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.
(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…
(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.
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?
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.
(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?