Ship's log, 18:26, 10 July 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked and powered down
What do you do when a ghost is not a ghost? Stare at it, apparently.
Live sensor feed
Location: Visitor's lounge
(All of the crew except for Dr Valdimir is present. Rosie is leaning against the bar by the drinks dispenser, glass in hand. Elliott, the Lieutenant and the captain are sitting at different tables. The engineer has a half-finished meal in front of him, fork hovering uncertainly above the food.
Everyone is staring at the small child standing in the doorway of the lounge. The little girl hugs her stuffed toy tighter in the face of such scrutiny.)
CAPTAIN: Starry, you said you have her on sensors?
ELLIOTT: (chokes on his half-chewed mouthful and swallows it painfully) She’s real?
STARRY: I’m running an ident check now.
CHILD: (looks from one to the other as they speak.)
ROSIE: (standing up straighter) I know her!
CAPT: (tears his gaze away from the child to glance at the SecOff) Are you sure? If she’s not a ghost, then…
ROSIE: (shakes her head) No, no. Not like that. That’s the kid I saw when we were doing the first sweeps.
CAPT: (nods thoughtfully and returns his attention to the girl.)
ROSIE: Starry, I can’t believe you sent us all the way upstairs after some fucking cats when she was down–
ELLIOTT: Jesus Christ, Rosie, language.
ROSIE: Oh, like you’re one to talk!
ELLIOTT: (gestures at the child.)
ROSIE: (slams her drink down) Fine, fine.
CHILD: (jumps at the sharp noise.)
CAPT: All right, calm down, everyone. Let’s not scare her away. Starry, do you have a name?
STARRY: I’m piecing together the records now. It’s not easy after they broke the personnel tracking. It looks like…
Oh, shit. If I try to match her approximate age, gender, hair colour, eye colour, and other genetic markers, the best hit I can come up with is Sara Ripley. The first child born on this station. The station commander mentioned it in her log.
This place has been her whole life. Her existence has been teeming with ghosts. What would that do to a kid’s mind, I wonder?
Location: Med Bay
STARRY: (voice only) Excuse me, doctor?
DR SOCKS: (standing beside the bed that holds a sleeping Lang Lang Cartier, where he’s switching one medicine pack for another) Yes?
STARRY: When you’re done with that, we could do with you up in the lounge.
DR SOCKS: Something wrong?
STARRY: No, not wrong, but…
DR SOCKS: (lifts his attention away from the work at hand. His gaze skids around the room before it finds a comfortable middle distance to settle on.) What is it?
STARRY: A child has turned up. Born on this station. She might need someone to look over her.
DR SOCKS: Injured? Malnourished?
STARRY: No, actually, she looks fine. I was more thinking… well, this is the only place she’s ever known, and it’s full of ghosts.
DR SOCKS: And you were wondering what damage that might have done. (He frowns.) You thought? This hasn’t come from the captain?
STARRY: Not yet, but give him a minute.
DR SOCKS: (hmphs) I’ll head up soon.
Live sensor feed
Location: Visitor's lounge
CAPT: …It looks like what?
STARRY: Sara. I think her name is Sara.
CHILD: (head lifts a little bit from behind her stuffed toy.)
CAPT: (looks at the other adults in the room, then sighs softly and gets up to walk slowly towards the child) Sara? Is that your name, honey?
SARA: (turns wide eyes on the captain.)
CAPT: (smiles at her kindly) It’s all right, we’re friends here. We’re very pleased to see you. (He touches his chest, still moving quietly forward.) I’m John.
SARA: (doesn’t move; she just watches him.)
CAPT: (stops and crouches just outside of arm’s reach) We’ve been looking for you. And the person who looks after you. Is your mommy here?
He’s right; someone must be looking after her. I can’t find any record of what might have happened to her parents. They could still be alive, one of those unaccounted-for life signs.
But the doctor had a point, too: she’s not malnourished and she should be, given all the ghost food people were seeing. She’s clean and well-fed, and neatly dressed even if she’s only wearing one shoe. So how did that happen? How could a person have been so thorough at giving her real food in the midst of so many illusions?
SARA: (shakes her head.)
CAPT: What about your daddy?
SARA: (shakes her head.)
CAPT: Who put your hair up in such a pretty ponytail, Sara?
SARA: (stares at him over the bulk of her stuffed toy’s head. For a long moment, it looks like she’s not going to answer.)
CAPT: Who did that for you, hmm?
SARA: (softly) Nanny.
CAPT: Nanny, huh? Well, that’s nice of her. Do you think she’ll mind if you come visit with us for a while?
Nanny. Who must surely be looking for the kid right now. Sara isn’t so neat and clean because she has a carer who lets her run off for hours on end.
‘Nanny’ could mean anything: male, female, programmed drone, even a personal, independent android. There aren’t any other life signs in the same sector as the lounge, so unless she has managed to run across zones from her carer, it’s probably not a person. A machine, then.
All right, my little security hound. Go find me signs of movement anywhere in this sector and the three intersecting ones. And give me a list of all the drones in that area. Something is searching for this kid.
SARA: (shrugs and doesn’t seem inclined to move.)
CAPT: (holds a hand out towards her, palm up) Maybe we can find you something yummy to eat. Does that sound good?
SARA: (looks at his hand, then around at the room beyond the crouching captain.)
ROSIE: (rolls her eyes) Why don’t you grab her? It’s just a damn kid.
ELLIOTT: Is that your answer to everything?
ROSIE: (shrugs) Usually works.
CAPT: It’s all right, Sara. Come on in.
SARA: (walks forward slowly, towards that outstretched hand, but she doesn’t take hold of it. Her arms stay tightly wrapped around her stuffed grey toy.)
CAPT: (puts his hand on her back instead, rising and lightly guiding her into the room) Good girl. Starry, can you see to the door, please?
STARRY: (voice only) Sure. (All of the doors to the lounge swish closed.) Doctor’s going to head up to you shortly, by the way.
CAPT: (nods, his attention on the child) Good, good. Sara, how about you sit here? (He pulls a chair out from a nearby table.) And we’ll get you something to eat.
SARA: (looks at the chair, then abruptly turns and runs off, heading across the room.)
CAPT: Sara, wait– (He starts after her, trying not to look like he’s chasing her.) Starry?
STARRY: Room’s as secure as I can make it, captain.
SARA: (weaves around another table, eluding the captain’s reach.)
ROSIE: (lifts her eyebrows as she steps to head the child off) Slippery little sucker, huh captain?
ELLIOTT: (grins at the antics.)
HALF-FACE: (rises quietly from his seat and starts to circle around to the kid’s other side, stepping as gently as he can.)
SARA: (ducks under a table and runs in a straight line out the other side, right up to Elliott’s side. There, she stops, and abruptly thrusts her stuffed toy out at him.)
ELLIOTT: (blinks at her, his grin fading) What? (Nonplussed, he reaches out to take the toy.)
CAPT: (stops a couple of paces away, watching with interest.)
SARA: (pushes the toy into Elliott’s hands, then grabs his leg and starts to climb up onto his lap.)
ELLIOTT: Hey! (He lifts the toy out of her way and watches her clamber up with bewilderment.) What the hell are you doing?
SARA: (doesn’t answer, just wriggles herself around so that she’s sitting on his knee, facing the table. Once she’s settled, she twists to hold her hands out at him, fingers making grabbing motions.) Whale.
ELLIOTT: (gives the toy back to her) Oh, is that what it’s supposed to be?
SARA: (faces the table again and fumbles to tuck the toy under her arm. Once she has a hand free, she drags Elliott’s plate closer and picks up a fry.)
ELLIOTT: Hey, that’s my fu–
ROSIE: (grinning) Language, Monaghan.
ELLIOTT: (shoots a glare at her) Shut up.
SARA: (munches on a fry and looks around the room again.)
ELLIOTT: (helplessly) Captain, can’t you do something about this?
CAPT: She seems pretty comfortable to me.
ELLIOTT: (holding his hands out to the sides, as if he’s afraid of touching the child but wary in case she topples off his knee suddenly) Yeah, eating my food! You’re the one who promised her something to eat.
CAPT: She won’t eat much. Laurence, let’s see if we can get her something more nutritious than fries, please?
HALF-FACE: (nods and heads to the food dispensers.)
CAPT: (taking a seat opposite Elliott and the fry-munching child) Starry, what have you got on who’s been looking after her?
STARRY: Searching now, captain. I don’t have life signs anywhere near here, so I’m checking the local drones.
ELLIOTT: (frowns at the ponytail bobbing in front of him) She was brought up by a drone?
STARRY: Looks like it, for the last little while, anyway.
CAPT: Any record of her parents?
STARRY: Still searching. They were alive when the personnel monitoring was disrupted. The rest is going to take time. Did I mention that I hate this station and all of its systems?
CAPT: All right, let me know if you find anything.
STARRY: Sure, will do– wait. I think I have something.
ELLIOTT: Is it something that’ll get her off me?
My faithful little securi-pup has come back with a report of a nanny-drone. No, wait… three. Could there be that many in this sector of the station? And they’re all searching for their charges.
I don’t even want to think about what that means. Are all the survivors cats and children? Or are the drones just patiently looking for those who aren’t here any more?
Let’s see if I can get a better look at them through the station’s sensors.
STARRY: Maybe, Elliott. I’m trying to narrow down our candidate list. Yes. I have a drone registered to the Ripley family, currently half a sector away from the transit tube from the lounge.
CAPT: Sara’s nanny?
STARRY: It’s carrying her other shoe.
CAPT: Can you get it to come here?
STARRY: I don’t have command access to the drones, especially not the privately-owned ones like that. There’s only so much I can hack with my current resources.
ELLIOTT: I’ll go fix that now. Captain, if you’ll just take her off me…
CAPT: (giving Elliott a flat look) She’s not hurting you, Monaghan.
ELLIOTT: She’s kinda heavy, y’know. Kid, stop wriggling.
HALF-FACE: (quietly sits down beside Elliott and places a tray on the table. There’s a plate piled with vegetables and a bowl of ice cream. He leans forward and speaks softly to the girl.) Would you like some ice cream, Sara?
SARA: (looks up at his face and stops, staring at him. The fry in her hand hovers just in front of her mouth.)
Hmm, maybe I don’t have to hack the drone to get it to come to the lounge. Let’s see how smart it is. It’s much easier to use the hacks I’ve already done.
STARRY: (open broadcast) Sara Ripley is in the Visitor’s Lounge.
Live sensor feed
Location: Visitor's lounge
CAPT: (frowning) Starry, what was that?
STARRY: That was me. Nanny-drone’s on her way. Apparently her sensors work.
CAPT: Good work.
HALF-FACE: (puts a spoon in the bowl and slides it towards the little girl) It’s yummy ice cream. Chocolate. You like chocolate?
SARA: (stares at him, not moving.)
ELLIOTT: I think your face is scaring her.
HALF-FACE: (blinks and sits back) Oh. Sorry.
SARA: (blinks, then twists to offer the fry in her hand to Elliott.)
ELLIOTT: (takes the fry gingerly) Uh, thanks. Did you drool on it?
SARA: (doesn’t answer, turning to hold her stuffed whale out towards the Lieutenant.)
HALF-FACE: (looks surprised as he takes it from her with careful hands.)
SARA: (picks the spoon up in a little fist and starts to lift a lump of ice cream towards her mouth with great concentration.)
ELLIOTT: (narrows a look at the Lieutenant) If she gets that all over me, you’re gonna pay.
HALF-FACE: (lips quirking with amusement, he places the battered whale on the table in front of him. One hand absently strokes its plush straight.)
ROSIE: (approaching warily, she stops at the next table along) So what’re we gonna do with her? Looks like that drone’s been doing a good job with her.
ELLIOTT: And you wanna leave her with it?
ROSIE: (shrugs, apparently fine with that idea.)
ELLIOTT: What’s wrong with you?
ROSIE: (glares at the engineer.)
CAPT: I’m not sure what we should do about her yet. We need to know more about the situation here. For now, we need to keep tabs on her. Starry?
STARRY: I can’t do a lot about her nanny-drone, but I’ve set the station’s trackers to monitor her position. We won’t lose her again.
ELLIOTT: I can have a go at her drone when it gets here. Captain, if you’ll just take her…
CAPT: (trying not to look amused) You’re doing fine as you are, Monaghan.
ELLIOTT: (leaning forward to whisper in the kid’s ear) Hey, Sara, why don’t you hop up on his knee? (He gestures to the Lieutenant.) He brought you the ice cream. Isn’t that nice? You must like him better.
SARA: (glances up at Elliott and smiles brightly at him. There’s chocolate ice cream all around her mouth. She offers him a spoonful.)
ELLIOTT: (sighs) No, I’m good, thanks.
CAPT: (watching the exchange with amusement) What about the other life signs, Starry?
STARRY: I’m trying to get them on sensors. I’ll let you know if I find anything.
CAPT: (nods and sits back, watching the child eat messily.)
There’s a calm atmosphere in the lounge that hasn’t been there before. All of my people are focussed on that one, small thing; their attention isn’t skipping around and tripping over people who aren’t there. For once, we’re all seeing the same thing.
The nanny-drone is approaching the lounge, programmed to watch over her charge without wavering.
I haven’t seen the captain smile like that for a long time. I wonder if Sara reminds him of the daughter he lost. He seems… lighter. They all do. She’s the first thing we’ve found that doesn’t seem warped by what happened here.
I wonder if we can keep her.