Ship's log, 17:19, 8 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
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.
(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?
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.
(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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.