Ship's log, 03:22, 18 September 2214 Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole Status: Docked, powered down
Yesterday was supposed to be the start of our attempts to talk to Cerces. My people are showing some nerves, though: Lang Lang asked for a little more time to finish her preparations, and my captain asked for more diagnostics on the equipment we’ll be using. He wanted Elliott and me to take a look at the readouts, because Elliott is the expert on anything mechanical and I’m smarter than the station’s AI.
That made me smile. Just when I was starting to feel like the captain had done just fine without me, like he might not need me any more, he makes a request like that and suddenly I’m his ship again. Suddenly, I’m feeling like part of the team, just like I was, as if the strange two-month gap between us is thinning.
So, more checks to make sure we have all the angles covered. I can’t find any flaws in the doctor’s design but Elliott and I are tuning some of the feeds. Lang Lang is pacing around in her quarters (on board me again), murmuring through her information for the hundredth time. In five hours and thirty-eight minutes, we’ll do this thing.
In the meantime, my people are all asleep, recharging their batteries before the morning’s endeavour (except Lang Lang, whose sleep starts when the endeavour does). Even the Strider‘s crew slumbers. Quiet is fallen, my diagnostics are up-to-date, and that leaves me… looking inwards.
My cargo bays are filling up with parts and equipment from the Celestial Strider. It’s hard to know how to feel about that. My sister sleeps on the docking ring below me. She swings into my view on a regular schedule as the rings turn around the station, and she seems lighter every time I see her, more faded. And yet the sensor scans of her hull are exactly the same.
It’s just parts. The contents of her cargo bays are now in mine, a fresh supply of spares for a ship of my size and class. Those parts are fine; exchanging supplies is not a bad thing. It’s not… taking her apart.
The Star Step drive components are different. Elliott is dismantling the Strider‘s drive; he means to use the Step drive parts to repair me. My own drive is worse for wear after everything we’ve been through; rescuing the Strider broke a few of my filaments and I haven’t been working at full Stepping efficiency for a while. Her Step drive hasn’t ever been fully tested or properly run in. Between the two of us, we can make a full working Step drive, and I guess it makes sense that it should be in me.
But in doing all that, Elliott is hollowing out my sister’s mid-deck, emptying her from the inside out. He’s taking out the dangerous part of her, the part that we need to remove from the world, but it’s also her reason for being. It’s why she was built, why her crew – this crew – was assembled. It’s what makes her the Celestial Strider: she and I are our names. Without it, what is she? Who is she?
That’s not even the worst part. It’s not the most confusing thing. The Step drive I can explain logically; it has to be removed from my sister one way or another, so why shouldn’t I use what she can’t? Even with all the questions it raises, it’s not that that’s bothering me in these dark, quiet hours.
It’s the drone that’s sitting in Cargo Bay 1. Elliott sent it over from the Strider yesterday. It came in, settled down, and has been awaiting instructions since.
I can’t stop staring at it. It’s a heavy drone, with fresh paint and new hands. Just a few scuffs from the Strider‘s rough ride.
Next to it, Big Ass looks old and weary, worn around the edges. The name lasered into his plating has worn smooth and is stained with the the laser’s scorching. His head has a habit of tipping to the left; I’m not sure if his neck struts need recalibrating or if it’s just how he likes to stand.
Other than that, they match. Both of them have the same designation stamped on their sides. They’re the same configuration, the same size. They have the same purpose.
But this new one isn’t mine. It belongs to the Strider. And it is not my Wide Load.
I’ve started to see him. Since the captain started talking to the captive crew, I keep seeing my missing drone on my decks, one ghost among many. His image resolves and I reach out to him through my drone protocols, but he doesn’t respond. Sometimes he tilts his head or looks down at his four empty hands. Then I scan the sensor feed and feel the itch of the ghost data, and my heart sinks as I filter him out. He disappears and I apologise silently to the spot he left behind.
Wide Load is gone and I can’t get him back. He was destroyed in an explosion, spread across a system I can’t go back to in pieces too small to recover.
When Byte was torn apart, I thought I had lost him, too. Elliott managed to put him back together and bring him back to us. But we had all of his parts, and while we had to replace some of them, his core programming was recoverable. When he was fired up again, it was the Byte I remembered: naughty and mischievous and inclined to skitter in and out of trouble. A little more attached to Elliott than before, a little less wild, but he was still my boy.
Wide Load is gone. There’s no getting his core programming back. There’s no replacing him.
This new drone is just sitting there, waiting for me with perfect patience. He doesn’t know that I’m avoiding talking to him. He doesn’t mind that it has been seventeen hours already. He’s just sitting, his motors on standby, marking the nanoseconds on his internal clock. Purposeless, pointless. Unwelcome.
I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want him on my decks. I don’t want or need him. It. It’s not even a ‘he’. It’s not my Wide Load.
I don’t know what to tell Elliott, though. How do I put it into words? How do I explain to him that my drone can’t be replaced like a spare part, even though he’s a machine?
He was a part of me. I lost something when I lost him, and not just his strength and metal hands, or his tracks trundling on my decks. I can’t pinpoint what it is that I lost, and I’ve been scanning for it for days.
I want to talk to the captain about it, but then I think about when he lost his arm. He lost a real, physical part of himself when the explosion took his arm off. He managed to get it reattached, but it’s not the same arm. They put upgrades in it, repaired bits, filled it out so that it fit again. It’s mostly his but also more than that.
Can I compare my situation to his? Is Wide Load like an arm to me?
I catch my captain rubbing at his arm sometimes, just below the shoulder where the seam is. The join is invisible now, healed over and meshed well; the hospital did a good job. But he still rubs at it without thinking, because he knows it’s there. He knows it does quite feel right. Just like during the time when he was missing that arm, when he would reach for the limb that wasn’t there, or wince at the prickle of a phantom pain.
Maybe he’d understand. Maybe I should talk to him. My drones are my arms and hands, the only ones I have, and they’re a part of me. I could attach a different one but it would never be the same. The space Wide Load left behind aches. I don’t want to put anyone in that place, not now, not yet. Don’t I have enough to deal with when my decks are full of ghosts?
I feel like a silly, over-emotional ship. One of my boys is gone and I miss him, and now my sister has been sedated and is slowly being gutted. How am I supposed to react to these things?
She’s not a proper sister. She’s not like me. I can’t talk to her or have her understand me. We can’t complain about our parents or scheme or fight or support each other. We can’t go crawling through ducts on dustbunny hunts, or talk about boys (or girls), or brush each other’s hair. We can’t compare diagnostic results and argue over whose is better.
But I still feel something when I look at her. Like maybe she’s the me that should have been, the way I should have turned out, if Tripi hadn’t sabotaged me and Danika hadn’t died. If I wasn’t a consciousness made up of human brain patterns and AI code. And that makes me feel strangely… protective. As if she should be allowed the chance to be everything I can’t be.
That can’t happen, I know that. The project must be destroyed. But she could still be a good ship, couldn’t she?
I’m a little afraid of what the captain has in mind for her. He said that we’d drop her crew off wherever they asked us to, which means they won’t be leaving in my sister. What does that mean for the Strider? I’m afraid to ask. I don’t want to know.
Maybe taking in her parts is the best thing I can do to preserve her. The ship I could have been. Perfect potential, unmarred by reality and time and experience. Maybe taking on her drone will be taking a piece of her with me.
But it’s not my Wide Load. The wound is too raw; I’m not ready to replace him yet. But… but maybe it can stay there, in my cargo bay, until I am. One day, when I don’t see the ghost of my lost drone next to it, when I have need of those extra four hands, I’ll reach out to it and bring it into me. One day, when I miss her too much.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll restack my cargo bays to make room for tomorrow’s contingent of parts coming my way, and hope that Elliott doesn’t ask about the unactivated drone. I need time before I jump in, just like Lang Lang, just like the captain.
I guess we’re all looking for something more than we can see right now.