05 Nov

Author’s Note: Hiatus

Hi everyone.

I’ve been mulling over what to do next for a while, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to take a bit of a break from Starwalker.

The story isn’t going the way I want it to. I had a plan for how the last section of Book 4 would go, but it’s just not working the way I had in mind. The tone is completely off from what I was aiming for, and that’s on me. Last week, I wasn’t entirely happy with the post, but for various reasons, I decided to go with it. Now, I’m kinda regretting that decision.

I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. I’ve just had a big change in my day job that is demanding a lot of energy and attention, and November is always busy for me with NaNoWriMo events. I’ve also got a horrible cold that is making it hard to think straight at all! Between the schedule and the distractions, I am struggling to fix what’s wrong with the story.

So I’m going to take a little break from Starwalker. Try to get some distance, so I can come at it fresh and pull it around to where it really should be. I will be aiming to return it to the fun, kickass story we all know it can be. I really want Book 4 to end on a good note; I don’t want to mess it up.

So, watch this space. It’s going to be a few weeks before I’ll be back with Starwalker: look for news and updates around the beginning of December.

In the meantime, know that I adore and appreciate all of you lovely readers. I ask for your patience while I try to get this right. I am ever grateful for all of your comments.

Be well, my lovelies. I will be in touch again soon.

~Melanie

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31 Oct

Striving

Captain's log, 13:52, 9 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting
Log location: Captain's Cabin

 

This is Captain Warwick reporting on the loss of Navigator Lang Lang Cartier.

I have started so many log entries this way. So many crew lost. Too many. I should be used to it by now, I should have scars over these parts of myself, but that’s not how it works. The spirit is infinite and so is its ability to be wounded. It never gets easier.

Lang Lang was a damned good navigator. Her role on our roster falls short in summing up the value she lent to us, though.

She was the heart of our crew, in many ways. Our conscience. She had one of the truest senses of right and wrong that I’ve ever known; she was a stainless soul walking among the rest of us, as if to remind us of the kinds of people we once thought we’d be.

She will be missed. By all of us, I think. Even Dr Valdimir was unusually solemn when he was examining her, lacking the comments and griping he’d normally mutter during such a job. He made sure her eyes were closed and her limbs were laid comfortably. It’s the closest I’ve seen him come to showing respect since he stepped on board this ship.

Yesterday, I blamed Starry for what happened. I shouldn’t have done that. I have reviewed the logs, seen the recording of what went on inside Sara’s quarters, and the worst she’s guilty of is hesitating. She was trying to do the right thing, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure the outcome would have been different if she had opened the door when I asked.

I’m the captain; if the blame lies with anyone, it lies with me. I should have seen this coming; I should have known that Lang Lang would do what she thought was best for all of us. I should have guessed that this might be what she wanted.

I had hoped that she would trust me to find another answer. I had hoped to find an alternative to the route she took, so she wouldn’t have to.

The truth is, I’d never seen her so proactive before yesterday. It’s still hard for me to believe that she took the initiative. It’s so unlike her to defy anyone like that. That’s not to say that she is – she was – cowardly or lazy; far from it. But when she stood up before us all, it was a different Lang Lang than the one we knew. She was serene and sure of herself. She wasn’t worried about what the rest of us thought of her.

She said that she finally felt free. That’s what I saw when I looked at her: a free spirit finally stretching its wings. It hurts that her journey was cut so short.

And now, what of it all? Dr Valdimir has been monitoring her constantly since she collapsed. She hasn’t shown any life signs in the traditional human sense but there has been ‘activity’, he calls it. We’re considering moving her out of the Med Bay and into one of the cargo bays, because we’re not sure what this all means and we don’t want to risk the medical equipment the rest of us might need.

Something is changing inside the body of our friend. Cerces’s consciousness making itself at home, no doubt; in order to hold the vast alienness of his mind, he’s rearranging her internal furniture. The doctor reports that most of the cellular changes and firings are occurring in her brain, with the occasional twitch in her extremities. We have taken this to mean that Cerces has accepted the invitation, and that there’s no chance of Lang Lang ever coming back: with every change to her cerebral makeup, another piece of our friend is erased.

May the spirits take her into their care and give her the wings in the next life that she never got to use in this one.

Perhaps this time between is a blessing. We should have a memorial for her, say goodbye before she wakes up with a different mind behind her eyes. She deserves that, and I think it would be good for the crew. They need a chance to mourn, to cry, and that’s best done before Cerces ‘arrives’.

We have all been through so much on this ship. I don’t think it’s fair to let my people hope that maybe, just maybe, our Lang Lang will be who wakes up in her skin. I don’t think it’s fair to look for her within whatever voice speaks through her mouth. She deserves a proper goodbye, and my people need it, too.

They’ll blame him, I think. That’s unfair: we’ll all blame Cerces; I’m not exempt. He has forced this upon us and worn away the sympathy we might have had for him. How we will travel with him? How will we look him in the eye? How will we not see our dead friend standing before us, holding the thing that killed her?

There are so many unknowns in front of us now. It’s going to be hard to keep the peace. Starry is already barely speaking to me, having withdrawn since I told her off yesterday. I have apologised and told her that it wasn’t her fault, but I don’t think she’s ready to believe me yet.

I’m the one who truly failed Lang Lang, may the spirits forgive me. Perhaps I have failed all of us. I should take a leaf out of Starry’s book: she’s always striving to be a better ship, and I should be a better captain.

A better captain would move quickly on this memorial, before Cerces robs us of the opportunity. I’ll ask the crew to all say something. We’ll gather in the Mess Hall; we won’t want to be standing over her body in case it twitches again, or worse. No-one wants to see that.

 

STARRY: (voice only) Excuse me, Captain Warwick?

CAPTAIN: You don’t have to be so formal, Starry.

STARRY: You asked to be updated if there was a change in Lang Lang’s status.

CAPT: (sitting up straighter) Yes?

STARRY: The doctor has detected some… instabilities in her cellular makeup.

CAPT: What does that mean?

STARRY: He’s not entirely sure, but he thinks we should intervene before it goes too far. He says that her body is breaking down.

CAPT: Decomposing?

STARRY: No, not like that. Differently. He’s still trying to determine what’s causing it.

CAPT: If we intervene and counter what Cerces is doing, we could prevent him from using her as an avatar.

STARRY: It’s a possibility. What he’s doing could also destroy the body before he has a chance to move in.

CAPT: (frowns) We assumed that he knew what he was doing.

STARRY: He seemed sure about who would and wouldn’t be a good candidate. But Lang Lang said that he wasn’t aware of physical avatars until he talked with Kess.

CAPT: (grimances) That’s right. So this is new to him. What’s the doctor doing?

STARRY: He has called Elliott to Med Bay.

CAPT: What for?

STARRY: It’s not clear yet. It’s probably better if you see for yourself.

CAPT: (rises immediately) Of course. I’m on my way. (He steps around the desk and heads for the door, but pauses.) Starry?

STARRY: Yes, captain?

CAPT: Tell the crew there is to be a memorial for Lang Lang in the Mess Hall in half an hour.

STARRY: But this current situation…

CAPT: Will be dealt with. I’m not delaying this. She deserves better from us.

STARRY: Aye aye, sir.

CAPT: (hesitates) Starry…

STARRY: Yes, captain?

CAPT: (shakes his head) Never mind. Where’s Sara right now?

STARRY: In the galley, trying to figure out how to find the snack cupboard.

CAPT: Thank you. (He activates the door to leave his cabin.)

 

End log.
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25 Oct

In/decision

Ship's log, 19:22, 8 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Sara's Quarters

CAPTAIN: (staring over the motionless body on the floor at the ship’s avatar) What have you done?

SARA: (looks from captain to ship’s avatar and back again. Her face crumples as she bursts into tears.)

CAMERON: (crouches by Lang Lang on the floor. She beckons the doctor into the room.)

STARRY: (meets the captain’s eye with digital tears streaming down her cheeks.)

 

I didn’t mean for this to happen. It’s not what I wanted. I tried to respect everyone’s wishes, and my captain’s orders, and the needs of the moment, but my logic processors couldn’t come up with a solution that pleased everyone. There wasn’t one. There’s just what was, and is, and will be now that it’s done.

 

Recording: 17:25, 8 October 2214
Log location: Sara's Quarters

LANG LANG: Please, Starry. This is my choice.

 

That’s where it started. My captain was outside, thumping on the door controls. Lang Lang was begging for me to leave him out there.

 

LANG LANG: (sitting on the edge of the bed beside the stirring child) I just need a little time. Can you do that?

STARRY: (standing nearby) I’m not sure, Lang Lang.

SARA: (yawns widely, her little face scrunching up.)

LANG LANG: (considers the ship’s avatar for a moment) Open a comm line between me and the corridor, please.

STARRY: (nods) Done.

 

Internal Comms

LANG LANG: Captain?

CAPT: Lang Lang, open this door immediately.

LANG LANG: I’m sorry, captain, there’s something I must do.

CAPT: I’m ordering you to stand down. Do you hear me, Navigator? You’re a member of this crew and you’re ordered to stop what you’re doing, right now.

LANG LANG: (calmly) I hear you, captain. I’m afraid that I have to disobey.

 

The strange thing was that she really did sound apologetic. Her voice rang with honest regret, but it was for disappointing him, not for what she was about to do.

 

Recording: 17:37, 8 October 2214
Log location: Sara's Quarters

SARA: (sits up, rubbing a fist in one eye, and frowns at Lang Lang.)

LANG LANG: (smoothes the hair back from the child’s face and smiles at her sadly. Her words are relayed over the internal comms line.) Cerces still talks to me in my sleep. Did you know that?

SARA: (nods.)

CAPT: (over internal comms) That doesn’t mean that you have to do what he wants.

LANG LANG: I know. But I think I’ve come to understand him a little. Stuck here all this time, trying to communicate with anyone or thing able to listen. He never knew that physical avatars were possible. Not until he spoke to Kess. Isn’t that right, Sara?

SARA: (nods again) Fire lady nice. Brings hugs. (She hugs her stuffed whale to her chest.)

CAPT: There are lots of ways for him to get an avatar, Lang Lang.

LANG LANG: Maybe. But we don’t know that for sure and this is what I want, captain.

 

I wanted to say something, but what was there? She seemed so sure. She wasn’t passionate or defensive or pleading. She was calm and serene. She seemed at peace with her decision, and willing to be patient with the rest of us while we struggled with it.

 

LANG LANG: This is my choice. I have been chosen, and I’ve waited a long time to be chosen for something truly important.

CAPT: (over internal comms) You were hand-chosen by Lorena for this project. You’ve been chosen for many things. This isn’t so special, Lang Lang. It’s the request of a selfish entity who is willing to kill someone to get what he wants.

LANG LANG: (shakes her head slowly) It’s not like that. Cerces regrets the cost and I don’t begrudge him it. You’re right – I have been chosen for things before. But nothing like this. I have watched the stars my whole life, and it’s an honour to be asked to give one of them form.

SARA: (stares up at Lang Lang with big eyes and nods slowly, as if she understands.)

CAPT: By the spirits, Lang Lang, you have your own life to live. This ‘honour’ means giving that up.

LANG LANG: (smiles quietly at the girl, tucking hair behind her ear) I know. I am willing, captain.

CAPT: How can you give your life away so easily?

 

Log location: Crew quarters corridor

CAPT: (turns away from the door with the red locking panel to look at the doctor) Is this Cerces’s influence speaking? Could he be affecting her, right now?

DR SOCKS: (frantically pulling up holographic displays from his forearm implants, linking into the ship’s sensors and pulling in all the information he can get his hands on) Not that I can tell. We’ve never been able to pick up whatever wavelength Cerces is using to communicate with us, so it’s not easy to rule it out, captain.

CAPT: What can you tell from the readings?

DR SOCKS: That her brain patterns don’t seem to be under any particular duress. There’s no damage occurring, and that usually happens if he’s linked with someone.

CAPT: Are you telling me that he’s definitely not influencing her right now?

DR SOCKS: (shrugs and shoots the captain a sharp look through his scrolling data readouts) I’m telling you that it doesn’t look like it, but I can’t be sure.

CAPT: And what are the chances of a lasting influence? A hypnotic suggestion or subliminal conditioning?

DR SOCKS: No damage in the usual areas of the brain for forced conditioning and she doesn’t scan like someone in a trance. That doesn’t rule it out entirely; he’s had a while to work on her, subtly, and there’s no real way to pick tht up. I’ll compare her neural patterns to logs of her before she was injured.

CAPT: (nods) Hurry, doctor. We don’t have much time.

 

Log location: Sara's Quarters

LANG LANG: (softly) Easily? This isn’t easy. (Her head droops and she sighs.) It doesn’t make me happy to disappoint you, captain.

CAPT: (over internal comms) Then open this door. It could be Cerces’s influence making you say this.

LANG LANG: I don’t believe so, sir. I am myself; I feel that to be true.

SARA: (crawls out of her blankets and into Lang Lang’s lap where she rests her head against the navigator’s collar bone.)

LANG LANG: (loops her arms around the child) I’m sorry. I know you would stop this. Please, I want you to accept that this is my choice. (She hesitates, resting her cheek on the top of Sara’s head.) The truth is, there isn’t much here for me any more. There hasn’t been a need for me here for some time.

STARRY: (mouth falls open) Don’t say that! You’re needed. You’re a part of my crew.

LANG LANG: You haven’t needed a navigator, Starry, not since you came online. I was a little useful during the Steps, but we’re never doing that again, are we? You can interpret the star charts faster than I can, with more natural comprehension than any normal AI.

STARRY: That doesn’t mean you’re obsolete! We still need you.

LANG LANG: (smiles gently) For what?

STARRY: (gapes) Captain, tell her!

CAPT: (over internal comms) You’ve always been more than just our navigator, Lang Lang.

LANG LANG: You don’t need me. My life has been studying the stars. My life has been trying to excel in my field to make my father proud.

CAPT: And you think that’s no longer possible because we ended the project?

LANG LANG: (shakes her head) No, it’s no longer possible because my family was on Earth’s Moonbase.

 

I knew that. It’s in my files, tucked away in a list of facts, along with her birth date and eye colour. Most of my crew lost people when Earth was hit by the solar storms. Cirilli lost her children and grandchildren. The captain had friends there. Cameron’s old unit was somewhere on-planet. Those are just examples.

The thing is, those on Earth had a chance to survive. For those on the Moonbase, it was a different story. The base was obliterated, split open by the force of the storms as they rushed past on their way to Earth. From what news reports made sense of the wreckage, no-one survived. Even those who made it to ships and tried to undock didn’t have much of a chance: only three ships escaped. Two of them were disabled by the storm. The list of survivors was short and didn’t include Mr and Mrs Cartier.

 

LANG LANG: (looks down at the child sitting on her lap.)

SARA: (is busy playing with one of her stuffed whale’s flippers.)

LANG LANG: I don’t have anyone to go home to. No-one to make proud, not any more. For a while, I was sad about this, but now… Now I realise that it means I am free. Free to do what I choose, for the first time in my life.

STARRY: (softly) Why make that choice be death?

LANG LANG: (looks up at the ship, shaking her head slowly) I’m not choosing death. I’m choosing to be something bigger than myself. I’m choosing to give life to something that has never experienced it the way that we do. I’ve dreamed for so long about finding life on distant stars, and now, here I am, with a part to play in it all. Why would I say no?

 

Log location: Crew quarters corridor

CAPT: Starry, open this door.

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

CAPT: Starry… (He frowns and shakes his head.) Monaghan, get up here.

ELLIOTT: (in the background) Fuck, all right.

 

All of my logic processors were telling me not to open the door. This was the best course of action. But every human part of me was screaming no, not yet, not this, not my Lang Lang. I was caught in a loop, unable to act at all. I didn’t want to act or disobey. I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t do either.

By then, all of my crew was crammed into that corridor, listening intently to what was going on. Cameron made her way up next to my captain and exchanged a glance with him that somehow summed up the entire situation. Elliott was glowering darkly and it scares me when I think about what that means.

 

Log location: Sara's Quarters

LANG LANG: Sara, you know what I mean to do?

SARA: (tips her head back to look up at Lang Lang and nods awkwardly, her sleep-mussed pigtails wobbling about.)

CAPT: (over internal comms) Stop this, Navigator. Stop it now! Starry, open the door.

SARA: (looks around at the rising anger in the captain’s voice, worried.)

LANG LANG: It’s all right, Sara. You go ahead and tell your friend.

STARRY: Lang Lang, Sara, wait, not yet…

LANG LANG: (looks up at the ship’s avatar) Should I say long goodbyes? You know there’s no time for that.

STARRY: Not like this. Please.

LANG LANG: (smiles up at the ship, her eyes bright) It’s all right, Starry. It’s really all right.

CAPT: STARRY!

STARRY: (gaping at the navigator, she whispers) I’m sorry.

(The door to the room opens.)

CAPT: (rushes in and sweeps Sara up and off Lang Lang’s lap) On your feet, Navigator.

SARA: (looks up at the captain’s angry face with wide eyes.)

LANG LANG: (rises, brushing the fall her of pants smooth with little flicks of her hands.)

CAPT: You had no right–

LANG LANG: (interrupting gently) Captain, with all due respect, it’s my life. It really is all right.

SARA: (smiling suddenly) Whale says thank you.

CAPT: (looks down at the child with horror) Sara, you didn’t…

LANG LANG: (smile deepening, she nods) He’s welcome. (A heartbeat later, she crumples to the deck.)

CAPT: Doctor! (He puts Sara down on her feet, off to the side, and stares at the ship’s avatar.) Starry, what have you done?

 

I didn’t do this. I didn’t mean to.

The doctor is shaking his head. She’s gone. Lang Lang is gone, a light gone dark on my decks, a place of silence where there was once the comforting throb of her heart.

Elliott is standing in the doorway, staring at me like I betrayed him. I think I agree with him. I have no answer for the captain. What have I done?

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15 Oct

Feint

Ship's log, 17:19, 8 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

After almost two whole days, the captain is finally speaking to me again. He hasn’t slept and barely touched the food I sent in to him, but he seems calmer. As if he has turned a corner and sees a different path laid out before him.

It’s unsettling. I can see no logical reason for the change. Maybe he has finally found that thing he was searching for, or maybe he’s so exhausted and drained that it just seems that way. Or maybe he’s finding it hard to care so much now.

 

Location: Captain's Cabin

CAPTAIN: (seated at his desk, one hand swiping the hair back from his face, the other tapping fingertips on the surface before him) Starry, set course for the station.

STARRY: (appearing in front of his desk with a puzzled expression) Uh, the station?

CAPT: Yes, Sarabande Station. Get us docked there again.

STARRY: I thought we were never going back there.

CAPT: Things change.

STARRY: (blinks) Do I have to take over the station’s systems again? Because that might take a while.

CAPT: Only if it locks us out of where we need to be.

STARRY: And where’s that?

CAPT: I’m not entirely sure yet. Can you ask Dr Valdimir to come up here, please?

STARRY: Relaying the message.

CAPT: Are we under way?

STARRY: Coming around now. We’re on the far side of Cerces from the station, so it’ll be a while before we get over there.

CAPT: A while?

STARRY: Couple of hours. Are we in a hurry?

CAPT: No, but sooner is better than later.

STARRY: Plotting optimal course. It’ll still be a couple of hours, though.

CAPT: (nods) Let me know when we’re coming in to dock.

STARRY: Aye aye, sir. (She dissolves.)

 

Back to the station. Back to where we were before we tried to leave. All this space around me and I feel trapped, closed inside this system with the sucking black maw at its centre, and no way out. Every time we try to pull away, he draws us back with invisible ropes and chains. Cerces has gravity far beyond the physical and I think none of us noticed we were falling until he already had us.

He lives up to what he is: whatever falls inside his influence cannot escape. The more we push against his hold, the more it hurts us. If we linger here too long, he’ll crush us, meld us into each other and everything that has come before, and we’ll barely be a warning to those who might follow us.

I feel like I’m caught in a horror movie, one of those psychological ones where the protagonists are stuck in a house that looks normal from the outside, but once they get inside all the doors disappear and the walls shift and suddenly they’re not in Kansas any more. Every route out is just a loop back to the middle and we run in circles until we die, feeding whatever malevolence lies behind it all.

It is hard to hate Cerces; he has been anything but malevolent. And yet, he has hurt us, shown us things that cause us pain, and is trapping us here. We beat against his walls and he won’t hear us. He’s wrapped up in his own pain and need. Does he even see what he’s doing? Does he know what he has forced upon us?

I don’t want to be sympathetic any more. I don’t want to be understanding. I want him to do something for us this time. I want him to stop being selfish, to see what he’s doing to us.

I want to be able to do something more than just take my people from one place in this prison to another, unable to change the rules of a game that’s slanted in someone else’s favour.

 

Location: Bridge

(The Bridge is empty except for the navigator, who is seated at her usual station. The navigation interface hovers in the air, wrapping charts and information around her chair.

In the centre of the room, the main hologram shows Cerces turning slowly, but with additional data-points blinking as Lang Lang manipulates her controls. Readings blink near their source on the main hologram, dotted lines plot potential courses, and measurements scroll as data-points shift.)

LANG LANG: (hands pausing in their work, her expression puzzled) Starry?

STARRY: (appearing before the navigator) You need some help, Lang Lang?

LANG LANG: No, I… are we under way?

STARRY: Yes.

LANG LANG: (frowns at a series of numbers on her interface, then presses a command. The main hologram spins on its central axis, showing the Starwalker on one side and Sarabande Station on the other.) You’re returning to the station?

STARRY: Yes. Captain’s orders.

LANG LANG: Why are we heading back there?

STARRY: I’m not sure. The captain has a plan but he’s not sharing it yet.

LANG LANG: (looks over her interface, then thoughtfully starts to shut down the sections, one at a time) He doesn’t want to give Cerces an avatar, does he?

STARRY: He doesn’t want to lose any more of his crew.

LANG LANG: (closes down the last section of the navigation interface and sighs) I see.

STARRY: Is everything all right?

LANG LANG: I wish the captain could get what he wants.

STARRY: But you don’t think he can?

LANG LANG: (hesitates) I hope he can.

STARRY: Yeah, me too.

 

Everyone seems weird today, like they are talking at angles. I’m out of position, too. Could Cerces’s influence be behind this? Could he be affecting my people’s brains?

Their life signs don’t suggest anything out of the ordinary. I am checking constantly, running their bio-rhythms against the readings taken while their minds were connected to the black hole. They seem fine. They seem to be their own selves. And yet things don’t feel right.

There’s only one person who seems to be the same as before: my Elliott.

 

Location: Engineering

(Big Ass is holding a large crystalline circuit board tilted so that Elliott can work on one side of it. The engineer holds his scanner over various points the board and scowls at the readouts.)

STARRY: (appears to his right.)

ELLIOTT: (glances at her, then continues with his work) What’s up?

STARRY: (shrugs) I don’t know. We’re heading back to the station.

ELLIOTT: (grimaces) Great.

STARRY: Everything okay down here?

ELLIOTT: Sure. Just trying to chase down the glitch in this board. (He pauses, then sits back on his stool and looks to the avatar.) You’re worried?

STARRY: I still can’t plot our course out of the system.

ELLIOTT: (lifts his eyebrows.)

STARRY: Yeah, I’m worried.

ELLIOTT: I need a break. (He stretches his arms over his head.) You want a visit?

STARRY: (brightens) Sure.

 

It has been ages since Elliott hopped in to my systems to visit me. I guess I look like I need a hug. I do kinda want a hug, so I can’t complain.

I think that’s the first time I haven’t had to ask him to visit.

 

Location: Captain's Cabin

DR SOCKS: You want me to what?

CAPT: You heard me correctly, doctor. I need you to find another person that Cerces has brought back from the dead.

DR SOCKS: They’re all dead.

CAPT: Which makes them perfect candidates. It doesn’t seem to be a barrier for our big friend.

DR SOCKS: You think this will work?

CAPT: I think we need to be sure it won’t before we sacrifice someone.

DR SOCKS: (sceptical) I guess there’s no harm looking into it.

CAPT: What’s the ‘but’, doctor?

DR SOCKS: If Cerces could bring those on the station back, he would have.

CAPT: We don’t know what his motives for bringing people back – or not – are. I want to investigate all potential options.

DR SOCKS: No-one would call you negligent if you didn’t.

CAPT: I would. Are you able to do it?

 

Location: Crew quarters corridor

LANG LANG: (stops outside a door and activates it.)

(The panel slides aside, showing a messy room beyond. Small clothing litters the floor. On the bed, Sara is sprawled face-down, somehow managing to take up most of the space usually allocated for adult bodies. Her stuffed whale is clamped against her front by one arm and she’s half lying on it. One of her pigtails sticks straight up in the air.

On one side of the small room, the nannybot whirrs patiently. It picks up a piece of clothing, folds it, and puts it away. One after the other, over and over.)

LANG LANG: (gazes at the sleeping child and sighs softly. Her fingers flex as she steps inside the room and turns to manipulate the door controls behind her.)

 

That’s weird. Why would Lang Lang be going to see Sara? Why would she interrupt the child’s nap? She doesn’t like to disturb anyone, not even at the best of times.

I don’t like this; it doesn’t feel right. My people are talking at angles, even when they’re not saying anything at all.

My spidey-sense is tingling. I’m not entirely sure what that means but can definitely feel it: something is about to happen.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (hops up onto the immersion couch and wriggles into position.)

STARRY: (voice only) Elliott, wait.

ELLIOTT: (propping himself up with one hand) What? Why?

STARRY: (appears next to the couch) I hate to do this, but… something’s happening. I’m not sure what yet.

ELLIOTT: Trouble?

STARRY: (shrugs and shakes her head) It doesn’t feel right.

ELLIOTT: (swings his feet around to the floor) Fuck.

 

All of my internal scans are coming back clean. I have no warnings on my diagnostics.

But there are blips in my logic predictions. Ruffles in the data. Pieces fit together in ways that make the stomach I don’t have sink.

 

Location: Captain's Cabin

DR SOCKS: …know what I’m looking–

STARRY: (appears next to the doctor.)

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: Sorry to interrupt. It might be nothing, but… (She glances from one man to the other.) Lang Lang is visiting Sara’s room.

CAPT: (standing up) You don’t know why?

STARRY: She hasn’t said and I haven’t asked. You know what she’s doing?

CAPT: I’ve got a good idea. Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (nodding) With you, I know.

(Both men hurry out of the room.)

 

Lang Lang has locked the door behind her. She knew I’d notice. She knew we’d react to what she’s doing.

No. Please don’t do this.

 

Location: Sara's quarters

LANG LANG: (moves with slow, precise steps, and sinks to sit on the side of Sara’s bed. She strokes a lock of hair away from the girl’s face and there’s a fleeting smile, then she turns her head away from the bed.) Starry?

STARRY: (appears and speaks softly) Lang Lang, what are you doing?

LANG LANG: (looking up at the avatar) I need you to do something for me.

STARRY: Of course. What is it?

LANG LANG: I need you to keep the door locked. There’s something I need to do.

STARRY: (looking distressed) I can’t promise that.

LANG LANG: Please, Starry. This is my choice.

SARA: (stirs.)

 

Location: Crew quarters corridor

CAPT: (thumps the interface next to Sara’s door. The panel in the centre of the door glows red.)

DR SOCKS: (stands back, looking pensive.)

 

This is bigger than just these few people. This is about all of us. This is about someone we all care about. So who should I call?

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (pushes himself hurriedly to his feet, his gaze locked on the avatar) Starry, what is it? What’s wrong? Fuck, talk to me, don’t just stand there like that!

STARRY: (blinks and looks at him, wordless for a few seconds. Then she shakes her head and seems to find her voice.) I think you need to get to the crew quarters, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (grabbing his toolbelt) You damaged? Someone try to break out?

STARRY: No. It’s Lang Lang.

ELLIOTT: (frowns at her) Not sure I can fix that.

STARRY: (smiling sadly) You’re more than just an engineer, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (huffs and heads out of Engineering.)

 

Who should I call in? All of them. I’ll call all of them in.

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09 Oct

Inevitability

Ship's log, 15:33, 7 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: outside the Captain's Cabin

(The captain’s door is closed and the panel in the centre of it shows red. To the right of it, Waldo squats patiently out of the way.)

LANG LANG: (arrives slowly, a frown kindling when she sees the red panel) Starry?

STARRY: (resolving to Lang Lang’s left) Not yet, I’m afraid.

LANG LANG: He said to be here at noon.

STARRY: I know. He’s still not ready. (She hesitates.) He already knows what your answer is, Lang Lang.

LANG LANG: But I haven’t had a chance to explain…

STARRY: I know. He’s busy working some stuff out, that’s all. I’ll let you know when he’s available to talk.

LANG LANG: (opens her mouth to say something, then changes her mind and sighs, nodding at the hologram) Thank you.

STARRY: (smiles at her navigator.)

LANG LANG: (reflects the smile sadly and turns to return to her quarters.)

 

It has been like this for hours and I don’t see it letting up anytime soon.

I’m not supposed to peek into the crew quarters. I used to have protocols that stopped me, but my privacy locks were compromised a long time ago and have never truly been restored. I try to be good: I monitor their vital signs all the time anyway and I only sneak glimpses when I think I need to. Lately, I have needed to.

More than anyone else, I have been keeping an eye on my captain. He doesn’t know. Last night, I almost stepped in. Said something. I’m careful about only interfering where I have to but sometimes, it’s so hard to just watch.

He didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. He paced back and forth so much that I started to worry about the integrity of the deck-coverings in his cabin. When he got tired of pacing, he sat down at his desk and drank and drank and drank.

I wanted to do something. Talk to him. Tell him it’s going to be okay, though I’m not sure that it is. Call the doctor in case the captain was poisoning himself. Scream at him for falling apart when we need him. Beg him not to beat himself against my fittings when his composure finally broke and he started to throw things in his cabin, bouncing objects off my bulkhead, causing dents and scratches and spillages on the flooring.

But I couldn’t. He deserves his privacy and he was working his shit out. He wanted to numb his feelings, and vent them when they wouldn’t go away. I get it. He needs to be able to work through this stuff in his own way, without the pressure of prying eyes or infuriatingly helpful suggestions. I understand and despise it at the same time.

The cups didn’t break the way he wanted. The bottle didn’t shatter. These things are built to not break to protect their longevity – and him, too – and I have no switch to make them into cathartic victims of emotional pain. I would readily sacrifice every cup in my Mess Hall if smashing them would make him feel better.

I haven’t even dared to send Waldo in to clean up the mess. He’s waiting out here with me for that moment when the captain is ready for an intrusion.

Right now, he’s pacing again, back and forth, pausing only to turn on his heel or nudge a bottle out of his way with his toe. He pauses every now and then to call up an interface and search for a specific bit of data. It’s never the bit he wants, though; he waves the interface off angrily and goes back to pacing.

I know what he’s looking for. I think that’s why I haven’t stepped in; why my coded-in desire to help my captain hasn’t forced me to speak up yet. I know I have no answer to give him, no alternatives, no other way out. I don’t have any viable options for getting away from Cerces without giving someone up, and I’ve been running my scenario processors non-stop for days. We are all stuck in this together.

The only time I have spoken with him today is to tell him that Lang Lang and the Chief were outside his door, at noon on the dot. The only thing he has said to me today is to send them away.

He knew what their answer would be. He knew as soon as he laid out the situation for them yesterday: he could see it in their faces as clearly as I could. The Chief would give up her life for the crew because it’s her duty to protect them. Lang Lang would readily take on such a burden because it’s the type of person she is: selfless and generous.

I think he knew as soon as he told them that it wasn’t what he wanted us to do. I think he has been searching for another way to solve this since then. But he wouldn’t have told them if he wasn’t already sure that it was the only way. Maybe that’s part of what’s frustrating him so much.

Seeing him like this scares me. I don’t like all this prevaricating, second-guessing and searching for another way out. I’m used to it being all so clear. I’m used to knowing exactly which way to go and gunning for it, even if it was dangerous, even if we were unlikely to make it through. Danger scares me far less than indecision.

This, though. This is torture. Right now, I’m not sure if any answer we come up with will feel like the right one. We’ve run over and over the issue so much that we can’t see it any more: in all this mud where everything is the same colour, how can we tell good from bad?

I wish he would make a decision. Whatever it might be. Even if I hate it. At least we would have a direction, then. We would have a way to move through this, and then past it, and it could all be over. This waiting, these tenter-hooks, it’s all too painful to bear.

I’m going to start counting pico-seconds soon, just to have something else to occupy my processors with.

 

(The door to the captain’s cabin swishes open and the captain strides out. His uniform is fresh, the creases still crisp as if he has just pulled it on. His long hair is wild, streaking behind him as he heads down the corridor, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

When the captain is a couple of steps out of his cabin, Waldo’s hand comes out to stop the door from closing again. He trundles inside and looks around, then whirrs off towards a corner, hands out and grasping.)

 

There goes the captain. It’s not clear where he’s going yet; he pulled up the crew locations before he left his cabin but it wasn’t obvious who he was looking for. Has he had an idea? His expression is closed, so I can’t tell. He’s moving like a determined man, driven, but without the lightness that I’d expect if he had a solid lead for us to follow.

It’s possible that I’m over-analysing things. Perhaps I’ll just wait and see what he does.

There, he’s heading down to Med Bay. So it’s the doctor he wants.

 

Location: Med Bay

(The Lieutenant is leaning on the edge of the doctor’s desk, casually straightening Dr Valdimir’s collar with the metal fingers of one hand.)

HALF-FACE: No-one thinks it’s your fault.

DR SOCKS: (frowning at the SecOff) Well good, because it’s not.

HALF-FACE: (smiling to himself and patting the straightened collar) It’ll be all right, Argy. You’ll see.

DR SOCKS: (sighs and almost returns that smile) Yeah.

STARRY: (voice only) Heads up, fellas, you have incoming.

DR SOCKS: (stiffens and knocks the Lieutenant’s hand away) What do you–

CAPTAIN: (strides through the Med Bay doors.)

DR SOCKS: …oh. Captain.

HALF-FACE: (goes to stand behind the doctor’s chair.)

CAPT: (nods to the two men) Doctor, Lieutenant. I need to talk to you about the potential range on Cerces’s psychic links.

DR SOCKS: All right. We don’t have any actual data to go on, though, except where he noticed that we were leaving, and how far we got before we were forced to turn back. That doesn’t really help us make a good prediction: the effect got stronger before we stopped, not weaker.

CAPT: Is it possible for him to find us if we were to suddenly be several systems away?

DR SOCKS: That far? A few hundred light years?

CAPT: Or more.

DR SOCKS: (shrugs non-commitally) Hard to say. It seems to make sense that he probably wouldn’t be able to reach outside his own system, but as a black hole, he shouldn’t be able to emit anything. The fact that he’s able to communicate with us at all is, quite frankly, a violation of black hole physics as we understand it. So it’s hard to know what rules this method of communication might follow, if it has any at all.

CAPT: (falls thoughtfully quiet.)

HALF-FACE: We know he can reach Earth.

CAPT: (surprised) We do?

DR SOCKS: (sends a frown over his shoulder, then blinks and regards the Lieutenant curiously) Of course. He talked to Kess. Nearly fried Lang Lang’s brain doing it. So he must be able to contact Terra Sol, which means… (He looks to the captain again.)

CAPT: (nods grimly) Which means he can communicate across systems, and we have no good indication of his range.

DR SOCKS: You were thinking about Stepping out of his range of influence

CAPT: Right now, I’m open to any ideas that don’t involve us losing someone. Do you have any ideas, both of you?

HALF-FACE: (considers for a moment, then slowly shakes his head.)

DR SOCKS: Not really. We could try Stepping to a different galaxy but that doesn’t really help us should we ever want to talk to another human again, and it’s not guaranteed that it would work. Or we could just leave the kid behind.

CAPT: (frowns) We are not leaving a child behind.

HALF-FACE: We wouldn’t do that.

DR SOCKS: (shrugs) I’m just saying that Cerces would go for it. He’d look after her well enough.

CAPT: Keeping her alive by bringing her back from the dead is not looking after her. She needs people, her own kind, and a chance at a real life.

DR SOCKS: (holds up his hands) I’m just saying it’s an option.

CAPT: (slams his hand down on the desk) I want one that doesn’t involve losing anyone! That includes everyone on board this ship.

DR SOCKS: (jumps, startled.)

HALF-FACE: (puts a hand quietly on the doctor’s shoulder.)

CAPT: (takes a breath and steps back) I’m sorry. If you think of anything, I’ll be in my cabin. (He turns on his heel and leaves.)

DR SOCKS and HALF-FACE: (exchange a glance.)

 

I’ve never seen him lose it like that in front of his crew. He’s raking his fingers through his hair the way he does when he’s frustrated and angry, and this time I think he’s furious with himself. Waldo’s not even partly done with cleaning up his cabin and he’s going to go back there and break some more stuff.

I don’t really blame him. If there was an asteroid belt anywhere near here, I’d be over there blowing the stuffing out of some rocks, too. Of course, Cerces already ate all the asteroids in this sector.

 

Location: Crew corridor

(The captain stomps up the corridor to his cabin at the end. One of the doors is open but he doesn’t notice.)

LANG LANG: (peeks out once he has swept past, staring at his back.)

CAPT: (swipes the door to his cabin closed behind him. It locks with a quiet snick and the panel in the centre of it blinks red.)

LANG LANG: (softly) Starry?

STARRY: (appearing just outside Lang Lang’s door) Yes?

LANG LANG: He’s very upset.

STARRY: He doesn’t like how this is all going. There’s no good way out of this.

LANG LANG: But we have a way out…

STARRY: No good way, Lang Lang. Losing someone isn’t a suitable option.

LANG LANG: (expression falling) I suppose not. What do you think he’ll do?

STARRY: (gazing at the closed door down the corridor) I’m not sure. He’s trying to find another way.

LANG LANG: He wants to save everyone.

STARRY: He’s our captain.

LANG LANG: (gives the avatar a smile that is equal parts fondness, acceptance, and sadness) He is. Something will come up, Starry, don’t worry.

STARRY: (looks at the navigator again) I’m supposed to be the one telling you that.

LANG LANG: We’re all here for each other. Something will turn up; I’m sure of it.

STARRY: (sighs) It had better, and soon.

LANG LANG: (nods and steps back into her quarters with a thoughtful expression. The door whispers closed.)

STARRY: (avatar dissolves.)

 

She seems so sure. I wish I had her faith, but it’s hard to believe in possibilities when I have logic engines telling me that our options are limited and all involve losing something important to us.

Maybe there’s something that the rest of us can’t see: the captain, me, the Lieutenant, even the doctor, the smartest man on board. What does it say when the best I can hope for is that we’re wrong?

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29 Sep

Authors Note: Servers and a Break

Hello everyone!

You may have noticed that the website has been a bit unstable lately (more than usual). I certainly have, and I’m pretty unhappy about it.

I’m currently starting the process to look for another web host. It’s not going to happen quickly, so don’t worry. Changing over will involve a bit of downtime and I don’t want to introduce anything when I’m this close to the end! My aim at the moment is to get Book 4 finished, then look at migrating all of my websites over to a new host.

That said, Starwalker is taking a short break this week. The day job is at project changeover time, which means a huge amount of running around and organising stuff for me, and a couple of days off-site at a conference-type-affair that I’m helping to run. Sort of. It doesn’t leave me with a lot of brainspace for much else, so I’m taking this week to focus on getting my day job settled down into the new project.

Then, it’s full steam ahead to the end of Book 4. We’re so close! Can’t wait to share it with you all.

Onwards, my friends!

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24 Sep

No such thing

Ship's log, 16:44, 6 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Why is there never an easy answer to the problems we face? Why does everything feel like a test?

I’ve had my shakedown voyage. I’ve done the scientific testing that was asked of me. I’ve made the hard choices. Can’t we get just one break, one time when it goes our way?

I know, there’s no such thing as a happy ending. No such thing as an ideal world. No such thing as an easy way out. No such thing as fair, or right, or just.

There’s just the situation you’re in, the choices before you. Sometimes there’s just the roll of the dice. And sometimes, you get no choice at all.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (sitting in his chair, his head is propped on his fist and he scowls at the hologram in the centre of the room.)

(The hologram shows the default projection: the ship’s position as it orbits around the black hole.)

STARRY: (resolving to his right, she clears her throat softly.)

CAPT: Not now, Starry.

STARRY: (bows her head, her jaw tensing) I know, but they’re here. They’re asking permission to come onto the Bridge.

CAPT: Already? I need a moment, Starry. Ask them to wait, please?

STARRY: Of course.

 

Our second ‘conversation’ with Cerces ended a couple of hours ago. It’s hard to say whether it went ‘well’ or not: it was successful in that we got the information we were looking for; it sucked because the answers we got weren’t anything like what we expected or hoped for.

It was rocky from the start. The doctor argued that he shouldn’t be included in the neural load sharing of the link; he was needed to monitor the crew.

 

Recording: 10:31, 6 October 2214
Location: Med Bay

DR SOCKS: (on his feet and coming around his desk to stand in front of the captain) …need to be on hand in case something goes wrong. You know what kind of damage this link causes.

CAPT: (calmly) The damage is why you should be a part of it. You said we suffered mild effects the last time. Correct?

DR SOCKS: (warily) Yes.

CAPT: And this time, I must stay outside to talk to Cerces. That means more load on those who are part of the link.

DR SOCKS: (opens his mouth to speak.)

CAPT: (without losing a beat) How much worse will it be if both of us stay out?

DR SOCKS: (frowning) It’s hard to quantify it; there isn’t enough data. Yet.

CAPT: There isn’t much that you can do while we’re in the link anyway. The shot you gave us after the last link, is it any use during?

DR SOCKS: It might help to heal the damage while it’s being created, but it probably wouldn’t be of much use, no. But if anything happens…

CAPT: Starry and I will be on-hand to terminate the link. She’s capable of monitoring everyone and alerting me if anything goes wrong.

DR SOCKS: (falls quiet, folding his arms over his chest) This is a bad idea.

CAPT: I don’t disagree. But it’s what we’ve got in front of us, and I need to reduce as much of the risk as possible.

DR SOCKS: You’re relying on a child.

CAPT: She hasn’t let us down yet. (He puts a hand on the doctor’s shoulder.) I’ll look after you as best I can, doctor. Same as the rest.

DR SOCKS: (scowls and sighs.)

 

They both had a point. It was hard to argue with either viewpoint and I’m glad the decision wasn’t mine to make.

There were more objections and complaints. The Strider‘s people were unhappy about the whole thing and were demanding to be left out of ‘whatever craziness we had in mind this time’. All of my people have a good reason to stay out of the link, too: the doctor for medical monitoring; Cameron and the SecOffs for security monitoring; Elliott for technical monitoring.

It was hard not to sympathise, but the captain was right: we couldn’t risk reducing the number of people in the link any further, for fear of what it might do to those left inside. The captain took the decision out of their hands and reduced the danger by spreading the load among as many minds as possible. I think the captain wanted to keep it simple: all or nothing.

With every objection he overruled, his expression got more grim and his shoulders seemed a little more weighted. It’s not the sort of captain he prefers to be.

I guess this thing is testing us all.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: (sighs and shakes his head, sitting up straighter. He rakes his hair back with one hand.) All right, let them in.

STARRY: (nods and the port door to the Bridge opens.)

 

I might be able to monitor everyone on board without trouble, but I only have so many drones and that means that it was still important for everyone to be close together. We opted for the crew quarters this time around, and asked everyone to lie down so they wouldn’t fall.

The link seemed to take hold faster this time around. I abstracted Cerces’s messages, gave him a fake male voice so that it sounded like one coherent communication, rather than words broken among many mouths. Sometimes, the longer words were split into two or even three pieces. My processors were working double-time to put everything in the right order and with the right inflection, but it still came out flat. For a creature who seems to understand emotion, he’s not very good at communicating it with his words.

The logs of my crew in their waking dream fugue, speaking individual words that only make sense if you can hear all of them at once, still give me chills. If ever we need evidence that we’re dealing with an alien consciousness, this is it. If I could, I’d scrub them from my filestores.

 

LANG LANG and CAMERON: (enter the Bridge and walk to stand in front of the captain. They say nothing.)

CAPT: (looks up at them with a terrible weight in his expression. He waves a hand towards the chairs around the edge of the Bridge, representing the various stations.) Take a seat, please.

CAMERON: (nods smartly and taps a command into the holographic interface above her left forearm. The Security Station chair slides closer. Once it has clicked into place beside her, she sits, neatly and precisely. Her attention remains fixed on the captain.)

LANG LANG: (is slower about summoning the Navigation Station chair, and she shuffles as she sits. She glances around as she settles.)

STARRY: (gives her an encouraging smile.)

LANG LANG: (echoes it faintly and turns her gaze back to the captain.)

 

As always when talking to Cerces, we were reliant on little Sara’s comprehension to pass the messages through. The captain was kind and patient with her. We had said that the link must not last longer than an hour, for fear of what prolonged damage might do to my people, so he was keen to push forward, but somehow the urgency didn’t spill out of him and onto the child. I don’t know how he did it, and I have the logs to examine.

Luckily, she was keen to talk about her friend the whale joining us on an adventure. She kept grinning and hugging her stuffed toy, as if she could squeeze him already.

 

Recording: 13:53, 6 October 2214
Location: Bridge

CAPT: (with Sara sitting in his lap, one arm around her back, he taps the whale’s head with a finger) So, think the big whale will come live in this little one? You’d like that, hmm?

SARA: (laughs and shakes her head) Issa toy, silly.

CAPT: Of course, silly me.

CERCES: (voice only) Need flesh. A body. A mind.

CAPT: I see. And what type of body will that be? Will he look like your whale there, Sara?

SARA: (beams and holds up her toy like it’s a trophy, but her head shakes.)

CERCES: No whale available.

CAPT: Available? What does he mean?

STARRY: (standing just behind the child, she shoots the captain a concerned look over the top of the bobbing ponytails.)

SARA: (shrugs.)

CERCES: Singularity. Cannot emit matter. Cannot create body. Require donation.

CAPT: (thoughtfully takes the whale toy out of Sara’s hands. She doesn’t fight him, letting him have it easily. He starts making dipping and whooshing motions with it.)

SARA: (laughs and reaches for the whale, little hands grabbing.)

CAPT: (keeping his tone light) A donation, huh? Like one of us?

CERCES: A conditioned mind can provide a form.

CAPT: (frowns and lets Sara catch the whale.)

SARA: (hugs the toy to her chest, oblivious to the captain’s expression.)

STARRY: (softly, to the captain) What does he mean ‘conditioned’?

CAPT: (meets her gaze briefly, then looks down at the child again) That sounds interesting. Can he tell us more about it, Sara?

SARA: (beams and nods up at the captain.)

CERCES: Must be a clean mind. Fresh. Young.

CAPT / STARRY: You cannot have Sara.

CAPT: She wants to grow up. She wants to meet you, don’t you, Sara?

SARA: (nods happily.)

CERCES: She would be lost. Unable to play any more.

CAPT: There must other options. Who else, little one? Who else can help him play with you?

CERCES: Other clean minds. Must be undamaged and un-leashed.

 

Those seemed like pretty broad options to us, but it wasn’t as easy as all that. The captain was curious about Cerces’s use of those particular words and pressed the black hole to explain. The more that Cerces said, the worse I felt.

And now, here we are. My captain sitting before two of my crew, explaining what happened in those logs I just included here.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: …and we narrowed it down to specific criteria. It has to be someone who already has a close connection with the black hole.

LANG LANG: (eyes wide) Like me, and Haitom, and little Sara?

CAPT: Yes. The five of you who were affected when we tried to leave the system.

CAMERON: (presses her lips together and folds her arms, watching the captain’s face.)

CAPT: (continues) The person must also be whole and sound of mind.

LANG LANG: (looks puzzled.)

CAMERON: So that rules out Haitom.

CAPT: (nods) And also Kinski.

CAMERON: (eyebrows lift) Neural fetters?

CAPT: Yes. How did you know?

CAMERON: I’ve been watching the feeds. I’ve seen it before.

CAPT: (nods grimly) So he’s off the list.

 

We had to go back to Kinski’s medical scans to figure out why Cerces kept talking about an ‘un-leashed’ mind. The Strider‘s SecOff has neural implants that basically override his free will, meaning that he’ll carry out any orders given to him by an authorised person, whether he wants to or not. Now I’m aware of it, I can spot the signs in the logs: the way he does anything Riede says without hesitation; the way he looks for permission before doing anything, even sitting down; the way he twitched when Riede ordered him to do something but he was too caught up in Cerces’s influence to obey. It hasn’t been obvious because Riede doesn’t abuse it, though I’m sure he knows it’s there.

I wonder what manner of infraction he committed to get implants like that put in his head. They’re supposed to have been outlawed, but maybe that was only back on Earth; maybe on Feras, this sort of thing is acceptable.

Either way, it makes Kinski useless to Cerces. Which means…

 

LANG LANG: (sits up straighter) So it must be one of us?

CAPT: (nods again) I’m sorry.

 

Neither of them are asking about Sara, the fifth candidate. None of my people would suggest using a child for such a thing.

 

CAMERON: (lifts her chin) Captain, I–

CAPT: (holds up a hand) Not yet, Chief. I know what you’re about to do.

CAMERON: (subsides.)

CAPT: We asked about how this would be possible, given the damage that mere communication with him causes, and Cerces assures us that it’s possible for him to exist in a human host without killing it. But he was clear that there would only be room for one mind in there.

CAMERON: (frowns.)

LANG LANG: What do you mean? Once he takes a host, we would be…gone?

CAPT: Yes. Erased.

 

Dead. He means dead. It wouldn’t even be the same person any more, just a black hole in a meat shell that looks like my friend.

There’s no such thing has having your host and devouring them, too.

 

LANG LANG: (blinks and gives Cameron a horrified look.)

CAMERON: (expression unmoving) Captain, I will still–

CAPT: I know, but not so fast. This is not a decision to make lightly.

LANG LANG: (quietly) You’ve made a decision?

CAPT: No. If we do this, it must be voluntarily.

CAMERON: (quietly) What do our other options look like, captain?

CAPT: Difficult, but no more difficult than this. This must be up to each of you. It is your life. Once we do this – if we do this – it is permanent. There will be no coming back. (He holds up a hand when Lang Lang draws in a sharp breath.) I am not asking this of you. I want both of you to go back to your quarters and think about it. I want you to take your time. When you’re ready, and no earlier than noon tomorrow, come back to me with your decision.

CAMERON: (nods and stands) Understood, captain.

CAPT: (inclines his head towards her) Dismissed, Chief.

CAMERON: (leaves.)

LANG LANG: (rises slowly) Thank you, captain. I’ll… I’ll give it some thought.

CAPT: Thank you, Lang Lang. And remember: no obligation. I am not asking you to do this. This option is in front of us and it is not my decision, do you understand?

LANG LANG: Yes, sir.

CAPT: (nods) Dismissed.

LANG LANG: (hurries off the Bridge.)

 

In times like these, there’s no such thing as an easy choice.

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18 Sep

Brain ache

Captain's log, 08:24, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

This is Captain Warwick reporting after direct contact was achieved between the crew of the Starwalker and the star-born entity known as Cerces.

It sounds so clean when I put it that way. It was not a simple or clean process. It has taken me half the night to review the logs and be in a position to make a report.

I have to rely on the logs and the ship’s recounting of what happened, because I remember so little of it myself. I have only vague recollections of the hour I was part of the ‘conversation’. There was a sense of caution and a deep desire to communicate, and I can’t rightly say whether they were my emotions or Cerces’s. There was an undercurrent of loneliness and hunger that I’m sure were from the black hole, and a foreboding kind of emptiness. More worryingly, there was a thread of desperation. It felt barbed to me, as if it would not let itself be left unfulfilled.

Chief Cameron and Navigator Cartier were correct about the lack of hostility, however. I got no sense that Cerces meant us any true harm. Apart from our ability to leave, I don’t think he registers us as a danger to him at all. I suppose that, as life forms go, we’re very small compared to him. There was another sensation in the mix, one I can’t quite place. It felt connected to how he felt about us. It wasn’t a negative emotion, though it’s hard to say if it was truly positive or simply neutral.

I got no sense of him viewing us as invaders or intruders, and that’s something to be grateful for. He also doesn’t seem to be angry about the Step that the ship did a few weeks ago; I had no impression of blame or remembered pain. Perhaps black holes don’t feel the impact of the Steps as much as stars do.

There are not enough black holes in inhabited space to make Stepping a viable transportation method, though. We must focus on what’s in front of us: getting out of this system the mundane way. Sublight travel to the FTL corridor, and then FTL jumps to the next junction of corridors. And for us to be able to do that, we must deal with Cerces and his demands, one way or another.

Starry’s interpretation of his demands is that he wants to create an avatar and come with us, wherever we go. That seems to align with the impressions I had from the conversation, though I remember little actual detail. It was like being half-asleep, in the strange twilight between dreaming and waking, when reality echoes with the surreal and you’re never quite sure whether you’re rising or falling. Cerces may have used us to speak words for him but I remember none of the words themselves; just the tide of emotions as he struggled to translate his meaning into something we could understand.

Starry was upset when we all came around. I awoke floating midway between the Bridge floor and ceiling. Several of the other crewmembers were in the same position. Those who had been sitting or lying down were still on the floor, but according to Starry and the logs, those of us who had been standing all fell when Cerces released us. She turned the artificial gravity off so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves too badly, and many of us bounced off the floor. She waited until the drones had steadied us and we were starting to return to consciousness before she inched the gravity back on. By the time I was fully conscious, I was on the floor once more.

All of us woke with headaches. Dr Valdimir reviewed everyone’s scans and reports that we suffered no lasting damage, though there is evidence of some neural overloading. He gave us all a shot to ensure there would be no long-term scarring. I suspect that the effect of the neural link with Cerces is more damaging than he has told us, but I don’t think he would lie about the big picture. If I am reading him correctly, he is balancing what he tells me with what he believes I need to know to see us safely through this. Now that I’m a patient, too, that alters things.

I’m not happy to be this far on the inside of the issue. While a captain is involved in the ship’s business, we are supposed to stay outside of direct action as much as possible, so that we can make objective decisions and judgement calls, and properly direct action and reaction. I don’t like to admit it, but Starry’s assessment was correct: we rushed into this. As the captain, that was my fault; I didn’t stay objective enough. I should have slowed it all down, taken my time; then, I might have found a way to avoid all of us – including me – being swept up into the link with Cerces. We could have done this better. Cleaner.

Starry did an admirable job on her own, though I worry about the impact of some of what she communicated to Cerces through the child Sara. Starry is free with her words, which is not usually a problem but in this case, understanding is key. It is hard to know exactly what Sara passed through to the black hole’s consciousness, and how she interpreted what Starry was telling her.

For example, this notion of Cerces gaining an avatar may have been influenced by Starry herself. Not that it’s a terrible idea in and of itself; in truth, we don’t fully understand what this request might mean. Would he be content to just be a passenger? Would he expect to be in charge? He seems to be used to making demands and imposing himself on the minds and environments of humans; would he be any different in avatar form?

We’re not even sure what form an avatar of Cerces’s might take. Should Sara’s description of him as a whale be taken literally, or is it merely an extension of her love for her favourite toy? Or was it the other way around: we know from Starry’s Step data that the planet his people likely developed on was almost entirely water, so was Sara’s choice of favourite toy driven by the likeness of her friend? Starry might be able to flood one of her cargo bays to house a water creature, but I’m not sure how well that would work long-term. She’d need a more extensive retrofit for that kind of endeavour and we don’t want to spend that kind of time here.

Still, I can’t help but think that it’s an exciting endeavour. Cerces may be dangerous, in the way that the boot is dangerous to the ant, but he’s a new kind of life form. And if we can find his people, the race that evolved in this system when it was still a star system, that would be the first time humanity has come into contact with an intelligent alien life form. The possibilities of such a meeting, the things we could learn… I can’t begin to list them all. To be able to have a creature capable of communicating with such a life form with us means that we can hope for a positive outcome. Real contact, maybe even establish a relationship.

This ship was built to break the boundaries of known science. We were assembled to explore. We cannot do it in the way that was originally intended, we know that now, but maybe this is an alternative for us. A purpose, maybe even an adventure.

The doctor has been reserved in his reports on the mental health of the crew, but I think he knows better than I do that their spirits are flagging. Once the Strider‘s crew have been delivered to wherever they want to get off, and Haitom has been turned in to a hospital capable of caring for him, we have no path left. Once it’s just us, the possibilities for where we might go are endless, which means we have no true direction.

Perhaps Cerces can give us that. I have always promised him that we would look for his people, and that was lip service for the most part because it seemed like the answer that would release us from the hold he has on us. But now, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. It wouldn’t hurt for us to explore the less-trodden paths for a while, to let the dust settle behind us. So why not look for an alien race? Why not grant the wish of a lonely being?

This answer seems to come so easily that I must wonder why. Is it the spirits showing me my true path, or is there another reason? Cerces took over my mind and body for over an hour. Could this sentiment be an echo of his influence? But no matter how I examine it, I cannot find the downside to the idea.

Unless Cerces has something more insidious in mind, another motivation to his desires. It’s hard to rule either way: I got no hints of that in my contact with him and the reports of the rest of the crew back up my observations, but he’s probably powerful enough to hide his secrets if he wanted.

As unknowns go, we have some gaping ones. There’s no point asking outright; such a question would satisfy no-one, because he’d either avoid answering or be offended by it. Or both. There are plenty of other more useful questions for us to ask, and that’s what we need to do now: specifically, exactly how he means to get an avatar and what his expectations would be as a part of our crew. We should lay down some of our own ground rules, too, mostly to see how he reacts. We should ask him to stop projecting the ghosts, because we definitely don’t want to take those with us.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen any ghosts since yesterday, not since I woke up from the impromptu conversation. Has he finally stopped them? Is it because he now has another way to talk to us and doesn’t need them any more? Is that really what they were intended for?

All this is giving me another headache. I was going to call another ‘conversation’ with him today but perhaps I’ll consult the doctor first. I won’t rush into this again.

One step at a time. At least now I have some confidence that we are heading in the right direction, and soon we’ll be heading out of this system altogether.

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10 Sep

Cake

Ship's log, 14:33, 4 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

This isn’t at all what we had in mind. I know we were a little bit rushed getting here but this is ridiculous. It isn’t supposed to be happening like this!

Right now, I’m standing on my own Bridge surrounded by zombies. My crew have all wobbled to a halt and are staring into space. My passengers too: Kinski on the Bridge and all of his crewmates down in the crew quarters. Even Haitom is the same; his broken-headed state doesn’t make him exempt.

I check life signs, and everyone is perfectly healthy. I can feel their heartbeats, all of them, and the air passing in and out of their lungs. I can even feel the warmth of their skin, radiating gently in my atmosphere. Their bodies are present and correct, but their minds… Where are their minds right now?

Only Sara is acting normally. I guess she’s different, as the only person able to easily communicate with our big, invisible brain in the sky. It’s a shame that she’s too young to be able to translate fully for us. Hell, it could be a fucking disaster.

My doctor is caught up in this. He’s going to be furious. I can monitor the basic life signs but I’d really like his expertise on hand.

And my captain, I need him, too. He’s the one who wanted to do this! He knows what questions to ask.

Now it’s just me. A lady made of light trying to talk to a black hole with the help of a small child.

I guess I’m going to have to be of some use in this endeavour after all. And here I was thinking I was superfluous.

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: (approaching the captain, who is standing motionless in the middle of the room) Captain? Captain, can you hear me?

CAPTAIN: (blinks.)

STARRY: (glances over her shoulder to where Sara is sitting on the floor and wiggling her stuffed toy about. The child isn’t paying attention. The ship sighs and looks at the man before her again. His eyes don’t focus on her.) Cerces? Can you understand me?

CAPT: (doesn’t respond.)

 

How am I supposed to know if this is working? Tap its head and ask ‘is this thing on?’

What if the captain and all of my people are talking to Cerces on the inside? What if they’re in some kind of shared neurological landscape, where they can communicate freely and easily? Cerces understands our language, thanks to Kess’s involvement. What if they’re all chatting away in there and I’m distracting them?

I don’t like this. Too many what-ifs, too much uncertainty in the data. Even my human side doesn’t like dealing with this number of unknowns. And my people, halted and vacant; no, I don’t like this at all.

I’m trying not to pay too much attention to Elliott, sitting in the chair behind my avatar. He’s motionless, like the rest. He’s staring into space, like the rest. I can’t focus on his readings and fret over every little data-point. He’s fine. They’re all fine. They’re just not… here. He’s not here.

 

STARRY: (goes to crouch next to the child, summoning up a smile) Sara, honey, is Cerces– is the whale talking to my people?

SARA: (looks up and nods.)

STARRY: Can you tell what he’s saying?

SARA: (shrugs.)

STARRY: But they’re talking to each other? And they’re… they’re okay?

SARA: Whale’s talking. (She nods.)

STARRY: (frowns) What about my people? Are they talking?

SARA: (leans towards Starry) Little whispers. Shhh, listen.

 

Listen, she says. To what?

…oh no. Oh nonono.

 

LANG LANG: Where…

 

Location: Crew Quarter E

DINEEN…are….

 

Location: Crew Quarter D

RIEDE: …my…

 

Location: Bridge

CAMERON: …people.

 

That’s so not right; I can almost feel tiny claws skittering over my hull. Not right at all. I just want to get the hell out of here.

 

STARRY: (staring at the room) Oh god. Sara, if I talk to them, can the whale hear me?

SARA: (shrugs and shakes her head. She strokes the fur of her stuffed whale the wrong way to make it stand up.)

STARRY: Sara? Sara, please, I need your help, honey. How do I talk to the whale?

SARA: (shrugs.)

STARRY: (dips her head down, trying to catch the child’s lowered gaze) He wants to find his people, right? I want to help him do that. Will you help me make him happy? You want him to be a happy whale, right, like that little fella in your lap?

SARA: (looks up and nods solemnly.)

STARRY: Okay. Will you relay a message to him for me? Seeing as you’re his special girl.

SARA: (smile kindling) Sara special.

STARRY: Yes, you are. Will you tell him that we want to help, we want to go find out what happened to his people?

SARA: (expression clouding.)

 

Oh, this is going to take forever. Now I see why the captain was struggling earlier. How reliable is a two-year-old’s brain as a relay? To make him understand, I have to make her understand.

Then again, I’m a fucking idiot. I’m a ship; I don’t have to use words for this.

 

STARRY: (beams at the child) I have something to show you. Do you want to see?

SARA: (nods, pigtails bobbing.)

STARRY: (sits down beside the child and gestures towards the centre of the room where a hologram shows the slowly spinning black hole, with a small dot representing the Starwalker in orbit. The ship’s dot is currently resting just above the captain’s shoulder.) That’s your whale, right? A picture of him.

SARA: (nods, attention transferring easily to the hologram.)

STARRY: And he’s thinking of a time, long ago. A long, long time ago, when there were planets around him. (The hologram shifts, moving away from the captain and into a more open area on the Bridge. The golden dot that was the Starwalker disappears. Instead, small, coloured balls of planets appear and trace circles around the black centre, which morphs into a large, orange star.) He was different back then, too.

SARA: (stares, transfixed by the moving light patterns.)

STARRY: Back then, he was bright and shining. There were lots of people on those planets. The whale’s people. Those are the ones he misses now, aren’t they?

SARA: (expression falls and turns sad.)

STARRY: (nods) I know, it’s very sad. I love my people, too. I’d miss them if they went away. And my people, they all came from somewhere else. They miss their home, too, and their homes miss them.

SARA: (glances up at Starry, hugging the whale toy to her chest with confusion.)

 

Dammit, I’m losing her. Have to keep it simple. What am I trying to tell Cerces? What do I need him to understand?

His people. He’s always whining about his people. Let’s focus on that.

 

STARRY: It’s very sad when people leave, isn’t it?

SARA: (nods.)

STARRY: Yeah. One day, all of Cerces’s people left. There weren’t any planets here any more, and they had nowhere to stay. (The hologram shifts again, the planets fading away and the star darkening.) They had nowhere to live here, with Cerces, so they had to find a new place. (The hologram shows a swirl of small dots around one of the planets, spiralling out from the disappearing surface and coalescing into a group. The group makes a determined line away from the blackening star.)

SARA: (sadly) All gone away.

DR SOCKS: Where…

KINSKI: …my…

 

Location: Crew Corridor

HALF-FACE: (standing guard outside the crew quarters) …people…

 

Location: Crew Quarter E

TASHA…are.

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: (to the child) Yeah, they’re all gone away now.

 

Okay, I don’t know that’s what happened. I only have glimpses of what this system was like when Cerces was still a shining star. I have some data on the planets and I can make an educated calculation of which one was likely to have supported life. I even have some data that shows some ships in the region, which are most likely his people exploring their system.

But I can’t say for sure that they were able to escape his collapse. Were they capable enough to flee the system? Establish viable colonies in other systems? Survive somehow?

It doesn’t matter, not right now. I can’t prove that what I’m saying is true; the story is what’s important, and where it might lead us.

 

STARRY: Cerces misses them, and we want to help make him feel better. You want that, too, right?

SARA: (nods.)

STARRY: His people aren’t here, so we’re going to have to go look for them. To do that, we have to leave. Follow them, so we can tell them that Cerces misses them. (In the hologram, a little golden light sweeps out from circling the black hole and chases after the group of tiny ships.) Then we can bring them home. You understand?

SARA: (nods and then shakes her head.)

CAPT: Don’t…

 

This fragmented talking is very frustrating. They overlap, talking at once and in the wrong order. I’m going to filter the speech into a single input and see if that helps.

 

Location: everywhere

CERCES: Don’t leave me alone.

 

Oh good, that’s much better.

 

STARRY: (to Sara) I know he doesn’t want to be left alone, but we have to go so we can bring his people back.

SARA: (hugs her whale tighter, her eyes sad.)

 

Location: everywhere

CERCES: Don’t leave me alone. Don’t. Don’t. Stay.

 

The fragmentation is getting worse. I know we’re spreading the neural load among many different minds but this is ridiculous.

 

STARRY: (frustrated) You can’t have it both ways! We’re not leaving people here, they deserve their own lives. Sara deserves to grow up like a person, not some weird brain-mate of a black hole.

SARA: (looks confused.)

 

Great. I can’t even shout at him. This is hopeless!

He can’t have his people and eat them too! How can I explain it to him? Do I dare try when he might stamp his foot and lobotomise every person I care about?

Deep breath, deep breath…

 

STARRY: Sara, ask him how he wants us to do this. How are we supposed to find his people if we don’t leave?

SARA: (eyes filling up with tears.)

STARRY: Oh, don’t– I’m not angry with you, sweetie. Don’t cry.

SARA: (plaintively) Whale.

 

Location: everywhere

CERCES: Stay. Stay with me. Go with me.

 

STARRY: What? You can’t go with us; you’re a goddamn black hole. Sara can’t tuck you under her arm like her stuffed whale.

SARA: (sniffs and blinks, expression brightening. She looks down at her whale and plumps his head.)

STARRY: No, I said you can’t–

 

CERCES: Go. Stay. With. Me.

 

I must be parsing it wrong. But that’s what they’re saying. Is the message getting muddled in their heads? Is our communications system broken? Is our Rosetta stone cracking under the pressure?

I don’t want to ask the next question. My logical projections are rattling at me, flashing possibilities and I don’t like any of them. But how can I not ask?

 

STARRY: (looking at the adults in the room) How? How could that work?

SARA: (hugs her whale cheerfully and waggles him from side to side.)

 

EVERYONE: (except Sara and the ship) Avatar.

 

The captain is going to kill me.

 

STARRY: …Sara, I need the captain back. Sara? I need Cerces to let them go, please. All of them. I think, I think I understand what he wants.

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05 Sep

Little whispers

Ship's log, 13:02, 4 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

They call space a ‘void’, but this close to a black hole, I’m starting to get a new perspective on the word. Looking into it, into Cerces’s darkness, I see a real void, a nothingness. That’s what it looks like from here: a black so deep and thick that not even light escapes, where you can fall and fall…

In truth, it’s probably the opposite of a void in there. It’s not nothingness at all: it’s all kinds of matter, compacted down and down into this amazing gravity well and a voracious hunger. There’s a whole system of planets in there, along with the burnt-out star that warmed them. Probably a whole slew of comets and asteroids and other passing space junk. My sister and my dead ones are there, too, mixing atoms with the rest.

And somewhere in there is the seat of the consciousness that is plaguing us. It hurt my people in its attempts to talk to us. It made a small child cry like her heart is breaking. It prickles my sensors and hounds the corners of my crew’s eyes with ghosts.

I know that some of my crew are looking at that darkness and wondering if we’ll ever be free of it. Cerces has snagged us, and while my engines might be powerful enough to pull us free of his gravity, they can’t help with this.

In truth, I’m not much use here. I can’t out-fly it, or shoot it, or rip a hole in reality to escape. I can’t even give him a piece of my mind. I’m just a ship, the vessel my people stand in while they try to fix this. Even my comms are useless in this situation. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

I wonder if I could Step us out of here. Could Cerces still hurt my people if we’re half a galaxy away? Would we be out of his reach then?

But that would mean hurting another star and there’s no guarantee we could get far enough away to be free. Anyway, the captain won’t go for it; he’s determined to make this talking to Cerces work. It’s just not fair. I want to do something.

Instead, I’m sending my drones around with refreshments in this strange little soiree of ours.

 

Location: Bridge

(Along the portside wall, those who were unconscious are now sitting up. Lang Lang and Cameron are calm and quiet. The Strider SecOff, Kinski, has shuffled his back up against the wall and is glancing around nervously. Brenn Haitom is transfixed by the hologram of the black hole in the centre of the room. Sara is rubbing her eyes with one hand and trying to figure out how to hold her stuffed whale and the glass Waldo is offering her in her other hand.

Elliott is sitting at one of the Bridge stations on the opposite side of the room, watching the proceedings and trying to stay out of the way. Rosie is on her feet and is keeping her attention on Kinski and Haitom. Every now and then, she shifts her grip on her weapon.)

CAPTAIN: (to the adults seated on the floor) Do you understand what we’re proposing?

(There are nods from all of them except Haitom, who appears to not be listening.)

DR SOCKS: (sitting at a nearby station with medical information hovering in the air around him) The sedative has cleared their system. There doesn’t seem to be any residue of the earlier… effect.

ROSIE: You mean attack.

CAPT: We’re not sure what it was. I’m sure that if Cerces meant us harm, we’d know it.

ELLIOTT: Seemed pretty harmful from where I was sitting.

LANG LANG: There wasn’t any malice in it. I felt it.

CAPT: Chief?

CAMERON: (grimaces) Lang Lang is right. It wasn’t pleasant, but I didn’t get any indications of malicious intent.

CAPT: And we’re very small. This is why we’re proposing to try sharing the load.

CAMERON: (nods.)

CAPT: Do you all agree? You can opt out if you wish.

LANG LANG: (without hesitation) Of course.

CAMERON: (looking less happy) It seems like something we should try. If we can get the black hole to understand.

CAPT: (looks at Kinski.)

KINSKI: (blinks with surprise) You’re asking me?

CAPT: We need as many as we can get to share the load, if this is going to work.

KINSKI: But… you’re asking me?

CAPT: Yes, it’s still your choice.

KINSKI: Uh. (He glances around at everyone except Rosie, who is glaring at him.) Sure, I’ll help.

CAPT: (turns to Haitom, blinks, then looks to the doctor) Dr Valdimir?

DR SOCKS: He’s as conscious as the rest, but that’s not much of a help. Excluding him might be a good idea.

CAPT: In case he skews the communications?

DR SOCKS: (eyeing Haitom) To say the least.

HAITOM: (shuffles forward on his knees and leans towards the hologram to whisper,) Hello pretty boy.

 

Sometimes, I think Haitom understands more than we give him credit for. Then he does something disgusting or weird and I’m reminded that he’s a few rivets short of a proper seal.

Like now: after saying something that seems to suggest he knows we want to talk to Cerces, he has started taking off his shirt. Because clearly what this scene needs is some nudity. The arms are currently bewildering him, though, and he’s making curious noises from within the wrap of his own clothing. Should keep him busy for a while.

At least he’s not being disruptive or violent. He doesn’t seem to feel the bald patches on his head where he tore his own hair out; a small mercy for all of us, I think.

 

CAPT: (to the three volunteers) Thank you. (He goes to crouch in front of Sara.)

SARA: (has finally stopped rubbing at her eyes and is sipping at the drink from Waldo, whale resting in her lap. She turns big eyes on the captain over the rim of the glass.)

CAPT: Sara, do you think you could help me out?

SARA: (stares at him, non-plussed.)

CAPT: You see, we want to talk to your friend, the whale. Will you help us with that?

SARA: (offers her stuffed toy to the captain) Whale?

CAPT: (gently pushes her hand back down) Not that whale, little one. The other one. Your friend out there. (He nods towards the hull and the black hole beyond.)

 

Cerces is actually on the other side of us. My viewports are closed, so my people don’t have any clues about which way I’m oriented. There, I’ll roll over so he’s on my starboard side and everyone is lined up the same way.

The inertial dampeners mean my people can’t feel the change in orientation but Sara’s expression clears of confusion as soon as I complete the manoeuvre. Coincidence, or can she really feel him, even through my hull?

 

SARA: (nods, watching the captain warily.)

CAPT: (smiles at the child encouragingly) Good girl. We want to talk to your friend about what happened when we tried to leave the system.

SARA: (doesn’t respond.)

CAPT: You remember, when you got upset, and Lang Lang and the Chief were hurting?

SARA: (expression falling) Don’t go.

CAPT: Yes, that’s what we want to talk to him about.

SARA: Can’t!

CAPT: I think you can.

SARA: Can’t go!

CAPT: I know, but…

STARRY: (dropping to a knee next to the captain) Sara, the whale was upset about it, wasn’t he?

SARA: (nods, not taking her eyes off the captain, as if she doesn’t trust him.)

STARRY: We want to help him. Make it better. Will you help us make him feel better?

SARA: (daring a glance at the ship’s avatar) Help whale?

STARRY: Yes. The ca– John wants your help. Will you help us?

SARA: (looks at the captain again) Okay.

CAPT: (sends Starry a grateful glance and then smiles broadly at the child) Good girl, thank you.

 

Since when have I been better with kids than the captain? He must be off his game. He looks tired.

He’s doing fine, silly ship. This isn’t the time to be scanning him for signs of strain; I need to focus on the bigger picture. Keep us orbiting smoothly and monitor everything on board. Keep tabs on the rest of the Strider‘s crew, watch for signs of impending danger or weirdness… I’m not even really sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I sense it.

 

SARA: …light lady help, too?

 

What the hell is she on about now? I was so busy scanning for potential problems I wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. The captain is trying to explain the neural load sharing. To a two-year-old. And now she’s talking about light ladies?

 

CAPT: (sitting beside Sara now) Who is that, little one?

SARA: (as if he’s an idiot) The light lady. (She points.)

STARRY: (blinks.)

ELLIOTT: (munching on a sandwich) She’s not wrong.

STARRY: True. I’ve just never…

ELLIOTT: (grinning) Except that she thinks you’re a lady.

STARRY: Shut up.

CAPT: (suppressing a smile, to Sara) No, she’s not going to be involved.

STARRY: (ignoring Elliott) I’ll be watching over everyone, make sure they’re all right.

SARA: (nods and sips at her drink, almost disappearing behind the glass.)

 

Watching. Monitoring. Feeling damn useless. But I should be grateful: it’s not my brain in the line of fire, for once. I almost wish it was.

Cameron doesn’t look happy about any of this. She’s used to enemies she can see and feel and fight. I want to ask her if she’s all right but she won’t answer me, not here with all these others around. She’d never admit that something was wrong when she needs to be the Chief. She’s pale and shaky, but she’s still getting to her feet as if nothing is amiss. She moves smoothly enough but I can see the tension in her jaw and the tightness around her eyes. I can feel her elevated pulse as she pushes herself.

The doctor can see the signs of strain, too, but he knows better than to challenge her. His eyes narrow and he says nothing, flicking the warnings out of his interface so no-one else sees.

The captain is explaining the sharing for a third time. Now he’s using her drink as a metaphor for trying to carry a whole bucket of water: each person carries a glassful and then no-one has the pain of bearing the whole weight of the bucket. Sara is staring at him in that blank way that makes it impossible to tell if she’s absorbing any of it.

 

CAPT: Do you understand?

SARA: (thinks about it for a moment, then offers the captain her glass) Thirsty?

CAPT: (sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.)

STARRY: No, sweetie, he’s not thirsty. He means, do you understand that when the whale shouts, it’s like dumping a whole bucket on someone and they get hurt.

CAPT: Yes, that’s right. We’d like him to speak to us like he’s giving each person a glass of water. Share it around, quietly.

SARA: (thinks about it for a moment) Little whispers?

CAPT: Yes, little whispers.

SARA: (looks into her glass.)

 

I’m not sure what that means. Does she really understand? Can she? Look at her, so small, one pigtail higher than the other, stroking her stuffed toy like it might arch up and purr at any moment. It seems so unfair for us to put her in the middle of this, but we don’t have a choice. I suppose it was Cerces who truly put her in the middle, though that doesn’t make any of this right.

We do what we have to and hope that it’s enough.

 

STARRY: (to the captain) So, should I give everyone who’s taking part a glass of water?

CAPT: (shoots her a quelling look.)

STARRY: I was just wondering how–

SARA: (lifting her head) Okay.

CAPT: Okay what, little one?

SARA: Whale says okay.

CAPT: He understands what we’re asking him to do?

SARA: (nods) Uh-huh

CAPT: All right. Thank you, you’re a good girl. (Kisses her on the top of the head and then gets to his feet.)

SARA: (beams happily and hugs her whale toy.)

HAITOM: (finally manages to wrest his shirt off his head and flings it aside. He pauses for half a second, then chuckles lowly.)

CAPT: Doctor, we’re probably going to need to sedate…

DR SOCKS: (looks over at the captain and blinks.)

CAPT: (blinks.)

HAITOM: (chuckles trail off, leaving him kneeling there, grinning into space.)

 

Uh…

 

STARRY: (turns around slowly, looking at each person on the Bridge. None of them are moving except,) Sara…

SARA: (beams up at Starry) Whale share now. (She leans towards the avatar and lowers her voice.) Little whispers.

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