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.
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.
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.
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.