Ship's log, 15:21, 30 June 2214 Location: Feras orbit, Lambda 1 system Status: Stationary
(Warnings flash on each console around the room.)
CAPTAIN: (gripping the arms of his chair as the ship’s frame shudders) Starry, report! Starry!
STARRY: (standing to the captain’s right, she stares forward unflinchingly) Hull breached. Wide Load is gone.
STARRY: Wide Load is gone.
CAPT: (exchanges a frown with Chief Cameron) Is the problem contained?
STARRY: No, he’s… he was outside.
They sounds like they’re so far away, speaking to me from the other end of a long tunnel. I am drifting. I am coming apart at the seams, spreading on the arms of an explosion. I am sealed closed, like a dented nut. I don’t make sense and it hurts.
ELLIOTT: (bracing himself in a doorframe with one hand, he manipulates the holographic interface above his forearm with the other) Starry, how’s your pressure holding?
STARRY: (voice only, distantly) I have a hull breach.
ELLIOTT: Yes, but what about the rest of you? Seals are holding around the breached sector?
STARRY: Yes, seals are holding.
ELLIOTT: (scowling) Why do you sound weird? Starry?
Location: Cargo Bay 4
(Dr Valdimir is crouching beside the prone, suited form of Lang Lang. He holds a scanner over her for a moment, frowning at its readouts from inside his own suit helmet.)
DR SOCKS: Lang Lang? Can you hear me?
LANG LANG: (does not move or respond. Her suit is scuffed and scorched, and torn on one leg.)
DR SOCKS: (sighs and looks around. The cargo bay has a few crates in the corner but there’s no sign of movement.) I don’t suppose there’s a chance of getting a hand with this?
(Silence is his answer.)
DR SOCKS: (shakes his head, then flicks out the anti-grav stretcher from his emergency kit. It unrolls and lies on the deck beside the patient. Tgoes about easing the unconscious navigator onto the stretcher, one careful movement at a time.)
Wide Load. My boy. His pieces are too small to pick out of the cloud of fighter debris, even if I wanted to go back and scoop him up. Most of him was incinerated when the fighter’s power cell ruptured.
Not even a whisper in the radiation signature. He’s gone, just gone, like a hole in my world.
STARRY: (appearing beside Elliott, her expression empty. She blinks, then looks at him more closely.) Why aren’t you wearing your suit?
ELLIOTT: Little busy trying to staple your ass together so you don’t come apart.
STARRY: You should have your suit on. Where is it? You need to go get it now.
ELLIOTT: It’s on another deck. I’m fine, Star–
STARRY: (pointing off down the corridor) Go get your suit on!
ELLIOTT: (frowning at her) Hey, I’ve got more important things to do than–
STARRY: No you don’t! Go get it right now! I’m not losing you today.
ELLIOTT: I don’t plan on–
STARRY: (blinks out.)
ELLIOTT: (stares at the spot she was just standing in) …what the fuck? (He scrubs his hair and stomps off to the nearest emergency equipment hatch to grab a temporary helmet.)
I can’t lose anyone else today. I won’t.
My hull is torn open. The captain’s cabin is bleeding furniture into the void. I am compromised. I am breached, no longer stable as a ship.
Need to balance the shift in my pressure. I have to nurse my bulkheads, make sure I don’t put too much strain on my internal structure. Must stay in one piece. Must protect what I have left.
I have a gaping hole in me. My sensors are screaming at me and my drones and the spot in my awareness where Wide Load used to sit. The holes are real and metaphorical; they overlap and ache.
I’m pretty sure that the captain’s underwear is floating away.
CAPT: (standing in front of the ship’s avatar) STARRY!
STARRY: (blinks and takes a step back in surprise. Her eyes focus on his face, bewildered.) What? I… why are you out of your chair? You should be strapped in.
CAPT: We need you here, right now.
ROSIE: (looks on with concern. The other SecOffs have eyes only for their consoles.)
STARRY: (in a small voice) I’m here.
CAPT: No you’re not. Whatever is going on in those processors of yours, file it away.
How can he say that to me? Doesn’t he understand? I’ve lost integrity and a part of myself, and I can’t get them back. I can’t–
He got up to talk to me. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t paying attention and I should always be paying attention. I should be able to process all of this at once. I’m failing them, all of them.
I still have people left. I have five drones and seven people to protect. So many souls still in my care.
I have to be a good ship. I have to be what my captain needs. I will be.
STARRY: (drawing her shoulders straighter, she lifts her chin. Her eyes might shine brightly with emotion but her voice is clearer.) I’m here, captain.
CAPT: Good. Now, the hull breach…
STARRY: Seals are holding.
CAPT: So why aren’t we underway?
STARRY: (blinks, looks down at her armoured hands, then up at the hologram in the centre of the room again. Around the curve of the planet, the blinking representation of the Celestial Strider is moving rapidly towards the binary stars of Lambda 1.) I– Bringing us around now. We’re still going after the ship?
CAPT: (relieved) Yes, we are. (Half-turning away from the ship’s avatar,) Chief, how are we doing for firepower?
CAMERON: Forward and aft lasers are fine but that’s all we have left, and we’re down to only a few missiles. We also have a few shots left for the nano-gun.
CAPT: All right, let’s see what the Celestial does when we get there. Starry, can we catch up?
That’s not an easy question. The Celestial Strider is making all speed for the twin star, but her engines are brand new; they haven’t been run in yet. Mine hum confidently in their casings, well tuned and configured for maximum efficiency. In an even race, I’d win, hands down.
But this isn’t an even race. My right wing is damaged and the sublight strip along its rear edge isn’t working at maximum capacity. I am lopsided, uneven. I tilt my left wing to compensate as I curve over Feras’s north pole, coming around to a pursuit vector. I push my engines until I start to creak.
STARRY: I’ll try, captain. Trying to work around the damage to get enough thrust. We won’t reach her before she gets to the traffic, though.
There are the other ships in the system. They have scattered from my bombs, imitating debris in the hopes that they wouldn’t actually explode into it. Now, some of those ships hover between me, the Celestial, and the binary star of Lambda 1. They must have been watching what has been going on. They must be drawing their own conclusions.
Will they try to interfere? Will they avenge the fallen fighters? Will they think I’m a threat to them and shoot at me before I can shoot at them? Am I heading into defensive teeth?
CAPT: (turns to look at the hologram in the centre of the room, which zooms in to show the spray of ships across the star’s orbit) They’ll be on high alert after our stunts. Suggestions?
ROSIE: What, they can’t tell that we’re defending ourselves here?
CAMERON: Not after the bombs we planted. They’d be fools to take the chance.
ROSIE: Can’t we just tell them?
CAMERON: (exchanges a look with the captain.)
CAPT: (folds his arms over his chest and frowns at the hologram) What could we tell them that wouldn’t raise questions about the project?
STARRY: That we’re defending Earth.
CREW: (turn and look at the ship’s avatar with surprise.)
STARRY: Well, we are.
CAPT: (looks pensive for a moment, then nods) All right. Broadcast this message, Starry:
All ships, this is the Starwalker. You may hear many things about today’s events, but know this: we do this for Earth’s sake. For all those left behind on our home world, for all those who walk with the spirits, for all those displaced by the disaster, we do this for you. What we do today means that what happened on Earth will not happen again. We are searing the wound so that it might heal.
We have no wish to harm anyone. We have only returned fire on those who have fired upon us. We have no intention of attacking any ship in this system, but we will defend ourselves. We do this for Earth, for our lost home.
STARRY: (nods when he’s finished) Translating and transmitting. Now, will you sit down and strap in, please?
No immediate responses to the message. I don’t know if they’ll believe us.
It’s not entirely true. We fired upon one ship that didn’t shoot at us first: the tug that held the company’s data. It didn’t get a chance to defend itself. I suppose we fired on the cruiser first, too. But to disable, not to kill. That makes a difference, doesn’t it? Can it?
I look over the feeds from my rear sensors and it’s hard to say that we’re doing a good thing here. Fires and gas spurts puncture the surface of the planet, tracing my path with gouts of destruction. Debris drifts in clouds. Half-built wrecks dangle from half-severed tethers. Gaping holes reveal breached compartments. Scorch-marks and laser scars tell the tale of my battle.
It’s hard not to ask myself if the company deserved it. Feras is Is-Tech’s colony, and Is-Tech made me what I am and then abandoned me. Should I feel bad about the damage?
I don’t feel anything right now. I am numb, aware only off the burn of my engines and the strain on my bulkheads as I try to catch up to my fleeing sister. I am the ship who is what she must be.
I am a good ship. I will do what my captain asks of me. I am armed and armoured, and we’ll finish this. I am strong enough.
Warning Sublight engines at 110% Sublight engines exceeding capacity Warning
Shut up, autolog. I know. My engines can take it and I have to catch up. We can’t let my little sister get away.
Sister. Family. They love her more than me. Will they do to her what they did to me? Will they abandon her, too? Throw her to the wolves, close her out in the cold?
She has a crew like I do. She has a pilot about to join with her control systems through a pilot’s couch, like Danika did two years ago. She’s running straight for the star, for the escape route that only she and I can use.
So much like me. She might understand us.
I send a burst at her, asking her to stop. She isn’t answering. I’m gaining on her – even she must see that – but she doesn’t acknowledge me. What have they told her about me? About her big sister?
The ships who fled the parking zone are peeling away from her path, as if they want nothing to do with any of this. I don’t blame them. They think she’s as much of a threat to them as I am, and she hasn’t fired a single shot. The two of us look alike; perhaps they think we’re working together.
From the look on the captain’s face, he’s thinking the same thing. Cameron is probably trying to figure out how to use it to our advantage.
Meanwhile, my drones, Elliott, and I are doing our best to patch my most damaged parts. I have re-routed my fire controls three times and still they’re overloading some of my circuits. It’s taking a lot of my attention just to keep the essential systems running smoothly.
ELLIOTT: (from inside his helmet, tugging at the collar with a grimace) Starry, you need to back off the sublights.
STARRY: (voice only) They’re fine. I’m only a little over.
ELLIOTT: (going to the engine bay at the rear of Engineering, he pulls up the holographic displays of its readouts) Yeah, and if you keep them over capacity, you’re gonna burn ‘em out.
STARRY: But I’m barely going to catch up as it is! You need to find me a way to get more speed.
ELLIOTT: Sure, just shut the engines down for a couple of days so I can fix ‘em.
ELLIOTT: I’ll see what I can do, but you gotta back ‘em off, Starry. Now.
STARRY: (mumbling) Fine.
CAPT: (watching his console’s calculations) Starry, what’s going on with your velocity?
STARRY: Engines are running as hot as I can, captain. We’ll catch up when she reaches the star. Elliott’s on it.
CAPT: We’re running out of margin.
STARRY: I know.
She’s pulling further ahead of me. She’ll have to stop at the star to charge her filaments; I’ll have time to catch up then. I’ll be able to blast her out of the sky before she abuses that double star and tears a hole in reality.
In the meantime, I’m her lumbering, smoking big sister, wheezing along in her wake. And I don’t like it, not one bit. With one eye on my target and the rest on all the other ships in the system, my hull is prickling with tension. If I’m not careful, the pressure of possibilities will give me another breach to deal with.
CAMERON: Captain, Patience is moving to pursue us.
CAPT: (fingers moving over his console to manipulate the Bridge’s central hologram, which pans around to show the cruiser turning towards the binary star of Lambda 1) They managed to repair the damage already?
CAMERON: Probably re-routed essential battle systems around the affected areas. They might have failsafes to compensate for that kind of attack. We should have let the nanobots run all the way through it, take out all of the systems.
CAPT: Not when they had hit the colony. Can they catch up to us?
CAMERON: It’s likely. They’re not at full power yet from these readings, but if they continue to fix their systems…
STARRY: I’m going as fast as I can! You try flying with a bloody great hole in your back, a chunk of blind sensors, damaged thrusters, and an engineer who won’t let you overcharge the sublights.
CAPT: (frowning) Monaghan is stopping you?
STARRY: (mumbling) He says we might explode.
CAPT: (expression clearing) Oh. Carry on, then.
There is only one thing I can do to help me move faster: jettison my cargo and reduce my overall mass to increase the impact of my sublights’ burn. I clear it with Elliott and the captain, and send Big Ass to do the heavy lifting.
I don’t have much to spare. The belongings of my dead. Spare parts I’ll probably need before this is over. Food stores. Emergency equipment – no, I’d better keep that. Elliott even sacrifices some of his heavier equipment, down in Cargo Bay 1. I think he has noticed the cruiser on our tail, too.
It makes only a tiny bit of difference. I inch closer to the Celestial‘s tail. I’m losing ground to the cruiser. I claw each klick as ferociously as I dare, but my sister reaches the star well before me. She’s still out of reach.
I can see her filaments unfurling. Is that what it looks like from this distance? She shines, golden and perfect in the twin stars’ light, and the tips of her filaments glow as they charge. They wave like hair in an invisible tide.
STARRY: (blinks) Captain, you all need to get your suits on. Now.
CAPT: Another breach?
STARRY: No. My radiation shielding is already punctured and I’m heading into close orbit around those stars.
CAPT: (frowns and punches in the command for the emergency protocols on his console) All hands suit up.
(Hatches open around the Bridge, revealing suit helmets and gloves. The captain tugs his collar closed and activates his shipsuit’s seals, and the SecOffs are quick to follow his lead.)
My protections are failing. I am already detecting a rise in my ambient radiation levels. I adjust my environmentals to filter it out, buffer my internal spaces, push it out. But the closer we get to that star, the worse it’ll be, and if anyone fires at us… the fallout from a hot missile could flood right through me.
Stupid hull breach.
I pass the command along to the doctor, who puts his helmet on with a sigh and goes back to scanning Lang Lang. I don’t have time to look at the readings, but they’re not good. I’m not the only damaged one here. She’s still in her suit and wrapped in the cocoon of Med Bay’s protections. The doctor will keep her safe. And I’ll do my best to keep everyone safe.
HALF-FACE: Is that the Celestial is opening a portal?
CAPT: That’s fast.
STARRY: She’s cheating. That’s… that’s a brute force attack.
My filaments never charged that fast. What improvements did they make? How can she have done it so fast? From here, it looks like she took a sledgehammer to the fabric of the universe. I can see the ripples across the face of both stars of Lambda 1. The Celestial Strider is hovering between them, drawing on the gravity of both bodies, tearing open the space in the middle as if unpicking a seam.
I’m too far away: I can’t catch her. I’m still out of effective missile range. Even lasers won’t do enough from this distance. I push my engines hard and make Elliott swear but it’s still not enough. My sister is slipping towards the portal, nosing at the outside of the universe.
And maybe I’m not entirely sorry. Something in me lifts at the idea of her getting away. Maybe I don’t hate the idea of having a sister. Maybe we can reason with her, make her understand our side, and maybe she’ll join us in our quest against the company that built us. I have to believe that’s possible.
ROSIE: What the hell is that?
CAMERON: Missile signatures.
ROSIE: They’re coming out of the portal…
CAPT: Aimed at us?
CAMERON: No firing solution on us.
STARRY: (quietly) They’re for her.
I’m too far away: I can’t save her. She has no defenses, too busy with the Step. My forward sensors are working perfectly and pick up every detail of the impacts. The first missile rips off a chunk of her filaments, like a handful of hair. The second drives right into where her Bridge is. Then there is an explosion so bright it almost sears my eyes, engulfing her as something deep inside her detonates.
It must be the Step drive, active and wide open. She is bursting with all the gathered power of two stars and it’s tearing her apart, so bright, so loud, even in the void. My sensors are blurred but I know the force of it is racing outwards. Racing towards me.
For a moment, I think I can hear her screaming.
STARRY: (shipwide) BRACE FOR IMPACT!
I cut my engines and turn my undamaged side to the shockwave. Flutter my thrust to try to reduce the impact. I have nothing to brace myself against. But my people, oh, my people.
It’s about to hit and suddenly I realise that I’ve seen that explosion before.