Ship's log, 15:47, 16 September 2214 Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole Status: Docked, powered down
I feel sorry for the Celestial Strider‘s crew. They’ve had so much heaped upon them in the past few days, and there’s always more to come. The indignity of me being their rescuer, the one who put them in danger in the first place. The realisation that there is no station personnel or authority to appeal to or help them. The truth about what I am and what the Step drive really does. The reasons why we had to end the project. The fact that the project leader is not only dead, but killed herself to make sure this project could never come back. The idea that the thing they were hired on to do just might be moot now.
And now, stars are not only alive and sentient, they can also talk to us. In fact, one is messing around in their heads right now.
I showed them all the evidence. I showed them how we were convinced about Kess, and the clues that led us to believe that Cerces is behind the ghost projections.
Most of the Strider‘s crew objected instinctively to the news. I don’t blame them: it’s a hell of a leap. But the evidence is there.
If I can exist, and if stars can be sentient beings on the periphery of our understanding, what else is out there? It cracks the door open on so many terrifying possibilities. Or exciting ones.
Like most sane humans, the captive crew reacted with fear first, and denial. All of their voices rose at once, except the weirdly quiet Kinski. He just sat on his hover-chair and watched. The doctor says his brain wasn’t damaged but I can’t help wondering…
Station sensor feed Location: Visitor's Lounge B
(Inside the energy curtain, the Strider‘s crew is talking all over each other. Dineen and Riede are gesturing wildly, almost facing off, Tash is dancing around the edges of their exuberance, and Nerozina is standing well out of range, her arms folded over her chest.
Outside the energy curtain, Captain Warwick gestures for his people to stay quiet, to not get involved.)
WARSI: (shouting as he walks into the middle of the noisy affair) That’s enough! Everyone pipe down!
(His crew fall quiet with varying levels of happiness.)
WARSI: (takes a breath in the sudden silence) Thank you. Dr Nerozina, can you please tell us how feasible the Starwalker‘s story is?
NEROZINA: (clears her throat and steps a little closer to the others) Yes. It’s not feasible. There has been no evidence, in any of the thousands – millions – of studies done on stars, to suggest that they might be sentient. There’s no indication that stars have ever reacted to communication or any other influence, except as the laws of physics dictate.
STARRY: (voice only, exasperated) Well, of course not.
LANG LANG: (stepping up to the curtain) That is correct. The star bodies themselves don’t react. We don’t have any evidence to show that they can react that way.
NEROZINA: And that means that this theory of yours is pure fantasy.
LANG LANG: (blinks, surprised.)
STARRY: No, it means we’ve been looking in the wrong place. You’re just too tied to the human definition of a person.
NEROZINA: And what is that supposed to mean?
LANG LANG: (brightens) Yes, Starry. Exactly. We’re too used to expecting the brain and the body to be in the same place. And the stars, they’re more complex than that. Their star body, they… well, we’re not entirely sure what the relationship is, but it hosts the consciousness. They have a separate body that interacts with the world, though. An avatar. That’s what we met: Kess. She’s what reacted to influences on her star body; on Earth’s sun. The sun itself didn’t do anything except what you’d expect if you didn’t know she was a sentient creature.
NEROZINA: There’s no precedent for such a thing!
DR SOCKS: (smiling lopsidedly from where he’s lounging in a chair, watching the proceedings idly) Actually, there is.
NEROZINA: (turning to pin him with a gaze) Where?
DR SOCKS: Starry. She’s a consciousness that exists inside a body that can only really react as her mechanics dictate. But she’s more complex than that. Has her own avatar for interacting with others and everything.
I don’t know how to react to that. I want to thank him, because it feels like a compliment. It’s always so hard to tell with Dr Valdimir, though; he keeps so much inside. He won’t even sit next to the Lieutenant while we’re talking with the Strider‘s people, as if that would give too much away.
I’m like a star. Except that I could make my ship-self expressive if I wanted to.
Kess could control her emissions. She could restrain them. Surely she could make them into patterns for communication if she wanted to. Is it just that she never wanted? Is she trying to keep her true nature a secret?
STARRY: It’s possible that the stars were just ignoring us, too. If Kess wanted what she was to be public, she could make that happen.
DR SOCKS: (tilts his head to indicate a partial agreement) Kess might have ignored anyone searching her star body for communication, but I believe the other stars simply weren’t aware of what we were doing.
NEROZINA: Oh, this is ridiculous. And hardly scientific.
DR SOCKS: It’s more scientific than you think. Kess has a humanoid body she uses to interact with us. She understands how humans think and communicate. This black hole seems to be trying to communicate with us and is largely failing. While it’s apparently getting better at projecting its ghosts, we’re still no closer to actually talking to this thing. The ghosts still don’t know why they’re here and don’t seem to have changed in makeup or intent. Even those who lived with them for months and years didn’t get any closer to what’s going on underneath.
WARSI: You sound like you’ve been studying them.
DR SOCKS: (shrugging) I keep busy.
NEROZINA: Why are you so concerned about talking to this black hole?
LANG LANG: Because it’s trying to talk to us.
NEROZINA: You can’t know that.
LANG LANG: (falters.)
CAPT: Navigator Cartier is one of the few who have got close to communicating with Cerces. She knows better than most.
LANG LANG: (encouraged by the captain’s support) It seemed to want to tell me something. It was just… I couldn’t understand it.
RIEDE: So is there a point to all this? Can’t we just get out of here?
CAPT: We could. But it would be irresponsible to leave without constructing some kind of warning. And if you could talk to a black hole, wouldn’t you take that chance?
WARSI: (watching the other captain) You have a plan to talk to this thing, don’t you.
CAPT: Yes. We’re almost ready for the first attempt.
STARRY: We are?
CAPT: You were gone for two months, Starry.
STARRY: (quietly) Oh, right. Yeah.
WARSI: Why are you telling us all this?
CAPT: To show we have nothing to hide. To perhaps explain the things that you can see. And just in case we make the ghosts… worse.
ROSIE: (muttering) That’s all we need.
DINEEN: (glancing around) Is it possible for this to get worse?
CAPT: It was worse while you were… away. This is actually slightly better than it’s been lately.
(The Strider‘s crew exchange glances.)
Damn, I had no idea. The black hole really reacted that badly to my Step? But got better when I got back, after the second portal, so perhaps it wasn’t the pain of the process itself. Could it be the little one I carried with me? Did it miss Sara?
I wonder if my captain knows about my current situation. I haven’t said anything to him but Elliott might have. No-one has asked me about it.
I should probably mention it. Now doesn’t seem like the time, though.
NEROZINA: So you believe you have a way to talk to this black hole?
CAPT: (glances at the doctor.)
DR SOCKS: (nods) By inducing a particular dream state. The most contact we’ve had with the avatar has been Lang Lang’s coma and a child’s mind. The dream state itself is easy; it’s finding a way to translate the communication that’s going to be the trick.
NEROZINA: You think you can understand it?
DR SOCKS: We think we have a potential common ground to start from.
NEROZINA: What is it?
LANG LANG: (smiling) Stars. If we’re right, then a map of the stars should give us a place to start. A representation of its own brethren.
DR SOCKS: If that doesn’t work, mathematics is our next method.
WARSI: What happens to us while you’re trying to talk to the black hole? Do you intend to just keep us in here indefinitely?
CAPT: (shakes his head) No. Our intention is to present to you the current situation, and then to give you a choice.
WARSI: What’s left of the situation to tell us?
CAPT: (glances at his people, then meets the other captain’s gaze) I think you know everything now.
WARSI: So what are our choices?
CAPT: Once we’re done here, we’ll be leaving this system. We’ll take you to any colony you request and drop you off. Except Feras; we can’t take you there.
RIEDE: So we’re to go from prisoners here to prisoners on your ship? Is that your plan?
CAPT: That’s up to you. We would prefer not to, but I suppose that’s something we all need to work out.
TASH: And then that’s it? You just let us go wherever we ask you to?
CAPT: We have no reason to harm you now. We can’t leave you here. So yes, that’s what we’ll do.
There he is, my captain. Doing what’s right, calmly and as if it’s the most logical choice in the world. As if it’s what everyone would choose.
Some captains would leave them here. Some would never have pulled them out of Cerces in the first place. Some wouldn’t even feel bad about it.
He’s pale and withdrawn from me right now, but he’s still in there: my captain. He’s still trying to do what he needs to, even though he was here for two months with no sign of a ship or a way out. Even though he was harried by hordes of personal ghosts. All that time, he had my crew working on how to give the ex-star what it wants. He never lost sight of that purpose.
I don’t know that I could have had that kind of focus in the same situation. I’m just grateful to be back and able to claim him. My captain. I’ll never leave him behind again, because what am I without him? He’s what makes me want to be a good ship.
CAPT: (rising) I think you have enough to discuss. We’ll leave you to it.
(The rest of the Starwalker‘s crew get to their feet.)
CAPT: Starry will be listening if you need anything or have any questions.
STARRY: Just call me, I’ll hear you.
WARSI: We’ll keep it in mind.
CAPT: (nods at the other captain, then turns and strides out of the lounge-brig.)
(The Starwalker‘s crew follow him, even the SecOffs. The lounge door swishes shut behind them.)
Location: Access Corridor, Outside Visitor's Lounge B
CAPT: Starry, keep an eye on them.
STARRY: Don’t worry, I am. Recording everything.
CAPT: Lang Lang, how long until we’re ready to make our first attempt at contact?
LANG LANG: I have one more section to finish memorising. I can be ready tomorrow.
CAPT: (nods) Good. Doctor?
DR SOCKS: (drily) I’ve been ready for days.
CAPT: Then let’s get this thing moving.
And with that, the door on my sister’s crew closes so we can turn to face the mind of a black hole.
My attention is fragmented once more: monitoring the captives; tracking the life signs loose on the station; following my crew around; double-checking the Med Bay bed that the doctor has rigged up for Lang Lang; directing my drones to help Elliott with his work; and running my own self. Thank goodness I’m working at full capacity for a change.
I have a feeling that the next few days are going to stretch me all the way to my limits.