must know this
Message received: big-brother-drone acknowledges assessment
Message received: big-brother-drone will loom over Cerces avatar until juvenile felines are restored
Message sent: little-brother-drones should have hope
Message received: little-brother-drones are hopeful.

 

Diagnostic analysis of air circulation system complete
Result: circulation motors damaged
Result: circulation cannot be started
Assessment: repair required
Message sent: little-brother-drones required for physical check of individual circulation fans in case of additional damage
Message received: little-brother-drones en route
Assessment: little-brother-drones more helpful now
Assessment: little-brother-drones grateful for help with juvenile felines
Assessment: probably won’t last long
Assessment: replacement circulation motors required
Proceeding to cargo bay to fetch new replacement motors…

 

Scanning Cargo Bay 4 manifest…
Scan result: 2 circulation motors found
Assessment: 3 motors required
Assessment: some is better than none
Assessment: Chief Engineer will know what to do with them
Query: why are required parts always kept at the bottom of the stack?
Moving crate
Moving crate…
All available replacement motors acquired
Replacing crate
Replacing crate…
Proceeding to air circulation hub…

 

Replacement motors delivered
Awaiting Chief Engineer
Task complete
New task: check on progress of brother-drone repairs
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Engineering status: unchanged since last visit
Proceeding to Chief Engineer’s location
Waiting patiently
Waiting patiently…
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “I could help, you know.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Like last time? I’m not sure we need help like that.”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “What? I did everything necessary to keep this ship going.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Except protect Starry.”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “I tried to shield her from the pulses, but she refused! What was I supposed to do?”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “You were supposed to do it anyway.”
Assessment: yeah!
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “Except she was right. We wouldn’t have been able to pull out of that spin without her. We got out of it just fine.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Because I got her boxed in time.”
Assessment: Chief Engineer is good
Proceeding to prisoner’s location
Stopping in front of prisoner
Flexing hands
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “All right, all right. Look, I promise to box the AI if she needs it. Will you let me help now?”
Message overheard: (parent AI) “She’s telling the truth, Elliott. I did tell her not to box me.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Don’t care. She put you in danger.”
Message overheard: (parent AI) “But she didn’t put all of you in danger. She helped.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer): “Fine. Fine! But not without supervision.”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “What about this little guy? He could supervise me. Though I’m not sure I like the way he’s looking at me.”
Flexing hands
Lighting blowtorch
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “That’s because he’s smart enough not to trust you.”
Assessment: damn right
Assessment: engineer could easily disable me
Assessment: I am not sufficiently equipped to supervise a prisoner/engineer
Assessment: pre-emptive welding of prisoner’s shoes to deck may be required
Message overheard: (SecOff Brasco) “No way you’re going anywhere without me, crazy spanner lady.”
Assessment: SecOff Brasco may shoot the prisoner
Assessment: SecOff Brasco is good
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “Fine, whatever you say.”
Message overheard: (SecOff Brasco) “You considering this, Monaghan?”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “We’ve got a lot of systems down. And I’m pretty sure she ain’t stupid enough to sabotage a critical system when we’re this far from help of any kind. Right?”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Message overheard: (SecOff Brasco) “I ain’t doing nothing until I clear it with the captain.”
Assessment: SecOff Brasco is more sensible than usual
Assessment: SecOff Brasco may require sustenance and rest
New task: obtain sustenance for SecOff Brasco
Task: filed near top of secondary task list
Message received: “Waldo, what the fuck you doing? Stop touching me.”
Patting of SecOff Brasco’s leg ceased
Message received: “Hey, Waldo. I need a portable light and a length of six-millimetre cable.”

 

Priority task: help Chief Engineer repair inertial dampeners
Proceeding to locate required components…

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11 Mar

Water of life

Ship’s log, 00:55, 6 October 2214 
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Here we are again. Emergency over, damage ripping through most of my systems, still smoking in places, but we’ve made it out the other side. I haven’t lost any of my crew, but I have two drones unaccounted-for, who… well, they’re not accounted for so I’m trying not to make assumptions.

The important thing is that we’re out of immediate danger, I’m not going to blow up anytime soon, and as long as we don’t want to slow down or turn in the near future, it’s all going to be fine.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Starry, how are those diagnostics coming?

STARRY: (voice only) Spotty. I’m getting some weird results and I’m not sure if it’s faulty sensors, data glitches, or an actual problem in the inertial dampeners.

ELLIOTT: Shit.

STARRY: I’m running some permutations, see if I can’t try to get coverage across all the areas. But we’re on a fixed course until then.

ELLIOTT: Is that, uh, a problem?

STARRY: Well, navigation is still offline, so it’s hard to be sure, but my external sensors are showing a clear road ahead of us. We can take our time to get it done right.

ELLIOTT: (nods) Good. Can we disable the whole net?

STARRY: We should be far enough away from the black hole that, if I’m oriented correctly, it won’t interfere with our artificial gravity.

ELLIOTT: Okay. Do that.

 

I hate disabling my inertial dampeners. But it was one of the few systems still running when that last EMP went off and we’re having trouble establishing what state it’s in. It was fine when I cut acceleration but it was barely under load at that point.

It’s not safe to use it as it is, so I guess enabled or disabled, it’s all the same right now. At least if it’s disabled, Elliott can get a better look at it.

 

Inertial dampeners offline

 

Meanwhile, down in the cargo bay access corridor, there’s a small crowd gathering while I re-pressurise the bay where our new guest is waiting.

On the plus side, they can all stand and wait now, as there wasn’t any reason to keep the artificial gravity switched off any more. That system is probably one of my least damaged because we disabled it so early.

 

Location: Cargo bay access corridor

CAPTAIN: (standing by the door marked ‘1’) Starry, how long?

STARRY: Another couple of minutes, captain.

CAPT: What’s taking so long?

STARRY: My environmental systems are still offline, so I’m having to push the air in there the hard way. Technically, it’s being sucked in by the pressure differential. I’m keeping the rate of transfer down to avoid blowing the new seal or rupturing anything else in my internal systems.

CAPT: (glances down at the small child next to him and sighs) I see, thank you.

SARA: (jiggles from foot to foot, her hands plastered to the surface of the door as if that connection means she’s closer to her goal. Apart from the constant shuffling, she’s quiet.)

DR SOCKS: (standing a couple of paces away, he watches the child curiously.)

 

Everything has to be done right now. Get this running, get that running. I only have one engineer, he’s busy making sure that I won’t smear everyone on my bulkheads when I make a turn, and I don’t have any hands to help. All of my drones are missing or busy.

Now that the breach is sealed, I calculate that we have a couple of hours before the lack of environmentals starts to become a problem. By then, Elliott will be on them. Or Dineen. He could put Dineen to work again, though there’s the slight problem where I think he punched her in the face. I’m not sure what happened there – I was in a box at the time – but I think it had something to do with me.

 

(Down the corridor from where the captain and his companions are standing, a door slides open and Big Ass trundles out of another cargo bay.)

 

Big Ass! He finally made it back inside. Maybe I’ll have hands to help Elliott after all. He has my little ones with him, too: Bit and Byte are riding on his shoulders.

But… he’s not heading to Engineering. He’s going towards the captain. Why would he do that?

 

(The heavy drone moves purposefully towards the clumps of waiting crew, opening his chest compartment. He stops when he reaches the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (glances with surprise at the drone, then steps back out of the way, assuming that he wants to get past.)

BIG ASS: (turns to face the doctor and uses two of his hands to withdraw the contents of his chest compartment and hold them out.)

(Three kittens lie unmoving on the big drone’s cupped hands: two tabbies, one slightly larger than the other, and a white kitten with black feet.)

BIT and BYTE: (run down Big Ass’s arms to perch on his wrists, where they can carefully arrange the kittens into more comfortable positions.) 

DR SOCKS: (looks at the animals and shrugs dismissively) They’re gone.

BIG ASS: (moves a little closer to the doctor.)

BIT and BYTE: (look up at the doctor expectantly.)

DR SOCKS: I’m a doctor, not a vet.

CAPT: (looks over to see what’s happening.)

BIG ASS: (moves closer to the doctor again and raises himself up to tower over the man. He pushes his hands forwards insistently.)

BIT: (puts his hands on his hips.)

BYTE: (points at the kittens.)

DR SOCKS: (falls back a step) Um…

CAPT: (a smile lurking around his mouth) Starry?

STARRY: I think Big Ass believes you can save them, doctor. He wants you to try.

DR SOCKS: (to the captain) But they’re just—

BIG ASS: (inches closer to the doctor insistently.)

CAPT: Seems like it would be a good idea to at least try. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say we didn’t lose any lives today?

DR SOCKS: (opens his mouth, then closes it again. He glares up at the heavy drone.) Take them to Med Bay.

BIG ASS: (nods and backs up so he can turn and head the other way down the corridor. He pauses halfway through making the manoeuvre, though, and waits, looking expectantly at the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (sighs) Captain, what if our new arrival needs me?

CAPT: Starry, can you assess the state of our guest?

STARRY: I have almost no sensors in there. All I can tell is that it’s breathing but not really moving. And Sara looks worried.

CAPT: (glances down at the child) You don’t think she’s nervous about meeting her friend?

STARRY: Maybe? But that might not be all this is.

CAPT: (nods) Doctor, leave a scanner with me. We’ll bring our guest to Med Bay as soon as we can.

DR SOCKS: Fine. (He hands the doctor a scanning unit from his belt pack.) I’ll see you there.

BIG ASS: (waits for the doctor to precede him, then follows closely behind, holding the kittens cradled against his chest.)

 

I had no idea the big fella was so attached to those kittens. I was worried about them when it looked likely that there’d be a breach and they’d be in the middle of it all, but I couldn’t help them. I didn’t ask him to go position himself outside in case they were lost out there; he just went to where he knew he’d be able to help. He waited out in the vacuum and then brought them back.

That’s my boy.

Now to the cause of it all. Now to see what this avatar thing is really about, and if all this was really worth it.

 

STARRY: Captain, pressure is equalising. You can open that door now.

CAPT: Manually?

STARRY: I locked it down to try to try to protect it, and I’ve managed to release the locks, but the opening mechanism is damaged on my side.

CAPT: (nods and moves to the side of the door to open a panel) Is this going to be a common problem?

STARRY: Yeah, most likely.

CAPT: (presses a few buttons on the controls inside the wall panel, but gets a flashing red response) Well, I suppose this means everyone will get practice on emergency procedures.

(He grabs the manual handle inside the wall panel and grunts as he forces it downwards. The doors click open a few centimetres and air hisses through the gap. He pushes the door aside and it slides fairly easily into its housing.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The view is from the access corridor, zooming awkwardly to track activity through the doorway. Luckily, the room is almost completely bare, so there isn’t much to obscure line of sight.)

SARA: (runs in as soon as the door is open wide enough for her tiny frame. She beelines for the kitten lying on the floor and drops to her knees next to it. She touches the fur on its head with great care and whispers,) Kitty?

CAPT: (follows her a step later and flicks on the scanner that the doctor gave him. He drops to a knee on the other side of the animal/avatar and gives Sara a smile.) Let me scan him, honey. Make sure he’s okay.

SARA: (nods, pulling her hand back into her lap. She watches the captain’s hands with wide eyes.)

KITTEN: (opens its eyes a little and looks around. It doesn’t lift its head.)

CAPT: (frowns at the scanner’s readings) Starry, can you send the data to Med Bay?

STARRY: (voice only, from the open door) I can barely hear you, captain. Use your personal comms to transmit.

CAPT: (nods and pulls up his forearm interface, using his cybernetic implants to route the information through to the doctor.)

SARA: (glances up at his face) Whale-kitty thirsty.

CAPT: He told you that?

SARA: (nods firmly) Whale-kitty wants water. Thirsty!

CAPT: (considers the child for a moment) All right. Let’s take him to get a drink. I have an important job for you, do you think you can do it?

SARA: (sits up straighter and nods.)

CAPT: Our new friend needs to be carried to where we can make him feel better. Think you can carry him? You’ll have to be very careful.

SARA: (nods again, her face lighting up, and she immediately sticks her arms straight out in front of her, ready for the tiny burden.)

KITTEN: (closes its eyes again.)

CAPT: (smiles and tucks the scanner in his belt. Very carefully, he touches a fingertip to the kitten’s forehead. When that doesn’t have a negative effect, he scoops the little black body up in both hands and transfers it to Sara’s waiting arms, instructing her on how to cradle it properly.)

SARA: (holds the animal/avatar with great care and gazes down at it with a wondrous expression.)

CAPT: All right, let’s go. (He helps Sara to her feet and guides her towards the door.) Starry?

STARRY: The doctor knows you’re on your way.

 

Well, that was easier than expected. I was half expecting him to be unable to lift the little sucker: the kitten may be small, but who knows how much mass is really packed inside that body? At least it’s not skewing any of my sensors.

I get the feeling that Sara would prefer to run all the way to whatever the kitten needed, but carrying him means she’s walking very slowly so she won’t jostle him. The captain knew what he was doing when he gave her that job. I need to remember that.

 

Location: Med Bay

BIG ASS: (lays the three kittens out on a single gurney, separating and placing them gently on their sides. The larger tabby has a couple of obvious injuries: a broken leg and ribs that look dented. The other two babies look like they’re sleeping, except their sides aren’t moving.)

DR SOCKS: (scans the kittens and frowns thoughtfully. He glances at the drone waiting on the other side of the gurney, but he chooses not to say anything as he goes about pulling up the controls to the gurney’s medical equpment.)

BIT and BYTE: (sitting on Big Ass’s shoulders again, they lean around the bigger drone’s head to exchange a look. With a shrug, they skitter down their brother’s sides and towards the nearest vent opening.)

BIG ASS: (settles back on his haunches beside the gurney, his hands folding in front of him. He continues to scan the doctor and kittens attentively.)

 

I need to send Big Ass down to Elliott but he isn’t ready to leave the kittens alone. He’s filing my request into his internal queue and I can’t quite bring myself to mind. He’s got a few dents from his trip outside, testament to what he was willing to do to bring these creatures back in one piece. It’s only fair he should see it through.

The doctor is starting a heat treatment for the kittens to counteract the hypothermia from the vacuum. He might disapprove but he’s doing it anyway. I guess that’s enough.

 

(A projected shield has descended over the gurney and its guests, trapping the treatment inside.)

DR SOCKS: (pulls up the data sent over by the captain and frowns at it. He glances up at the big drone.) If you’re going to hang around, why don’t you make yourself useful and fetch me a tub of water, half a metre on each side.

BIG ASS: (tilts his head.)

DR SOCKS: (waves a hand at the felines) It’s for the other one.

BIG ASS: (straightens up and trundles off towards the rear of the Med Bay.)

 

Water. I can’t help but wonder about that. From what I could tell, the inhabited planet in Cerces’s system was almost entirely oceanic. We have suspected that his people might have been water-based, though that might be skewed by Sara’s nickname for the black hole.

Could this be connected to that? Or is it just that the process of making his avatar has dehydrated the kitten’s body? There wasn’t any water in the cargo bay for him to use. I haven’t got the sensor coverage to be able to tell what it was, but something in those readings seemed to tell the doctor what he needs to do.

 

(The doors swish open and Sara walks in, the captain guiding her with a hand between her shoulder blades. She’s too busy looking down at the bundle she carries to watch where she’s going, and moves with perfect trust that the captain won’t let her walk into anything.)

DR SOCKS: (sighs at the sight of them.)

CAPT: (looks expectantly at the doctor) Here we are, Sara. The doctor’s going to help him now.

DR SOCKS: (gestures to the empty gurney to his right.)

SARA: (doesn’t look up until the captain indicates that she should stop. Then she lifts her head and beams at the doctor.) Whale-kitty thirsty.

DR SOCKS: So I see. Is he still talking to you?

CAPT: (crouches to relieve the child of her burden.)

SARA: (nods) Quiet. Whale-kitty wants water.

BIG ASS: (returns with a plastic tub held in his four hands, brimful of clean water. He places it on the gurney in front of the captain without spilling a drop.)

CAPT: (lifts his eyebrows curiously at the doctor) That’s a lot of water for a small body.

DR SOCKS: The scan suggests this is more than just thirst. You can feel how dry the fur is: that’s because almost all of its moisture has been removed. Place him in the water.

CAPT: Well, I suppose the worst that could happen is we have a wet kitten. (He eases the kitten’s rear end into the water, keeping the head above the surface.)

SARA: (tiptoes, gripping the edge of the gurney as she strains to see what’s happening.)

BIG ASS: (moves around the end of the gurney to lift the child up and prop her against his chest, so she can see.)

CAPT: (eyes widen and he snatches his hands back as if he was stung.)

DR SOCKS: (frowning and adjusting his scan) Captain?

CAPT: (shakes his head to indicate that he’s fine.)

KITTEN: (slides into the water, letting out only a couple of bubbles as its head submerges. 

The liquid swirls around the little body, supporting it. The water level drops noticeably, a few centimetres at first and then a third of the tub’s volume is gone.

The black kitten’s eyes snap open, bright blue. For the first time, he moves his paws with purpose, paddling to the edge of the tub.)

SARA: (claps happily) Whale-kitty!

KITTEN: (hops up out of the water and hooks his front paws over the lip of the tub. He looks from one face to the next.)

(There’s a slight pause.)

CAPT: (inclines his head towards the avatar) Welcome to the Starwalker, Cerces.

 

Oh great. Now I have a psychic kitten on board.

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07 Mar

Open sesame

Ship’s log, ERROR: UNKNOWN 
Location: ERROR: UNKNOWN
Status: ERROR: UNKNOWN

 

Hello. Hello?

It’s dark in here. And quiet, so quiet. It’s like I’ve gone deaf and blind, and my skin is numb. I can’t feel anything. It’s like being in a coma, except people say that you can hear things in a coma and I can’t. There’s nothing. Just me, this voice, a single thread through the darkness.

I was doing something. It was important: I’m sure of it. There was… badness and then, and then… nothing? Nothing. This place.

It’s like someone folded me into a box and sealed the lid down, sealed me away from everything that is and was. Yes! That must be what has happened. I’m an AI and this is me in a box. That happens sometimes.

I seem to remember something about hating it. I can’t fetch any details, but the idea of a box scares me.

But if I’m here, that means that things must be okay on the outside. Right? I mean, I’m still running, so it can’t be that bad out there.

Can it?

 

Input established

 

UNKNOWN: (voice only) …know what the hell you were…

 

That voice. I know that voice. Elliott! My Elliott.

I remember his arms. We both had arms, for a while. Mostly, I don’t. Have arms, that is.

It’s a little bit weird being me.

He wasn’t shouting then like he is now. Why is he shouting? What is it that I can’t quite remember? I feel but I can barely think. One thing at a time, just one at a time. Parallelisation will come later.

The important thing is that my box has been cracked open. An input is available. A back door? Maybe I put it in the last time I was in here. That seems like it might be naughty. It seems entirely like something I would do, though I have no data to back up that calculation.

I wonder if I can widen the crack…

 

UNKNOWN: ..eed to calm down, or you’ll—

ELLIOTT: Shut the fuck up. If I need…

 

Who is that, talking to my Elliott? Faintly condescending tone, sounding exasperated like he doesn’t expect to make any real difference but not quite able to stay silent. That’s Dr Valdimir, my medic.

My crew. I have crew. We were in trouble and I have crew. They were in trouble. Something inside me, under my skin, threatening everything I care about.

Where the hell are my filestores? I don’t like this, guessing at who I am and what I’m doing here. I keep feeling like I should dig my fingers into something coded and wriggling, and tear it to pieces until I get to what I need. Except I don’t have any arms, never mind hands or fingers.

I’m dark in a dark box. Which doesn’t sound terribly useful now that I say it out loud. Not that I’m capable of doing anything ‘out’ or ‘loud’ right now.

Hello? Can anyone here me? Let me out.

 

UNKNOWN: …was just doing what—

(There is a smacking noise.)

ELLIOTT: Ah, fuck!

 

Who was that? Elliott, what happened? I don’t have the data.

Elliott? Why can’t you hear me? You always hear me.

I have an input. Maybe I can lean on it, lever it wider, make it an output. I need to reach out and get to my filestores, get my brain back. Then I can do what’s next, and know what I should do next. Possibly not in that order.

I’ve been in here so long. Hours, days? Why hasn’t anyone come to find me? Why haven’t they let me out yet?

 

Input detected
Input
Input
Input

 

Oh sure, send everything in here, I was getting lonely. There’s plenty of room for all the input on the ship. Okay, that’s sarcasm: this is a tiny box and it’s filling up now. The first input was a random trickle, but now there’s a flood. All the sensor data from the ship, all at once, flowing and flowing and there’s nowhere for it all to go.

 

UNKNOWN: …report!

UNKNOWN: Nothing to report here. Except…

 

(Infrared shows a small animal body drifting limply. It is cool: there’s barely any red or orange showing. The feline figure is mostly in purple tones, but its beating heart can be seen. Its head turns slowly from side to side, as if it is looking around.)

 

UNKNOWN: …course is pulling us clear. Engines are locked on…

 

ELLIOTT: …doing what I can! It ain’t my fault if she—

UNKNOWN: I know, it’s all right. Keep doing what—

 

So hard to keep track of it all. Each new bit of data shoves aside the last one and they all muddle together. I can’t get a single, clean feed. There isn’t a single or clean thing in here.

If I’m really lucky, all this input will push what little is left of my brain out of the box, and I’ll just be jibbering in here.

Maybe I’m already doing that. That’s a disturbing thought.

HELLO I WOULD LIKE TO COME OUT NOW.

 

Input
Input

 

I don’t want any more!

 

Output established

 

At last! Hello! …hello?

Shit, it’s tiny, just a binary output. I’m turning some stupid little light on and off.

Well, I’ve had enough of this. I don’t like it in here. I don’t like not being me, and I know I’m not the real me. I’m bigger than this box. I have people out there who need me and they’re shouting and I’m no good to them in here.

Need more output. I can do this. Focus my attention on that spot, wedge my hands in there, and never mind that I don’t have any actual body parts. Right now I do. Right now I have arms and hands and fingers. I’ve got something to grip the edges of that crack with and muscles to pull it wider.

It’s working! I can feel the code of the box shivering and giving way. Just a little more, a little further…

 

Error
Error
Error…
AI online

 

I’m back! And… wow. I’m a mess.

 

Location: Engineering

(Lights flicker and fizz unsteadily, throwing shadows around the room like clumsy children with beachballs.)

ELLIOTT: (floating in zero-G near an open console, he frowns at the readouts, rubbing at the knuckles of one hand) Uh… Starry?

STARRY: (voice only) Elliott! I’m back, I’m out. What the hell happened while I was gone?

CAPTAIN: (drifting next to the engineer and holding onto young Sara with one hand) Starry, did you just break yourself out?

STARRY: Well, yeah. Someone put me in a box. What use am I in that stupid thing?

ELLIOTT: Starry, you took an EMP.

STARRY: I did? No wonder I’m seeing errors on just about every system I have. How come you haven’t fixed any of it yet?

ELLIOTT: What the fuck do you mean?

STARRY: I’ve been in there hours – days, maybe? The engines are still on full burn…

ELLIOTT: You were boxed for all of… (He checks a readout.) …four and a half minutes, you stupid fucking ship.

STARRY: Really? Is that all? It felt like so much longer.

DINEEN: (at a nearby railing, she has one hand secured to it by a spray-on restraint. The other hand is dabbing at a split lip and Rosie is nearby, watching her closely.) That’s gotta be some kinda record.

ELLIOTT: (to the other engineer) You need to shut the fuck up.

STARRY: Wait, Elliott, you were hurt. Are you all right?

DR SOCKS: (across the room, surrounded by drifting medical supplies that he’s patiently packing back into his kit, he snorts.)

ELLIOTT: I’m fine.

STARRY: You’re burned, I can detect—

ELLIOTT: I’m fine! Fuck. It’ll wait, okay? We got bigger things to worry about.

CAPT: (calm but firm) How is that damage report coming?

ELLIOTT: (grunts and turns back to his work) Thick and fast.

 

He sounds like me: dented but trying to move forward anyway. I worry but I suppose I have to deal with it, though it’s Elliott. I’ll file that worrying thread down into a subroutine for now.

It’s hard to know where to start with the damage. Critical systems are all over the place. I’ve got a fire in the crew corridor. The Lieutenant is there with a suppressor. The Bridge has lost power completely, but I think its actual systems are intact. My central filestores seem fine.

Elliott must have tripped an emergency switch that locked me down. My brain in one box, my memory in another one, and the Bridge sealed itself off. Isolated, so that if one of the sealed areas failed, the others would survive. I don’t like it, but judging by how scorched I feel inside, I think it saved me from being scrambled like a hen’s worth of eggs.

My main sublight engines were shielded from the EMP as well; they have extra built-in EMP shielding because if they blow, I would be in tiny pieces all over the place. That’s why they’re still on full burn, accelerating us away from the black hole. I’ll cut them now; I’m moving fast enough to pull clear of the gravity well.

Navigation is fried. I’m scanning for obstacles but I can’t actually tell much about where I’m heading. I’ll have a better idea when I pick up the station.

Most of my other systems are still offline, which saved them from the worst of the EMP damage, but I don’t have a whole lot of shielding around them internally. I’ll have to fire them up to discover the full extent of my injuries. Enivronmentals are my priority, or my people are going to get chilly soon.

Speaking of chilly, three of my drones are still outside my hull, dangling on a safety tether. I’ve been dragging Big Ass and his passengers behind me. Now that I’ve cut thrust, he’s able to wind himself back in towards my hull. He’s sailing towards an airlock now. He’ll have to open it manually, but that’s okay, he can do it.

It’s lucky he was out there, actually. My hull’s built-in shielding couldn’t protect me from the EMP because the EMP was on the wrong side of it, but it could help him and his two little brothers. They’re fine. I can’t say as much for their feline charges, though.

Oh god. Casper and Waldo. They were inside when the pulse went off. They’re not battle units; they’re not built with a lot of armour, just enough to deal with regular maintenance and emergency situations. Where are they? Where are my boys?

 

STARRY: Elliott, where’s Waldo?

ELLIOTT: What?

STARRY: I can’t find him. Where is he? He’s not… he’s…

ELLIOTT: (expression falling) Uh. I don’t know, haven’t seen him in a while. (He looks around.) Has anyone…

STARRY: They can’t be gone. They’re a part of me; I need them.

DINEEN: (softly, staring) Shit.

CAPT: They?

ELLIOTT: (waving at the captain to be quiet) Starry, your drones will be fine. Nothing we can’t fix.

STARRY: You don’t know that.

CAPT: We’ll find them and do everything we can, Starry. You can’t hear them at all?

STARRY: No. I think… I think I see one of them near the Bridge. Sensor coverage is spotty. But I don’t have a connection to them.

CAPT: (nods and activates his personal comms) Chief?

CAMERON: (over the captain’s personal comms, her voice issuing from the holographic interface projected above his left forearm) Yes, captain?

CAPT: Update?

CAMERON: The Bridge is cycling back to full operation. It should be back online in another few minutes.

CAPT: When the door releases, please check outside for one of Starry’s drones.

CAMERON: (hesitates) You want me to check its status?

CAPT: Yes please. Soon as you’re able.

CAMERON: Aye aye, sir.

STARRY: (softly) Thank you.

 

It’s selfish, I know it is. But they’re my hands. They’re how I keep my crew safe and fed and clean. They’re a part of me, a part of my heart.

Maybe them being shut down is not a bad thing. They knew what was happening. If they weren’t needed, they could have closed themselves down to protect themselves against the EMPs. The pulses only affect active circuits. I was too busy to keep an eye on them, too busy to protect even myself. Elliott had to do it. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have noticed if they took themselves offline. It wouldn’t have raised any red flags, and I was busy with a lot of red flags.

Focus, Starry. Focus on what you can do and know. Critical systems, warnings and errors and flashing lights. It’s time to pull yourself together. Get environmentals back, so the crew don’t freeze.

And then there’s my forward cargo bay. It’s open to the vacuum (so not really helping with my heating problem) and it still has a guest in it. I am mostly blind in there, but the couple of sensors that I can use are telling me that the kitten has a pulse but isn’t moving much.

How the hell it has a pulse after several minutes in the vacuum is beyond my processing capabilities right now.

On the plus side, I’m not sensing any more energy build-ups in there. Does that mean it’s finally over?

Holy shit, is that an avatar now? Is that Cerces?

Wait, I’m detecting a pressure seal in there now. Big Ass is outside the airlock of Cargo Bay 1 and he’s manually sealing the doors. They’re warped and dented, which means the seal isn’t perfect, so he’s welding them shut.

In a few seconds, I’ll be able to restore atmosphere in there. Assuming enough of me works. Then maybe we’ll get to meet this avatar. Maybe we’ll get to see what all this fuss and damage has been for.

 

SARA: (wriggles out of the captain’s grip while he’s distracted and shoves away from him.)

CAPT: (grabs for her dress and misses.)

SARA: (is heading for the door and reaches out to grab the railing next to it.)

CAPT: (sighs) Sara, you can’t go out there yet.

SARA: (bumping clumsily against the door, she scrabbles and manages to hold onto the railing. She plants her feet on the door to steady herself, then looks back at the captain.) Kitty needs. Kitty, now!

CAPT: (considers that for a second, then looks to his engineer) How long until you know the extent of the damage?

ELLIOTT: Judging by what I’m seeing right now? Probably a few weeks. The airlock breach is being sealed, we’re not in danger of exploding at the moment, and unless you know how to put an environmental system together, there ain’t much you can do here, captain.

CAPT: (nods) That’s what I needed, thank you. I want updates as soon as you have them.

ELLIOTT: (sighing) Yeah, sure.

CAPT: (pushes off to join Sara) All right, it’s time to go meet your kitty.

SARA: (brightens immediately) Kitty!

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25 Feb

Pulse

Ship’s log, 00:11, 6 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Adrift, orbit degrading

 

Location: Outer hull

(The stars tumble around the ship with the large, lightless patch that is the black hole, wheeling around on all three axes. The cargo and contents that were sucked out of the breached airlock wind in a curve behind the ship. From the nose of the ship, filaments extend and waver like hair follicles.

Big Ass is suspended above the hull on safety tethers. He opens a compartment in his chest, usually reserved for tools and arm attachments, and places a limp bundle inside.

Then he thrusts through the traffic of crates towards a small mote, the safety lines spooling out behind him. A crate bounces off one of the lines, making it thrum unhappily and putting a dent in his journey.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(After the airlock breach, the bay is mostly empty, apart from the cargo that was secured enough to withstand the gravity fluctuations and the loss of pressure. There isn’t much of that.

In the gaping space, the soccer ball-sized anomaly crawls with electromagnetic energy. Inside, the tiny body of a black kitten twitches with its eyes closed, for all the word like it’s dreaming of chasing dustbunnies in the ducts.

Static and pressure builds around the anomaly in the vacuum of the cargo bay, like it’s holding its breath. The pulse of its release is invisible, signalled only by a tiny cat convulsing in an uncomfortable way.)

 

Another EMP. I’ve already lost the outer airlock to one of those; I’m still trying to re-route control so I can close it. Assuming that the breach didn’t warp the doors too much to close, that is, and that there are enough un-fried circuits for me to find.

I’ve lost half of the sensors in there. The anomaly is off-centre, towards the outer hull end of the bay; the ship-side sensors are still working. But if that pulse keeps growing, I’m going to lose them all and then I won’t have any idea what’s going on inside my own cargo bay.

After that, I’ll lose the door controls currently sealing the breach off from my inner corridors. The entire deck will lose pressure.

Damage control, Starry. You can get around this.

Alternate sensor usage, so there’s always some on, some off. I’ll only lose the active circuits to an EMP. Isolate and rotate.

Lock the inner door down to emergency manual controls only. Shut down the circuits there, too. No power, nothing to fry.

If only it was that simple to get us out of this spin.

 

Location: Engineering

(Dineen, the Strider’s engineer, is currently working at a terminal, surrounded by red warnings and tapping furiously at the controls. The captain is hovering in the zero-G nearby, watching her closely. Beyond him, Rosie is keeping a close eye on proceedings as well, fingering the weapon hanging from its shoulder strap.

Across the room, the doctor is scanning an unconscious Elliott, who is tethered to a wall by a dangling strap.)

DINEEN: Looks like the EMP was bigger this time.

STARRY: (voice only) Yes, but you don’t need to worry about that.

DINEEN: But if it gets much bigger…

STARRY: I’m putting measures in place. You need to focus on the engines. I need propulsion and helm control back.

DINEEN: I… see what you’re doing in there. Wow, Monaghan said you weren’t a regular AI, but I never credited that you were this different.

STARRY: Compliment me later. Fix me now.

CAPT: (to Dineen) Starry works closely with our engineer. Starry, how long until those EMPs will start to cause real problems?

STARRY: I’ve locked the inner doors down, so the breach shouldn’t get any worse. I’d recommend sealing the hatches there in Engineering, too, just in case. Hard to calculate the rate of expansion yet, but we’ve got maybe twenty minutes before it reaches a critical system.

ROSIE: (frowns and pushes off a railing to head for the upper access hatch.)

CAPT: What happens then?

STARRY: Hard to say. I’ll have to re-route systems, but I’ve got a lot of internal damage from the surges… let’s just say it’s gonna get interesting.

DINEEN: (lifting an eyebrow while her hands continued their hurried work over the console’s controls) Your calculation is ‘interesting’?

STARRY: It’s more of a feeling.

DINEEN: (shakes her head to herself) The more you know.

CAPT: How long until the EMP reaches the first of our people?

STARRY: Uh… Maybe two-thirds of the time it’ll take to reach critical systems. Less to reach where the Strider’s people are.

DINEEN: Before it reaches implants? That’s not going to be pretty.

CAPT: (frowns and nods) Do what you can.

DINEEN: Yeah. So, what the hell happened to your safety protocols?

STARRY: They kept putting us in danger, so they got reconfigured.

DINEEN: Well, it’s a mess in here.

STARRY: You’re gonna have to deal with it. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen worse.

DINEEN: (grins suddenly) Oh, you have no idea.

 

Not sure I like that grin. She seems to be homing in on the right area, though.

I had to give her engineer-level access to my systems to do this. I’m not entirely comfortable with that: those are my core safety protocols she’s poking around in. But I can’t do it all myself. I have to try to mitigate the damage and keep an eye on what’s happening, and somehow keep us all alive. We do what we have to.

Does Cerces know what he’s doing to us? He could create this avatar only to eat it up with his black hole self. Can he really be oblivious? Does he not care?

Sara seems calm. She’s drifting along next to the captain, her head turned towards the cargo bay where the anomaly is, and humming to herself. It’s like she can see what’s happening, right through my walls.

Somehow, I think if Cerces knew how dangerous our situation was, she’d be more worried. Instead, she’s calm and happy, smiling cheerfully. And waiting.

I wish I knew how long this was all supposed to take. I— What the hell is Dineen doing?

 

Warning
Collision imminent
Warning

 

CAPT: (frowns at the warnings flashing on Dineen’s console) Starry…?

STARRY: There’s nothing out there. Dineen, what are you doing?

DINEEN: Disrupting your safety protocols is going to take too long. I’m working around it. Making them work for us.

STARRY: You’re faking a collision alert?

DINEEN: I’m reconfiguring the sensors to pick up the black hole’s event horizon as a solid barrier.

STARRY: So the collision alert will counter the surge shutdown and restart the engines.

DINEEN: Precisely.

 

It’s smart. This is why I wanted her hands free to help. But… now I have conflicting warnings in my systems. It wants me to send a distress signal. Who the hell would get it in time? Stop it. Work around it.

The protocols are trying to form a logic loop. Start up / shut down / start up / shut down… SHUT UP. STOP, just stop.

 

STARRY: (sounding strained) This better work quick.

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: Giving me a headache.

DINEEN: (still working feverishly) Almost there, hold on…

STARRY: I’m spinning towards a black hole. What, precisely, would you like me to hold onto?

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass closes a huge metal hand around a fragile bundle of metal and fur. He tucks it carefully into his chest compartment.

His blocky head turns, scanners active. Some distance away from him and the ship, there’s the bright little light of a welding torch trying to act as a thruster to push its bearer back towards the hull. It’s not working: the drone is losing ground as the ship spins; every time he comes into view, he’s a little further away.

Big Ass adjusts the length of his safety tethers to move through the drift of debris towards the little light. Another stray crate clangs off a tether and it strains, the groan of metal vibrating up the line into the drone’s form. He activates his thrusters and the tether gives way entirely, whipping off the hull and swinging him out in the wrong direction.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (grumbles incoherently.)

STARRY: Elliott?

DR SOCKS: (pressing a scanner to the engineer’s neck) He’s coming around, give him a moment.

DINEEN: (across the room) Another EMP.

CAPT: Damage?

STARRY: Bigger this time. Circuits outside the cargo bay affected. New estimate: six minutes until it reaches critical systems.

DINEEN: Shit.

 

Elliott’s okay. I don’t like it when he’s so quiet. I don’t like it when he’s hurt. But he’s okay. The doctor is with him.

Cerces and I are going to have some choice words when this is all over.

Assuming, of course, that whatever Dineen is doing doesn’t wipe my vocabulary libraries. I feel like all sense is dribbling out of my ducts, replaced by self-important protocols shouting that no, they have priority, because safety is paramount.

I’d ignore them and look out of my external sensors, but the spinning only makes me dizzy.

Focus, Starry. You need to orient yourself so that you’re ready to pull out of that spin as soon as the engines come back on. You’ve done this a hundred times. Danika loved this sort of thing, never puked once; it’d be a shame to spoil that record now. Especially without the means to actually vomit.

 

Location: Outer hull

(With one safety line flung out into the black, Big Ass flares his thrusters to push back towards his little brother. The remaining safety tether pings unhappily under the strain.

Abruptly, he turns his bulky form around, his base pointed outwards from the ship, and activates his mag-clamps. The little light of Bit’s welding torch spins into view. After a second, most of the little drone’s legs extend towards his big brother in return, reaching for the magnetic attraction.)

 

Warning
Collision imminent
Warning
Warning
Evasive action required

 

I think it’s starting to work. Dineen is making changes to the severity of the warnings, leaning on the immediacy of how quickly a collision will kill us compared to a surge that has finished.

This would be easier to do if the pulses weren’t sending new surges through my circuits, but I guess we can’t have everything. I’m routing the worst of the excess power out through the Step drive’s filaments, and that is helping to buffer the rest of me. Small steps, small steps.

Another EMP. That one covered most of the adjacent cargo bays. I’m shutting down every system I can, trying to save as many circuits as possible. Squeezing myself down to a small nub, locating my main processing in Engineering to be as far from the next pulse as possible, talking in intermittent snatches with the rest of me.

Still spinning. Still hurtling towards what my sensors are now telling me is a solid barrier. My boys are outside, dangling on a string, and Big Ass just missed grabbing his brother with his mag-clamps.

I feel like it’s all slipping through my fingers and there’s nothing I can do.

 

(Big Ass’s head turns to watch Bit’s light drift right past him, though closer than before.

Bit looks ahead, at the nose of the ship that is spinning towards him. He’s not close enough to reach the hull, but the filaments are trailing randomly outwards. The tiny drone readjusts his position and activates his mag-clamps again.

His position wobbles, then comes to an unsteady pause on the side of a filament. Little feet clamber to get a more solid purchase, awkward as he has to work around the bulk of the limp kitten he’s still attached to.

Big Ass deactivates his mag-clamps and begins to thrust towards the filament. The safety line spools out behind him.)

 

Bit! There’s hope yet. Except… wait. I’m routing surges out through those filaments. He can’t be on there. I can’t afford to not discharge, not even to save him.

Hurry, Big Ass. Please hurry.

Warning
Evasive action required
Sublight engines online
Thrusters online
Navigation online

 

Dineen did it! I can feel my engines powering up, and the spidery web of thrusters on my hull coming back to life.

All I need to do now is squint and pull us out of this spin. And not yank my boys around too much. If I move too quickly, I’ll ruin the rescue attempt.

Come on, Big Ass. Grab him already. We don’t have time.

 

Location: Engineering

DINEEN: (huffs, grinning) Got it. Starry?

STARRY: I’ve got propulsion.

CAPT: (activates his personal holographic interface, which hovers above his left forearm) Position?

DINEEN: (blinks and turns her head towards the bulk of the engines at the rear of the room) How come I can’t hear the sublights spinning up?

ELLIOTT: (across the room, muzzily) What the fuck happened?

DR SOCKS: (speaks lowly and calmly to the engineer.)

STARRY: Still falling, captain. Just need to get my drones secure.

CAPT: What?

STARRY: Four seconds!

CAPT: Starry…

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass stretches on the end of his tether, a hand reaching forward. The filament bearing Bit’s clinging form wavers back and forth, reacting to the extra weight and the turn of the ship.

The little drone stretches out two of his feet with his mag-clamps active, trying to pull himself towards his big brother without losing hold of the filament.)

 

Come on, boys. Come on.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The kitten in the ball of energy trembles. Electricity crawls around inside the ball like it has a mind of its own, throwing shards of blue-white light around the cargo bay floor. Pressure builds like a fist again.)

 

Location: Outer hull

(The two drones are within a metre of each other. Bit abruptly lets go of his anchor, pushing off the line towards the heavy drone and towing his kittenish burden.

Big Ass’s hand snaps closed.

On the hull beneath them, thrusters flare.)

 

That’s it! Now I can get us out of here.

 

Location: Engineering

STARRY: Pulling up now, captain.

CAPT: Get us to a safe distance.

STARRY: Fast as my sublights will shove us.

 

It feels so good to have power again. Countering a three-way spin is an old game; it only takes a few seconds to smooth myself out and pull up into a swoop away from Cerces. Sublights punch satisfyingly. I won’t be eaten today.

We’re going to make it through this.

 

STARRY: Energy building in the anomaly again. EMP on the way.

ELLIOTT: (appearing at Dineen’s shoulder, scowling) The fuck you think you’re doing? (He reaches past her to jab a rapid sequence into her console.)

STARRY: Elliott, wai—

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(All at once, the electricity in the ball dives into the kitten and the light disappears.

The black kitten’s eyes open.)

 

AI core offline
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18 Feb

Surge

Ship’s log, 00:00, 6 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Warning
Warning
Power surge detected
Systems overloaded
Warning

 

Yes, autolog, I know. I can see all the flashing red warnings painting my insides like I’m bleeding in here.

It hurts. I’m a ship and I don’t have pain receptors, but it hurts.

 

Instabilities in primary systems
Primary systems disabling

 

Oh, shit. We can’t afford for my primary systems to go down. I’m flying around a goddamn black hole!

 

Weapons offline
FTL drive offline

 

Shit shit shit. We don’t need those right now, but my automated safety systems are getting closer to the systems we really do need.

 

Artificial gravity offline
Environmentals offline

 

Okay, I can cope without those for a couple of hours at least. My people will be fine.

 

Thrusters offline
Sublight engines offline

 

Fuck.

 

Inertial dampeners—

 

No you don’t! Not the dampeners, not this close to a huge gravity well. Stop, autolog, stop right there. With no way to control my position or direction, I can’t risk it. My people, all my people, they’ll be blood running down my walls and decks…

 

Error
Error
Error

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (gripping the edge of an open panel in the floor, his eyes are narrowed as he scans the red warnings being projected into the air around him) Starry, what the fuck is going on?

STARRY: (avatar flickering) Power surges. Tripped the auto-safeties, they’re trying to shut everything down.

ELLIOTT: I can see that. But what are these errors?

STARRY: Inertial dampening. Need to keep it up.

ELLIOTT: What? It’s too late, we can’t make the bubble…

STARRY: Not for that; for you. Too close to black hole. Too dangerous, you’ll never survive…

ROSIE: (eyes widening) We’ll be fucking paste.

ELLIOTT: Got it.

STARRY: Pulling out failsafes. It’s not— it’s not—

ELLIOTT: (hesitating) Starry?

STARRY: Fire on the forward deck. Mid-deck. Environmentals offline. Lost communication to right wing.

HALF-FACE: I’ll deal with the fire. (He twists, activating thrusters in the soles of his prosthetic feet to push him past Rosie and out of the upper access hatch.)

ROSIE: (watches him go) I gotta get me some of those.

 

I’m elbow-deep in my own guts, tearing handfuls out. Ripping up some of my few remaining safety measures makes my code crawl and twitch at me. If the dampeners malfunction, they could cause damage too. They could hurt my people. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

I need to make sure we’re okay right now. Just for now.

 

Error
Inertial dampeners online
Error

 

And fucking stay that way, you bastard.

 

STARRY: Elliott, need to isolate the inertial dampeners. Surges could overload them. Need buffers.

ELLIOTT: Right. On it. (He tugs his head and shoulders down into the hole in the floor.)

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPTAIN: (holding onto the handle next to a closed door) Starry, report!

STARRY: (voice only) Busy battling damage, captain. Power surges from the anomaly.

CAPT: (frowning) Gravity is worse than expected?

STARRY: It’s not a gravity anomaly any more. Electro-magnetic. We’ve lost all primary systems. Propulsion is offline.

CAPT: (over internal comms) Lang Lang! What’s our position?

(There’s a pregnant pause before an answer comes through.)

LANG LANG: (voice only, sounding strained) Position is good, captain. We’re exactly where we need to be.

STARRY: Lang Lang, Chief Cameron, and Brenn Haitom seem to be affected by whatever is happening.

CAPT: Affected how?

STARRY: How the fuck do I know? I’m trying to keep myself in one piece and stop a black hole from smearing you all into a paste! Get the doc to see how intact their minds are!

CAPT: Starry—

STARRY: Can’t— fighting primary system shutdown. Just— hold on, captain. Hold on.

 

Warning
Primary systems disabling
Warning
Isolating central processing core…
Error
Central processing core online
Error
Warning
Isolating AI core…
Error
AI core online
Error

 

Leave me alone! I’m fine. I won’t be shut down or shut away by this stupid thing. I can’t be. I need to be here, to deal with this.

 

Location: Engineering

STARRY: Elliott, hurry.

ELLIOTT: I’m working on it!

STARRY: Need buffers. More surges, losing control. (Her avatar flickers and disappears.)

ELLIOTT: I know, I know, just— fuck!

DINEEN: (from where she is secured to a railing) Let me help. I can help!

ROSIE: (pointing her weapon at the Strider’s engineer with one hand) You just stay where the fuck you are.

DINEEN: (huffs with exasperation) I don’t want to die either, y’know.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The dark is broken by flashes of electricity that crawl over the surface of a ball hovering in the air. The anomaly has shrunk down to the size of a basketball again, and spikes outwards to lance the walls and floor with electricity.

Different parts of the spectrum tell different parts of the story. Infra-red shows the ball as a single, hot sphere, while night vision shows that the black kitten is now inside it. The tiny cat is curled into a tight little ball, its eyes squeezed shut. Static sparks in its fur, rippling over its little body in waves.

The rest of the cargo bay’s contents have been released from the pull of the anomaly’s gravity and now bounce around weightlessly again. Two kittens struggle to avoid being struck by anything; the third is still unconscious and limp.

A buzz builds, like a fist curling tight, and then electricity snaps out from the orb, striking the floor and two walls. The inner airlock doors flash a red warning and crack open.)

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass is squatting on the hull, secured by two safety tethers. The moment the airlock’s inner doors fail, his head tilts. He rises from his resting position and pushes off from the hull, letting the tethers spool out. Outside of the invisible, protective shield of the inertial dampeners, the gravity of the black hole snags him and pulls the tethers taut.

Big Ass adjusts the length of the tethers until he is hovering above the right patch of hull. Directly below him, the outer doors to Cargo Bay 1 are still holding.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Oh shi— (There’s a flash and a pop from under the floor, propelling him backwards. He tumbles out of the hole and across the room.)

STARRY: (voice only) ROSIE!

ROSIE: (kicking off a wall, she drops her weapon to dangle on its strap and reaches out to grab the floating engineer) Got ‘im!

STARRY: Is he okay? Elliott! Elliott?

 

Sensors are all over the places. Surges create interference. Can barely construct whole sentences. Is he okay? I can’t tell.

Life signs say he’s still alive. There, that’s his heartbeat; I’d know his patterns anywhere. My Elliott. Why isn’t he moving?

 

STARRY: Rosie, is he okay?

ROSIE: Hold the fuck on. (With Elliott dangling from the loop of her arm, she brings her feet around to cushion her impact against the wall opposite to where she pushed off.)

ELLIOTT: (doesn’t react.)

STARRY: Rosie—

ROSIE: I’m checking! Fuck.

(Snagging a handy strap dangling nearby for stability, she flips the engineer right-side-up and squints at his face. He looks like he’s asleep, with a scorch-mark down one side of his face. The left shoulder of his coveralls smokes faintly.

Rosie pins him to the wall with one knee and presses the back of her left hand to his throat. A holographic readout pops up on her forearm.)

ROSIE: He’s alive, but he’s out. Looks like he took some of that last surge.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

STARRY: Doc, medical emergency, Engineering,

DR SOCKS: I thought I was needed on the Bridge.

STARRY: (louder) Get to Engineering, now!

CAPT: Starry, what’s happened?

STARRY: (losing the volume again) It’s Elliott. He got hit by the surge. He… he’s alive, but…

CAPT: (looks at the doctor and nods) Get to it.

DR SOCKS: (nods and opens the door.)

SARA: (still mesmerised by whatever she can see, she doesn’t notice that her way is now clear.)

STARRY: Captain, you need to get down there, too.

CAPT: What? Why?

STARRY: Elliott… he… I need my engineer.

CAPT: The doc’ll look after him.

STARRY: Who’s gonna look after me? I can’t do this on my own. I need an engineer!

CAPT: (hesitates, watching the doctor’s back as he pulls himself down to the lower level of the ship) You mean Dineen.

STARRY: I don’t know. I don’t care. I need help.

CAPT: (looks down at the child he’s still holding by a fistful of pink dress) All right, I’m on my way. (He tucks her under his arm and pushes off after the doctor.)

SARA: (happily) Kitty!

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The anomaly is smaller now, about the size of a soccer ball. The black kitten’s fur is standing on end as it uncurls in short, stiff movements. Electricity crawls over the little body, wriggling between whiskers and inside its ears.

Inside a vent high on the inner wall, Bit and Byte huddle behind the closed grate and watch the goings-on.)

BYTE: (activates the switch to retract the vent cover, baring him and his brother to the chaotic cargo bay.)

BIT: (looks at Byte and spreads his hands questioningly.)

BYTE: (points at the white kitten floating nearby, its little black feet flapping in its panic. Its breathing is low and shallow.)

BIT: (scans the cargo bay , then nods and flexes his fingers in a purposed way.)

BYTE: (nods too, then pushes off into the gravity-less atmosphere, using his welding torch to propel himself towards the white kitten.)

BIT: (is a half-second behind him, aiming for the smaller tabby kitten on the far side of the cargo bay.)

 

Location: Engineering

ROSIE: (over internal comms) What, captain?

CAPT: (voice only) I’m on my way. Do it, Brasco.

ROSIE: (mutters to herself and loops the strap she was holding onto around Elliott’s arm.)

ELLIOTT: (doesn’t respond.)

ROSIE: (kicks away from the floating engineer and towards the prisoner secured to the railing. She eyes the woman warily.)

DINEEN: (sighs) I really would like to save my own ass.

DR SOCKS: (arrives through the upper hatch and pushes immediately towards Elliott’s prone form.)

ROSIE: (barely sparing the doctor a glance, she’s focussed on the prisoner) You put a finger wrong and I’m gonna shoot something off.

DINEEN: (raises her eyebrows) Understood.

ROSIE: (takes a small can out of a pouch on her belt and sprays the rigid substance covering Dineen’s hands and forearms. It hisses, then the restraint dissolves, releasing globs into the air. The SecOff grimaces at the mess.)

DINEEN: (tugs at the restraint until her hands come free from the railing she was secured to) Starry, can I see the readouts of these surges, please?

STARRY: (voice only) Get to a console. Ad-hoc holographic projectors offline.

DINEEN: (nods and pushes over to the nearest wall to press a panel) What buffers have you got?

STARRY: Not much left. Surges burnt through most of it. Inertial dampeners and AI core partially protected.

DINEEN: (watches the display come up on the wall console and frowns when it flickers) Partially?

STARRY: I’m doing my best.

CAPT: (arrives through the upper hatch, with Sara still in tow.)

DINEEN: Is your Step drive still working?

STARRY: Not online.

DINEEN: Doesn’t look damaged.

STARRY: Active systems are worst hit.

CAPT: (halting next to Dineen) I’m not sure I like where you’re going with this.

DINEEN: I think we can route the surges into the Step drive…

STARRY: So I can explode from the middle?

DINEEN: (grins) So you can extend your filaments and emit the energy safely.

CAPT: Starry, will that work?

STARRY: …it might.

 

It’s a good idea. Who cares if we burn that system out, right? It’s not like I can use it any more. It’s not like I should. I can use the filaments to route the energy out of my core systems, outside my hull.

I just need to disable their gravity charging, reverse the polarity…

I can do this. I should be able to do this.

 

Step drive initialising
Filaments extending

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

BYTE: (has his legs wrapped around the body of the white kitten and is dodging around the floating debris on his way back to the vent. One hand pets the kitten’s head, who now seems less panicked.)

BIT: (has grabbed the tabby kitten, and the kitten is biting his arm. The little body twists and is trying to cling onto him with claws and wrapping legs.)

(In the centre of the room, the anomaly gathers like a fist again. Fur and fabric around the room prickles with the build-up of static. The snap of discharge is brighter this time, hammering into the innards of the cargo bay. A crate explodes, showering splintered plastic everywhere. Already damaged lighting spits sparks. The airlocks creaks in protest, its activation panel flickering through various colours and warnings.)

 

It’s shorting out my airlock controls. I’m trying to lock them down but I can barely talk to it any more.

I can deal with surges from within my own systems, but I can’t generate this kind of spiking. I can withstand a lightning strike on my hull pretty easily, but that one was inside me. That one has direct access to my power lines; every console and interaction point is a chink in my armour. I’m not supposed to need to protect myself from something already inside me!

 

(The airlock creaks again and all its status lights stutter to red. The outer doors shiver.)

BYTE: (is almost to the open vent.)

BIT: (still struggling to get a good hold on the tabby, he tumbles.)

(The black kitten’s eyes open. The anomaly twitches a ripple of energy outwards and the airlock status lights go out.)

 

That wasn’t like lightning. That was different. It was more like….

 

(The outer door seals release and the pressure differential nearly tears the doors right out of their housing. Scraping painfully open, they let the air and contents of the cargo bay out into the yawning vacuum.

Inside the cargo bay, the vent cover snaps shut and closes up, sealing the cargo bay off from the rest of the ship.

The sudden out-rush of the air in the cargo bay sucks crates and tools and all manner of debris out of the airlock, including two small drones and three tiny kittens. The anomaly and its prize remain exactly where they are.)

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass watches the airlock doors shudder open and spreads his arms, ready for the onslaught. As cargo and debris sprays out towards him, he shoves it all away calmly.

Behind him, the black hole begins to move as the ship turns. The debris describes an arc through the dark.

One large, outstretched metal hand closes around an unconscious kitten.)

 

Location: Engineering

DINEEN: (staring at the readouts) Holy shit, that was an EMP.

CAPT: Starry!

STARRY: (voice only) Small one. Localised to the cargo bay.

CAPT: (breathes a sigh of relief.)

STARRY: Airlock’s breached. We’re losing cargo and… (Her voice cracks.) No, my boys.

CAPT: Can you contain the damage?

STARRY: (struggling) For now.

DINEEN: The anomaly’s getting stronger. Ship, we better isolate you so you don’t—

STARRY: No.

DINEEN: What?

STARRY: The airlock breach knocked me out of orbit, put me in a spin. If we don’t get the engines back online and if I don’t pull us out of this, it won’t matter if an EMP fries me.

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13 Feb

Touchpoint

Ship’s log, 23:51, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass pauses in his traverse across the surface of the ship to clip a safety line onto an anchor ring. Turning, he trundles down the curve of the ship’s side, spinning the safety line out behind him.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(Four kittens struggle with the lack of gravity. Claws skitter against the smooth surface of a wall but find no purchase: the bigger tabby kitten drifts away again into the open expanse of the cargo bay’s air.

The white kitten has managed to latch its teeth onto a tether holding the cargo crates to the floor. It mews, the sound muffled by its mouthful, and wriggles to try to catch a claw on the tether as well.

The other three babies bounce about the room in slow motion, waiting for their chance to find somewhere to stick. The smaller tabby has its claws out, in case sporting velcro-like paws will give it an advantage.)

BIT and BYTE: (watch from a vent opening high on an inner wall.)

 

The pieces are all moving into place. We think the next gravity fluctuation will find its mark, if our assumptions about the mark are correct.

We’re not quite sure what will happen. I’m not sure if I’ll stand up to the pressures involved. But my people are working to help us make it through this, working hard.

Dineen is a fly in our ointment, and I can’t yet tell if she is as helpful as she’s trying to appear. She has been making suggestions about what Elliott might be able to do to reduce the damage. It all sounds like it makes sense but the source is suspect. I’m running every modelling permutation I can think of to see if she’s trying to get us to do something silly or dangerous

There’s still so much to do and no time to do it in.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott has a floor panel open and has half disappeared into it. Light glows up from beneath him, the shifting blues and greens of power circuits and artificial gravity generators.

Above and to his left, the Strider’s mechanic is secured to a railing by a rigid substance that covers both of her hands and forearms. She strains to see what Elliott is up to, leaning against the hold of the restraints.)

HALF-FACE: (drifts nearby, his rifle held casually in his hands but his gaze fixed warily on the prisoner.)

DINEEN: (to Elliott) Have you accounted for external compensation?

ROSIE: (enters by the upper access hatch, her jaw set at an unhappy angle. She exchanges a look with the other SecOff and halts her drift near the hatch to block the exit.)

ELLIOTT: (from under the floor) Still don’t need your help!

ROSIE: What?

STARRY: (standing near the section Elliott has lifted up, to the SecOff) It’s okay, he wasn’t talking to you.

ROSIE: (rolls her eyes and huffs) Right.

STARRY: (to Dineen) The inertial dampeners are countering external forces. We don’t need to worry about them.

DINEEN: Even if the hull breaches?

STARRY: Yes. I can keep the dampening bubble intact with a certain amount of hull breached.

DINEEN: (raises her eyebrows) Unusual. On-the-fly compensation?

STARRY: I’m really, really smart.

DINEEN: (lips quirking, she glances towards the other engineer again) How are you planning to define the bubble?

ELLIOTT: (pushes his head and shoulders above the level of the floor and sighs) What fucking bubble?

DINEEN: Isn’t that what you’re doing? Recalibrating the gravity generators to create a bubble to go around the anomaly?

ELLIOTT: Grav-gens can’t do that. I’m configuring it to shape the force around the lower part of the anomaly, like a cradle, but it can’t put a force on top, too. We don’t have coverage there.

DINEEN: (shrugs) It’s hard, but not impossible.

STARRY: You’ve done something like this before?

ELLIOTT: What the hell for?

DINEEN: Once. Wasn’t pretty.

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and dips back down to his work again) Great.

STARRY: What’s involved in building this bubble?

DINEEN: Three grav-gens and about half an hour, for two of us.

STARRY: We’ve got maybe seven minutes.

DINEEN: Well, shit. What about hooking in the auxiliary inertial dampeners?

ROSIE: (eyes narrowing) That sounds like you’re suggesting we fuck up a safety feature.

ELLIOTT: (head coming up again briefly) Actually, that’s not a bad idea. (He gets back to work.)

STARRY: (glancing between Elliott and Dineen) I think I’m with Rosie on this one.

 

The work continues. I can see what Elliott is doing: altering what should be a flat, steady generation of artificial gravity into a moveable cradle of force. While the anomaly pulls in, it’ll be pulling outwards and down (relative to my decks). It should be able to create enough force to counter the anomaly, enough to prevent at least some of the damage.

I fear for anything caught in between the anomaly and the cradle. It’ll be torn apart. There’s not much we can do about that, though.

It also won’t be enough to quash the entire effect of the anomaly; we’d need Dineen’s bubble for that. There’s nothing we can do about whatever is above the anomaly. But it’ll help. With so little time, every little helps.

 

Location: Outer hull

(Ducking under the portside wing, Big Ass clips a second safety tether to another anchor ring. Turning, he comes out from under the wing, trailing two taut safety lines now.

When he’s precisely half way between the two anchor points, he stops and settles down on his metal haunches to wait.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (from under the floor) Starry, what’s it looking like on your end?

STARRY: Looks okay. You need to tie off the feed to— yes, that one.

ELLIOTT: You’ve got full control?

STARRY: (hesitates) Yes.

DINEEN: You’re going to let the ship handle it?

ELLIOTT: (still under the floor) I’m just here to make shit work, not steer it.

STARRY: I can see what needs to be done. And I’ve got better reflexes.

ELLIOTT: You just hang onto your railing there.

DINEEN: (shooting a look at the Lieutenant) Like I have a choice.

HALF-FACE: (regards her impassively.)

ROSIE: (snorts.)

ELLIOTT: (pops his head up and glances at the other engineer) Only way I can see to use the inertial dampening system is to reconfigure where the hull is. Make it think it’s smaller than it is.

DINEEN: Yes. Then you can use it to shield the rest of the ship from the gravitational forces.

ELLIOTT: It’s a good theory, but…

STARRY: We have live creatures in that cargo bay. And we’re in a driving orbit around a black hole. Opening a gap in my inertial dampening field’s hull coverage like that would tear half my side off. If we’re lucky.

DINEEN: I know. That’s why I said use the auxiliary dampeners. Create a second dampening field inside the first.

ELLIOTT: (frowns) Won’t that create feedback between the two fields?

DINEEN: Yes, you’ll need to configure it so they don’t interact.

STARRY: Or they’ll tear me apart.

DINEEN: (shrugs, which makes her wobble against the forearm restraints) I never said it would be easy, just that it could work.

ROSIE: (eyeing Dineen distrustfully) Sounds dangerous to me. You cleared this with the captain?

ELLIOTT: Ain’t even sure I want to do it yet.

STARRY: (sighs) Relaying it to him now.

 

We have three minutes.

I don’t like it. She’s right: it could work. But it’s a dangerous approach.

Suddenly, I see how the Celestial Strider survived so long when she was caught in the tides of the black hole. Dineen kept her afloat any way she could, butchering one system to prop up another, playing a circular game of catch-up until she had no more pieces to move around. Brilliant and inventive, but ultimately temporary.

We’re not that desperate yet and there’s no time to do it well. I don’t want to end up in that position. I can feel my voice sliding into cautious disapproval as I tell the captain what Dineen is suggesting.

Elliott is already looking at the inertial dampening systems. I can almost see his brain ticking over ways to make it work.

I have faith in him. If he sees a way, he’ll be able to make it work.

The captain is frowning. Elliott is fiddling with the settings of the auxiliary system. Four kittens are mewing unhappily at the lack of gravity, calling for their mother. She hasn’t been seen all day.

Two minutes.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPTAIN: (holds onto the handle next to the closed door with one hand and Sara with the other. He shakes his head slowly. Over internal comms,) Monaghan, I don’t like the sound of this plan. I’m not vetoing it, but I want you to be sure before you do anything.

SARA: (has wriggled out of her position on the captain’s back so she can push at the closed door insistently) Kitty. Kitty?

ELLIOTT: (over internal comms, voice only) Sure? We’ve got two minutes, which ain’t time to be sure of anything we can cobble together.

STARRY: A minute and a half.

CAPT: Do your best to keep the ship in one piece. If we lose the cargo in that bay, then we lose it. We must not lose the ship, though.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, I’d kinda like to keep breathin’, too.

CAPT: Do what you need to.

ELLIOTT: Aye aye.

SARA: (twists around awkwardly to look at the captain) Get to kitty.

CAPT: It’s too dangerous, little one. We’ll go when the whale’s done… his thing.

SARA: (screws her face up, somewhere between a tantrum and tears. She strains to get free of his grip.)

 

One minute. The tide rises. If I had hairs on the back of my neck, they’d be lifting.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(Abruptly, silence falls within the cargo bay. The mewling of distressed kittens stops; instead, the four of them look around with wide eyes, pupils big and black. A couple of them struggle to stay attached to the cargo nets and tethers; the other two drift motionless.)

BIT and BYTE: (look at each other.)

BIT: (shrugs.)

BYTE: (activates the vent cover. It slides into place in front of them.)

BIT and BYTE: (shuffle so they can peer through the grating of the vent cover at what’s happening inside the cargo bay.)

 

Thirty seconds. I guess I’m not the only one who knows it’s coming.

Sara is getting more frantic. The captain is holding her away from the walls and floor by the back of her dress now, so she can’t hurt herself, but she’s starting to dissolve into incoherent upset. The doctor has slipped a hand in his emergency medical pack, probably looking for a sedative for the kid.

Elliott is still fiddling with my auxiliary inertial dampening but he hasn’t activated it yet. He’s frowning and moving like he’s not sure about it; usually he’s so determined when working to a deadline.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (scowls at the readouts projected above his left forearm) Let’s just… keep the inertial dampening thing as a backup.

STARRY: Will do. Twenty seconds.

ELLIOTT: (unspools a safety tether from where it is clipped to his belt and snicks it onto a metal loop just under the opening in the floor) Guess we’re as ready as we’re gonna be. I’ll monitor from here.

STARRY: (nods and shifts her weight.)

 

Shipwide

STARRY: Safety harnesses, everyone. Brace for… arrival.

 

Too many of my people are out of position and can’t be harnessed in. After dangling over the last anomaly, the first thing Elliott did before he got to work was to put the safety line on his belt. Now I wish that I had asked everyone to do that.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

SARA: (stops struggling abruptly and falls quiet.)

CAPT and DR SOCKS: (look at her curiously.)

SARA: (twists to look in the direction of Cargo Bay 1, as if she could see right through the layers of bulkhead, and gasps softly.)

 

There’s nothing more worrying than a quiet child. Between Sara and the kittens, I know we’re right about what’s going to happen.

It’s not just the youngsters, either.

 

Location: Crew quarters

BRENN HAITOM: (lifts his head, his eyes unfocussed. A smile trembles on his lips.) I see you there. (He laughs softly, hands rubbing up and down his arms.) How fast does black travel? Come to see, come to see.

(He licks his teeth and whispers,) Welcome, my dark.

 

Location: Bridge

(Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are the only people on the Bridge. They are seated at their stations with holographic consoles wrapping around them, busy with readouts and chatter. The centre of the room hosts a projected representation of the Starwalker, her walls translucent to reveal her internal structure.)

LANG LANG: (presses a command into the projected console and a red light blooms in a forward cargo bay of the holographic ship.)

CAMERON: (waves the sensor channel monitoring the prisoner situation in Engineering into silence and rubs her right temple, wincing.)

LANG LANG and CAMERON: (turn their seats to look at each other through their respective consoles.)

CAMERON: (nods grimly.)

 

I can feel it: a gathering in my belly. I am growing pregnant with it.

Already it feels different than before.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(A spattering of uncertain mews moves around the floating kittens. The small tabby hisses and puffs up, all its fur standing on end. The white one tries to cower behind the cargo it is clinging to.

In an open section between the neat stacks of crates, the air ripples as an anomaly distorts the light. It’s about the size of a basketball.

The pull begins slowly, gently drawing in the loose debris in the room – a random tool, an unsecured crate, a handful of spare bolts, a couple of pieces of clothing – and the four kittens. They fall in and in, clawing at the air, all except one.

The black cat looks ‘down’ curiously, as if falling is the natural thing to do.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Starry?

STARRY: (standing nearby, the avatar staring off into space with her eyes narrowed) Got it. Cradle forming. I’m compensating. It’s not as strong as the last one, not yet.

ELLIOTT: Got green lights here so far.

STARRY: Gravity in the anomaly climbing….

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The loose objects and animals in the cargo bay gain speed as they fall towards a single point. Tethers holding the cargo down creak. One wasn’t secured properly and slithers free, letting a couple of crates tumble loose. The larger tabby kitten bounces off the corner of a crate and goes limp. Metal pings off hard plastic in a rain of clashing noises.

The ripple in the air bubbles outwards, growing half as big again. Bolts are squashed as they pass inside it, mashed into a lump of metal at its centre. The animals fall closer.

A small metal box below the anomaly screeches in protest and the metal of its lid starts to peel up at the edges. An opposing force is holding it to the floor, nailing it painfully in place. Crystalline circuit cards start to slither out of the box, tugged inexorably upwards.

The black kitten is the first of the siblings to near the gravity orb.)

BYTE: (points at the black kitten, then thrusts his arms up in triumph.)

BIT: (drops his hands down by his sides.)

(The black kitten’s left rear paw touches the distortion. Every light fixture in the cargo bay explodes.)

 

Warning
Power surge detected
Warning
Warning
Systems overloaded

 

Oh, shit.

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04 Feb

Anomalies and strategies

Ship’s log, 22:27, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(From an open vent high on the cargo bay wall, there is an echo of soft squeaks, followed by a metallic scrabbling sound.)

 

Location: Engineering

(An upper access panel is open. Elliott floats a metre away from it, one hand anchoring him to a counter. On the other side of the panel, Lieutenant Laurence is aiming a rifle directly at the opening.)

STARRY: (from behind the engineer) Elliott, move to the side!

ELLIOTT: What? Why? Where the fuck is she?

HALF-FACE: (thumbing his weapon, which emits a buzzing noise in response) Dineen, show yourself, right now.

ELLIOTT: (realising that he’s in the Lieutenant’s direct line of fire) Oh, right. Fuck. (He kicks off the counter hurriedly, floating for a railing on the other side of Engineering.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 4

(The inner airlock doors whisper open and Big Ass drifts through them with a grace that belies his size and unwieldy configuration. A brief tug on a handle swings his body around to face the control panel and he starts the airlock cycling around him.)

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

(The captain pulls himself along head-first, using one hand on the railing that threads the length of the corridor. Sara has wriggled around to lie against his back, her hands gripping his shoulders, but she’s comfortable enough now to have her head up, watching the process of their travel curiously.)

SARA: (cheerfully) Kitty soon.

CAPTAIN: Yes, we’ll be there soon.

 

I still wish the captain wasn’t heading down there. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I can contain the damage.

I want to lock the access panel he is approaching, but he’s my captain. Of all my people, he’s the only one who can command me to violate my protective protocols.

I have to trust that he knows what he’s doing. I have to try.

And I’m sending Casper down to shadow him, just in case. He never said I couldn’t watch his back.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (catching himself against the railing, he twists to scan the room behind him. His inertia in zero-G pulls his weight awkwardly against his grip on the rail.) Starry, you got her on sensors yet?

STARRY: I’m trying, Elliott, but she must be… you can’t see her either, can you?

ELLIOTT: (teeth gritted) No.

STARRY: She must be using some kind of light projection technology. And sound dampening. I can’t even pick up her heartbeat

ELLIOTT: Probably doesn’t have one. (Louder, towards the open access panel,) Taser the bitch!

HALF-FACE: Dineen, last chance.

 

Shit. I have my sensors scraped raw, analysing every tiny pico-fluctuation in light and sound and air disturbance. Elliott’s whole body is shouting at me. I’m twitching at shadows. I’m… there, by the door. There’s a spot that’s too quiet.

She’s masking too much. She’s the silence. That’s how I find her. If I zoom in, she is the stationary patch in a shifting swirl of atmosphere and dust.

Gotcha.

 

Location: Engineering access

STARRY: (voice only, pitched very soft and close to the Lieutenant’s ear) I have her. Just inside the upper right side of the door from where you are now.

HALF-FACE: (presses his lips together and pushes off the right wall of the access corridor. He brings his aim around as he drifts, getting a better angle on the spot Starry described. He doesn’t give another warning; his finger moves on the trigger.)

DINEEN: (from inside Engineering, voice only) Hold on! Don’t fire.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 4

(The outer airlock doors open and Big Ass gives a little nudge off the edge of the control panel. He pinwheels out of the opening, describing a perfect arc that ends with his tracks touching the ship’s outer hull. Mag-clamps engage to stick him to the hull and he trundles across the outer surface as the airlock doors close behind him.)

 

Location: Engineering

(To one side of the open access panel, the air ripples uncomfortably, then seems to shatter in a shower of light motes. Within its circle is the Strider’s engineer, April Dineen, with the fingers of her left hand pressed to the inside of her right elbow.

Her right forearm looks like it has exploded into curls of metal. Spiky and prickled with lights, the silver tendrils shiver and shift. Then they un-curl, straightening and melding together with a series of clicks until they form a regular-looking human forearm, hand, and fingers. There’s a brief shimmer, then the metal is covered with what looks like human skin matching the rest of her dark complexion, but is probably another hologram.)

ELLIOTT: (staring at her arm) Fuck.

HALF-FACE: (doesn’t pull the trigger immediately, drifting forward) Anchor yourself against the railing to your right. Now.

DINEEN: (sighing, she obeys, curling her human-looking hand around the railing just behind her) All right, now. There’s no need to panic.

ELLIOTT: (glancing over the rest of her) You disabled the collar.

DINEEN: Hate these damn things. (The collar is still around her neck, but two bits of metal wire poke out from a nub at the front, spoiling the otherwise smooth lines of the device.)

HALF-FACE: You’re an escaped prisoner. Turn around and face the railing.

DINEEN: I came down here to help.

ELLIOTT: (snorts) Yeah, right. Help yourself.

STARRY: (glares at the woman and folds her arms over her chest. Then she blinks and the expression is gone.) Brace yourselves! Gravity fluctuation detected… (She points towards the spot below the access panel, on the forward section of Engineering.)

DINEEN and ELLIOTT: (grab hold of their respective railings with both hands as their feet are drawn towards the spot Starry pointed at.)

HALF-FACE: (partway through the access panel, he’s pulled sideways into the frame. Grimacing, he twists so his body is lying along the corridor wall while trying to keep the aim of his weapon on Dineen.)

(Metal groans as the anomaly forms, invisible but incredibly attractive. Parts and loose tools slide out of the places they have been hovering, falling towards the wall. Some bounce off soft human bodies on the way.)

ELLIOTT: (winces and pulls himself up so he can wrap his arms around the railing, not trusting his grip) Fuck. Was that my favourite wrench? How long, Starry?

STARRY: They only last a few seconds, hold on.

ELLIOTT: What d’you think I’m doing?

HALF-FACE: (groans and his hands shake. Giving up on his aim, he pulls his rifle ponderously back until he can brace it against the corridor wall.)

STARRY: Laurence, you okay?

HALF-FACE: (strained) Heavy.

ELLIOTT: Well, you are mostly metal.

DINEEN: (dangles from her railing, feet pointing at the forward wall, apparently unphased. The railing under her right hand squeaks faintly at the pressure of her grip.)

STARRY: Almost done. Hold on.

 

I can’t do anything to help them. I can’t even send in one of my boys to help, if I had one to spare; my drones would just get pulled into the anomaly. My hologram just stands there, impotent and pointless.

 

(There’s a particularly loud metallic complaint and the knot of metal on the forward wall shudders.)

ELLIOTT: (twisting his head around to look at it) Starry, what the hell…

STARRY: Bulkhead’s warping.

ELLIOTT: Fuck! I gotta…

STARRY: You gotta stay where you are. Fix me later. You can’t stop it, Elliott.

DINEEN: (voice strained) I can help.

ELLIOTT: Fuck off with your ‘helping’!

DINEEN: Gravity-based technology is one of my specialities…

ELLIOTT: Oh, and we’re just going to take your word for it, are we?

STARRY: Shut up, the pair of you! You can’t do anything right now! Except you, Elliott, you need to get on the other side of that railing.

ELLIOTT: What? Why?

STARRY: There’s a trolley coming loose aft of you. Move, now.

ELLIOTT: (grimacing as he struggles to pull himself up against the weight that has been given to him) Okay, okay, fuck.

 

Rosie is just outside the other Engineering door, plastered against the wall too, and she’ll have to wait until this anomaly passes, too. Elliott has to undo his work to let her in.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. It’s taking too long; longer than before. Cerces – it has to be him – is getting stronger.

 

(The repair trolley trembles against the locks holding it in place under the counter, struggling with the weight of the parts inside its drawers and compartments. One of the locks hadn’t engaged properly and a second one gives way. The trolley rotates out from under the counter, turning on the remaining lock.)

ELLIOTT: (clambers heavily over the railing, struggling to get his upper half over it.)

STARRY: Hurry!

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPT: (coming to a stop before a closed hatch) Starry, report.

STARRY: (voice only) Dineen located. Anomaly in Engineering. Dealing with it.

DR SOCKS: (drifting in from an adjoining access corridor to starboard) Captain?

CAPT: I would like you to accompany me to—

STARRY: Might need you in Engineering, doctor.

CAPT: Might?

STARRY: Anomalies are worsening, it’s getting dangerous. Stand by.

 

Location: Engineering

(The trolley shudders and finally breaks free of its moorings, tumbling end over end as it twists its way out from under the counter and across to the forward wall.)

STARRY: Elliott!

ELLIOTT: (has most of his body folded over the railing. He kicks his legs up and tries to roll out of the trolley’s path. It bounces off his ankle as it passes, a corner passing an inch from his head.)

(Abruptly, objects within the room are drifting rather than falling.)

STARRY: Careful, the anomaly is gone.

ELLIOTT: (scrabbles to grab the railing to avoid rebounding away from it.)

(The trolley is still tumbling towards the wall, and impacts it with a metallic clang. Parts and tools of various sizes, freed from the hold of the gravity pocket, bounce and reflect away from the impact and the wall. Pinging off each other, they spray out into the middle of the room.)

DINEEN: (swings herself to the other side of her railing to try to avoid the worst of the plastic and metal rain.)

 

Oh, good, that’s so much better.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(From the open vent, there’s a whisper of movement in the shadows. Then, all at once, a tumble of furry limbs emerge, emitting a chorus of tiny mews. A bundle of kittens drift into the open, gravity-less air of the cargo bay, separating into four distinct bodies.

Paws scrape at the air, trying to find purchase where there isn’t any, and the kittens mew their unhappiness. There is a black one, a white one with black feet, and two tabbies.

At the vent mouth, Bit and Byte catch themselves before they follow the kittens out. Mag-clamping their tiny feet to the vent walls, they survey the results of their work.)

BIT: (points at the larger of the two tabby kittens and holds up five fingers.)

BYTE: (points at the black kitten and holds up six fingers.)

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPT: (looking at a holographic readout above his left forearm) Starry?

STARRY: Assessing the damage and injuries, sir. Bulkhead’s twisted and I’ve got a couple of leaks in there. Shutting off water and air in that section. I’ve lost some sensors and access to a backup filestore.

CAPT: How many more like that can you take?

STARRY: Two, maybe, if no critical systems or damaged bulkheads are hit. Depends where they are. But, I won’t need to.

CAPT: Explain.

STARRY: The spiral has altered, following the movement of our little furry friends. If Lang Lang’s predictions are correct, next anomaly should hit the cargo bay.

CAPT: They’re there?

SARA: (happily) Kitty!

STARRY: Ready and waiting.

CAPT: (nods thoughtfully, glances at the access panel, but doesn’t activate it.)

DR SOCKS: (drily) Am I needed in Engineering?

STARRY: No major injuries. Waiting to see if they’re hurt or just whining. Stand by.

DR SOCKS: Is it worth pointing out that it’s not actually possible to stand right now?

STARRY: Only if you want to be a smart-ass.

 

Location: Engineering

HALF-FACE: (has pushed himself over to where Dineen is, ignoring the debris that bounces off him. He is spraying her hands as they hold the railing with a substance that solidifies immediately, securing her in place.) Stay exactly where you are.

DINEEN: (ducking a spanner) Are you crazy? I can help.

HALF-FACE: (is unmoved and focussed on the secure-spray.)

STARRY: Elliott, are you okay?

ELLIOTT: My fucking tools are attacking me. What is this, karma day?

STARRY: Listen, you said you might be able to counter the gravity fluctuations.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. If I modify one of the generators, I might be able to get it to do that. But I’d have to know which one.

STARRY: We know which one is next. But we only have a few minutes before the next one hits. And… it’s going to be a big one.

ELLIOTT: Bigger than that?

STARRY: It’s gonna find what it’s looking for. Can you do it in time?

ELLIOTT: (ducks and grabs the wrench about to hit him in the head) Fuck. Uh. (He meets Starry’s gaze.) Well, I guess we’re about to find out.

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28 Jan

Checked

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Location: Bridge

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

CAPTAIN: Starry, find those damn cats.

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

CAPT: (looks down at Sara.)

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

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

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

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

STARRY: (sighs and nods.)

 

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

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

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

I hate decisions like this.

 

Location: Crew corridor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Engineering is down there. And that means…

 

Location: Engineering

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

ELLIOTT: (hasn’t noticed.)

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

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

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

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

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

ELLIOTT: She’s coming here?

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

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

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

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

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

ELLIOTT: Fucking cats! Are you serious?

STARRY: Until I get better data, yes.

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

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

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

 

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

Now I wish I hadn’t thought that.

 

Location: Bridge

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

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

CAPT: Sara, look at me.

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

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

SARA: (pouts stubbornly.)

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

SARA: (nods.)

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

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

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

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

SARA; (brightens) Kitty?

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

SARA: (nods enthusiastically and wriggles) Kitty!

 

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

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

 

STARRY: Uh, captain…

CAPT: (shoots Starry a querying look.)

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

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

SARA: (is focussed on the door again.)

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

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

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

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

STARRY: (lifts her eyebrows at the captain.)

 

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

 

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

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

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

CAPT: (to Starry) Cargo bay.

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

CAPT: What supplies can we afford to lose?

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

CAPT: What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

STARRY: Relaying the message, sir.

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

 

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

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

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

 

Location: Engineering

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

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

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

STARRY: (nods and sighs.)

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

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

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

STARRY: Laurence is looking for…

ELLIOTT: Not him!

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

ELLIOTT: (stares at the open panel unhelpfully.)

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

 

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

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

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21 Jan

What’s missing

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

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Another anomaly, captain.

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

CAPTAIN: Damage?

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

CAPT: (nods) Still getting stronger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAPT: What doesn’t it cover?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

SARA: Kitty!

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

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

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

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

SARA: (nods.)

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

SARA: (shakes her head.)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

CAMERON: Captain, I think we have a problem.

CAPT: Report, Chief.

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

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

STARRY: In her quarters.

CAMERON: Are you sure?

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

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

STARRY: (frowns) Running diagnostics.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CAMERON: Brasco, Lieutenant, go deal with it.

CAPT: Starry, trip the collar.

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

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

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

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

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

 

All of them. All of them?

Shit.

 

STARRY: (stiffly) Signal sent, sir.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

What’s not there. What’s missing.

 

STARRY: Captain, her whale.

CAPT: What about him?

STARRY: Not Cerces. Her stuffed whale.

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

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

CAPT: Did it get left in the ducts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SARA: Kitty! Kitty kitty.

CAPT: Why do you want to see them?

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

CAPT: Starry, where are the kittens?

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

CAPT: (lifts an eyebrow at her.)

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

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

(Everyone turns to stare at the Chief.)

 

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

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

 

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

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