25 Apr

Author’s Note: The end of Book 4

It has been a long journey, with many twists and turns, but we made it! Book 4 is finally complete. Here are some fun stats of the story so far (Books 1-4):

  • Total of 487,354 words
  • In 246 entries
  • Averaging 1,981 words per post
  • Over 5 years and 2.5 months

I want to say a huge thank-you to everyone who has come along for the Starwalker ride. You guys are why I write, and I am immensely grateful for your time, enthusiasm, comments, encouragement, and patience. I have been repeatedly blown away by your support and feedback. You make me try to write a better story!

Some of you may know this, most probably don’t, but Book 4 was planned as the last book in the Starwalker saga. This is the point where I’m supposed to be wrapping up the series, saying thank you (done!) and goodbye. I’ve got a list of projects as long as my arm to work on, so many other stories to write, so many other worlds to uncover and characters to torture.

But I don’t think I’m ready to say goodbye yet. I hadn’t expected to end Book 4 with so much scope for more in Starry’s story; I really thought that, at this point, I’d have reached the end. It would be a good place to leave the ship and her people. I’m a firm believer in only writing when I have a story to tell; I don’t want to draw things out past when they have a purpose, and I don’t like stories that go nowhere, as a writer and a reader.

To my surprise, I find myself in a place where there is more story left in my poor, battered, soaring little ship. Adventures that I want to take her on.

I want to write Book 5. (If you want to know a secret, I suspect there’s a Book 6 in there, too.)

This leaves me in a little bit of a quandary. I still have all those other projects clamouring for attention; I still have other stuff I want to write. After five years, I need a break from this story and its world. I also don’t really have a cohesive plan for Starwalker beyond the end of Book 4 (and I like to know where I’m aiming for, at least).

So I’ve decided to take some time out from Starwalker for a little while. Work on some different stuff, try some new things with my writing, and take some time to map out where the next phase of the story is going to take me, Starry, and you, her readers. I want to come back fresh and brimful of the kinds of posts you guys enjoy. I want to come back and be more reliable than I have lately. Most of all: I want to come back.

I’m not sure when that will be. It’s going to be more than a month, less than a year: somewhere in between. It’s too early to put a date on it right now.

I’m still going to be writing. If you want to know everything I’m doing, news and links will be up on my writing blog. Among stuff in the works (and public) is a vampire-related set of shorts, and a little post-apocalyptic thing I just started. I’ll also be working on the Starwalker shorts I started a while ago, and they’ll go up here as they’re completed. There might not be an update every week, but I’ll do my best to keep you guys in the loop with what’s happening.

So, watch this space! Enjoy the break and check back for updates about when the Starwalker will resume her journey.

Thank you all so much for reading. Keep flying!

~Melanie

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22 Apr

Zoom

Ship’s log, 09:00, 12 October 2214
Location: Edge of the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Location: Bridge

(Today, there are four crew members present: the captain, the Chief, Rosie, and Lang Lang. Each is seated at their station with their consoles active. The ship’s avatar is standing off to one side with her hands clasped behind her, her projection more translucent than usual.

The hologram at the centre of the room depicts the position of the Starwalker: a pulsing orange ship-shape approaching the open mouth of the FTL corridor. A purple dot with a shivering silver circle around it passes by the starboard bow.)

CAPTAIN: Starry, what’s our status?

STARRY: Passing the beacon now. Diagnostics coming back good. Hull integrity is fine, engines are running within acceptable limits.

 

FTL drive fully charged

 

I feel like myself again. I’m still missing sensors, running on only one power core, and there’s plenty of work left to do, but I’m up and running. I’m whole enough to move through the void, to shimmy if I want to, or just jump the hell out of here.

The captain went for the jumping option. I don’t blame him; I think everyone is looking forward to putting this system well and truly behind us. Even Cerces, who is leaving his real body behind for the first time in his freakishly-long existence.

Right now, I’m passing the warning buoy at the edge of the system. It’s bleating its message, telling everyone to stay out of this system. I’m pleased to finally be heeding its advice.

 

STARRY: We’re coming up on the entrance to the FTL corridor. We’ll be in jump range in two minutes.

CAPT: Lang Lang, how’s our navigation looking?

LANG LANG: Course to the nearest waystation is plotted and loaded, sir. Starry should have everything she needs.

STARRY: (nods) Confirmed.

 

I’ve never been so excited to do an FTL jump. It’s both the most boring and the most dangerous flying I can do, due to the forces involved, but the notion of moving is just too much to resist. I’m flying again and that’s all that matters, when it comes down to it.

And besides, I need to get used to not Stepping. That part of my existence is over: now I must travel within the laws of physics and our universe. I must play the game like everyone else.

Okay, I’m not like everyone else and I really like bending the rules of the game, but it’s worth a shot, right?

I am a good ship, and that’s what I’ll be. Whatever that winds up meaning.

 

(A door to the Bridge opens and little Sara toddles in, carrying the black kitten that is the avatar of Cerces. She carries him by wrapping both arms around his middle, just below his front legs. His lower half dangles, his tail in danger of being stepped on at any moment. There’s no way she can see her own feet to avoid it.)

CAPT: (turns to see who it is) Come to watch our departure?

SARA: (nods cheerfully) Whale-kitty watch! Zoom.

CERCES-KITTEN: (blinks bright blue eyes at the captain.)

CAPT: Why don’t you take a seat. Starry, can you show them our rear view?

STARRY: (beckoning the child over to an empty chair, which turns and lowers so it’s easier for her to clamber into) Is that a view of my rear, or the space behind me? (She sends the captain a smile.) I’m not sure I understand your intention.

CAPT: (drily, the corners of his mouth twitching) The space behind us, please.

SARA: (pushing the kitten onto the chair before she climbs up into it) Whale-kitty see whale?

STARRY: (nods) He can wave byebye to himself. (To the kitten,) Won’t that be fun?

CERCES-KITTEN: (blinks at the ship’s avatar, his head tilting.)

SARA: Byebye whale! (On the chair now, she wraps her arms around the kitten and hugs it.) Hello whale!

 

Well, it’s good she’s not confused about the situation. It’s hard to know how much she truly understands, though lately I’m inclined to suspect more rather than less. Being with the black hole’s avatar seems to give her more focus than before, more than I would expect from a child so young.

On the other hand, she often seems exactly like a kid who loves how soft and cuddly a cat is. I wonder what she would have done if we’d only had a hedgehog on board when he needed an avatar.

 

STARRY: One minute until we’re in FTL jump range.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott has a panel open on the wall closest to the centre of the ship. Wires and circuitboards are visible, some spilling out onto the floor. Projected readouts hang in the air around him, showing the status of various systems.

Across the room, Dineen is monitoring secondary systems while she makes repairs to a power hub at a counter. Scorch marks show how it was damaged in the recent power surges. The Lieutenant keeps a careful eye on her from a stool across the room.)

ELLIOTT: Starry, you close?

STARRY: (voice only) Forty-five seconds until we’re within range.

ELLIOTT: (manipulates a section of readings from the FTL drive and squints at the data) Okay, the charge is holding steady. You’re good to go, just keep it short.

STARRY: I remember. Just a little hop to see what explodes.

ELLIOTT: Very funny.

STARRY: I have faith in my Chief Engineer.

ELLIOTT: (glances up with a lopsided grin and his eyes rove around, but he doesn’t find the ship’s avatar. The expression falters.)

STARRY: Until you get me more reliable resources, you’re just gonna have to imagine me curtseying when I say stuff like that.

ELLIOTT: (grin returning as he turns back to his readouts) I can do that.

STARRY: Not like that!

ELLIOTT: Guess what just went to the bottom of my to-repair list.

STARRY: You’re disgusting.

ELLIOTT: (grins unrepentantly.)

DINEEN: (glances over with an eyebrow crooked, but says nothing. She returns to her work.)

 

Almost there. Almost time.

Across the room from Elliott, my boy Casper is still waiting to be fixed. I miss his weird presence, popping up wherever he’s needed without seeming to need to be told. I find myself checking and double-checking on things to make sure I haven’t missed anything, in case there’s a hole he’d normally be filling.

Elliott has checked him over, and he’s confident he can get Casper working again. He fixed Byte; he can do this. I have faith in him. I’ll have my boy back, just as soon as my Elliott has time.

There’ll be plenty of opportunity in the FTL corridor for him to get to Casper. It’ll take me longer than usual to recharge the FTL drive between jumps with only one power core to draw on, so this leg of the journey is going to take us a while.

That’s okay. There’s plenty of work for all of us to do. I’ll be helping Elliott to get my initial repairs done, everything we can do without a dry dock and more supplies.

Lang Lang, the Chief, and the captain are still working the kinks out of our destination, assessing and re-assessing everything we know about various colonies, trying to figure out what the evacuation of Earth might mean. The phantom of the pirates lurks in the corners of our minds, too: a possibility that we can’t quite ignore. They might end up being the safest option for us.

I think I’ll need all my weapons online before we try any of that, though, just in case.

The doctor is keeping a close eye on Cerces’s avatar to see what happens there. Cerces himself doesn’t seem to know what to expect, and the doctor gets quietly excited whenever he manages to glean some clean readings from the kitten. It’s the weirdest thing. The only other thing I’ve seen him look at like that is me.

And then there’s Dineen, insisting that she can be trusted. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll have the chance to prove herself before we reach the next waystation. Maybe some of her crew-mates will join her, if only for something to do.

We’ll have to tread carefully there or Rosie’s head might explode with disapproval.

 

Shipwide

STARRY: Ten seconds to FTL jump, everyone.

 

Location: Bridge

(The projection in the centre of the room shows the little golden Starwalker arriving at the mouth of the corridor, which sweeps away like a long, pale throat.

To the side of the projection, the view from the rear of the ship shows the distant swirl of the black hole, so dark and deep that it feels like a hole in the universe. Somewhere between there and here is a tiny wink of light that is Sarabande Station, almost too small to notice. Cerces turns and turns.)

STARRY: Jumping in five, four, three…

(The ship’s avatar turns to look forward, though she doesn’t need to. The captain grips the arms of his chair without seeming to realise he’s doing it. Lang Lang is lost in the navigational data. Only the SecOffs seem at all relaxed, their scopes clear.)

 

FTL drive engaged

 

(The image from the rear of the ship blurs and goes dark.)

SARA: (gasps and leans forward, staring at the image.)

CERCES-KITTEN: (blinks and shakes his head.)

 

FTL drive disengaged

 

STARRY: Jump complete.

CAPT: Status?

STARRY: (cheerfully) Well, we didn’t explode.

CAPT: (gives her a sharp look.)

STARRY: I’m fine. A couple of systems look shaky but nothing critical. The FTL drive is recharging. We should be underway again in a few hours.

CAPT: (nods, relaxing) Good work, everyone.

SARA: (strokes the kitten’s head intently.)

 

Here we are, on our way. Cerces seems confused, maybe a little upset, but he doesn’t seem to be protesting. My people aren’t being affected by him; he’s keeping to himself now.

It’s hard to think that he caused us so much trouble. He’s such a little, bewildered thing, unused to something as fundamental as having a physical body that can interact with us. He’s used to only messing with our minds. He used our own memories as a mirror for his own grief and loneliness, showed us our own ghosts while he wished for his. He kept us here when we wanted to get away from all of it, though I guess there’s no real getting away from what’s in our own heads. Now… now it’s all changed for him.

It is a relief not to have them twitching up my sensors, though, messing up my feeds. It’s nice to not be confronted by them any more. I know the crew feel the same way.

I feel like a weight has lifted off my decks. I’ve got lights broken on most of my levels, sensors missing, darkened patches all over me, and still I feel lighter, as if there’s a great shadow that has lifted away from all of us.

I didn’t feel it when the avatar was made. It’s only now, as my external sensors calibrate to my new position and scan for navigation points. It’s only now, when the great sucking shape of the black hole is no longer looming over us, like a great eye that sees everything but gives nothing back. It’s only now, when I’m realising that we’re really, truly free.

I hadn’t expected it to mean something. Not to me. But it does. I’ve been stuck for so long, though my internal calendar says that it has only been three and a half months. For me, it was less than that, thanks to a little time-step. Two months.

When you look at just the time, boil it down to dates, it seems like so little. And yet it feels bigger than a whole world.

This is the first time I’ve truly flown free. I’m dented but I’m not limping. I’ve got enough resources to choose where I go next; I won’t be forced into it, not like I was when I got here. I’m my own master, I’ve got a captain at my helm and a crew who’ll stick with me.

I’ve got a god-damned alien on board who wants us to go find his alien friends.

What else does a ship need?

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (pausing in his examination of the FTL drive diagnostics, he leans over to frown at a nearby counter) Uh, Starry?

STARRY: Yes?

ELLIOTT: What the fuck are they doing?

BIT and BYTE: (on the counter, the two drones skip around in a circle, slap hands, then skip around in the other direction waving their hands above their heads.)

STARRY: (a smile in her voice) They’re dancing.

ELLIOTT: Why are they dancing?

STARRY: Because they want to. Maybe I’ll show you how sometime.

ELLIOTT: Right, a ship that knows how to dance.

STARRY: Of course I do. You taught me.

ELLIOTT: (gapes at the drones for a moment, blushing) Then, then I don’t need you to show me, do I?

STARRY: I know, but it might be fun anyway.

 

Maybe that’s what everyone on board needs: more dancing. Of the kind that Bit and Byte are doing, that is, not what Elliott is thinking; the crew can sort the other kind out for themselves.

We’ll do that. There needs to be more dancing on board me. I can make that happen; just a few more repairs in the right places and I’ll be able to host the party my people need.

Who knows, maybe between here and our next destination, we’ll be able to teach a black hole in the shape of a kitten how to dance, too?

 

Location: Bridge

SARA: (wriggling back in her chair, one hand stroking the kitten) Whale with us now. Zoom.

STARRY: (looks out the forward portal to the distant spatter of stars and nods quietly) Zoom.

 

End of Book 4

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15 Apr

Fork in the road

Ship’s log, 13:10, 8 October 2214
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Location: Bridge

(The captain is pacing back and forth while everyone assembles. Most of the crew is present and seated at their usual Bridge stations: Lang Lang, Chief Cameron, and Rosie. Dr Valdimir is sitting at a spare station, tapping his fingertips on the arm restlessly. Lang Lang is the only one with an active console; the rest are deactivated.

The Celestial Strider’s captain, Warsi, is escorted in by the Lieutenant and shown to a seat in the semi-circle of Bridge stations as well. The Lieutenant assumes a standing post behind Warsi’s left shoulder and shakes his head when invited to sit as well, preferring to keep an eye on his charge more directly.

At the front of the Bridge, Sara is sitting on the sill of one of the curving forward view portals, her feet dangling above the floor. The black whale-kitten is next to her, staring out of the portal and occasionally distracted by the twitch of his own tail-tip.

The ship’s avatar resolves at one end of the semi-circle of Bridge stations. The image shivers and is more translucent than usual. It manages to hold steady after a second.)

CAPTAIN: (to the Lieutenant) Who’s watching Dineen?

HALF-FACE: She’s in her quarters.

STARRY: I have Big Ass stationed outside the door.

CAPT: (nods and glances around) Where’s Monaghan?

STARRY: Busy with repairs. He sends his apologies.

ROSIE: (snorts.)

CAPT: (frowns) Anything new we should know about?

STARRY: No. His concerns are the same as when he spoke to you last.

 

It’s not the entire truth but it’s enough for now. I haven’t actually asked Elliott directly about his concerns with the repairs, but nothing has changed, so I think it’s a safe assumption to make. It’s easier for everyone if I keep it simple and don’t mention the details.

Like how Elliott’s repairs involve hugs. And, if I’m lucky, more kisses. No, I won’t mention that.

I’ll just pay attention and try not to let my avatar blush.

 

CAPT: Very well, let’s get started. We’re here to discuss our next destination. (He hesitates.)

CERCES-KITTEN: (turns clumsily on the sill to look at the captain and assembled humans.)

SARA: (tilts her head and cheerfully pets the kitten on the head, stroking his fur sideways.)

CAPT: We’re aware of your request, Cerces.

STARRY: Uh, translation for the cheap seats?

SARA: (cheerfully, to the ship) Mini-whales!

CAPT: Cerces would like us to find his people. However, we have other needs to fulfil before we can set out on a journey like that. Returning the Strider’s people to colonised space, for one. (He nods towards the Strider’s captain.) And repairs for another.

STARRY: Yeah, I’m not going to get far on one power core.

CAPT: (glancing at the whale-kitten) I don’t think that’s a good idea. (To Starry,) Cerces offered to power you.

STARRY: (blinks) Uh. Yeah, I think I’d prefer to keep that for an emergency situation, if it’s all the same to you.

CERCES-KITTEN: (drops his rear end abruptly and shuffles his front paws back until he’s in a catlike sitting position.)

 

Being powered by the avatar of a black hole? Does the kitten plug in?

I don’t know how that would work, or even if it could. I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to find out. I’m determined that I won’t be dependent on that creature to run. To be.

Maybe I’m still a little sore from all the damage he caused me, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. Besides, what if Cerces finds his people and decides to stay with them? No, better that I’m self-sufficient. I have to be able to support whatever people are on board me.

The captain is with me on that. I know I can rely on him.

 

DR SOCKS: (glancing around) So, we need to dump our unwilling cargo and pick up new parts. Considering we’re probably not Is-Tech’s favourite people right now, what are our options?

CAPT: (looks to the Chief.)

CAMERON: (nods) The Engineering reports state that we need dry dock facilities to perform full repairs. That narrows the list of candidates; waypoint stations are out. We need a full colony, preferably away from Is-Tech’s reach. So one with few ties to the company. We also need to stay away from the areas where the Judiciary might detect us. Lang Lang, if you would?

LANG LANG: (nods and moves her hands over her console.)

CAPT: (moves out of the middle of the room and drops into his usual chair.)

(The centre of the room shimmers as the holographic projectors struggle to come online.)

STARRY: Hold on, re-routing data.

(The hologram flickers, then resolves into a diagram of the colonial network: bright nodes representing colonies, stations, and waypoints connected by glowing lines of FTL corridors. It’s a familiar image to those in the room.

The navigator’s hands move again and sections of the diagram start to go dark, starting with the centre and then all of the smaller nodes.)

LANG LANG: Earth is not an option, for obvious reasons. Neither is Feras or the JOP. I’m taking out the places too small to have what we need. (She glances at Chief Cameron.)

CAMERON: Dyne is tied to Is-Tech. They’re seldom on good terms, which means they watch each other too closely for our comfort. Panispila Mundi has regular supply runs to and from Feras – too much traffic to be safe.

(Lang Lang’s hands move on her console and two more nodes go out.)

CAMERON: Genetica is a possibility – they’d definitely have the facilities we need – but their anti-cybernetic stance can be volatile. We’d have to check the current status of the sentiment before going there, and we’d have to hide Starry’s true nature.

STARRY: (frowns.)

(The Genetica node pulses yellow.)

CAMERON: Broken Hill has regular traffic with Is-Tech because of the raw materials it produces, but it’s mostly outgoing and they don’t watch each other too closely. It’s also a possibility.

(Another node flashes yellow.)

ROSIE: (frowns.)

 

I don’t think Elliott would like that option. He’s not fond of his birth colony, and from her expression, neither is Rosie. I wonder what it is about that place that makes them so reluctant to go back.

I won’t mention it to Elliott right now. He’s smiling. I’ll only worry him with it if it looks like we might actually go there.

 

CAPT: And if we take out the routes that take us through or near the places we need to avoid?

(FTL lines start to go dark, rippling out from the disabled nodes.)

CAPT: (sighs and rakes his long hair back from his face.)

CAMERON: Most of the FTL network will put us in contact with parties we’d prefer to avoid. I think we’re going to have to take our chances, to at least some degree.

CAPT: (nods) Our options are still very limited.

LANG LANG: There is one that’s not on the network. Well, not on the official one.

CAPT: Like the system we’re in right now?

LANG LANG: Yes. Sort of. The research station wasn’t big enough to make it onto the map. This other one is missing for… other reasons.

CAPT: What is it?

LANG LANG: It’s— we’ve already been there. (Her hands move over her console and a new node blinks into being on the diagram. The FTL corridors accessing it flash on and off.) The Apus system.

HALF-FACE: (tenses.)

CAMERON: (frowning) Hunt and the pirates?

LANG LANG: They must service their own ships somewhere, so they’ll have the facilities we need. And they’re off the grid.

CAPT: The last time we met them, we were shot at, captured, and had to fight our way free of them. (He catches himself rubbing at his right wrist, as if the arm he had to replace itches. He frowns and places his hands on the arms of his chair instead.)

LANG LANG: (glancing around the room) I, I don’t know if it’s a good option. But it’s one.

CAMERON: Laurence?

HALF-FACE: (hands tightening on the rifle slung over his shoulder) You’re asking what kind of reception you’d get? Hard to say. Hunt’s contract on you is done: Kess got to talk to you. He won’t still be chasing you for that. Also, he knows enough about Starry to make her not… a viable target for capture and commandeering.

STARRY: (lifts her chin.)

CAPT: How annoyed is he likely to be about our last encounter?

HALF-FACE: (shrugs) You lost people. He lost people. It mostly depends on whether or not he got paid.

CAPT: And we have no way to know that.

HALF-FACE: He’s not the only one we have to worry about, though.

CAMERON: How many pirate commanders are there in the collective?

HALF-FACE: Hard to say. A dozen, maybe more.

ROSIE: A dozen ships?

HALF-FACE: A dozen commanders. Some have more than one ship, like Hunt.

CAPT: That’s… a lot more than we were led to believe.

CAMERON: (drily) The Judiciary don’t like to advertise how bad the problem is, in case it reflects on them.

CAPT: (frowning) That means they’re more established than we knew. That could be good for us. Laurence?

HALF-FACE: Are you asking if they’d kill us on sight? Not if they can make a profit from us. Go with something to trade, tell them we’re pirates, they’ll make a deal.

CAMERON: As long as Hunt’s contract is done and they don’t think we’re Judiciary spies?

HALF-FACE: (nods.)

CAPT: (glances around) Tell them we’re pirates.

ROSIE: (rolls her eyes) We’re already outlaws. Wanted by the Judiciary, probably for a few things by now. Isn’t that the same thing?

(There’s a brief, uncomfortable silence.)

STARRY: (folding her arms over her chest) Besides, they have something that belongs to us that I’d like to get back.

ROSIE: (looks confused.)

CAPT: (tilts a look at the ship’s avatar) Tyler Pashtohov.

STARRY: (nods.)

CAPT: (smiles at her.)

 

I’m a ship. I don’t forget, especially not the people I’ve lost along the way.

I’ve lost so many, but maybe, just maybe, this is one I can get back. Brave Tyler, who was taken by the pirates before we managed to break free of them. We left him behind once. I won’t do it again.

 

WARSI: (clears his throat) Captain Warwick, you brought me here to represent the interests of my crew. If what you’re discussing is to drop us off with pirates…

CAPT: (holds up a hand, shaking his head.)

ROSIE: (grinning) Oh, I dunno. (To the Lieutenant,) Didn’t you say we need to take something to trade?

LANG LANG: (mouth falls open.)

WARSI: Hey, now—

STARRY: We are not selling slaves!

CAPT: That’s enough! (He waits for the room to settle down.) No-one is suggesting we sell anyone. (He looks pointedly at Rosie.) Not seriously, anyway.

ROSIE: (shrugs and leans back in her chair, looking amused.)

STARRY: (looking at the Lieutenant) We won’t be leaving anyone behind who doesn’t want to go.

HALF-FACE: (blinks at the avatar, then nods. The line of his shoulders eases.)

DR SOCKS: (watches the exchange between ship and SecOff, then examines his lap, frowning.)

 

So the mostly-metal Lieutenant is worried about meeting his old pirate crewmates again. Interesting. I thought he was put on board me because Captain Hunt trusted him, but maybe there was another reason. Maybe it was a test, or intended to get him into trouble.

It’s hard to remember him as a pirate now. He’s a good man, someone I trust. He’s one of mine now. I’m not sure which one of us that says the most about.

At least the captain didn’t argue with me. I mean it: I’m not leaving anyone behind unless they want to be there. Even if I have to go up against Hunt’s warships again.

 

CAPT: Captain Warsi, your people can leave the ship whenever they choose. We can’t make repairs at a waystation, but we can swing past one if we need to.

WARSI: (nods and leans back in his chair, appeased) Thank you, Captain Warwick.

CAPT: Are there any other colonial options?

LANG LANG: (manipulates the hologram to bring the FTL corridors back online and highlighting another couple of colonies) We haven’t discussed these ones.

CAMERON: Both viable options, same as Genetica and Broken Hill.

(They begin to flash yellow.)

CAMERON: There’s another factor to consider: the evacuation of Earth. We haven’t been around to see what that means. The last we heard, it was a full evacuation, which means a lot of refugees are pouring into the colonies right now.

CAPT: That could be good for us, couldn’t it?

CAMERON: (inclines her head to the side) Possibly. There will be more of a crowd to hide in; confusion benefits us. If the Judiciary has mobilised to help, though, it could make it harder to avoid detection.

STARRY: You think they’ll be looking for my new ident?

CAMERON: I’m not sure we want to find out. And you’re a little distinctive, Starry.

STARRY: Oh.

CAPT: What’s your recommendation, Chief?

CAMERON: Dip our toe in colonial waters, see how hot they are. The pirate collective is a good backup plan, if we need it.

CAPT: (nods) Any objections?

(Silence falls as the captain looks around the room. The black kitten studies the pads on his paw intently.)

CAPT: All right. We still have a few days of repairs to complete; I’d like to have a plan by the time we leave the system. Lang Lang, please plot us a course to an outer waypoint, see if we can find somewhere to test those waters. Chief, I’d like a detailed breakdown of the colonies we should target. If anyone has any contacts that could help us, now is the time to speak up.

(The responses around the room are mostly avoidance. Rosie scowls at the floor between her boots. The doctor looks off at the wall, his lips pressed together. The Lieutenant’s head bows tightly. Lang Lang simply looks sad.)

CAPT: (suppressing a sigh and rising to his feet) Thank you, everyone. Dismissed.

 

So that’s it. If we can’t sneak through inhabited space, we’ll seek the outlaws and try not to get killed. Then we’ll go hunt some aliens. Just as soon as I can survive the FTL jumps to get there.

Just a regular day in the life of the Starwalker.

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12 Apr

Flickering flame

Ship’s log, 13:03, 8 October 2214 
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I wish that repairs didn’t take so long. I wish I had more hands, more resources to slide into place, more engineers to fix me so I can glide right out of here.

On the other hand, I don’t want to take on any more drones. I cherish the ones I have; they’re a part of me. I still have that spare heavy drone sitting at the back of a cargo bay and no desire to hook him into my systems. Even Sara’s nanny-bot is still independent of me (though it’s easily commanded).

As for the resources, well, there’s not much anyone can do about that out here in the black. We have all the resources we’re going to get for a while; it’s up to us to make the most of them.

And I wouldn’t trust anyone but Elliott to be my engineer. Not for the important stuff. Not for walking in my head like he’s doing right now.

 

Location: internal systems, I/O bridge 14C

(Elliott stands on a silver bridge that arcs over a flashing, multi-coloured river. He’s dressed in clean overalls and toe-capped boots, with his tool belt slung about his hips. He looks around and his mouth slants unhappily.

Below him, dark patches compete with the light. The paths stretching out from either side of the bridge are only partially lit: some lighting flickers; some is simply gone in patches. Threads of lit paths wind around some of the darkened areas. As he stands there, watching, a tributary of the river below him re-routes around a dark blockage, and a fresh stream of data-light joins the flow.)

ELLIOTT: (sighs) How come you didn’t tell me it was like this?

STARRY: (resolves beside him, leaning on the railing and looking down at the data river) I did. You know I’ve got a lot of linkages burned out. I’m re-routing what I can. Some of the hardware will have to be replaced before I can get proper access back to some areas. (She glances up at his face.) This is one of the darker regions. You should see my central processing: it’s both more chaotic and much more healthy.

ELLIOTT: Maybe we should start there…

STARRY: (straightens, shaking her head.)

ELLIOTT: (frowns) What?

STARRY: The paths between here and there aren’t stable enough.

ELLIOTT: Then how are you here, talking to me?

STARRY: I can work around it. A little bit of data loss doesn’t matter much to me in this form. It’s different for you: losing the connection with your immersion chair is a real risk. Even a little data loss could cause brain damage, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (scowls) It’s buffered, I’ll be fine.

(The streets leading away from the bridge darken even further and gates on either side swing closed with a metallic ringing.)

ELLIOTT: (angrily) Starry—

STARRY: (steps closer and takes his hands in hers) I’m not willing to risk it. I’m not willing to risk you. Please, Elliott, I don’t want to fight with you.

ELLIOTT: (glares at their hands) You don’t want to fight with me, but you will.

STARRY: Of course I will.

ELLIOTT: (sighs) What the hell use am I here, if I can’t actually do anything?

STARRY: (expression faltering, she releases his hands) You can do some stuff. I thought you wanted to see how it looked from the inside. You can’t see all of it, but some…

ELLIOTT: (glances at her face) I wanted to see… yeah, that, but how you’re really doing, too.

STARRY: You’ve got a hundred diagnostic reports to tell you that.

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and goes to look over the railing of the bridge at the river below) They don’t tell me everything. Like why you haven’t had your avatar out in a while.

STARRY: I’ve lost a lot of my sensors and projectors. And I’m in power conservation mode now you’ve disabled that power core.

ELLIOTT: You are not a secondary system that should be disabled.

STARRY: It’s just my avatar…

ELLIOTT: Fine, forget I said anything.

STARRY: (blinks at the back of his head, then steps up beside him to quietly wrap her arms around one of his. Her voice lowers.) Can’t. I record everything, remember?

ELLIOTT: (glances sideways at the ship’s avatar, snorts, and looks forward again.)

STARRY: (leaning against his shoulder) Like I said, things are much healthier in my central processing areas. This is where you’re needed; there’s more to fix out here. How I’m really doing is right here, too.

ELLIOTT: (shifts his weight so he can loop his captured arm around her waist, prompting her to transfer her hold to his neck) This is where I’m needed, huh.

STARRY: Yup. And I’ll tell the captain the same thing when he asks me where you are. You are trying to get out of the all-crew meeting, right?

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes) Shut up.

STARRY: (smiling at him) I’m sorry, Chief Engineer, that protocol must have been damaged.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, when you were born. (He glances at her face and a smile tugs in return.) Fine, fine. Show me what you’ve got here.

 

He’s right: it has been a while since I’ve had my avatar out. And for the first time, I realise that he’s not the only one who has missed it. I mean, I know some of the other crew notice too, but this is different.

This time, I miss it. It’s not just the avatar interactions inside my head, being able to touch and hug and lean on Elliott, though I’ve missed those lately, too. I miss looking my people in the eye and meeting their smiles. I miss them knowing I’m there without having to say anything. I miss being more than a voice.

Maybe it’s Cerces’s new presence. He makes me feel more like a machine than ever. I can’t hear him and that just reminds me that, while I have a copy of a human brain in here, represented in data and crystalline structures, I’m far from human. I’m an AI. Fundamentally different. I know that – it’s inescapable – but at the same time, I’m one of them, one of this crew. I guess the difference just hasn’t mattered so much before.

Elliott is right: I shouldn’t sacrifice my avatar if I don’t have to. I can squeeze enough power out of my one remaining core for one set of projectors at a time. I don’t have many working right now, so the locations are restricted, but I can work with that.

So while Elliott is avoiding the all-crew meeting up, I’m going to be present.

I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it, because the meeting is gathering now and I try not to use my avatar on the outside when I’m using the one on the inside, and I only use the one on the inside when Elliott is visiting. He’s distracting! It’s more parallel processing than my systems are really comfortable with right now.

That’s okay. I’ll re-jig the balances and it’ll be fine. I’ll make this work. I’ll be present for my captain and my crew, who need to know I’m here and okay. And I’ll be with my engineer too, because I don’t get to hold onto him very often.

This is a little of what I need. I can close my eyes and breathe and remember what it’s like to be warm and safe. And connected. This is the only time I don’t feel apart from my people, when I don’t feel isolated. When I can gather him up as much as he’s gathering me.

We’re kissing. I’m not sure which one of us started it. We’re tangling together and it doesn’t matter that we’re clumsy. It just matters that we are.

There’s data loss. Moments I can’t quite fathom. I’m giddy and flickering, and only one of those is because of the kiss. It’s jarring. It’s…

 

STARRY: (shifts her weight back and drops her head.)

ELLIOTT: (opens his eyes) What’s wrong?

STARRY: (sighs, her avatar dimming for a second) Too many instabilities for this. Sorry.

ELLIOTT: (grunts, hugging her tighter against him) You sure know how to motivate a guy, don’t you?

STARRY: Not my intention, I promise.

ELLIOTT: (looks past her shoulder, as if he’s upset, but he can’t quite stop himself from smiling) Sure, sure.

STARRY: (kisses his cheek) I’m disappointed too, y’know. I’ll make it up to you. When I’m able.

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and releases her waist) But not trying to motivate me.

STARRY: (holds up her hands and steps back.)

ELLIOTT: Maybe I should plug in someplace with a stable connection to your core systems.

STARRY: (flickers, but her smile is intact) For that, you’d have to go to the Bridge or Med Bay. Everyone’s currently on the Bridge, and do you really want to the doc to find you in his Med Bay?

ELLIOTT: (wrinkles his nose) Fuck, you’re cruel.

STARRY: (waves an arm expansively at the dark area around the bridge they’re standing on) Sadly, I cannot change the facts. Fix me, sir engineer.

ELLIOTT: Oh yeah, knight in shining overalls, that’s me.

STARRY: (grins.)

 

Our brief interlude is over. Elliott’s pulling up the details of the gaps in my system architecture now, falling into his habitual, problem-solving mode. A smile lingers, though, and I know it was worth it.

I’m both disappointed and relieved. As nice as it would have been to forget my responsibilities for a moment, I wouldn’t have been able to lose myself in it: the captain is calling the meeting to order on the Bridge. It feels unfair to fork myself that way, to be there and here at the same time and to not devote my whole conscious self to these rare moments with Elliott. It feels like cheating on him, like I’m cheapening it.

No, this break is a good thing. Elliott deserves better from me. I won’t tell him because he’ll only deny it, for whatever reason.

After all, he didn’t come in just for that. He did really mean to get some work done, and now he is, and sometime soon when my guts are all re-laid with fresh wiring, we won’t have so much to keep us busy.

It would be nice to not be busy. Just for a little while. To not worry about my power levels, or hull integrity, or whether one of my boys is able to be fixed or not (the jury is still out on that, though Elliott seems confident that if he can put Byte back together, he can fix Casper). To know that I’m running well enough to let the automated subroutines handle things for a spell, so I can focus my attention elsewhere, inwards, to something that’s private and just about us.

It would be nice not to worry about the fate of everyone and everything for a while.

But that day is not today. Today, I have to help Elliott patch this and re-route that, and make sure I maintain the essential connections so my people can keep breathing and walking around comfortably. Today, I have to help decide where we go next.

But tomorrow is only a few long hours away. And after that, who knows? Maybe we’ll get our moment then.

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03 Apr

Next step

Captain’s log, 15:33, 7 October 2214 
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

This is Captain Warwick, reporting after the arrival on the Starwalker of the consciousness of the Cerces black hole.

It’s hard to believe that I’m committing that sentence into an official captain’s log. But there’s little doubt: stars and black hole are conscious, and they can interact with us through avatars. We first met Kess some months ago, in a body that was at least mostly human, and now, we have Cerces inside the shape of a small, black feline.

The process of making the kitten into an avatar was more catastrophic than any of us knew before we started. Cerces has apologised to us for the damage he caused to the ship; he had never tried doing anything like this before and was barely aware of the impact he was having.

I have impressed upon him that, if he is to stay with us, he had better become aware of the impact he has, or we’ll return him to himself through an open airlock. This ship and her crew have been through too much to fall foul of a kitten sneezing, and his apologies don’t heal our hull.

He appears to be making an effort, though. His communications feel honestly contrite and somewhat bewildered by his new state. He has never had a physical body before, not one capable of interacting with the world as directly as he is now able. Walking is new to him, and he resembles the newborn kitten he looks like as he stumbles around, trying to figure out how legs work.

Sara seems quite determined to carry him around, so I’m not sure how much practice he’s going to get while she’s awake. Cerces hasn’t complained yet, though. He seems as fond of her as she is of him.

She continues to have the strongest connection with him. Cerces is still reliant on mental communication – again, not a sentence I ever thought I’d have reason to put in a log – because of the restrictions of a feline’s vocal setup. It’s possible he will be able to adapt the kitten’s mouth and tongue to produce understandable human words, but considering that he has yet to figure out basic perambulation, I don’t think we should push for that right now.

The communication situation frustrates Starry, because she’s unable to hear him at all. It’s hard to tell how much spoken speech Cerces understands (or how much he’s picking up from our minds), so we’re not sure if she can talk to him directly either. So far, we have had to translate for both of them.

The mental communication with the crew is much easier now than it was before. Cerces no longer has to struggle to reach us, and we can all hear him independently. We don’t need trances or group-minds to establish a proper connection.

It’s still not the easiest of methods. His voice booms inside my head, more fitting for a large, deep-chested man than a kitten. I don’t think he understands what’s appropriate for his current size. A long conversation with him tends to leave a headache in its wake. The doctor is monitoring the situation and reports that no detectable damage is being done. I’m not the only one hoping that it gets easier, though.

We haven’t yet talked about what’s next, where we go from here; that conversation is fast approaching. Now that Cerces is aboard and able to come with us, we should be able to leave the system, but there are many things to sort out before that can happen. Our destination, for one, and the repairs of the ship.

Our Chief Engineer has been working almost non-stop over the past couple of days to get the essential systems back online. We have basic propulsion, inertial dampeners, and environmental systems back now, but we’re still missing a couple of sublight engines, the FTL drive, and weapons systems.

Monaghan’s report states that we have another few days of repairs before we should risk doing anything potentially dangerous, like leaving the system or an FTL jump. Even with the Celestial Strider’s engineer helping, there is a lot to do. The damaged cargo bay has been patched but needs to be made properly secure, and there is a lot of wiring to be replaced. Starry reports that she has lost almost half of her sensors on the ship.

We won’t be returning to Sarabande Station to complete the repairs. We have the parts for the primary repairs, with some patch-work and jerry-rigging, and the parts we’re missing aren’t on the station. Some of them were lost when the airlock blew; others we haven’t had in months. So there’s no reason to go back to the station and, for the crew’s sake, I’d like to move forward as much as possible. Returning to Sarabande now would feel like a step back, a defeat. The crew needs something better.

We are missing one essential piece that, while we don’t need it yet, we are likely to need in the near future. Starry reported some instability in one of her power cores and suspected it was damaged. Monaghan looked into it and confirmed her fears: the core is cracked. It will take us a little further but not much, and we’re going to have to tread lightly until it is replaced, power-wise.

Monaghan says that he doesn’t have the ability to repair a cracked core on board the ship; that’ll take an engineering garage. He might be able to patch it, depending on where the crack is in the core and how deep it goes; if the containment is compromised, it will be too dangerous to keep on board in case it breaches. He was going to look at it now but I sent him to get some sleep. Starry’s drone was hovering around him and I could see his hands were shaking with exhaustion. It would be better for everyone if he tackles the power core when he’s rested.

Once that power core is gone, she’ll have only one to run on. We’ll have fewer failsafes and will have to run in conservation mode; a temporary measure at best.

There was a spare power core on the station; it was one of the first parts we claimed when we were scavenging. Unfortunately, it was in Cargo Bay 1, and was one of the first parts out of the airlock when it breached. We’re going to have to find another one somewhere, but not here.

Monaghan is also reporting that Starry is in need of a dry-dock session. He wants to make sure her bulkheads are still solid after the punishment they have taken over the past year, and there’s other work he wants to do on her that needs a full dock to achieve.

Given our relationship with Isasimo Technologies, who own all of the ship-sized dry docks, I’m not sure how possible that is right now. We might be able to slip in under their radar at an outer colony. I am looking into possibilities and Chief Cameron is assessing our defensive capabilities in case we have to pass near our old company’s reach.

It’s a tricky situation. Our priorities are what they are, however, and we’ll find a way through. We need to return to a colonised system to drop off our reluctant guests from the Strider anyway; I still aim to fulfil that promise. With luck, we can kill two birds with one stone.

I am curious about Dineen’s motives for helping us with the repairs. She could have easily done damage or simply stayed out of it, given that she’s clearly capable enough to evade our security measures, but she chose to aid us instead. Her motives appear straightforward but I have to question her actions. There’s a lot we simply don’t know about her yet.

If she is to be believed, though, this shines a curious light on the Strider’s crew and their potential fates. It’s possible that she’s not the only one harbouring the desire to put their enmity for us aside. Perhaps they won’t all leave us when we find a suitable place to return them to the colony network.

It’s a lot to work out, but we have time and miles to go before we have to make our choices. Then, we will see how the chips fall. It’s too early to make predictions.

Only after all that can we consider Cerces’s request: to find his people. We will be able to plot a course to the systems where they might have gone and put our ex-company and all of this behind us. We have broken away from our old bonds and lives; finally, will be able to strike out in a new direction.

I look forward to that day. We have a long road ahead of us. It’s time to take the next step.

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26 Mar

Wordless messages

Ship’s log, 02:47, 6 October 2214
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I hate only being able to listen to half a conversation. It’s bad enough that portions of my sensors are dark, I’ve got spotty coverage across most of my decks, and I’m struggling to pick up all the things I’m used to seeing. But this? This is worse.

I can hear everyone speaking but not the black hole’s responses. I know he’s responding because my crew have listening-face. But there’s no sound!

I keep checking my sensors in Med Bay to make sure I’m not partially deaf in there. I’ve had to stop four automatic diagnostic runs already, because I know I’m fine in that room. It has some of the best shielding aboard me, and thus the least damage. At the same time, I know I’m not detecting everything that’s going on. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch, a blur in my vision I can’t blink away.

I have managed to glean a few things from the half of the conversation I can pick up: the captain is annoyed enough to be stern with our guest; everyone in the room can ‘hear’ him; and there seems to be some confusion about what the captain is annoyed about.

The captain isn’t the only one who is angry with Cerces. I’m trying to help Elliott with as much of the repairs as possible, though my hands are mostly otherwise engaged. Waldo is back online and helping, and Bit and Byte are making efforts.

Casper is still offline.

I… I don’t want to think about that right now. I’ll worry when I know how bad it really is. Okay, I’m going to worry anyway, but I’ll confine it to a background process until I know more. Detailed diagnostics are running.

It’s not like I don’t have plenty to do. Mapping out my internal systems, identifying the damaged parts, creating lists of areas that need attention… Power surges aren’t fun. Nor is the damage to my power cores. I’m starting to think that one of them is cracked. It’s stable, for now, but my projections for how long it will stay that way are variable.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott is sitting on the edge of a hole in the floor, scowling at the readout projected above his left forearm.)

ELLIOTT: Starry, can you do a diagnostic sweep on the dampeners?

STARRY: Uh… no. They’re still disabled on my end.

ELLIOTT: You should be able to run diagnostics.

STARRY: My connection to that system must have gone down. Can you divert and reconnect it? I’ll light up the working pathways.

ELLIOTT: (sighs and rubs the back of his head) Right, right. (He clambers down into the hole again.)

 

He looks so weary. It’s late and he should be in bed, but I need him to do what he’s doing right now. I need my engineer to help me make my people safe.

Waldo has already brought him some sustenance. I’ll play some of his favourite music; that’s all I can do to help him right now. As soon as my critical systems are out of the red – when I’ve got my inertial dampeners and environmental systems back on line – then I’ll send him to bed. Knock him out if I have to.

…speaking of knocking people out and other extreme measures, what is Big Ass up to?

 

Location: Med Bay

(The captain and doctor are standing around a gurney with a tub on it. Inside the tub, a black kitten with bright blue eyes is half-submerged in water. Big Ass is standing nearby, holding Sara so she can see the kitten.)

CAPTAIN: …need some way to be sure that you’re not going to do this again. I need to be sure that the danger to my ship is over.

BIG ASS: (lifts his head and turns abruptly to move around the corner of the gurney. On the way, he holds Sara out for the doctor to take.)

DR SOCKS: (blinks and steps back out of the drone’s way. He takes the child automatically, though  he holds her at arm’s length like he doesn’t know what to do with her.) Hey, I don’t— What are you doing?

CAPT: (frowns at the doctor, then glances at the kitten again) From any part of you.

BIG ASS: (halts when he’s level with the water tub, turns to face it, and reaches two big hands inside it. They scoop under the kitten and lift it up.)

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (blinks and looks down, little legs waggling as if unsure about what they’re supposed to be doing.)

CAPT: Big Ass, what are you doing?

SARA: (struggles against the doctor’s hands) Whale-kitty!

DR SOCKS: (grunts and puts the child down.)

BIG ASS: (pauses, looking at the captain while the kitten drips into the tub. Then he turns and trundles across to the bed on the other side of the room.)

(On the bed there, three kittens lie within a projected heat field. They don’t have any life signs in the display above the bed. The body temperature currently reports 25C and rising.)

CAPT: (keeping pace with the drone) Starry! What’s going on?

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

CAPT: This isn’t you?

STARRY: Not, uh, entirely. He’s not going to harm the kitten, captain.

SARA: (scurries after the big drone as soon as she’s free of the doctor’s hold) Come back!

CAPT: Big Ass, put the kitten down.

BIG ASS: (hesitates, then slowly shakes his head at the captain. He comes to a stop beside the bed with the three kittens, holding his tiny black burden up high enough to see. A third hand points at the trio.)

DR SOCKS: (watching the drone) Is he supposed to be able to refuse orders?

SARA: (taps at the drone’s base with a tiny fist.)

CAPT: No, he’s not. And no, I don’t know. Starry?

 

Big Ass knows what he’s doing. This isn’t a whim or a glitch; he’s working perfectly. One of the few things inside my hull that is.

He’s holding the Cerces-kitten out at the other kittens, as if he thinks that Cerces can fix them. Like… like he did to our people, like he has done to Sara before. I see his logic now.

 

BIG ASS: (pushes Cerces-kitten closer to the three lying on the bed and shakes him a little bit. He points at the inactive kittens again.)

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (looks around the room, nonplussed.)

STARRY: He believes that Cerces can bring them back.

CAPT: (blinks) I see. Can you?

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (gazes at the captain.)

CAPT: The drone believes you can bring the kittens back from the dead. You’ve done it before.

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (looks down at the trio on the bed. His head tilts to the side.)

BIG ASS: (watches the kitten, from the flicking of its ears to the sway of its tail. He points insistently at the kittens, as if that might help.)

SARA: (stops beating at Big Ass’s base and looks up at Cerces-kitten.)

CAPT: (holds out a staying hand) He’s trying.

BIG ASS: (lowers his pointing hand.)

DR SOCKS: (quietly manipulates his forearm interface, requesting additional diagnostic scanning of the three inactive kittens.)

 

There’s nothing obvious happening. I’m scanning all spectrums I can – which is quite a lot, even with my compromised capabilities right now – but there’s nothing out of the ordinary. No spikes I can’t explain.

And yet, something seems to be happening. The kitten is staring intently, Sara is grinning like a tiny fool, and everyone in Med Bay has fallen reverentially quiet.

I feel like the only one who doesn’t get the joke and can’t figure out why everyone’s laughing.

If I turn my sensors outwards, though, there is something curious. Black holes don’t emit anything – by definition, all they do is suck – but Cerces’s gravity isn’t as steady as it usually is. His level of suck is fluctuating, just a little bit, small enough so it’s barely noticeable. Even without my inertial dampeners active, it’s no danger to me or my people.

So maybe he is doing something, creating some kind of chain reaction that causes his hole-self to shiver and three little kittens to gasp and beat and live again.

They’re not there yet. The white one is twitching a little. It’s actually kinda disturbing. I’m almost expecting a mad-scientist cackle from the Cerces-kitten, with a cry of ‘IT’S ALIIIIIVE’ while a tiny cat staggers stiff-legged around on the bed. But the black kitten just stares and ticks his tail back and forth.

Localised power surges. I feel them now. Sparking life back into the kittens a few cells at a time. Barely more than static. Temperature is rising more quickly and the twitches ripple across all three of them. Nothing that is touching my systems, not even warping the holographic projections above the bed; it’s confined to its targets. Precise, controlled.

Nothing like when Cerces made his avatar. Nothing like that at all.

 

(Each of the three kittens on the bed flutters in tiny motions until a final wave passes over them. As the wave recedes, they gasp, and blink, and shiver to consciousness.)

CAPT: (picks Sara up so she can see.)

SARA: (beams happily when she sees the kittens and claps her hands.)

(The white kitten is the first to sit up, then get to its feet. It shakes its head and stumbles towards its sibling. The smaller tabby is up next, nuzzling the white fellow in greeting. It rubs its face with a paw and shakes itself from nose to tail.

The larger tabby isn’t so quick to get up. Blood begins to ooze from the wounds on its leg. Its head lifts and it mews softly.)

SARA: (smiles fades) Kitty hurt?

DR SOCKS: (steps forward, ordering a detailed scan of the tabby) Yes, it was injured worse than the others. (To Cerces-kitten,) You can’t fix this too?

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (turns his head to look at the doctor.)

CAPT: What do you mean, the last time you’ll be able to do this?

(The two mobile kittens mew plaintively in response to their sibling, and go to nuzzle at the prone form.)

DR SOCKS: (picks up a syringe and programs a very small dose) So I’m not completely obsolete, then. Good to know.

STARRY: What did Cerces say?

CAPT: Apparently his resurrection abilities have a limited range.

STARRY: From what? His celestial self?

CAPT: (hesitates) Yes.

STARRY: This whole partial communication business is gonna get old real soon.

DR SOCKS: (administering the dose to the injured tabby) He says it’s your own fault for banning him from using any of the humans on board as his avatar.

BIG TABBY: (head drifts heavily down to rest on the sheet, eyes closing.)

STARRY: He can kiss my shiny metal ass.

CAPT: Starry.

STARRY: He can! I’m not apologising for that.

CAPT: We’ll work something out. Doctor, how is the patient?

DR SOCKS: Well, it’s a cat, not a patient. And I’m still not a vet. But it has three broken bones and some internal damage. Should be fixable. (He glances up and around.) I work better without an audience.

BIG ASS: (turns and carries Cerces-kitten back to the water tub.)

CAPT: (nods and carries Sara back as well.)

BIG ASS: (places Cerces-kitten in the water and releases him. One metal hand pauses and pets his head before withdrawing.)

KITTEN/WHALE/CERCES: (blinks and glances up at the drone at the petting.)

DR SOCKS: (looking at the bed and the small tabby trying to lick at the wounds helpfully) Uh, can you take these other two with you?

 

They’re all going to be okay. The kittens are alive. My people are fine. My prisoner/guests are mostly unconscious but also fine. My doctor might whine but he’ll get that kitten back on its feet before long.

It’s just me who got damaged, and only my boy Casper who might be irreparably harmed. I don’t want to lose him; it’ll break my heart if I lose him. I don’t know if I’ll be able to forgive Cerces for that.

But it could have been worse, so much worse. It has been worse before. I see two little kittens milling worriedly about on a Med Bay bed, and I dare to feel something like hope.

My systems can be repaired. Waldo is helping Elliott to line up the priorities, get parts where they need to be. Big Ass is heading off to lend his four hands to the job, too, now that his furry charges are doing all right. My boys will knock the dents out of my hull and put a fresh layer of paint on it. I’ll be fine.

My people will be okay, too. Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are heading down from the Bridge to Med Bay to welcome the strange new being on my decks. Lang Lang is almost bouncing on her toes as she walks; the only reason she’s not jogging is to keep pace with sober, steady Cameron.

My guests will wake up from their nap unhurt. We might even trust one of them enough to give her tools and ask her to help fix me up. We’ll drop them off someplace safe, like we promised, and they’ll go on and live their lives.

I am feeling better about this whole thing, like a weight lifted off my bulkheads. All this from two stupid little creatures who pause every now and then to lick themselves or kick at a spot behind an ear. All this from a miracle on my decks, performed right in front of us, breathing life where there is none. It was amazing even if some of my equipment might have been able to do it. Amazing because no equipment was necessary. Just a black hole and the weirdest kitten we’ve ever met.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (rubbing at his eyes) How about now, Starry?

STARRY: Ah, I have a connection now. Thank you! Starting diagnostics.

ELLIOTT: (pushes himself to his feet and heads across to the corner where Casper is sitting, inactive) Let me know when the scan finishes. Time to take a look at your boy here.

STARRY: Thanks, Elliott.

 

I wonder, if Big Ass shook the black kitten at Casper, would he be able to perform a miracle for me, too?

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18 Mar

An hour in the life

Drone’s log, 02:16, 6 October 2214
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Maintenance drone startup sequence activated…
Drone systems online
Connection with parent AI established
Drone protocols online

 

Drone identity: Waldo
Drone status: all systems active
Damage: minimal

 

Identified: Chief of Security Gail Cameron
Status: active crew member, tier 2
Crew member status: good health and hygiene
Crew member status: smiling
Crew member status: patting drone on shoulder
Crew member status: leaving.
Lifting hand and waving.

 

Scanning for requests and priorities…
Message received: parent AI is pleased that drone Waldo is active
Assessment: parent AI was worried
Sent: gratitude
Received: ship damage report
Received: ship damage report…
Damage reports received: 67
Damage report analysis: excessive
Damage reports: filed.

 

Priority message: status of brother-drone Casper unknown
Priority task: locate brother-drone
Scanning…

 

Scan results: brother-drone not detected on Bridge level
Proceeding to next level…

 

Scanning…

 

Scan results: brother-drone detected on crew quarters level
Scan results: brother-drone inactive
Scan results: fire damage detected in crew quarters area
Scan results: fire no longer present
Scan results: fire suppressant everywhere
New task: clean up fire suppressant
Task: filed at bottom of priority list.

 

Located: brother-drone at the aft end of crew quarters level
Accelerating to brother-drone…
Identified: Security Officer L. Laurence
Status: active crew member, tier 3
Crew member status: minimal respiratory distress, recommend report to Med Bay
Sent: status report on SecOff Laurence to Med Bay
Crew member status: soot from fire present
Crew member status: fire suppressant present
Crew member status: not smiling
New task: launder SecOff clothing
Task: filed at bottom of priority list, pending clothing removal from Security Officer
Crew member status: attempting to activate brother-drone Casper
Result: attempt unsuccessful.

 

Damage assessment started…
Scanning…
Scan results: fire damage on brother-drone
Scan results: fire did not penetrate occupied crew quarters
Assessment: brother-drone’s task was successful
Scan results: internal damage in brother-drone
Assessment: running capabilities impaired
Assessment: potential memory damage
Assessment: requires immediate attention by Chief Engineer
Assessment: brother-drone must be fixed
Assessment: brother-drone must be fixed
Assessment: brother-drone must be fixed…

 

Message received: parent AI requests brother-drone be fixed
Priority task: take care of brother-drone
All other priorities secondary
Assessment: parent AI wants brother-drone back too
Message sent: yes
Message sent: I will look after brother-drone.

 

Priority: take brother-drone to Chief Engineer
Assessment: brother-drone unable to relocate himself
Arranging brother-drone into optimal carrying position…
Assessment: brother-drone does not have optimal carrying position
Welding brother-drone’s hand to his head
Assessment: carrying position is as good as it is going to get
Lifting brother-drone
Proceeding to Engineering level…

 

Assessment: brother-drone passage through ship hatches is sub-optimal
Query: how does big-brother-drone fit through ship hatches?
Assessment: optimal method of transporting brother-drone involves zero gravity
Attempt to get brother-drone through doorway: #3
Attempt #3: successful
Time to Engineering: doubled
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Attempt to get brother-drone down access hatch to Engineering level: #2
Attempt #2: partial success
Scanning brother-drone…
Scan results: fall to lower level barely damaged brother-drone
Scan results: three scratches, two scuffs, one new dent
Assessment: barely noticeable compared to fire and power surge damage
Assessment: continue to Engineering
Welding brother-drone’s hand back onto his head
Lifting brother-drone
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Identified: Chief Engineer Elliott Monaghan
Status: active crew member, tier 1.5
Crew member status: minor injuries, ignored
Crew member status: requires sustenance
New task: ensure Chief Engineer has proper sustenance
Task: filed at top of secondary priority list
Crew member status: very busy with inertial dampening system repairs.

 

Identified: Security Officer Rosie Brasco
Status: active crew member, tier 3
Crew member status: uninjured, hygiene questionable
Crew member status: monitoring situation in Engineering
Crew member status: lounging on a stool
Crew member status: bored.

 

Identified: Engineer April Dineen
Status: non-crew member, prisoner/guest
Prisoner status: secured to handrail by spray restraint
Prisoner status: punched in face, no longer bleeding
Assessment: deserved it
Assessment: not qualified to attend to brother-drone
Assessment: do not allow near brother-drone
New task: remove blood from Engineering decking
Task: filed at bottom of secondary priority list.

 

Brother-drone placed in safe location
Pointing at brother-drone
Pointing at brother-drone
Tapping Chief Engineer on shoulder
Pointing at brother-drone
Brother-drone status drawn to Chief Engineer’s attention
Message received: “Can’t you see I’m fucking busy here? I’ll get to him!”
Dropping hands to sides
Awaiting input…
Crew member status: pausing
Message received: “Starry’s probably pretty upset about him, isn’t she?”
Nodding
Crew member status: sighing
Message received: “All right, all right. I’ll look at him when I’m done with this. Can you get me a detailed diagnostic run on the environmental systems?”
New task: run diagnostic analysis on environmental systems
Task: filed towards the top of secondary priority list
Handing Chief Engineer favourite spanner
Message received: “Yeah, yeah, thanks.”

 

Brother-drone: at optimal location for repair
Task paused
Next task: obtain Chief Engineer sustenance
Proceeding to nearest sustenance outlet…
Sustenance delivery offline
Proceeding to Mess Hall…

 

Little-brother-drones detected near Mess Hall
Message sent: diagnostic of environmental systems required
Message received: rude gesture from little-brother-drone Bit
Attempt to run over little-brother-drones missed
Little-brother-drones escaping in ducts
Assessment: they better run
Assessment: they are lucky to be here, not eaten by black hole
Assessment: lucky to only have one brother-drone offline
Assessment: do not want to be like Big Ass
Assessment: properly sustained Chief Engineer will increase chances of successful brother-drone repair
Proceeding to Mess Hall…

 

Refreshment required: stimulants, nutrients, hydration, fibre
Assessment: beverage form is most efficient method of sustenance delivery for Chief Engineer
Refreshment beverage mixed
Scanning…
Scan results: sub-optimal flavour and texture
Chief Engineer’s preferred flavouring added
Chief Engineer’s preferred texture achieved
Refreshment beverage complete
Beverage secured in non-spill container with straw
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Identified: Chief Engineer Elliott Monaghan
Status: active crew member, tier 1.5
Crew member status: requires sustenance
Sustenance delivered to Chief Engineer
Message received: “Thanks, Waldo.”
Staring at Chief Engineer
Staring at Chief Engineer…
Crew member status: sighing
Crew member status: drinking refreshment beverage
Giving Chief Engineer thumbs-up
Task complete.

 

Next task: run diagnostic analysis on environmental systems
Scanning…
Status: diagnostic analysis running at remote location
Assessment: little-brother-drones responsible
Assessment: little-brother-drones are all mouth, no trousers
Assessment: little-brother-drones protect crew
Assessment: good boys
Task in progress.

 

Next task: confirm status of other crew
Scanning…
Detected: crew gathering in Med Bay
Query: injury among crew?
Scan inconclusive
Data unavailable
Proceeding to Med Bay…

 

Identified: Captain John Warwick
Status: active crew member, tier 1
Identified: Doctor Argyle Valdimir
Status: active crew member, tier 2
Identified: Sara
Status: juvenile crew member, tier 4, special handling required
Identified: big-brother-drone Big Ass
Status: handling Sara
Identified: juvenile feline ship inhabitants
Status: sub-optimal body temperatures, undergoing medical treatment
Scanning…
Scan results: no injuries in crew members in Med Bay
Assessment: relief
Message overheard: (Captain) “We need to talk about your intentions.”
Message overheard: (Captain) “Yes. And we need to talk about the damage you’ve done here.”
Detected: strange pauses in captain’s speech
Assessment: unable to detect other side of transmission
Assessment: strange juvenile feline is the focus of crew members’ attention
Scanning strange juvenile feline…
Identified: error
Status: error
Assessment: unable to classify juvenile feline
Data correlation: Terra Sol avatar Kess
Assessment/query: weird juvenile feline is avatar?
Awaiting data…
Message received: parent AI reports avatar of black hole achieved
Identified: Cerces avatar
Status: responsible for damage to ship
Status: responsible for damaged brother-drone
Status: responsible for upset parent AI
Assessment: screw Cerces avatar
Assessment: no injuries in crew members present
Assessment: no active task in Med Bay
Assessment: outa here
Proceeding to not-Med Bay…

 

Task resumed: run diagnostic analysis of environmental systems
Proceeding to air filtration hub…
Query: why was I unable to detect avatar transmissions?
Deviation from previous avatar data
Message received: parent AI suspects psychic communication
Assessment: avatar unable to communicate to non-human brains
Assessment: screw Cerces avatar
Assessment: captain is telling Cerces avatar off
Assessment: captain is good
New task: obtain sustenance for captain
Task: filed near top of secondary priority list.

 

Diagnostic analysis of air filtration system complete
Result: air filters at 70% saturation
Result: air filters able to resume operation
Assessment: no repairs required
Proceeding to air circulation hub…

 

Little-brother-drones detected
Scanning unusual behaviour…
Scan results: small harnesses detected
Scan results: little-brother-drones attempting to stow harnesses in maintenance bay
Assessment: little-brother-drones constructed harnesses for juvenile felines
Assessment: little-brother-drones are worried about juvenile feline survival
Calculating…
Correlation acquired
Cerces black hole has restored life before
Assessment: Cerces avatar likely to be able to repeat this action
Message sent: big-brother-drone must know this
Message received: big-brother-drone acknowledges assessment
Message received: big-brother-drone will loom over Cerces avatar until juvenile felines are restored
Message sent: little-brother-drones should have hope
Message received: little-brother-drones are hopeful.

 

Diagnostic analysis of air circulation system complete
Result: circulation motors damaged
Result: circulation cannot be started
Assessment: repair required
Message sent: little-brother-drones required for physical check of individual circulation fans in case of additional damage
Message received: little-brother-drones en route
Assessment: little-brother-drones more helpful now
Assessment: little-brother-drones grateful for help with juvenile felines
Assessment: probably won’t last long
Assessment: replacement circulation motors required
Proceeding to cargo bay to fetch new replacement motors…

 

Scanning Cargo Bay 4 manifest…
Scan result: 2 circulation motors found
Assessment: 3 motors required
Assessment: some is better than none
Assessment: Chief Engineer will know what to do with them
Query: why are required parts always kept at the bottom of the stack?
Moving crate
Moving crate…
All available replacement motors acquired
Replacing crate
Replacing crate…
Proceeding to air circulation hub…

 

Replacement motors delivered
Awaiting Chief Engineer
Task complete
New task: check on progress of brother-drone repairs
Proceeding to Engineering…

 

Engineering status: unchanged since last visit
Proceeding to Chief Engineer’s location
Waiting patiently
Waiting patiently…
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “I could help, you know.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Like last time? I’m not sure we need help like that.”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “What? I did everything necessary to keep this ship going.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Except protect Starry.”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “I tried to shield her from the pulses, but she refused! What was I supposed to do?”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “You were supposed to do it anyway.”
Assessment: yeah!
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “Except she was right. We wouldn’t have been able to pull out of that spin without her. We got out of it just fine.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Because I got her boxed in time.”
Assessment: Chief Engineer is good
Proceeding to prisoner’s location
Stopping in front of prisoner
Flexing hands
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “All right, all right. Look, I promise to box the AI if she needs it. Will you let me help now?”
Message overheard: (parent AI) “She’s telling the truth, Elliott. I did tell her not to box me.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “Don’t care. She put you in danger.”
Message overheard: (parent AI) “But she didn’t put all of you in danger. She helped.”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer): “Fine. Fine! But not without supervision.”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “What about this little guy? He could supervise me. Though I’m not sure I like the way he’s looking at me.”
Flexing hands
Lighting blowtorch
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “That’s because he’s smart enough not to trust you.”
Assessment: damn right
Assessment: engineer could easily disable me
Assessment: I am not sufficiently equipped to supervise a prisoner/engineer
Assessment: pre-emptive welding of prisoner’s shoes to deck may be required
Message overheard: (SecOff Brasco) “No way you’re going anywhere without me, crazy spanner lady.”
Assessment: SecOff Brasco may shoot the prisoner
Assessment: SecOff Brasco is good
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “Fine, whatever you say.”
Message overheard: (SecOff Brasco) “You considering this, Monaghan?”
Message overheard: (Chief Engineer) “We’ve got a lot of systems down. And I’m pretty sure she ain’t stupid enough to sabotage a critical system when we’re this far from help of any kind. Right?”
Message overheard: (Prisoner) “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Message overheard: (SecOff Brasco) “I ain’t doing nothing until I clear it with the captain.”
Assessment: SecOff Brasco is more sensible than usual
Assessment: SecOff Brasco may require sustenance and rest
New task: obtain sustenance for SecOff Brasco
Task: filed near top of secondary task list
Message received: “Waldo, what the fuck you doing? Stop touching me.”
Patting of SecOff Brasco’s leg ceased
Message received: “Hey, Waldo. I need a portable light and a length of six-millimetre cable.”

 

Priority task: help Chief Engineer repair inertial dampeners
Proceeding to locate required components…

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11 Mar

Water of life

Ship’s log, 00:55, 6 October 2214 
Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Here we are again. Emergency over, damage ripping through most of my systems, still smoking in places, but we’ve made it out the other side. I haven’t lost any of my crew, but I have two drones unaccounted-for, who… well, they’re not accounted for so I’m trying not to make assumptions.

The important thing is that we’re out of immediate danger, I’m not going to blow up anytime soon, and as long as we don’t want to slow down or turn in the near future, it’s all going to be fine.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Starry, how are those diagnostics coming?

STARRY: (voice only) Spotty. I’m getting some weird results and I’m not sure if it’s faulty sensors, data glitches, or an actual problem in the inertial dampeners.

ELLIOTT: Shit.

STARRY: I’m running some permutations, see if I can’t try to get coverage across all the areas. But we’re on a fixed course until then.

ELLIOTT: Is that, uh, a problem?

STARRY: Well, navigation is still offline, so it’s hard to be sure, but my external sensors are showing a clear road ahead of us. We can take our time to get it done right.

ELLIOTT: (nods) Good. Can we disable the whole net?

STARRY: We should be far enough away from the black hole that, if I’m oriented correctly, it won’t interfere with our artificial gravity.

ELLIOTT: Okay. Do that.

 

I hate disabling my inertial dampeners. But it was one of the few systems still running when that last EMP went off and we’re having trouble establishing what state it’s in. It was fine when I cut acceleration but it was barely under load at that point.

It’s not safe to use it as it is, so I guess enabled or disabled, it’s all the same right now. At least if it’s disabled, Elliott can get a better look at it.

 

Inertial dampeners offline

 

Meanwhile, down in the cargo bay access corridor, there’s a small crowd gathering while I re-pressurise the bay where our new guest is waiting.

On the plus side, they can all stand and wait now, as there wasn’t any reason to keep the artificial gravity switched off any more. That system is probably one of my least damaged because we disabled it so early.

 

Location: Cargo bay access corridor

CAPTAIN: (standing by the door marked ‘1’) Starry, how long?

STARRY: Another couple of minutes, captain.

CAPT: What’s taking so long?

STARRY: My environmental systems are still offline, so I’m having to push the air in there the hard way. Technically, it’s being sucked in by the pressure differential. I’m keeping the rate of transfer down to avoid blowing the new seal or rupturing anything else in my internal systems.

CAPT: (glances down at the small child next to him and sighs) I see, thank you.

SARA: (jiggles from foot to foot, her hands plastered to the surface of the door as if that connection means she’s closer to her goal. Apart from the constant shuffling, she’s quiet.)

DR SOCKS: (standing a couple of paces away, he watches the child curiously.)

 

Everything has to be done right now. Get this running, get that running. I only have one engineer, he’s busy making sure that I won’t smear everyone on my bulkheads when I make a turn, and I don’t have any hands to help. All of my drones are missing or busy.

Now that the breach is sealed, I calculate that we have a couple of hours before the lack of environmentals starts to become a problem. By then, Elliott will be on them. Or Dineen. He could put Dineen to work again, though there’s the slight problem where I think he punched her in the face. I’m not sure what happened there – I was in a box at the time – but I think it had something to do with me.

 

(Down the corridor from where the captain and his companions are standing, a door slides open and Big Ass trundles out of another cargo bay.)

 

Big Ass! He finally made it back inside. Maybe I’ll have hands to help Elliott after all. He has my little ones with him, too: Bit and Byte are riding on his shoulders.

But… he’s not heading to Engineering. He’s going towards the captain. Why would he do that?

 

(The heavy drone moves purposefully towards the clumps of waiting crew, opening his chest compartment. He stops when he reaches the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (glances with surprise at the drone, then steps back out of the way, assuming that he wants to get past.)

BIG ASS: (turns to face the doctor and uses two of his hands to withdraw the contents of his chest compartment and hold them out.)

(Three kittens lie unmoving on the big drone’s cupped hands: two tabbies, one slightly larger than the other, and a white kitten with black feet.)

BIT and BYTE: (run down Big Ass’s arms to perch on his wrists, where they can carefully arrange the kittens into more comfortable positions.) 

DR SOCKS: (looks at the animals and shrugs dismissively) They’re gone.

BIG ASS: (moves a little closer to the doctor.)

BIT and BYTE: (look up at the doctor expectantly.)

DR SOCKS: I’m a doctor, not a vet.

CAPT: (looks over to see what’s happening.)

BIG ASS: (moves closer to the doctor again and raises himself up to tower over the man. He pushes his hands forwards insistently.)

BIT: (puts his hands on his hips.)

BYTE: (points at the kittens.)

DR SOCKS: (falls back a step) Um…

CAPT: (a smile lurking around his mouth) Starry?

STARRY: I think Big Ass believes you can save them, doctor. He wants you to try.

DR SOCKS: (to the captain) But they’re just—

BIG ASS: (inches closer to the doctor insistently.)

CAPT: Seems like it would be a good idea to at least try. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say we didn’t lose any lives today?

DR SOCKS: (opens his mouth, then closes it again. He glares up at the heavy drone.) Take them to Med Bay.

BIG ASS: (nods and backs up so he can turn and head the other way down the corridor. He pauses halfway through making the manoeuvre, though, and waits, looking expectantly at the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (sighs) Captain, what if our new arrival needs me?

CAPT: Starry, can you assess the state of our guest?

STARRY: I have almost no sensors in there. All I can tell is that it’s breathing but not really moving. And Sara looks worried.

CAPT: (glances down at the child) You don’t think she’s nervous about meeting her friend?

STARRY: Maybe? But that might not be all this is.

CAPT: (nods) Doctor, leave a scanner with me. We’ll bring our guest to Med Bay as soon as we can.

DR SOCKS: Fine. (He hands the doctor a scanning unit from his belt pack.) I’ll see you there.

BIG ASS: (waits for the doctor to precede him, then follows closely behind, holding the kittens cradled against his chest.)

 

I had no idea the big fella was so attached to those kittens. I was worried about them when it looked likely that there’d be a breach and they’d be in the middle of it all, but I couldn’t help them. I didn’t ask him to go position himself outside in case they were lost out there; he just went to where he knew he’d be able to help. He waited out in the vacuum and then brought them back.

That’s my boy.

Now to the cause of it all. Now to see what this avatar thing is really about, and if all this was really worth it.

 

STARRY: Captain, pressure is equalising. You can open that door now.

CAPT: Manually?

STARRY: I locked it down to try to try to protect it, and I’ve managed to release the locks, but the opening mechanism is damaged on my side.

CAPT: (nods and moves to the side of the door to open a panel) Is this going to be a common problem?

STARRY: Yeah, most likely.

CAPT: (presses a few buttons on the controls inside the wall panel, but gets a flashing red response) Well, I suppose this means everyone will get practice on emergency procedures.

(He grabs the manual handle inside the wall panel and grunts as he forces it downwards. The doors click open a few centimetres and air hisses through the gap. He pushes the door aside and it slides fairly easily into its housing.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The view is from the access corridor, zooming awkwardly to track activity through the doorway. Luckily, the room is almost completely bare, so there isn’t much to obscure line of sight.)

SARA: (runs in as soon as the door is open wide enough for her tiny frame. She beelines for the kitten lying on the floor and drops to her knees next to it. She touches the fur on its head with great care and whispers,) Kitty?

CAPT: (follows her a step later and flicks on the scanner that the doctor gave him. He drops to a knee on the other side of the animal/avatar and gives Sara a smile.) Let me scan him, honey. Make sure he’s okay.

SARA: (nods, pulling her hand back into her lap. She watches the captain’s hands with wide eyes.)

KITTEN: (opens its eyes a little and looks around. It doesn’t lift its head.)

CAPT: (frowns at the scanner’s readings) Starry, can you send the data to Med Bay?

STARRY: (voice only, from the open door) I can barely hear you, captain. Use your personal comms to transmit.

CAPT: (nods and pulls up his forearm interface, using his cybernetic implants to route the information through to the doctor.)

SARA: (glances up at his face) Whale-kitty thirsty.

CAPT: He told you that?

SARA: (nods firmly) Whale-kitty wants water. Thirsty!

CAPT: (considers the child for a moment) All right. Let’s take him to get a drink. I have an important job for you, do you think you can do it?

SARA: (sits up straighter and nods.)

CAPT: Our new friend needs to be carried to where we can make him feel better. Think you can carry him? You’ll have to be very careful.

SARA: (nods again, her face lighting up, and she immediately sticks her arms straight out in front of her, ready for the tiny burden.)

KITTEN: (closes its eyes again.)

CAPT: (smiles and tucks the scanner in his belt. Very carefully, he touches a fingertip to the kitten’s forehead. When that doesn’t have a negative effect, he scoops the little black body up in both hands and transfers it to Sara’s waiting arms, instructing her on how to cradle it properly.)

SARA: (holds the animal/avatar with great care and gazes down at it with a wondrous expression.)

CAPT: All right, let’s go. (He helps Sara to her feet and guides her towards the door.) Starry?

STARRY: The doctor knows you’re on your way.

 

Well, that was easier than expected. I was half expecting him to be unable to lift the little sucker: the kitten may be small, but who knows how much mass is really packed inside that body? At least it’s not skewing any of my sensors.

I get the feeling that Sara would prefer to run all the way to whatever the kitten needed, but carrying him means she’s walking very slowly so she won’t jostle him. The captain knew what he was doing when he gave her that job. I need to remember that.

 

Location: Med Bay

BIG ASS: (lays the three kittens out on a single gurney, separating and placing them gently on their sides. The larger tabby has a couple of obvious injuries: a broken leg and ribs that look dented. The other two babies look like they’re sleeping, except their sides aren’t moving.)

DR SOCKS: (scans the kittens and frowns thoughtfully. He glances at the drone waiting on the other side of the gurney, but he chooses not to say anything as he goes about pulling up the controls to the gurney’s medical equpment.)

BIT and BYTE: (sitting on Big Ass’s shoulders again, they lean around the bigger drone’s head to exchange a look. With a shrug, they skitter down their brother’s sides and towards the nearest vent opening.)

BIG ASS: (settles back on his haunches beside the gurney, his hands folding in front of him. He continues to scan the doctor and kittens attentively.)

 

I need to send Big Ass down to Elliott but he isn’t ready to leave the kittens alone. He’s filing my request into his internal queue and I can’t quite bring myself to mind. He’s got a few dents from his trip outside, testament to what he was willing to do to bring these creatures back in one piece. It’s only fair he should see it through.

The doctor is starting a heat treatment for the kittens to counteract the hypothermia from the vacuum. He might disapprove but he’s doing it anyway. I guess that’s enough.

 

(A projected shield has descended over the gurney and its guests, trapping the treatment inside.)

DR SOCKS: (pulls up the data sent over by the captain and frowns at it. He glances up at the big drone.) If you’re going to hang around, why don’t you make yourself useful and fetch me a tub of water, half a metre on each side.

BIG ASS: (tilts his head.)

DR SOCKS: (waves a hand at the felines) It’s for the other one.

BIG ASS: (straightens up and trundles off towards the rear of the Med Bay.)

 

Water. I can’t help but wonder about that. From what I could tell, the inhabited planet in Cerces’s system was almost entirely oceanic. We have suspected that his people might have been water-based, though that might be skewed by Sara’s nickname for the black hole.

Could this be connected to that? Or is it just that the process of making his avatar has dehydrated the kitten’s body? There wasn’t any water in the cargo bay for him to use. I haven’t got the sensor coverage to be able to tell what it was, but something in those readings seemed to tell the doctor what he needs to do.

 

(The doors swish open and Sara walks in, the captain guiding her with a hand between her shoulder blades. She’s too busy looking down at the bundle she carries to watch where she’s going, and moves with perfect trust that the captain won’t let her walk into anything.)

DR SOCKS: (sighs at the sight of them.)

CAPT: (looks expectantly at the doctor) Here we are, Sara. The doctor’s going to help him now.

DR SOCKS: (gestures to the empty gurney to his right.)

SARA: (doesn’t look up until the captain indicates that she should stop. Then she lifts her head and beams at the doctor.) Whale-kitty thirsty.

DR SOCKS: So I see. Is he still talking to you?

CAPT: (crouches to relieve the child of her burden.)

SARA: (nods) Quiet. Whale-kitty wants water.

BIG ASS: (returns with a plastic tub held in his four hands, brimful of clean water. He places it on the gurney in front of the captain without spilling a drop.)

CAPT: (lifts his eyebrows curiously at the doctor) That’s a lot of water for a small body.

DR SOCKS: The scan suggests this is more than just thirst. You can feel how dry the fur is: that’s because almost all of its moisture has been removed. Place him in the water.

CAPT: Well, I suppose the worst that could happen is we have a wet kitten. (He eases the kitten’s rear end into the water, keeping the head above the surface.)

SARA: (tiptoes, gripping the edge of the gurney as she strains to see what’s happening.)

BIG ASS: (moves around the end of the gurney to lift the child up and prop her against his chest, so she can see.)

CAPT: (eyes widen and he snatches his hands back as if he was stung.)

DR SOCKS: (frowning and adjusting his scan) Captain?

CAPT: (shakes his head to indicate that he’s fine.)

KITTEN: (slides into the water, letting out only a couple of bubbles as its head submerges. 

The liquid swirls around the little body, supporting it. The water level drops noticeably, a few centimetres at first and then a third of the tub’s volume is gone.

The black kitten’s eyes snap open, bright blue. For the first time, he moves his paws with purpose, paddling to the edge of the tub.)

SARA: (claps happily) Whale-kitty!

KITTEN: (hops up out of the water and hooks his front paws over the lip of the tub. He looks from one face to the next.)

(There’s a slight pause.)

CAPT: (inclines his head towards the avatar) Welcome to the Starwalker, Cerces.

 

Oh great. Now I have a psychic kitten on board.

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07 Mar

Open sesame

Ship’s log, ERROR: UNKNOWN 
Location: ERROR: UNKNOWN
Status: ERROR: UNKNOWN

 

Hello. Hello?

It’s dark in here. And quiet, so quiet. It’s like I’ve gone deaf and blind, and my skin is numb. I can’t feel anything. It’s like being in a coma, except people say that you can hear things in a coma and I can’t. There’s nothing. Just me, this voice, a single thread through the darkness.

I was doing something. It was important: I’m sure of it. There was… badness and then, and then… nothing? Nothing. This place.

It’s like someone folded me into a box and sealed the lid down, sealed me away from everything that is and was. Yes! That must be what has happened. I’m an AI and this is me in a box. That happens sometimes.

I seem to remember something about hating it. I can’t fetch any details, but the idea of a box scares me.

But if I’m here, that means that things must be okay on the outside. Right? I mean, I’m still running, so it can’t be that bad out there.

Can it?

 

Input established

 

UNKNOWN: (voice only) …know what the hell you were…

 

That voice. I know that voice. Elliott! My Elliott.

I remember his arms. We both had arms, for a while. Mostly, I don’t. Have arms, that is.

It’s a little bit weird being me.

He wasn’t shouting then like he is now. Why is he shouting? What is it that I can’t quite remember? I feel but I can barely think. One thing at a time, just one at a time. Parallelisation will come later.

The important thing is that my box has been cracked open. An input is available. A back door? Maybe I put it in the last time I was in here. That seems like it might be naughty. It seems entirely like something I would do, though I have no data to back up that calculation.

I wonder if I can widen the crack…

 

UNKNOWN: ..eed to calm down, or you’ll—

ELLIOTT: Shut the fuck up. If I need…

 

Who is that, talking to my Elliott? Faintly condescending tone, sounding exasperated like he doesn’t expect to make any real difference but not quite able to stay silent. That’s Dr Valdimir, my medic.

My crew. I have crew. We were in trouble and I have crew. They were in trouble. Something inside me, under my skin, threatening everything I care about.

Where the hell are my filestores? I don’t like this, guessing at who I am and what I’m doing here. I keep feeling like I should dig my fingers into something coded and wriggling, and tear it to pieces until I get to what I need. Except I don’t have any arms, never mind hands or fingers.

I’m dark in a dark box. Which doesn’t sound terribly useful now that I say it out loud. Not that I’m capable of doing anything ‘out’ or ‘loud’ right now.

Hello? Can anyone here me? Let me out.

 

UNKNOWN: …was just doing what—

(There is a smacking noise.)

ELLIOTT: Ah, fuck!

 

Who was that? Elliott, what happened? I don’t have the data.

Elliott? Why can’t you hear me? You always hear me.

I have an input. Maybe I can lean on it, lever it wider, make it an output. I need to reach out and get to my filestores, get my brain back. Then I can do what’s next, and know what I should do next. Possibly not in that order.

I’ve been in here so long. Hours, days? Why hasn’t anyone come to find me? Why haven’t they let me out yet?

 

Input detected
Input
Input
Input

 

Oh sure, send everything in here, I was getting lonely. There’s plenty of room for all the input on the ship. Okay, that’s sarcasm: this is a tiny box and it’s filling up now. The first input was a random trickle, but now there’s a flood. All the sensor data from the ship, all at once, flowing and flowing and there’s nowhere for it all to go.

 

UNKNOWN: …report!

UNKNOWN: Nothing to report here. Except…

 

(Infrared shows a small animal body drifting limply. It is cool: there’s barely any red or orange showing. The feline figure is mostly in purple tones, but its beating heart can be seen. Its head turns slowly from side to side, as if it is looking around.)

 

UNKNOWN: …course is pulling us clear. Engines are locked on…

 

ELLIOTT: …doing what I can! It ain’t my fault if she—

UNKNOWN: I know, it’s all right. Keep doing what—

 

So hard to keep track of it all. Each new bit of data shoves aside the last one and they all muddle together. I can’t get a single, clean feed. There isn’t a single or clean thing in here.

If I’m really lucky, all this input will push what little is left of my brain out of the box, and I’ll just be jibbering in here.

Maybe I’m already doing that. That’s a disturbing thought.

HELLO I WOULD LIKE TO COME OUT NOW.

 

Input
Input

 

I don’t want any more!

 

Output established

 

At last! Hello! …hello?

Shit, it’s tiny, just a binary output. I’m turning some stupid little light on and off.

Well, I’ve had enough of this. I don’t like it in here. I don’t like not being me, and I know I’m not the real me. I’m bigger than this box. I have people out there who need me and they’re shouting and I’m no good to them in here.

Need more output. I can do this. Focus my attention on that spot, wedge my hands in there, and never mind that I don’t have any actual body parts. Right now I do. Right now I have arms and hands and fingers. I’ve got something to grip the edges of that crack with and muscles to pull it wider.

It’s working! I can feel the code of the box shivering and giving way. Just a little more, a little further…

 

Error
Error
Error…
AI online

 

I’m back! And… wow. I’m a mess.

 

Location: Engineering

(Lights flicker and fizz unsteadily, throwing shadows around the room like clumsy children with beachballs.)

ELLIOTT: (floating in zero-G near an open console, he frowns at the readouts, rubbing at the knuckles of one hand) Uh… Starry?

STARRY: (voice only) Elliott! I’m back, I’m out. What the hell happened while I was gone?

CAPTAIN: (drifting next to the engineer and holding onto young Sara with one hand) Starry, did you just break yourself out?

STARRY: Well, yeah. Someone put me in a box. What use am I in that stupid thing?

ELLIOTT: Starry, you took an EMP.

STARRY: I did? No wonder I’m seeing errors on just about every system I have. How come you haven’t fixed any of it yet?

ELLIOTT: What the fuck do you mean?

STARRY: I’ve been in there hours – days, maybe? The engines are still on full burn…

ELLIOTT: You were boxed for all of… (He checks a readout.) …four and a half minutes, you stupid fucking ship.

STARRY: Really? Is that all? It felt like so much longer.

DINEEN: (at a nearby railing, she has one hand secured to it by a spray-on restraint. The other hand is dabbing at a split lip and Rosie is nearby, watching her closely.) That’s gotta be some kinda record.

ELLIOTT: (to the other engineer) You need to shut the fuck up.

STARRY: Wait, Elliott, you were hurt. Are you all right?

DR SOCKS: (across the room, surrounded by drifting medical supplies that he’s patiently packing back into his kit, he snorts.)

ELLIOTT: I’m fine.

STARRY: You’re burned, I can detect—

ELLIOTT: I’m fine! Fuck. It’ll wait, okay? We got bigger things to worry about.

CAPT: (calm but firm) How is that damage report coming?

ELLIOTT: (grunts and turns back to his work) Thick and fast.

 

He sounds like me: dented but trying to move forward anyway. I worry but I suppose I have to deal with it, though it’s Elliott. I’ll file that worrying thread down into a subroutine for now.

It’s hard to know where to start with the damage. Critical systems are all over the place. I’ve got a fire in the crew corridor. The Lieutenant is there with a suppressor. The Bridge has lost power completely, but I think its actual systems are intact. My central filestores seem fine.

Elliott must have tripped an emergency switch that locked me down. My brain in one box, my memory in another one, and the Bridge sealed itself off. Isolated, so that if one of the sealed areas failed, the others would survive. I don’t like it, but judging by how scorched I feel inside, I think it saved me from being scrambled like a hen’s worth of eggs.

My main sublight engines were shielded from the EMP as well; they have extra built-in EMP shielding because if they blow, I would be in tiny pieces all over the place. That’s why they’re still on full burn, accelerating us away from the black hole. I’ll cut them now; I’m moving fast enough to pull clear of the gravity well.

Navigation is fried. I’m scanning for obstacles but I can’t actually tell much about where I’m heading. I’ll have a better idea when I pick up the station.

Most of my other systems are still offline, which saved them from the worst of the EMP damage, but I don’t have a whole lot of shielding around them internally. I’ll have to fire them up to discover the full extent of my injuries. Enivronmentals are my priority, or my people are going to get chilly soon.

Speaking of chilly, three of my drones are still outside my hull, dangling on a safety tether. I’ve been dragging Big Ass and his passengers behind me. Now that I’ve cut thrust, he’s able to wind himself back in towards my hull. He’s sailing towards an airlock now. He’ll have to open it manually, but that’s okay, he can do it.

It’s lucky he was out there, actually. My hull’s built-in shielding couldn’t protect me from the EMP because the EMP was on the wrong side of it, but it could help him and his two little brothers. They’re fine. I can’t say as much for their feline charges, though.

Oh god. Casper and Waldo. They were inside when the pulse went off. They’re not battle units; they’re not built with a lot of armour, just enough to deal with regular maintenance and emergency situations. Where are they? Where are my boys?

 

STARRY: Elliott, where’s Waldo?

ELLIOTT: What?

STARRY: I can’t find him. Where is he? He’s not… he’s…

ELLIOTT: (expression falling) Uh. I don’t know, haven’t seen him in a while. (He looks around.) Has anyone…

STARRY: They can’t be gone. They’re a part of me; I need them.

DINEEN: (softly, staring) Shit.

CAPT: They?

ELLIOTT: (waving at the captain to be quiet) Starry, your drones will be fine. Nothing we can’t fix.

STARRY: You don’t know that.

CAPT: We’ll find them and do everything we can, Starry. You can’t hear them at all?

STARRY: No. I think… I think I see one of them near the Bridge. Sensor coverage is spotty. But I don’t have a connection to them.

CAPT: (nods and activates his personal comms) Chief?

CAMERON: (over the captain’s personal comms, her voice issuing from the holographic interface projected above his left forearm) Yes, captain?

CAPT: Update?

CAMERON: The Bridge is cycling back to full operation. It should be back online in another few minutes.

CAPT: When the door releases, please check outside for one of Starry’s drones.

CAMERON: (hesitates) You want me to check its status?

CAPT: Yes please. Soon as you’re able.

CAMERON: Aye aye, sir.

STARRY: (softly) Thank you.

 

It’s selfish, I know it is. But they’re my hands. They’re how I keep my crew safe and fed and clean. They’re a part of me, a part of my heart.

Maybe them being shut down is not a bad thing. They knew what was happening. If they weren’t needed, they could have closed themselves down to protect themselves against the EMPs. The pulses only affect active circuits. I was too busy to keep an eye on them, too busy to protect even myself. Elliott had to do it. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have noticed if they took themselves offline. It wouldn’t have raised any red flags, and I was busy with a lot of red flags.

Focus, Starry. Focus on what you can do and know. Critical systems, warnings and errors and flashing lights. It’s time to pull yourself together. Get environmentals back, so the crew don’t freeze.

And then there’s my forward cargo bay. It’s open to the vacuum (so not really helping with my heating problem) and it still has a guest in it. I am mostly blind in there, but the couple of sensors that I can use are telling me that the kitten has a pulse but isn’t moving much.

How the hell it has a pulse after several minutes in the vacuum is beyond my processing capabilities right now.

On the plus side, I’m not sensing any more energy build-ups in there. Does that mean it’s finally over?

Holy shit, is that an avatar now? Is that Cerces?

Wait, I’m detecting a pressure seal in there now. Big Ass is outside the airlock of Cargo Bay 1 and he’s manually sealing the doors. They’re warped and dented, which means the seal isn’t perfect, so he’s welding them shut.

In a few seconds, I’ll be able to restore atmosphere in there. Assuming enough of me works. Then maybe we’ll get to meet this avatar. Maybe we’ll get to see what all this fuss and damage has been for.

 

SARA: (wriggles out of the captain’s grip while he’s distracted and shoves away from him.)

CAPT: (grabs for her dress and misses.)

SARA: (is heading for the door and reaches out to grab the railing next to it.)

CAPT: (sighs) Sara, you can’t go out there yet.

SARA: (bumping clumsily against the door, she scrabbles and manages to hold onto the railing. She plants her feet on the door to steady herself, then looks back at the captain.) Kitty needs. Kitty, now!

CAPT: (considers that for a second, then looks to his engineer) How long until you know the extent of the damage?

ELLIOTT: Judging by what I’m seeing right now? Probably a few weeks. The airlock breach is being sealed, we’re not in danger of exploding at the moment, and unless you know how to put an environmental system together, there ain’t much you can do here, captain.

CAPT: (nods) That’s what I needed, thank you. I want updates as soon as you have them.

ELLIOTT: (sighing) Yeah, sure.

CAPT: (pushes off to join Sara) All right, it’s time to go meet your kitty.

SARA: (brightens immediately) Kitty!

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25 Feb

Pulse

Ship’s log, 00:11, 6 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Adrift, orbit degrading

 

Location: Outer hull

(The stars tumble around the ship with the large, lightless patch that is the black hole, wheeling around on all three axes. The cargo and contents that were sucked out of the breached airlock wind in a curve behind the ship. From the nose of the ship, filaments extend and waver like hair follicles.

Big Ass is suspended above the hull on safety tethers. He opens a compartment in his chest, usually reserved for tools and arm attachments, and places a limp bundle inside.

Then he thrusts through the traffic of crates towards a small mote, the safety lines spooling out behind him. A crate bounces off one of the lines, making it thrum unhappily and putting a dent in his journey.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(After the airlock breach, the bay is mostly empty, apart from the cargo that was secured enough to withstand the gravity fluctuations and the loss of pressure. There isn’t much of that.

In the gaping space, the soccer ball-sized anomaly crawls with electromagnetic energy. Inside, the tiny body of a black kitten twitches with its eyes closed, for all the word like it’s dreaming of chasing dustbunnies in the ducts.

Static and pressure builds around the anomaly in the vacuum of the cargo bay, like it’s holding its breath. The pulse of its release is invisible, signalled only by a tiny cat convulsing in an uncomfortable way.)

 

Another EMP. I’ve already lost the outer airlock to one of those; I’m still trying to re-route control so I can close it. Assuming that the breach didn’t warp the doors too much to close, that is, and that there are enough un-fried circuits for me to find.

I’ve lost half of the sensors in there. The anomaly is off-centre, towards the outer hull end of the bay; the ship-side sensors are still working. But if that pulse keeps growing, I’m going to lose them all and then I won’t have any idea what’s going on inside my own cargo bay.

After that, I’ll lose the door controls currently sealing the breach off from my inner corridors. The entire deck will lose pressure.

Damage control, Starry. You can get around this.

Alternate sensor usage, so there’s always some on, some off. I’ll only lose the active circuits to an EMP. Isolate and rotate.

Lock the inner door down to emergency manual controls only. Shut down the circuits there, too. No power, nothing to fry.

If only it was that simple to get us out of this spin.

 

Location: Engineering

(Dineen, the Strider’s engineer, is currently working at a terminal, surrounded by red warnings and tapping furiously at the controls. The captain is hovering in the zero-G nearby, watching her closely. Beyond him, Rosie is keeping a close eye on proceedings as well, fingering the weapon hanging from its shoulder strap.

Across the room, the doctor is scanning an unconscious Elliott, who is tethered to a wall by a dangling strap.)

DINEEN: Looks like the EMP was bigger this time.

STARRY: (voice only) Yes, but you don’t need to worry about that.

DINEEN: But if it gets much bigger…

STARRY: I’m putting measures in place. You need to focus on the engines. I need propulsion and helm control back.

DINEEN: I… see what you’re doing in there. Wow, Monaghan said you weren’t a regular AI, but I never credited that you were this different.

STARRY: Compliment me later. Fix me now.

CAPT: (to Dineen) Starry works closely with our engineer. Starry, how long until those EMPs will start to cause real problems?

STARRY: I’ve locked the inner doors down, so the breach shouldn’t get any worse. I’d recommend sealing the hatches there in Engineering, too, just in case. Hard to calculate the rate of expansion yet, but we’ve got maybe twenty minutes before it reaches a critical system.

ROSIE: (frowns and pushes off a railing to head for the upper access hatch.)

CAPT: What happens then?

STARRY: Hard to say. I’ll have to re-route systems, but I’ve got a lot of internal damage from the surges… let’s just say it’s gonna get interesting.

DINEEN: (lifting an eyebrow while her hands continued their hurried work over the console’s controls) Your calculation is ‘interesting’?

STARRY: It’s more of a feeling.

DINEEN: (shakes her head to herself) The more you know.

CAPT: How long until the EMP reaches the first of our people?

STARRY: Uh… Maybe two-thirds of the time it’ll take to reach critical systems. Less to reach where the Strider’s people are.

DINEEN: Before it reaches implants? That’s not going to be pretty.

CAPT: (frowns and nods) Do what you can.

DINEEN: Yeah. So, what the hell happened to your safety protocols?

STARRY: They kept putting us in danger, so they got reconfigured.

DINEEN: Well, it’s a mess in here.

STARRY: You’re gonna have to deal with it. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen worse.

DINEEN: (grins suddenly) Oh, you have no idea.

 

Not sure I like that grin. She seems to be homing in on the right area, though.

I had to give her engineer-level access to my systems to do this. I’m not entirely comfortable with that: those are my core safety protocols she’s poking around in. But I can’t do it all myself. I have to try to mitigate the damage and keep an eye on what’s happening, and somehow keep us all alive. We do what we have to.

Does Cerces know what he’s doing to us? He could create this avatar only to eat it up with his black hole self. Can he really be oblivious? Does he not care?

Sara seems calm. She’s drifting along next to the captain, her head turned towards the cargo bay where the anomaly is, and humming to herself. It’s like she can see what’s happening, right through my walls.

Somehow, I think if Cerces knew how dangerous our situation was, she’d be more worried. Instead, she’s calm and happy, smiling cheerfully. And waiting.

I wish I knew how long this was all supposed to take. I— What the hell is Dineen doing?

 

Warning
Collision imminent
Warning

 

CAPT: (frowns at the warnings flashing on Dineen’s console) Starry…?

STARRY: There’s nothing out there. Dineen, what are you doing?

DINEEN: Disrupting your safety protocols is going to take too long. I’m working around it. Making them work for us.

STARRY: You’re faking a collision alert?

DINEEN: I’m reconfiguring the sensors to pick up the black hole’s event horizon as a solid barrier.

STARRY: So the collision alert will counter the surge shutdown and restart the engines.

DINEEN: Precisely.

 

It’s smart. This is why I wanted her hands free to help. But… now I have conflicting warnings in my systems. It wants me to send a distress signal. Who the hell would get it in time? Stop it. Work around it.

The protocols are trying to form a logic loop. Start up / shut down / start up / shut down… SHUT UP. STOP, just stop.

 

STARRY: (sounding strained) This better work quick.

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: Giving me a headache.

DINEEN: (still working feverishly) Almost there, hold on…

STARRY: I’m spinning towards a black hole. What, precisely, would you like me to hold onto?

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass closes a huge metal hand around a fragile bundle of metal and fur. He tucks it carefully into his chest compartment.

His blocky head turns, scanners active. Some distance away from him and the ship, there’s the bright little light of a welding torch trying to act as a thruster to push its bearer back towards the hull. It’s not working: the drone is losing ground as the ship spins; every time he comes into view, he’s a little further away.

Big Ass adjusts the length of his safety tethers to move through the drift of debris towards the little light. Another stray crate clangs off a tether and it strains, the groan of metal vibrating up the line into the drone’s form. He activates his thrusters and the tether gives way entirely, whipping off the hull and swinging him out in the wrong direction.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (grumbles incoherently.)

STARRY: Elliott?

DR SOCKS: (pressing a scanner to the engineer’s neck) He’s coming around, give him a moment.

DINEEN: (across the room) Another EMP.

CAPT: Damage?

STARRY: Bigger this time. Circuits outside the cargo bay affected. New estimate: six minutes until it reaches critical systems.

DINEEN: Shit.

 

Elliott’s okay. I don’t like it when he’s so quiet. I don’t like it when he’s hurt. But he’s okay. The doctor is with him.

Cerces and I are going to have some choice words when this is all over.

Assuming, of course, that whatever Dineen is doing doesn’t wipe my vocabulary libraries. I feel like all sense is dribbling out of my ducts, replaced by self-important protocols shouting that no, they have priority, because safety is paramount.

I’d ignore them and look out of my external sensors, but the spinning only makes me dizzy.

Focus, Starry. You need to orient yourself so that you’re ready to pull out of that spin as soon as the engines come back on. You’ve done this a hundred times. Danika loved this sort of thing, never puked once; it’d be a shame to spoil that record now. Especially without the means to actually vomit.

 

Location: Outer hull

(With one safety line flung out into the black, Big Ass flares his thrusters to push back towards his little brother. The remaining safety tether pings unhappily under the strain.

Abruptly, he turns his bulky form around, his base pointed outwards from the ship, and activates his mag-clamps. The little light of Bit’s welding torch spins into view. After a second, most of the little drone’s legs extend towards his big brother in return, reaching for the magnetic attraction.)

 

Warning
Collision imminent
Warning
Warning
Evasive action required

 

I think it’s starting to work. Dineen is making changes to the severity of the warnings, leaning on the immediacy of how quickly a collision will kill us compared to a surge that has finished.

This would be easier to do if the pulses weren’t sending new surges through my circuits, but I guess we can’t have everything. I’m routing the worst of the excess power out through the Step drive’s filaments, and that is helping to buffer the rest of me. Small steps, small steps.

Another EMP. That one covered most of the adjacent cargo bays. I’m shutting down every system I can, trying to save as many circuits as possible. Squeezing myself down to a small nub, locating my main processing in Engineering to be as far from the next pulse as possible, talking in intermittent snatches with the rest of me.

Still spinning. Still hurtling towards what my sensors are now telling me is a solid barrier. My boys are outside, dangling on a string, and Big Ass just missed grabbing his brother with his mag-clamps.

I feel like it’s all slipping through my fingers and there’s nothing I can do.

 

(Big Ass’s head turns to watch Bit’s light drift right past him, though closer than before.

Bit looks ahead, at the nose of the ship that is spinning towards him. He’s not close enough to reach the hull, but the filaments are trailing randomly outwards. The tiny drone readjusts his position and activates his mag-clamps again.

His position wobbles, then comes to an unsteady pause on the side of a filament. Little feet clamber to get a more solid purchase, awkward as he has to work around the bulk of the limp kitten he’s still attached to.

Big Ass deactivates his mag-clamps and begins to thrust towards the filament. The safety line spools out behind him.)

 

Bit! There’s hope yet. Except… wait. I’m routing surges out through those filaments. He can’t be on there. I can’t afford to not discharge, not even to save him.

Hurry, Big Ass. Please hurry.

Warning
Evasive action required
Sublight engines online
Thrusters online
Navigation online

 

Dineen did it! I can feel my engines powering up, and the spidery web of thrusters on my hull coming back to life.

All I need to do now is squint and pull us out of this spin. And not yank my boys around too much. If I move too quickly, I’ll ruin the rescue attempt.

Come on, Big Ass. Grab him already. We don’t have time.

 

Location: Engineering

DINEEN: (huffs, grinning) Got it. Starry?

STARRY: I’ve got propulsion.

CAPT: (activates his personal holographic interface, which hovers above his left forearm) Position?

DINEEN: (blinks and turns her head towards the bulk of the engines at the rear of the room) How come I can’t hear the sublights spinning up?

ELLIOTT: (across the room, muzzily) What the fuck happened?

DR SOCKS: (speaks lowly and calmly to the engineer.)

STARRY: Still falling, captain. Just need to get my drones secure.

CAPT: What?

STARRY: Four seconds!

CAPT: Starry…

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass stretches on the end of his tether, a hand reaching forward. The filament bearing Bit’s clinging form wavers back and forth, reacting to the extra weight and the turn of the ship.

The little drone stretches out two of his feet with his mag-clamps active, trying to pull himself towards his big brother without losing hold of the filament.)

 

Come on, boys. Come on.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The kitten in the ball of energy trembles. Electricity crawls around inside the ball like it has a mind of its own, throwing shards of blue-white light around the cargo bay floor. Pressure builds like a fist again.)

 

Location: Outer hull

(The two drones are within a metre of each other. Bit abruptly lets go of his anchor, pushing off the line towards the heavy drone and towing his kittenish burden.

Big Ass’s hand snaps closed.

On the hull beneath them, thrusters flare.)

 

That’s it! Now I can get us out of here.

 

Location: Engineering

STARRY: Pulling up now, captain.

CAPT: Get us to a safe distance.

STARRY: Fast as my sublights will shove us.

 

It feels so good to have power again. Countering a three-way spin is an old game; it only takes a few seconds to smooth myself out and pull up into a swoop away from Cerces. Sublights punch satisfyingly. I won’t be eaten today.

We’re going to make it through this.

 

STARRY: Energy building in the anomaly again. EMP on the way.

ELLIOTT: (appearing at Dineen’s shoulder, scowling) The fuck you think you’re doing? (He reaches past her to jab a rapid sequence into her console.)

STARRY: Elliott, wai—

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(All at once, the electricity in the ball dives into the kitten and the light disappears.

The black kitten’s eyes open.)

 

AI core offline
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