30 Jul

Returned

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next few days are going to be… interesting.

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25 Jul

Gathering close

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Location: Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ELLIOTT: So they’re…

STARRY: Riding the kittens.

ELLIOTT: …of course they are.

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

 

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

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

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17 Jul

Inexplicable

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

SARA: (nods.)

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

SARA: (shakes her head.)

DR SOCKS: Who told you, then?

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

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

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

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

SARA: (nods.)

DR SOCKS: How? No, I didn’t mean–

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

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

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

CAMERON: (shifts restlessly in her sleep.)

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

CAMERON: (starts to settle after a moment.)

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

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

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

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

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

SARA: (nods warily.)

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

SARA: Whale make it better.

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

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

ROSIE: Where the fuck is the kid?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

It’s a place to start.

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10 Jul

Procession

Ship's log, 22:19, 28 September 2214
Location: Between Sarabande Station and the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I was expecting this to be a solemn task but it has taken a an unexpectedly official tone. I am hitched up to the Celestial Strider like a horse to a hearse, drawing her through the black at a sedate pace. A gentle push from my sublights has put us in motion and now we are drifting towards the maw of Cerces.

All of my crew are on board except for the doctor. They are gathered on my Bridge, seated at their stations even though there’s nothing for them to do. There’s barely anything for me to do, now that we’re moving and inertia is carrying us towards our destination. I’m projecting the feed from my rear sensors into the centre of the room, showing the Strider as she follows us along.

When I look at that projection, I see my sister, silent and quiet. Serene as she lets me take her to her final fate. And yet, she’s proud, because this isn’t just the end to her abortive journey, or the final piece we must destroy to end a dangerous, damaging project. She has a duty, an honour to perform for us, and that alters everything.

When my people look at that projection, they don’t see my sister. They see a hearse, a coffin, a burial barge. They see the white-wrapped bodies that lie in her cargo bay, cradled in her belly so gently as we move through the void. They see the friends and colleagues that we must say goodbye to today.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do this. I want to shove on my forward thrusters and yank us all to a halt; I want to demand that we take them back and have them fixed. Or put them back into cryo-storage so I can carry them again, safe in my walls where I’ll never have to say goodbye to them.

Looking at the captain, I think he might let me. He doesn’t want to do this either; I can see his fingers worrying over each other, the ones on his right hand, attached to the arm he lost once. The ones that feel less real to him, even though we had his own flesh reattached. We froze that arm the same way we do with our dead. I wonder if he’s thinking about that, or if it’s the upcoming speech that’s bothering him. As our captain, it’s his duty to see our fallen off.

While he was preparing his words and the bodies were being loaded into the Strider‘s arms, I trawled through my filestores for recordings of those we’re carrying to their rest tonight. I was scanning my own memories, cherry-picking the moments that we should all remember. About halfway through the process, I felt like there was a stunned smile on my face, as recalled fondness battled with the sadness of it all. I pressed a hand to the screen and kept pushing through, looking at the faces of those I’ve lost.

Dr Spencer Maletz was the first one I looked up. My first medic, the first caretaker of my crew. He was brusque and utterly obsessed with porn, but he was a good doctor. For all he seemed lazy and lecherous, he kept my people in good shape; he was professional when it mattered.. In some logs, I caught him squinting at them in the Mess Hall when they weren’t looking, as if he was running medical scans on them. I never noticed that before.

He died when we fought our way free from the pirates. The damage was all to his chest, but even a replacement heart couldn’t save him: the delay in getting him frozen meant there had been too much cerebral decay to bring him back. The brain is the seat of the person, so they say, and without that, we are nothing.

Ray Wong’s injuries were mostly to his head. I had hoped that there was enough of his brain left to salvage, but the tests say no. The right kind of activity couldn’t be stimulated. He had fallen on the same day as Maletz, and he lies next to the doctor now.

Wong had been my mechanic, the only person other than Elliott allowed to mess around in my systems. The two of them had clashed and I hadn’t always liked Wong’s Step drive-centric attitude, but he never did anything I didn’t need. He helped me be the best ship I could be, before I knew how misguided my ideas about that were. None of us knew back then; we had just wanted this project of ours to succeed. He had been good at what he did; I can’t fault him for that. Not for any of that.

They were both good crewmembers, to me and my crew. They stood up for me when it mattered, even though I’m strange and unpredictable. We might not always have got along but they were family, the only kind a ship like me can really have. My crew are my people, my charges, my family. Even though I lost Wong and Maletz seven months ago, this feels like the true goodbye. The final one.

The two others laid out near them were not such good crewmembers. Dr Seth Ebling and SecOff Riley Swann, both killed when they tried to betray me and everyone else on board. Both shot and damaged too severely to bring back. Considering their last actions, I have mixed feelings about the idea of bringing them back, but even after everything, I wish we had been able to save them. I wish they might have breathed again and given us the chance to bring them back into the crew.

Maybe I’m worn thin with all this death, so much that I would even forgive those who betrayed me and threatened my crew. Wearied by all those ghosts who lurk around my sensor feeds, reminding me of people I miss. Some of those ghosts are echoes of the men lying in Strider‘s cradle.

It’s not to be. Dr Valdimir tried to bring them back and he couldn’t. It’s time to let them go. I’m sorry that it ended with them like it did, but we can’t change that. Not even me, with my time-travelling drive; I’ve never been able to change the past. Somehow I must calculate it into perspective and acceptance. I’m not sure those algorithms exist.

Four bodies. Four goodbyes.

We’re ten minutes out from the station and the captain is rising from his chair. Around the room, eyes turn towards him: Lang Lang, Rosie, Elliott, and the Lieutenant. I join them with my avatar, standing off to the side. It seems like the thing to do. All five of my drones are here too, standing in a ring around my people, hands folded and motors humming quietly.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (clears his throat and lifts his chin. He’s in his smartest uniform, with captain’s pips on his collar and a golden thread woven through the cuffs of his jacket.) We all know why we’re here: to say goodbye to our fallen crewmembers. They deserve our honour and respect for the sacrifices they’ve made.

We shouldn’t only remember those we’re carrying to their rest tonight. We should remember all of those we’ve lost, even those who aren’t here with us in body or spirit. So I’d like to start with a dedication to Dr Lorena Cirilli, without whom this project would never have existed, and without whom none of us would have come together. We may know the project was a mistake now, but I cannot regret my time on this ship, with all of you, and that was all possible because of her. She died doing what she believed was right, gave herself up for the greater good, and her sacrifice will not be forgotten.

 

This is going to be so much harder than I thought. But he’s right. He’s right about all of it.

Lang Lang is already crying quietly, tears leaking down her cheeks. Rosie’s jaw is set stubbornly as if she’s afraid to be touched by something as nebulous as the captain’s words. Elliott is staring at the floor. The Lieutenant is solemn, his half-metal features the most composed of everyone’s, but there’s sympathy in his eyes.

While the captain speaks, I pull up images of Cirilli: hard at work by the machinery of the Step drive; sitting quietly with a fork in one hand while her other one flips through a report; a rare glimpse of her with her hair down. I see a sad smile flutter around John’s lips and his mouth stumbles over the next part of his eulogy.

The sadness weighs on me. I’d drag my feet but there’s no friction here: the vacuum is perfect and empty. I drift smoothly forward and my sister-hearse follows, our motions oblivious to everything that’s going on inside us. Our destination inches closer.

Four bodies. A fifth who cannot be with us, who we cannot bury. My lost ones.

There was almost six. I mustn’t forget this. There should have been one more body loaded onto the Strider, but it wasn’t, and that fact is a comfort now, tiny and warm.

 

Recording: 21:28, 28 September 2214
External Comms

STARRY: Doctor, is there a problem? Sensors are only showing four bodies have been loaded.

DR SOCKS: (distracted) That’s right! You’ve got all the ones you need to take. Go ahead; I’ll stay behind.

STARRY: But there should be–

DR SOCKS: There’s been a change of… status. Tell the captain my report had an error in it.

STARRY: An error? But… does that mean that someone isn’t dead? You managed to save someone?

DR SOCKS: As much as I’d like to take the credit for it, I’m afraid it will take more investigation to establish exactly what happened. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

STARRY: Wait! What happened? Who is it?

VOICE: (in the background, mumbling) Where is this?

STARRY: CAMERON? Chief, you’re awake! You’re… you’re okay?

CAMERON: (weakly) Hello, Starry. Remains to be seen, I think.

STARRY: Oh god, I can’t–

DR SOCKS: You can squeal at each other later. I have to get the Chief here back to the Med Bay and you need to take the others away.

STARRY: I, yes! Yes. Chief, I’m so glad you’re okay. (Pause.) Chief Cameron?

DR SOCKS: She passed out again. Go on! Shoo. I need to work.

 

I had already disconnected from the station’s systems by then, so I didn’t have a sensor feed to check, but the life signs confirm it. Cameron’s biorhythms were intact and strong all the way down to the docking ring, and all the way back up again. I don’t know and I don’t really care what happened or how. All that matters is that she’s back. I might get one back.

I flutter my thrusters, push forward a little more, lean into the traces of the towline that draws the Strider on behind me. Those we cannot save will have their send-off today. We’ll remember all the reasons why we miss them, and we’ll wish them well in whatever afterlife they’ve made it into. We’ll show our hearts. Then we’ll send them into the dark, let Cerces take them. Perhaps we’ll light their burial barge so they go out afire.

And then we’ll return to the station and all of those we can save. We’ll be ready to really start fixing things here.

We’ll come back from our goodbyes and know that there’s one less ghost walking among us now.

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02 Jul

Shattered mirrors

Ship's log, 20:52, 28 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

It’s amazing how quickly things can move once you’ve made a decision. When the man in charge is open to a new direction.

The crew were quick to voice their objections and opinions when they realised the door was open; it was several long minutes before things settled enough to get to actual solutions. Once past the venting, though, they focussed quickly on alternatives to our current ‘poke the bear’ tactics.

The consensus came down to two important facts: they were willing to help Cerces, whichever way they could; but they weren’t happy with putting so many people at risk in the process.

 

Recording: 21:14, 26 September 2214
Location: Mess Hall

LANG LANG: I think we should keep going. We’re so close to real contact.

ROSIE: (snorting) Think we’ve more’n achieved ‘contact’.

LANG LANG: Real communication then.

ROSIE: (gesturing wildly) Yeah, close enough for him to crack that head of yours right open.

CAPT: What alternatives do we have?

ROSIE: (to Lang Lang) Like an egg.

LANG LANG: (looks troubled.)

ELLIOTT: Well, this ain’t exactly a new development, right?

CAPT: What do you mean?

ELLIOTT: The black hole, he has to have been like this a while. Centuries or something. Starry, how long has he been a black hole?

STARRY: (standing nearby) Calculations put the collapse around 20,491 years ago, by our calendar.

ELLIOTT: That’s weirdly specific. I was looking for a ballpark.

STARRY: (shrugs) Sometimes I get bored and calculate… things.

ELLIOTT: (eyebrows lifting) Things huh?

STARRY: Yes, things.

CAPT: What’s your point Monaghan?

ELLIOTT: (to the captain) Just thinkin’ that he’s been all grief-stricken for centuries. Will another few weeks really make that much difference? To something that, uh, lives or whatever he does, for as long as he does it?

CAPT: A few weeks to do what?

ELLIOTT: (glances around the group uncomfortably.)

HALF-FACE: To get everyone who doesn’t need to be here out of harm’s way.

CAPT: Doctor, what’s your take on all this?

DR SOCKS: (leaning forward with his elbows on the table) Way I see it, we have three options. Assuming that we’re here because carrying on as we are is off the table. (He starts counting off on his fingers.) One, bundle everyone up on the Starwalker and take them someplace out of this system. Then come back and pick up where we left off with Lang Lang talking in her sleep.

(There’s general nodding around the room; this is not news.)

DR SOCKS: Two, use the Celestial Strider to ferry everyone not involved in the communication attempts to safety. The rest of us stay here and continue.

(A few frowns tug around the room, mostly Lang Lang, Rosie, and the captain.)

DR SOCKS: And three, do the same as option one, except leave a few of us behind to continue the communication attempts. The Starwalker can return and pick us up later.

STARRY: (blurts) No.

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: I am not splitting my crew up again. I’m not leaving anyone behind here.

CAPT: If it’s a viable option, we should consider–

STARRY: (folds her arms over her chest) It’s not a viable option. This ship ain’t going anywhere without all her people on board.

ROSIE: Is using the Strider really an option, too? I mean, we went to all that fucking trouble to get her here and disable her.

CAPT: (nodding) The reasons for that haven’t gone away.

DR SOCKS: (shrugs) The only reason I mentioned it is that she’s the only other ship with a working FTL drive.

CAPT: Can we put her FTL drive into another ship?

ELLIOTT: (wrinkles his nose) Only other ship on the station is an old tug, and it’s too small to carry that many people. Also, it’d take weeks to recalibrate the drive for a new ship. Unless you don’t give a crap if they’re pancaked on the first jump.

STARRY: We don’t really have the personnel to split up into two ships, anyway. If nothing else, we’ve only got one medic, and while my doc’s good, he’s not good enough to be in two places at once.

DR SOCKS: (smiles and inclines his head towards the ship’s avatar in appreciation of the compliment.)

ROSIE: Do they really need a medic?

STARRY: The Strider‘s crew is mostly in good health, but Brenn Haitom is not. And it’s just irresponsible to set out on any voyage without a proper medic if you don’t absolutely have to. If anything happened in transit… (She shakes her head.)

CAPT: So what we’re saying is that there really is only one option: we must ferry everyone out of this system, then come back and try to help Cerces?

ROSIE: The spanner-head’s right: if Cerces has been this way for thousands of years, is a few more weeks gonna kill ‘im? He probably won’t even notice we’re gone.

ELLIOTT: (lifting an eyebrow at the SecOff) Spanner-head?

ROSIE: My next choice was ‘nut-wrencher’.

CAPT: (gives Rosie a quelling look.)

ROSIE: (looks unrepentant.)

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes.)

STARRY: So, is it decided? We’re going to put a pause in this endeavour of ours and get everyone out of the system?

CAPT: And return later to finish what we started. Yes, perhaps, but we need to look at the details first. Let’s talk about what needs to happen before we could do that.

 

So there it was: a crack in my captain’s unbending armour, a concession that maybe there was another way to do this. Sure, it would take longer. It would stretch out this whole endeavour, but people would be safe. Protected.

We’ve broken down what we need to do, looked at all the pieces, and then pushed them into motion.

The SecOffs are working on getting all of our passenger accommodation secured. I suspect it’s going to involve more sedatives to get them on board, but we need a way to have them secure once they’re here and we’re in transit. With all the supplies I’m taking on, my cargo holds aren’t going to have the space available to create a corral like we have in the station’s lower visitor lounge. Besides, they’re not beasts or criminals and it feels wrong to treat them like they are. Mid-deck is out of the question: we didn’t go through rescuing the Strider to put her crew in a place with direct access to a functioning Step drive and all the data from my Steps. Adapting crew areas seems to be the way to go.

The doctor has turned his attention to the crewmembers that were in my cryo-storage, to assess their conditions more thoroughly. He’ll make a decision soon about whether we can bring them back or not. I’m trying not to think about it too much; the captain was right: their current state means I can be hopeful that they’re not really gone. They’re not really dead. The captain wants a decision about whether they can be saved or not before we leave. I suppose… he’s right. My logic processors tell me that I have to face it sooner or later and there’s no viable data that says waiting is a good idea. It’s not fair to keep them in that state, or to keep their families in the dark about what has happened to them, just like it’s not fair to keep the Strider‘s crew locked up. We need to accept how things are and move on. I need to accept it. I need to be a better ship.

Elliott has been working non-stop to complete the stripping of my sister, taking her down to only the parts that we can’t salvage and store in case I need them one day. That’s most of what’s filling my cargo bays: parts of my sister. We’re still going to destroy her: everyone was agreed about that. We can’t risk there being a fragment of data left in her wiped systems, or someone extrapolating the design from the patterns in her hull from where the filaments once were or the fittings on her mid-deck that used to hold a Step drive. There are parts of it too big to remove and we need to dispose of those, too. Eradicate any chance of her being used to re-create the beast in my belly.

We know that there’s still a chance someone will build another Step drive one day, but we have to try. We have to make it as hard as possible for them to do it. We have to stop any and every attempt that we find.

Thinking about this, I have come to understand why Kess sent pirates after us. I understand why she grew desperate and worked outside the system. The system wasn’t built for something like this; it must record everything and this must not be recorded. Every record that exists is a danger, a way someone can try to rebuild it. This is why Lou Tripi never betrayed what really happened on my decks, even when she was tried for sabotage. Despite the awful things we – I – did to her, she stayed true to the mission she had been given.

I can’t forgive Tripi for the things she did, to Danika, or me, or Elliott. But I find that I understand her now, and that is an interesting place to be. I’ve done awful things, too. Hurt and killed people. Some will hate me now, just like I despise her.

Have I become her?

Is this going to be us now? Outside of the system, unable to work within the law, always hiding. Outlaws, rebels, renegades. Pirates.

That’s what I feel like as I undock from the station and drift down to the lower docking ring. A pirate, sword clamped between my teeth, crawling through the muck with seaweed clinging to my boots and gulls cawing overhead. Dirty and dastardly and not at all dashing. Missing teeth and a limb, replacement parts showing. A parrot mocking from just out of reach. Stained hands reaching out to grasp the pure, sweet form of an innocent girl so I can toss her into oblivion.

Elliott finished his work. There’s no reason to delay this any more. We can’t leave her here; someone could come while we’re gone. We all agreed: the Celestial Strider has to be destroyed, utterly and thoroughly. We agreed. But it’s my hands that have to do it.

The grapple snags on her like fingernails. I dig in, get a good grip, and feel sick right down to the bolts in my hull. I thrust away slowly to pick up the slack and the tow line seems to ache.

There’s not much left of the sister who followed me through the Step, but I can still see her. She’s what I could have been. She’s a proper ship. Some might think I’d be glad to get rid of her, to wipe away the reminder of everything I’m not, the illustration of all the ways I fail to be the ship I should have been. But I’m not glad.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: Starry, what’s our status?

STARRY: (voice only) Grapple contact is positive. I’m moving into tow position. Just waiting for the Strider to be cut free.

CAPT: (tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair, his lips set in an unhappy line) Once you’re in tow position, hold there.

STARRY: Is there a problem?

CAPT: No, the Strider is taking on a final cargo. It’s on its way to her now.

STARRY: (avatar resolving in front of the captain’s chair, wearing a concerned expression) Cargo? But she’s going into the black hole.

CAPT: (meets her gaze grimly) The doctor has concluded his investigations in Med Bay.

 

Oh no. No, I know what that means.

The stomach I don’t have just fell through my feet and out into the vacuum.

 

CAPT: Valdimir and the Lieutenant are on their way down with those who didn’t make it.

 

I see it now, the packet that the doctor sent through to my captain thirty-two seconds ago. Private and secure, I couldn’t peek at the contents without stripping off the encryption one layer at a time. I should have known it was a medical report, but I was so focussed on my sister…

 

STARRY: (softly) How many?

CAPT: (looks at her for a long moment before answering) All of them.

STARRY: (swallows) So this is… this is a funeral procession?

CAPT: (glances away from her) Yes. It is now. It needs to be done.

STARRY: We should dock. The others should be here for this.

CAPT: We’re already out here, the tow line…

STARRY: Will reach to the next dock along the ring. They’ll want to see them off, captain.

CAPT: (looks at the avatar again) You’re right. (He rises from his chair.) Call the crew in and dock to pick them up.

STARRY: (nods.)

CAPT: I’ll… be in my cabin. (He turns to leave the Bridge, but pauses halfway.) Thank you, Starry.

STARRY: (bewildered) Of course, captain.

 

This is hitting the captain harder than I thought it would. What he said about what those crewmembers kept on ice meant, he wasn’t just talking about me. He needed it, too. It was his hope, and now it’s gone. They’re gone.

His crew. His responsibility, ultimately. Hurt under his command, too badly wounded to be healed. Killed. We’ve got our answer now, and that slim shard of hope has melted. We can call them dead, now. Lost.

He will need to say something. Words to see them off, something fitting. That’s probably what he has gone to his cabin to prepare.

In the meantime, I spool out my tow line and come around to the next dock along the ring. I send the call out across the station. All those not already on board start moving in my direction.

Little sister, you’re not an innocent victim being tossed into a hungry maw any more. You have a new role, a final part to play, a burden that only you can carry. I know you’ll bear it well.

Somehow, as awful as it all is, I feel like this is a step in the right direction. Perhaps it’s because ships don’t know how to cry.

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26 Jun

Author’s Note: Never rains

I am so frustrated right now.

This week has been pretty hellish. Work is insane. We’re finishing one big project and planning the next, and on top of the usual project changeover shenanigans, I have an intern to settle in and an important event to organise and run tomorrow. I’ve been up early and home late all week.

I was running a bit late with this week’s post. And just as I was getting it sorted out, I get home tonight to find that my keys had been locked in the house. Not by me, by someone I trusted to leave them out for me as I’d said needed to happen. Currently, I’m living on my own and my spare set of keys is AWOL. Long story short: I was locked out and had no way of getting in. It’s winter here, which means it got pretty cold while I sat outside and called and texted frantically, trying to find a way into my own house. Thank goodness the winters here aren’t all that bad!

Over 2 hours later, I managed to get a locksmith out and he let me into the house. Cue a spate of running around, feeding cats, feeding me, trying to get warm, and trying to calm down from being frustrated and furious. And now I need to go to bed so I can survive tomorrow.

Sorry, lovely readers. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. The post will be up as quickly as possible, just as soon as my life gives me a break and lets me.

<3

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18 Jun

Thorns

Ship's log, 20:52, 26 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

It has been a strange couple of days. Tension has been seeping through the atmosphere like a gas leak, hissing its way into every feed and weighing down every breath. Everyone on the station is feeling it, from the corralled crew of the Celestial Strider to my people going about their business. Even the troubled Brenn Haitom, rattling around in his padded cell, and the reclusive Iggulden down in his cave. I watch them all on the sensor feeds and see it in the angle of their shoulders and the edge to their voices.

It’s hard to say what’s causing it. The ghosts are mostly behaving themselves now; they linger around the edges of my sensors where I can quickly filter them out, and they don’t seem to be distracting my people as much as they were. They still repeat those same four words, though, that question that remains barely understood, and they don’t seem inclined to say anything else. Cerces seems to be content to hover in the background like little Sara asked him to but his influence is wriggling through the station like an earworm.

Unanswered questions nibble at us like dustbunnies in the dark, with teeth too small to cause anything more than annoyance and always gone when the lights come up. It’s causing patterns that I don’t like to see. It’s making me worry about things I never thought I’d have to consider. And it’s not just Lang Lang that I’m worried about.

 

Recording: 11:54, 25 September 2214
Location: Visitor Lounge A

ROSIE: (leaning back in a chair with her feet on a table) …stupidest question.

CAPTAIN: (enters from the ship-side and walks to the counter.) We may not fully understand it yet. (He gives the SecOff a pointed look as he passes her.)

ROSIE: (rolls her eyes and swings her feet down off the table.)

ELLIOTT: (seated nearby working on the plate of food in front of him) Are we even sure we want to?

CAPT: That’s what we set out to do here.

ROSIE: Yeah, but I don’t want to be the one to tell him that he ate ‘em all.

CAPT: What do you mean?

ROSIE: His people. What d’you think he’s gonna do when we tell him it’s his fault?

CAPT: (hesitates) Cerces has never shown any hostility towards us.

ELLIOTT: No, but he’s got fuckin’ big feet and he ain’t exactly graceful about where he puts ‘em.

LANG LANG: (sitting opposite Elliott, hands wrapped around a steaming mug) I’m sure I can explain it so he won’t do that. I’ll do better next time, I promise.

CAPT: We know you will, Lang Lang.

ELLIOTT: (frowns at the navigator) Hey, it wasn’t your fault.

LANG LANG: (to her mug) I should have tried harder, done something to control his reaction.

ELLIOTT: He’s a fucking black hole. There ain’t no controlling that.

HALF-FACE: (seated beside Rosie, he plays a spoon around in a bowl of soup and gives Lang Lang a sympathetic look) Truth is that we haven’t ever seen him angry. He’s sad and grieving, and lonely. The doc thinks that’s why he shows us the people we miss, because it’s the emotion that he finds so familiar in us.

ROSIE: And look at what he did without even meaning to. In his ‘grief’. Fuck.

HALF-FACE: (nods slowly) The kid pilot from the Strider still won’t come out of her bunk.

LANG LANG: You truly think he would react that badly?

HALF-FACE: (half-shrugs) He could.

ELLIOTT: Wouldn’t you?

CAPT: (sharply) He also might not.

ROSIE: Yeah, but– (Her voice trails off when her gaze flicks past the captain and a hand slides under the table, to where her handgun is strapped to her hip.)

CAPT: (turns around to see what she’s looking at.)

(From the station-side of the lounge, Acting Commander Iggulden stumbles in through the doorway. He’s rumpled and grubby, and thinner than the last time they saw him, almost gaunt. His eyes narrow beneath strands of wispy, greying hair.)

IGGULDEN: You! Found you bastards.

HALF-FACE: (quietly gets to his feet, a hand resting on his weapon.)

CAPT: Something we can help you with, Acting Commander?

IGGULDEN: I damned-well hope so! What the hell are you people doing up here? You’re ruining everything!

CAPT: We’re trying to fix what’s happening here.

IGGULDEN: Fix? Fix what? There’s nothing wrong! Not until you came. Now they’re broken.

CAPT: What’s broken?

IGGULDEN: The apparitions, of course. You did something, I know you did. (He waggles a finger at the captain.) I saw you all scurrying around like rats when it happened.

LANG LANG: (pales) I- I’m sorry.

CAPT: (glances over his shoulder at her) We’re going to do what we can to fix it.

LANG LANG: I’ll go back in as soon as possible, I promise, Acting Commander.

IGGULDEN: What, more of the same? No. No no no. Haven’t you messed them up enough already with that annoying damn question they keep asking? Damn tape barely keeps them quiet for long. You need to stop whatever it is you’re doing. You hear me? Stop, before you go and make it worse.

ROSIE and HALF-FACE: (exchange a glance.)

CAPT: I’m afraid that we have to finish what we started.

IGGULDEN: No, you don’t!

CAPT: We don’t take orders from you.

IGGULDEN: (stepping towards the captain, his finger stabbing at the air) About this you do. I’m the Acting Commander of this station, and if you wanna stay here, you obey my orders. You live by my rules. You hear me?

CAPT: (looks levelly at the man in front of him and doesn’t argue.)

IGGULDEN: (lifts his head at the silence and snorts loudly) Good. Just try not to mess anything else up. This is my station and I got it set up just the way it needs to be.

CAPT: (nods at the Acting Commander.)

IGGULDEN: Good. (He waves his hand around in an accusatory gesture, including the two SecOffs with the captain.) Y’all behave yourselves now.

(With that, he turns on his heel and stalks off, back into the station.)

ROSIE: (exchanges another glance with her fellow SecOff, then looks uncertainly at the captain) So, uh, does that mean…

CAPT: (turns sharply to face his crew) The plan goes ahead. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy when we started and nothing has changed. We will fix this, and then everyone will be happy, including the Acting Commander. Is that clear?

Shorty after that, the captain took his meal and returned to his cabin aboard me. No-one had much lunch that day; they didn’t seem to have the appetite for it. Everything seems to taste a little sour.

That wasn’t like him. I’ve reviewed that log several times now and it’s still hard for me to believe that it was really my captain there. He has never pulled rank on the crew like that before, nor shut down a discussion so harshly. He has always been open and welcoming. Reasonable. When did he lose his hold on reason?

I feel those lost two months yawning between us. Just when I think that I have my captain back, when I see the man I know he is, I glimpse something like this and the ground slips out from beneath my landing gear. I catch myself double-checking my docking seals in case something has come loose and the vacuum is unbalancing me. But it’s not. It’s my captain, it’s Danika’s John, and he’s neither of those people right now.

I don’t know what to do. My crew exchange glances like they want to protest but they hold their tongues. There’s reluctance in every step they take to carry out their orders, and something festers in the silence. Because right now, their orders are to wait, and waiting means too much time to think. Too much time to question.

I remember a time like this, many months ago. My crew was different but the feeling was the same: disgruntlement and leanings towards rebellion. Mutiny. There was a discussion in my Mess Hall that a SecOff steered towards that subject, and when everyone realised where these feelings were headed, they backed away. They weren’t prepared to go to that extreme. This isn’t the same. There’s no Tyler to diffuse the tension – I lost him to the pirates. I don’t have assurances to give. All we have is a need for trust, and that trust is being worn thin. Sometime – probably soon – that trust will run out and someone will do… something. I don’t want to think about what that something might be.

I want to be a good ship. I want to do what my captain orders me to. But I’m also his Executive Officer. I’m supposed to be the one to question his orders. I’m supposed to be the one who legitimises a mutiny.

So I guess it’s on me, then. Now is as good a time as any, and I think if I run any more calculations on this, I’ll analyse my way out of it. I owe it to my crew to do this. And my captain owes me answers

 

Location: Captain's Cabin

(The captain is seated at his desk, the fingers of his new right arm toying with a data disc. He stares into space, his expression solemn, almost morose.)

STARRY: (voice only) Excuse me, captain?

CAPT: (lifts his head and puts the disc down) Yes?

STARRY: (resolves in front of the desk, her hands clasped behind her back) There’s something I need to ask you.

CAPT: (leans back in his chair, watching the avatar closely) Go ahead.

STARRY: It’s about this thing with Cerces: the attempt to communicate with him.

CAPT: (jaw tenses.)

STARRY: (quickly, before he can interrupt) Why are we still pushing forward with this?

CAPT: You know what we’re trying to achieve, Starry.

STARRY: Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question.

CAPT: (frowns) Nothing has changed. We knew this wouldn’t be easy when we set out. Should we let the first hurdle discourage us?

STARRY: No. But things have changed: we know a lot more now. Shouldn’t we also consider what we’re doing in light of what we know?

CAPT: Do you think I haven’t?

STARRY: (hands flopping to her sides) I think you haven’t talked to us about it. And before you tell me that it’s your prerogative as captain, I know that, but you’re not even asking for input. For ideas or alternatives. That’s not like you. Something is different this time, and I want to know: why are you so determined to see this through?

CAPT: (sharply) We’re the only ones who can do this. We have a duty…

STARRY: Do we? Maybe we did when we started all this, but it’s different now. (She steps closer to the desk.) We have proof. Data. We could take it to someone, show them what’s really happening here, ask for help. And before you say that it would be endangering other people, it’s already not just us. We’re affecting everyone on the station. We’re risking all of them. We have options to mitigate that but we’re not even talking about it. Instead, you do what you just did and get all prickly about it. You’re never prickly. So we’re still pushing forward, and I don’t understand why.

CAPT: (staring at her) I just told you–

STARRY: (takes another step and brushes fingertips against the surface of his desk) I don’t want the company line, captain. We don’t have a company any more and we’re so far past that. (More gently,) I want to know what’s really going on here.

 

I’m worried about you. I want to say that to him but it’s not the right time. There’s a wall between us; I can almost feel it shivering with the weight of our words, but too much empathy right now will push him away. It’ll make the wall solidify as he tries to solidify himself. He’s still my captain, and even if it’s my job to worry about him, now isn’t the time to tell him that.

Stay focussed. Lean carefully. The slow blade pierces the shield.

There. There it is, his eyes cutting off to the side. The air escaping his lips in the tiniest of sighs. A crack in the wall. My captain…

 

CAPT: I can’t just bow to the pressure of those who are so easily scared by what we’re doing.

STARRY: It’s not about bowing to them and it’s not that people are scared. It’s not about them at all. You’ve never refused to listen before. Why won’t you talk about it? What’s this about?

CAPT: (gaze drifting towards the far corner of the room) Starry…

STARRY: I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on! You’re losing us, captain. You’re pushing us all away. And it’s not fair. Can’t you see what’s happening? You’re losing us.

CAPT: (blinks and focusses on her again, frown kindling) You don’t understand.

STARRY: That’s why I’m here: so you’ll explain it to me.

CAPT: It’s not that simple.

STARRY: I’ve got lots of processors. Don’t make excuses! Just tell me!

CAPT: (sharply) I am not making excuses.

STARRY: (throwing her hands up) Yes, you are! You’re not even trying.

CAPT: How dare you–

STARRY: Well, you’re not! You keep shutting us out and pushing us away and all I want is for you to tell me why, so we can–

CAPT: This isn’t about you!

STARRY: Then who!

CAPT: It’s about the ghosts! (A hand gestures towards the corner he was looking at before.) It’s about seeing them again, being able to talk to them again. It’s about everything I ever lost!

 

There it is. What I’ve been looking for: the reason.

I hardly know what to make of it, though.

 

STARRY: I… but we’re trying to get rid of the ghosts.

CAPT: (hesitates) Have you ever lost someone, Starry? Someone you loved?

STARRY: I… of course I have. I’ve lost crew.

CAPT: You didn’t love them, not the same way I mean. Not like family. And you didn’t really lose them; they were all put in cryo, or on life support. You still have hope for them, don’t you?

STARRY: Uh, yeah, I guess so. Never say never. But I lost Wide Load, too.

CAPT: (shakes his head) Imagine if you lost Monaghan. Imagine how you’d feel then.

STARRY: (pales) What are you saying?

CAPT: You can’t, can you? No-one can, not until they’re there. The hole it opens up inside.

STARRY: Your family?

CAPT: (nods) That feeling, that’s what Cerces latched onto in us. He understands. That’s how he finds who to show us, because that’s how he feels about his people. They’re gone, and he’s the reason why.

STARRY: (eyes widening) So it’s not just grief… it’s guilt too?

CAPT: Yes. He’s responsible. Don’t you see, Starry? All that matters to him is finding them again. Making amends. Finding peace.

 

Finally, it’s starting to make sense. The captain is talking about his family. There isn’t much in my files, but I know he was captain of the ship they died on. He was, ultimately, responsible. This is about so much more than just grief, or duty, or what’s right.

It’s about redemption.

 

STARRY: Which is why he’s asking the question.

CAPT: (nods) The question. And we can give him the answer. He gave us a gift. He may not have known it, but he did. He let me see them again. Talk to them. Be with them. You… you cannot know how much that means to me.

STARRY: I think I’m getting an idea.

CAPT: Don’t we owe it to him to do the same? We can give him closure. We can give him peace. We have to do this.

STARRY: No matter the cost?

CAPT: No lasting damage was done. We got through it.

STARRY: This time! He wasn’t even trying. We both know that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

CAPT: He’s in pain, Starry. Even you feel it. We owe it to him to help.

STARRY: And you owe it to your crew to worry about their pain. This isn’t like going rogue against our company. This is bigger than just us. There are civilians – innocents – here. Don’t you trust us enough to do what’s right, for Cerces too?

CAPT: (looks at the avatar for a long pause) Trust.

STARRY: Look, I know I messed up with the Step, and I’m sorry. But I’m here now, we all are, and I’m not leaving again without everyone on board.

CAPT: Not even if I order you to go?

STARRY: (folds her arms over her chest) You’re my captain. I don’t go anywhere without you. Ever again.

CAPT: (smiles sadly) That so.

STARRY: (smiles back lopsidedly) Yeah, it is. Just give us a chance to figure this out. Let us help. Please?

CAPT: Whatever happens, I’m seeing this through.

STARRY: So will we, if you let us.

CAPT: (sighing) All right. Call the crew together.

STARRY: Now?

CAPT: You seemed insistent.

STARRY: (smiles at him, properly this time, and flips him a salute.)

 

It’s not over. It’s not fixed. But suddenly, I feel like we have a better chance of getting there.

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12 Jun

Author’s Note: BSOD

So, we almost had a post this week. Almost. I’ve been struggling to get to it over the past few days, and finally managed to power through it tonight. I was so close to finishing that I was all but pasting it into WordPress and fondling the ‘publish’ button.

And then the netbook computer made a weird noise and blue-screened on me. Cue heart-stopping, oh-shit-you-did-not moment.

No, it’s okay, I told myself. I saved a bunch of times. I won’t have lost much.

Ha ha, my computer says back, that’s what you think. And then it burped as it restarted, smugly.

Okay, it didn’t actually burp. But it did eat the post. The whole. Damn. Post. Gone. Vanished. Missing. Possibly on a milk carton somewhere. I don’t know if it corrupted itself or reset back to the last backup or what, but it’s gone. Wordcount: 0. It was nearly 2,000.

Now, it’s almost 11pm and I really can’t stay up to rewrite it. I’m furious and tired and and frustrated, and about ready to pitch the stupid netbook across the room. Not the best mindset for creating a wondrous work of fiction (or even a semi-competent one).

I’ve been pondering getting a new netbook recently. Maybe it heard me. Or maybe this is a sign that yes, sooner rather than later would be good.

I will rewrite the post. It will be even better than the one I was almost ready to put up. Starry might even punch a space whale in the nose.

But it will not be tonight. My dear readers, please accept my apologies for the delay. The computer ate my homework. It will be suitably chastised very soon, when I can restrain the urge to take a hammer to it.

:(

From a frustrated writer,
~Melanie

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04 Jun

Four words

Ship's log, 08:18, 24 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

After the ghosts started talking, they just kept increasing. More of them, more voices, more noise, all asking the same question. Where are my people?

As if I didn’t already have enough competing for my attention, suddenly all of my feeds were crawling with activity. The crew of the Celestial Strider was shouting for attention, their hands clapped over their ears. Brenn Haitom was sitting in the middle of his cell, arms wrapped around his knees and his head tipped back. His eyes were screwed shut as he made the most awful keening I’ve ever heard come from a human throat. The family of cats I’ve been tracking skittered into the ducts and huddled there, all puffed fur and wide eyes. Elliott yanked on his ear protectors, then pulled them off and threw them across the room. I guess there’s no getting away from something that’s being projected directly into your head. Little Sara ran straight over to the nannybot and grabbed her stuffed whale so she could hug it. Then, curiously, she huddled into the ‘bot’s side and let the machine pat her on the head.

I tried to filter the ghosts out of my feeds, but they popped up too quickly for me to make much headway, so I gave up and focussed on dealing with the things I could actually help with.

 

Recording: 16:23, 23 September 2214
Location: Visitor Lounge B

WARSI: (hands over his ears, voice raised) …need help. Can. You. Hear. Me.

STARRY: (voice only, loudly) We’re aware of the phenomenon, Captain Warsi. We’re working on it. You just need to be patient.

RIEDE: Patient? They’re everywhere! We can’t breathe in here.

STARRY: They’re not real.

RIEDE: What did you do?

STARRY: We made contact.

WARSI: What are you doing about it?

STARRY: Anything we can. I’ll let you know. Just hang in there.

 

Recording: 16:23, 23 September 2214
Location: Engineering

STARRY: (voice only, loudly) Elliott, I need you to get to Cargo Bay 4.

ELLIOTT: (wincing and scrubbing at his hair) What? Why?

STARRY: Sara’s in there. She needs someone and you’re closest.

ELLIOTT: The whole damn place is full of ghosts! I can’t get through.

STARRY: Tell them Sara needs you. They’ll move.

ELLIOTT: Why would they–

STARRY: Please, Elliott. She’s just a kid and she’s alone in there.

ELLIOTT: (muttering) Fucking hell. (Louder,) All right! Move your ghostly asses, I’m comin’ through! (He takes a step, then looks surprised and takes another. Apparently, it’s easier than he expected.)

There wasn’t much I could do for Haitom, so I just hoped he wouldn’t get any more crazy than he already was. And I guess I’m hoping that we’ll be able to help him properly once we’ve got a handle on all of this.

Meanwhile, down in the station’s Med Bay, my people were trying to figure out what the hell to do about it all. How do you stop a black hole from talking to you when you can’t talk back?

 

Recording: 16:31, 23 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station Med Bay

DR SOCKS: (watching the captain) I don’t think it’s working.

CAPTAIN: (loudly, to the air in front of him) …need you to stop talking! It’s too much! (He glances at the doctor and sighs.) I think you’re right. Do you have a suggestion?

DR SOCKS: (turning his attention back to Lang Lang, who is curled up on the bed) Not one that you’ll like.

LANG LANG: (has folded herself up as small as possible, her hands covering her face. She whimpers softly, too quietly for anyone to hear. Her shoulders shake as if she’s sobbing.)

ROSIE: (makes a slow, sweeping motion with one arm, muscles flexing as if she’s pushing someone out of her path so she can get closer to where the captain and doctor are) Well, what are the chances that it’s gonna stop on its own?

DR SOCKS: (shrugs) We have no way to know.

CAPT: Tell me your idea, doctor. Even if I won’t like it.

DR SOCKS: (frowns at Lang Lang’s readouts and flicks at them with the fingers of one hand. The display shifts obediently.) Cerces seems to have figured out how to use the ghosts to send us a message. But he – it – doesn’t appear to be able to hear us. The only time we’ve had any two-way communication was… (He gestures at Lang Lang.)

CAPT: (frowns) We can’t send her in again.

ROSIE: Look at her, she’s still fucked up from the last trip. What is wrong with her?

DR SOCKS: The ghost activity is causing her some pain. Likely to be residual sensitivity from her recent contact.

CAPT: Can you give her something for it?

DR SOCKS: (drily) The best thing would be to sedate her, but I don’t think that’ll have the desired result.

CAPT: (sighs and runs a hand over his hair) No.

DR SOCKS: (hands moving on his interface again) I’m giving her as much pain relief as I can.

LANG LANG: (hands fall away from her face and she blinks, unseeing. Then she goes limp, her head drifting to rest on the bed listlessly.)

ROSIE: (scowls at the doctor) She gonna be okay?

DR SOCKS: Too early to say. If this keeps up, none of us will be okay.

ROSIE: What, you think it’ll melt our brains or something?

DR SOCKS: That, or it’ll be impossible to sleep and we’ll all go crazy from sleep deprivation.

CAPT: We’re not sending her in again. She’s in no state. What else can we do? Starry, can you transmit a message to Cerces?

STARRY: (voice only) Sure, transmitting a ‘please desist’ message now.

DR SOCKS: There’s no evidence to suggest that the black hole can read our coded messages.

CAPT: (sighs) No, but it can’t hurt. Do you have any other ideas, doctor?

DR SOCKS: (shakes his head) No. Seems our friend the black hole broke our best avenue of communication, right when we need her.

HALF-FACE: (from the end of the bed) But he didn’t break all of our methods of communication, did he?

CAPT: (turns to look at the SecOff) What do you mean?

DR SOCKS: (blinks at the Lieutenant) The child. Of course.

HALF-FACE: (nods at the doctor.)

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: On it. Elliott’s with her now.

 

Recording: 16:44, 23 September 2214
Location: Cargo Bay 4

(Elliott is sitting on a crate with a pair of small arms wrapped around his neck, holding Sara awkwardly in his lap. She’s sniffling into his neck and he pats her back, looking nonplussed. The nannybot and Casper stand nearby with metallic patience.)

STARRY: (avatar resolving in front of the engineer) Elliott, we need to talk to Sara.

ELLIOTT: (winces and squints up at the ship’s avatar) Do you have to do that? You just appeared inside someone.

STARRY: (shifts to the left a little bit) Sorry. That better? It’s important.

ELLIOTT: What do you need to talk to the kid about? She keeps whining that her whale is unhappy.

STARRY: We need her to talk to him for us.

ELLIOTT: What the… oh, f– I mean, I– (He stops and closes his eyes for a moment.) Okay, hold on.

(He rearranges Sara so that she’s sitting across his lap and starts to gently pluck her arms from around his neck.) Hey. Hey, look at me, kid.

SARA: (whines in protest and tries to hold onto him, but she’s no match for his strength. Her face crumples up like she’s going to cry in earnest.)

ELLIOTT: Hey, no no no, don’t do that. (He gives Starry a helpless look.)

STARRY: (gently, as she crouches down in front of the engineer) Hi, Sara. I know it’s upsetting, but we want to make it better. We need your help. Will you help us make your whale feel better?

SARA: (stops trying to cling to Elliott’s neck and looks at the ship’s avatar. Tears streak her cheeks and she sniffs wetly.)

ELLIOTT: Yeah! Yeah, that’s right. You can do that, kid. Help us make the whale all better.

SARA: (stares up at Elliott, her eyes big while the rest of her seems tiny. Her expression starts to crumple up.)

STARRY: (quickly) It’s okay, Sara, we know you can do it. We have a special job, just for you. Something only you can do.

SARA: (makes an uncertain noise in her throat, as if aborting a sob, and looks at the ship again.)

ELLIOTT: (stays wisely quiet this time, nodding at the ship to continue.)

STARRY: (gives Elliott a Look, then smiles at the little girl) We want you to tell your friend that we hear his message. He can stop asking us now. Will you tell him that?

SARA: (stares at the ship.)

STARRY: Can you do that? Let him know that it’s okay. Everything’s okay. We understand.

SARA: (stares.)

STARRY: It’s kinda noisy, isn’t it, Sara?

SARA: (nods slowly.)

STARRY: Yeah. He’s just being noisy because he’s trying to tell us something. He doesn’t know we can hear him. He’ll be happy once he knows that. Can you tell him for us? That we can hear him?

SARA: (hesitates, then nods slowly again.)

STARRY: Good girl. When he knows we can hear him, he won’t have to shout so much. Right? And then he’ll be happy again.

SARA: (leans sideways into Elliott’s chest, swallowing) Okay.

It wasn’t over that easily. It took a while for the onslaught to ease, for the volume of ghosts to stop rising, and then to recede. Little Sara needed a lot of reassurance. I think she was getting mixed communications from Cerces, muddled emotions, but she seemed to believe us. She took our comfort and squeezed her eyes shut in concentration, over and over until something shifted. It’s hard to say what; maybe it was just the way her little shoulders relaxed finally. Abruptly, it was done.

She refused to let go of Ellliott’s coveralls for some time, all the same; he had to sit there with her in the cargo bay until she felt better, and even then she only let go so that he could pick her up. She looked sleepy, so I suggested that he take her to bed, and he was only too happy to lay her down under the watchful sensors of her nannybot. There, finally, she was ready to relinquish her hold on him.

 

Recording: 18:04, 23 September 2214
Location: Crew quarters access corridor

ELLIOTT: (closes the hatch behind him and sighs mightily) Thank fuck for that.

STARRY: (standing beside him, she folds her arms and tilts her head.)

ELLIOTT: What? She can’t hear me. (He heads off towards Engineering.)

STARRY: You might want to change before you go back there.

ELLIOTT: Why? (He pauses and looks down at himself, and wrinkles his nose.) Dammit, how does one tiny thing like that have so much damn kid-juice in her?

STARRY: Kid-juice?

ELLIOTT: (turning towards his own quarters) I really don’t want to know what it is beyond that.

STARRY: (laughs.)

My feeds were calming slowly around then. All over the station, tension lifted and people seemed to be able to breathe deeper, easier. The ghosts stopped clamouring on my decks and I was able to filter them out faster than they appeared.

They haven’t completed disappeared. They’re still there, like a murmur in the background, and they still only say one thing. Now, though, it’s a whisper, a mumble, not a shout.

Over in Med Bay, the doctor was finally able to make Lang Lang more comfortable and start the diagnostics on the neural damage she suffered. He says that it can be repaired but it’s going to take some time. It has put a delay into the captain’s communication plan, but that’s okay: we need to figure out the next step anyway.

The discussion about exactly what happened was delayed until this morning. The captain requested the logs and spent half the night going over them. The doctor did the same with his own data. I collated what I could and made my own theories, because it’s hard not to.

And now, here everyone is, getting together over breakfast.

 

Live feed: station sensors
Location: Visitor Lounge A

(The captain glances around at his crew. They are all sitting at the same table for once, and the silence that has fallen is expectant. Lang Lang is the only one not present; she is still sleeping in Med Bay.)

CAPT: (clears his throat) So. Let’s start with what we know. Kess was involved, but do we know what her role was?

ELLIOTT: How did she even know we were here? Because that’s kinda creepy.

ROSIE: She able to track us or something?

CAPT: That’s a good question.

DR SOCKS: I think it might have been more mundane than that.

CAPT: Oh?

DR SOCKS: We don’t know if or how Kess knew we were here. But we do know that Cerces knew which star we call home.

CAPT: (sighs) Because that’s the first thing Lang Lang told him.

DR SOCKS: Yes. She was using the star charts to try to establish a baseline for communication. Seems she was successful.

ELLIOTT: So, you’re saying that Cerces called Kess? Not the other way around?

CAPT: And she broke down the communication barrier. He can speak our language now.

ROSIE: So he immediately decided to swamp us with one creepy-ass question.

HALF-FACE: Do we know it was his question?

(The rest of the table turn querying looks on the SecOff.)

With the Fall of Earth, Kess just lost all of her people, too.

ELLIOTT: (muttering) Fuck.

CAPT: Is there any way to tell which star the question was from?

DR SOCKS: (shrugs) From what we have seen, Cerces seems aware that he… ‘ingested’ his own system and its inhabitants.

ROSIE: And by ‘seen’, you mean ‘heard in the ramblings of a nutjob’, right?

DR SOCKS: Under analysis, he makes a strange kind of sense. Sometimes.

STARRY: (voice only) But it’s Cerces making the ghosts, isn’t it? He’s the one who has been trying to talk to us this whole time; why would he use his first opportunity to ask someone else’s question?

ROSIE: (rolls her eyes) So what, the black hole might be in denial?

DR SOCKS: It’s possible.

CAPT: (exasperated) It’s all possible. We don’t know enough yet to be able to understand the question.

ELLIOTT: All that trouble for four words, and he still managed to fuck it up?

STARRY: I think, for the first ever alien encounter, we’re doing pretty good.

CAPT: It means that our work isn’t finished here. Let’s get to it, people.

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28 May

Many mouths

Ship's log, 16:02, 23 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

Live feed: station sensors
Location: Med Bay

LANG LANG: (comes awake abruptly, sitting up, air snaggling in her throat. She shrieks, shoves herself backwards, skitters right off the edge of the bed, and just keeps on shrieking.)

DR SOCKS: (standing on the other side of the bed, his hands move quickly over the holographic interface in front of him. He doesn’t glance at the navigator; his attention is nailed on the readouts of her condition projected all around him.) Starry! Call in–

STARRY: (voice only) Already on it. Captain’s on his way, be with you in approximately forty seconds. SecOffs are a minute and a half behind him.

DR SOCKS: I don’t need security.

LANG LANG: (gasps raggedly at air, her shrieks tailing off.)

STARRY: That’s not your decision.

DR SOCKS: (muttering) I can handle one freaked-out woman. (Louder, still not looking away from his work,) Lang Lang, it’s all right now.

LANG LANG: (stares without seeing, her eyes glazed. She makes a little whimper, curled up against the cabinet between two beds, and seems to have finished making awful noises.)

DR SOCKS: Good girl, calm down.

CAPTAIN: (arrives at a run, boots squeaking on the floor, hair flying behind him. He goes straight to the foot of Lang Lang’s assigned bed and looks worried when she’s not on it.) Doctor, report!

DR SOCKS: Still gathering data, captain. Lang Lang had a reaction to something in her dream-state; I had to pull her out.

CAPT: (hears the snag of her breathing and spots where Lang Lang is sitting. He steps around the end of the bed and crouches to see her better.) What caused the reaction?

DR SOCKS: That would be the data that still needs to be gathered.

CAPT: (snaps a glance at the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (meets the captain’s eye) Means I don’t know yet.

CAPT: (returns his attention to Lang Lang.)

LANG LANG: (gazes right through him.)

CAPT: Why does she look like that?

DR SOCKS: I had to control her responses with drugs. She’s calming down now. (He casts a last glance over the readouts and then waves the interface away. It dissolves, leaving only the biorhythm readouts hovering over the bed.)

CAPT: Lang Lang, can you hear me? Are you all right?

DR SOCKS: It’ll take a few minutes for her to come around. I’ve eased up the dose, so she should come out of it soon enough.

CAPT: (glances at the doctor) Your first action was to drug her?

DR SOCKS: (shrugs, moving around the end of the bed to approach his patient) I could have let her continue to experience the anxiety attack, probably hurt herself – and me – and drive herself into a seizure. I decided to save that for another day.

CAPT: Seizure?

DR SOCKS: It’s a possibility. Hard to say for sure without looking at the data more deeply, and even then that kind of thing is always a maybe. She just needed some help to come down.

STARRY: She’s bleeding. Is that normal?

DR SOCKS: (crouches beside Lang Lang and tilts his head to see her face better. Her nose is bleeding slowly.) Hard to know what ‘normal’ is, considering what we’re trying to do. Scans are picking up some neural scarring.

ROSIE: (arrives at a jog, a big rifle in her hands glowing with a ready charge) Where is she? What happened?

 

It’s times like this when I notice Cameron’s absence. She would have marched in and snapped, “Status?” She would have assessed the room with a single glance. Rosie is still looking around, careful and thorough but nowhere near as practiced or precise as my former Chief of Security.

Cameron is here. She’s on the other side of the room, lying on a bed, on life support. For now. I can’t believe I just called her ‘former’.

Lang Lang won’t be joining her. She won’t. She’s going to be fine; my people will make sure of that. Won’t they?

 

HALF-FACE: (walks in behind Rosie, handgun held low and cybernetic eyes scanning. He keeps quiet, as usual.)

CAPT: (rises from his couch and waves the SecOffs to stand down) We’re still assessing the situation, but you don’t need your weapons here.

ROSIE: (glances down at her rifle and shrugs) Habit.

HALF-FACE: (nods at the captain and holsters his weapon.)

 

On a station full of ghosts and chatty black holes, Rosie’s rifle isn’t much good to her, but I think it makes her feel better. Better than going bare-handed into the dark, I suppose, even if it only bolsters the spirit.

She’s more use than I am. I can’t even synchronise an avatar that far into the station, and I’m certainly not sending my boys all the way down there.

 

CAPT: Doctor, you said her brain was damaged?

DR SOCKS: (nods) That’s why I pulled her out. I don’t think it’s serious – probably just superficial cell damage – but we need further scans to be sure. It’s most likely behind the nosebleed.

ROSIE: (flipping the safety on her rifle and letting the strap take the weight) You’re damn casual about brain damage, doc.

DR SOCKS: Why, would hysterics help her? (He lays a hand gently on the patient’s shoulder.) Lang Lang? Can you hear me? You’re awake now. You’re safe.

LANG LANG: (turns her head towards the doctor and blinks muzzily at him.)

DR SOCKS: All right, someone help me get her up.

ROSIE: (steps around the captain to do that.)

HALF-FACE: (stays back, out of the way.)

(It doesn’t take much encouragement to get Lang lang to her feet; she’s pliant and limp, and moves as she’s guided. She can’t quite stand on her own, sagging against Rosie’s strong hands, but she sits on the side of the bed well enough.

She blinks into space as she sits there, as if trying to focus her eyes on something, anything. Her shoulder-length hair is sticking out from her head at all angles, crushed and mussed up by her disturbed sleep. She trembles faintly and folds her arms loosely around herself.)

CAPT: (watches with a grim expression) Doctor, I want to know exactly what happened here. How long until you have a full report?

DR SOCKS: (attention returning to the readouts over the bed) It mostly depends on Lang Lang. She’s the only one who can tell us what happened in there. All I can do is assess the physical impacts, after a full set of diagnostic scans, so maybe an hour. Psychological impacts will take longer to detect.

ROSIE: You can do that?

DR SOCKS: I have degrees in psychology and neuroscience, among other things. So, yes.

ROSIE: Really? But you’re twelve years old.

DR SOCKS: (shoots the SecOff a glance) You say that like it’s supposed to be hard to get multiple degrees.

ROSIE: (bristles.)

CAPT: That’s enough, you two.

ROSIE: (folds her arms on top of her rifle and glares at the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (ignores her.)

 

He does look too young to have so many qualifications, but I guess he really is that smart. I can’t imagine what it was like for him as a kid, learning all those different subjects. Did he enjoy it, I wonder? Was it his choice, or something that was chosen for him?

There isn’t much in his personnel file about his background: all it gives is his age – 25 – and a list of his qualifications. Far too many for a mere ship’s doctor; I can’t help but wonder why Is-Tech assigned him to us. Who did he annoy to be sent so far from everything he has been trained for?

This is hardly the time to worry about all that. I’ll ask him one day, when things are quieter. If things ever get quiet for us.

 

LANG LANG: (licks her lips) Captain?

CAPT: (turns back to the navigator again) Lang Lang, welcome back.

LANG LANG: (thinly) I’m back?

CAPT: (takes her hand between both of his) Yes. Dr Valdimir woke you up when you got into some distress.

LANG LANG: Distress?

CAPT: You’re all right now, Lang Lang. It’s all over.

LANG LANG: (rubs at her face with her free hand, blinking at the captain) It is?

DR SOCKS: How do you feel, Lang Lang?

LANG LANG: My head hurts. And I feel… fuzzy.

DR SOCKS: That’s the drugs wearing off. You’re fine.

CAPT: Do you remember what happened? What caused the distress?

LANG LANG: (screws her face up) I…

CAPT: You were contacting Cerces. Did you make contact again this time?

LANG LANG: Yes, but… (She struggles for words.) But it was different this time.

CAPT: Different how?

LANG LANG: I don’t know. Something wasn’t right. It was like… like… we didn’t fit. All in the same space.

CAPT: In the same space? What do you mean? Were you in a small room?

LANG LANG: No, same dreamscape. Same as always. It’s not physical space, it’s not… it just wasn’t big enough.

CAPT: (glances over at the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (shrugs.)

CAPT: Keep going. What happened?

LANG LANG: I don’t… I’m not sure. It’s like there was too many of us. We… we didn’t fit. We just didn’t.

 

She’s starting to sound like Haitom. From the glances my crewmembers are giving each other, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Oh god, did we break her brain? Just how bad is that damage?

 

HALF-FACE: Uh, captain…

CAPT: (watching Lang Lang and patting her hand soothingly) Yes, Lieutenant?

HALF-FACE: You should really see–

LANG LANG: (frowning, mostly to herself) There were too many of us. Because… because…

CAPT: (encouraging) Because what, Lang Lang? (He glances over at the Lieutenant.) I should see wh– (He stops and blinks, his gaze moving past the SecOff and around the Med Bay.)

ROSIE: (turns to look and does the same, her mouth falling open and hands going to her rifle automatically.)

 

What? What are they all looking at? I don’t see– oh.

 

STARRY: Uh, whatever you’re seeing, I’m not getting it on sensors. It’s just ghosts.

CAPT: (roughly) Yes, I’m pretty sure they are. But I haven’t seen this many before.

ROSIE: Not even when Lang Lang pissed off the black hole. What did you do, insult his mother?

LANG LANG: (blinks) No. No, it was ours… Kess.

CAPT: Wait, what? Kess was there? In the dream with you?

LANG LANG: Yes! And she, she… (She winces and grips her hair with her free hand, gazing apologetically at the captain.) She didn’t fit.

CAPT: (stares at Lang Lang for a moment, then flinches and looks back towards the empty space of the Med Bay.)

(All of the crew glance around in alarm abruptly, though nothing shows on the sensor feeds to indicate why.)

LANG LANG: (whispers) So much sadness.

STARRY: Uh, I’m a little lost here. Can someone let me in on–

 

Holy crap. Seems that my people aren’t the only ones seeing a lot of ghosts right now. I have a deluge on my decks, filling up my cargo space one at a time, more and more and more of them. Spilling into the corridors, up onto mid-deck…

They’re appearing quicker than I can filter them out, as annoying as a twitching eyelid that won’t quit.

 

CAPT: Starry? You got cut off.

STARRY: Sorry. Ghosts on my end, too. Diverting more processing power to filtering them out. What’s making you guys all wince like that?

CAPT: So you can’t hear them?

STARRY: What? No, mine don’t usually speak, I just filter them out… why?

CAPT: Stop filtering for a minute.

STARRY: I, er. This is a horribly bad idea, but okay. You’re the captain.

 

Don’t filter them out. But they itch and it’s only getting worse. Familiar faces, dredging up ones I barely recognise, not without searching my filestores. And repeats: I have ghosts of Danika’s father in three different places. Four now.

They’re not trying to say anything. Or are they? They’re looking around for something, milling. Aimless. Targetless?

All right, I’ll give them something to look at. I’ll drop an avatar into Cargo Bay 1 and see what they…

Woah. Okay, that’s just creepy. The whole room turned to look at me. And all the ghosts in the corridor outside. Can’t show the log, because these bastard things don’t turn up in the log. But they’re all looking at me. What for? What do they want?

Oh god. Oh fuck, the captain was right: they are saying something. All of them, all at the same time, all over each other. Just one phrase, repeated at random intervals from many mouths.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (pushing a welding mask onto the top of his head and backing up against his own counter) Starry! What the fuck?

STARRY: (appearing next to him, wide-eyed) I know. Captain’s got the same. It’s everywhere.

ELLIOTT: (staring towards the door and exhaling heavily) Fucking hell.

 

Yeah, exactly. Because the ghosts are asking us: “Where are my people?”

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