27 Aug

Load bearing

Ship's log, 11:56, 4 October 2214
Location: Near Sarabande Station and the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I just moved inside the orbital path of Sarabande Station and cut my sublight engines. I’m still heading towards the black hole, but coasting now. It’ll take us a little time to get in as close as the captain would like, and I think we’ll need that time.

My captain is furious. I don’t think I’ve seen him quite this way before, not even when the pirates boarded me and claimed me as their prize. Not even when they put him in chains. Not even when he lost his arm.

I don’t think we fully understand the toll that the past few weeks – months, for him – have had on us. Being plagued by our ghosts, harangued by faces and voices from our pasts, opening wounds we’ve tried to pretend were healed. Wearing at us, a little at a time, piece by piece.

I suppose that means that this man was always in there. The one with his jaw set and eyes fixed firmly on his target, the roiling blackness projected in the centre of my Bridge. The one who seems made of steel, suddenly, with less of the temperance of the spirits he values.

Along the port-side wall of the Bridge, my sedated people have been laid out. Lang Lang and my Chief. Crazy man Brenn Haitom and the Strider‘s SecOff Kinski. At the end, closest to my nose, little Sara is blinking blearily at the ceiling.

They’re no longer behaving like they’re in pain. Dr Valdimir said that he gave them enough sedative to take the edge off, make them dopey, but they’re unresponsive as well. They’re staring at the ceiling, blinking, breathing, but otherwise unmoving. It’s as if they’re listening to something very, very far away, so soft that none of us can hear it. Something like a black hole? It’s possible. It’s all crazy and unlikely, but definitely possible.

I’ve scanned every frequency my sensors can pick up, but black holes cannot emit anything on our spectra. I can find no patterns in the noise. So here we are.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (standing in front of his chair, he scowls thoughtfully at the holographic projection. His head tilts towards the doctor standing next to him but he doesn’t glance away from the representation of Cerces.) Wake Lang Lang up.

DR SOCKS: (turned mostly towards his ‘patients’, surrounded by readouts of medical data, each column coded to a different person) Are you sure that’s a good…

CAPT: Idea? You said they weren’t in any distress any more. Cerces should know by now that we’re coming back. We need answers and Lang Lang has the most experience in talking with him.

DR SOCKS: All right, then. (He waves away the displays and they shiver closed.)

CAPT: (tears his gaze away from the hologram. It falls on Lang Lang’s blank face.) Be ready to sedate her again if she reacts badly, though.

DR SOCKS: (going to drop to a knee next to the navigator) Of course.

 

The way he talks, it’s like my doctor is always prepared for everything that happens. As if there’s never anything that phases him. But I saw his face when my people started to drop. I saw the gap in his experience yawn wide and that startling moment when he realised he didn’t have a clue about what he should do. He touched his limits and he didn’t seem to be very familiar with them.

Me, on the other hand, I’m constantly being surprised. I’m always butting up against my limits and trying to push on through them. I’m used to the realities of my existence.

I guess he’s realising that he is mortal, after all.

He’s holding it together now. Recovering his composure. The captain may not have been a fan of the plan to bring Haitom and Kinski up here, but as I pointed out, we only have one doctor and they all need him. Rosie is hovering nearby with her favourite gun, watching them all, and I don’t think she’ll hesitate to shoot the first threat to her newly-returned Chief. Or a threat to the rest of us, of course.

I don’t think it’ll come to that. Both of the non-crewmembers are wearing captive collars, just in case. So we’ll see, I guess.

In the meantime, Lang Lang is coming around. She’s sitting up and gulping at air as if she has been underwater. She squints and rubs her eyes. I have Waldo bring her a glass of something cool and fresh-tasting, packed with electrolytes and minerals to help re-balance her body. She thanks him, one of the few crewmembers who thinks to do that. He pats her shoulder before trundling off again.

 

CAPT: (crouching in front of Lang Lang, his expression is concerned) How are you feeling?

LANG LANG: (sipping at the drink) I… I’m not sure. I feel strange.

DR SOCKS: Any pain?

LANG LANG: No… (Her free hand lifts to rub at her temple absently.) Maybe the echo of a headache.

CAPT: Do you remember what happened?

LANG LANG: (thoughtful for a moment, taking her time before she chooses her words) I remember pieces. It was… very loud.

CAPT: Cerces?

LANG LANG: (nods) He’s furious. And lonely. So very lonely.

ROSIE: (from her position across the room) What, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him?

LANG LANG: He feels. Isn’t that a good enough reason?

ROSIE: (subsides, glaring across the room and readjusting her hold on her gun.)

CAPT: We need to talk to him, Lang Lang. We need your help.

LANG LANG: (looks up at the captain with a trace of helplessness and apology) But we tried that. It was too much for me. We need more time… Isn’t that why we were going?

CAPT: Yes, but he’s not letting us get people to safety. He’s forcing our hand.

DR SOCKS: We still need a way to do this that won’t burn her out.

CAPT: Yes. Any ideas, Lang Lang?

LANG LANG: (shakes her head) I’m afraid not, captain.

DR SOCKS: What about the child? She has the closest connection to him. She seems to understand him without being burnt out.

STARRY: We can’t use a child like that.

DR SOCKS: Why not? He is.

STARRY: You saw how upset she was. We can’t put her through that.

CAPT: (holds up his hand) She can’t articulate his words well enough for us, anyway. We need to be able to speak with him, not just listen to his demands.

 

The captain is looking for a solution to all of this that doesn’t involve leaving anyone behind.

I can feel the elephant in the room. It’s not on my sensors, not even the itching contact that Cerces’s ghosts cause. But I can feel it, standing right there, taking up space, whuffling noisily in the gaps between sentences.

There’s a very simple solution to this: leave Sara behind. Maybe leave all those who reacted badly when we were on our way. Those five who are lying or sitting on my Bridge, saved and changed by the influence of a sentient black hole.

We could put them back on the station and go. They’d be okay there for a while and we’d be free. And if it was just Sara, well, she has survived all right up until now, right? Even when she hasn’t, Cerces has brought her back and made it all right. So it’s an option. Right?

No-one has pointed this out. No-one has suggested it as an alternative, though I know that every conscious mind on the Bridge right now is thinking it, with the possible exception of Lang Lang. That sort of thing just wouldn’t occur to her. And yet, none of my crew has spoken up about it. Not Rosie, not my ruthless doctor, not my engineer who is still hanging around at the back of the room, looking like he’s not sure if he should be here or back down in Engineering.

I’m glad Elliott’s here. He’s hovering on the edges of the conversation like he might get involved but doesn’t particularly want to step into the spotlight. But if we’re going to need him during whatever this is, it’s most likely going to be here. For once, I might not be the thing that breaks while we figure out how to get free of this mess.

We’ve never left anyone behind and I don’t think we’re going to start now. Iggulden made his choice, but he was free to make it. We can’t let Cerces force us to do this; it’s not his choice to make. So no, I’m not going to mention the elephant either. I’m going to try not to feel it, too.

 

CAPT: (looking sideways at Dr Valdimir) Doctor, what is it?

DR SOCKS: (staring into space, tapping the fingers of one hand on his leg) Hm? (He blinks at the captain.) Oh. I was just considering options for sharing the neural load.

CAPT: So Lang Lang isn’t overloaded again?

DR SOCKS: Yes.

CAPT: How long would it take to construct something like that?

DR SOCKS: I’m not sure… There are many ways to do something like that.

CAPT: Monaghan, what do you think?

ELLIOTT: (looking nonplussed) Uh… it wouldn’t take long, I guess. I’d have to strip down an immersion couch or two for parts. Would that work with the big guy?

DR SOCKS: Hard to say. Hardware might not be the only solution we need, too.

CAPT: What do you mean?

DR SOCKS: (gestures to the other prone bodies on the floor) We might need to spread it across wetware.

ELLIOTT: Link ‘em all together? That’s really fucking dangerous. The testing alone would take weeks, or we’d be the ones frying their brains.

DR SOCKS: I’ve seen it done before; I can help set it up. It’s tricky, yes, but it’s possible.

ELLIOTT: It’s possible to live in zero-G, too; that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

DR SOCKS: We have Starry, don’t forget. We could use her systems to balance the connection, maybe even provide the central point.

ELLIOTT: You mean have ‘em inside her head while we do this? Oh, no. No fucking way.

STARRY: (standing slightly off to the side) If I can help…

ELLIOTT: (glares at her) I said no.

STARRY: Okay, okay. Cerces hasn’t had a great connection with me so far anyway. I don’t particularly want him any further inside my systems that he’s got already.

CAPT: (holds up a hand) Risking Starry risks all of us. Any solution involving her systems would have to be guaranteed to be safe for her, or none of us are getting out of this system.

ELLIOTT: (to the doctor) We tossed our only other functioning ship into the black hole already, remember, genius?

DR SOCKS: (subsides thoughtfully, frowning.)

LANG LANG: (clears her throat) Um… If you’re thinking about using a cybernetic solution, I’m afraid that won’t work.

CAPT: Why not?

LANG LANG: I don’t have a neural implant.

CAPT: You don’t… I see.

 

Wow, I thought everyone got one of those these days. I never even thought to check and clearly the doctor didn’t either. From the look on his face, he has realised his mistake; with her recent injury, he has looked at her brain scans a lot lately, but he didn’t pick up what wasn’t there. He missed that piece. He’s rubbing his eyes as if that’ll help clear up his memory.

He looks tired. I wonder when he last slept properly.

 

CAPT: Doctor, is there any way to help Lang Lang without accessing through an implant?

DR SOCKS: (shaking his head slowly) Not that I know of. There isn’t much research around this sort of thing, not outside… less reputable circles.

 

He means cracks and mystics. I remember those stories: Danika’s father used to tell them about the breakaway pods of believers who chased space-fairies and glitter dust through the black. They believed they could talk with stars and comets, the vacuum itself, light on its way from distant galaxies, the souls of the dead, and even each other without speaking. Danika used to make up stories about them to scare her little brother before they went to bed, and he’d wind up sleeping with her, clinging to her arm.

Given what we know now, they suddenly don’t sound so crazy. Have we become our own breakaway pod? Is it okay if we just don’t tell anyone that a black hole has been talking to us?

 

LANG LANG: (abruptly) Cerces knows how.

CAPT: What do you mean?

LANG LANG: He’s done it before; he does it all the time. Touched all of us at once.

STARRY: The ghosts. You all see the same ghosts.

CAPT: (to Lang Lang) You think he’d be able to do this?

LANG LANG: (shrugs apologetically.)

DR SOCKS: But how do we tell him what we want him to do?

(The captain, doctor, and ship’s avatar all turn to look at the dozing child on the floor.)

STARRY: (quietly) Do you think we can get her to understand what we need her to do?

CAPT: I think it’s worth a try. Doctor, wake her up.

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20 Aug

The net

Ship's log, 09:23, 4 October 2214
Location: Near the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Most of the time, sublight transit is quiet. Dull, even. Journeys across vast tracts of empty space are generally done in straight lines, under constant acceleration or coasting once the optimum speed has been reached. No corners, maybe a touch of adjustment if a nearby gravity source threatens to pull the ship off-course. Engine on or off. Binary. Boring.

That’s what today should have been. A farewell to Sarabande Station and the black hole it watches over. Goodbye to our ghosts. And then a long, silent streak across the dark to the mouth of the FTL corridor, so we can get really, really far away in a single kick.

But that’s not how this journey is starting out. Sarabande is barely down to blotting out a quarter of my rear sensors and I’m filling up with noise. It’s making me wince, and I can filter it out; it doesn’t hurt me. My crew are not so lucky. I’m starting to consider transmitting sound suppression.

Who knew that one small child could produce so much noise?

Of course, it occurs to me now that Sara has never been this far away from Cerces before. From what I could make of the station’s records, she has only ever left it on board me, and until now, we were always on the inside of the station’s orbit, close to her friend.

So now she’s feeling the distance. Like during the Step, when she got upset and couldn’t feel Cerces at all. Somehow, she feels her friend slipping away and she’s— okay, she’s not just upset: she’s freaking out.

Dr Valdimir is there with a sedative in hand but she’s doing a good job of thrashing so much that my people have their hands full just trying to restrain her. I fear what injury she might do to herself if they let her go.

Is it just her, or is it Cerces’s influence we’re hearing?

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (trying to catch one of Sara’s wildly waving arms, he shouts over her screeches) Chief! Can you get her other side?

CAMERON: (wincing) I—

ROSIE: (stomping forward) I got it! C’mere, you little shi—

STARRY: (standing nearby) Rosie!

ROSIE: (muttering) …bundle of joy.

DR SOCKS: (hovering just out of the child’s range, injector in hand, he waits for an opening large enough that he won’t get clobbered.)

LANG LANG: (still in her seat at her station, she watches with a face gone ashen. Her hands grip the arms of her chair tight enough to turn her knuckles white.)

STARRY: (crooning) Shhh, Sara, it’s all right, really. We’ll come back to visit. It’ll be fine.

 

It’s not working. She’s not listening, too worked up to do anything except fight against the bigger, stronger hands around her. Fighting the inevitable.

Sometimes, she reminds me of me. Was I ever that blinded and unreachable?

The captain and Rosie have her snagged between them now, and my captain is trying to wrap her up in his arms so she can’t hurt herself against their grip. Rosie’s shifting her hold to the little one’s feet, so Sara doesn’t catch the captain with an unfortunate kick; my SecOff is well-trained when it comes to dealing with unruly bodies, though they’re seldom so small.

Dr Valdimir is eyeing his opening, sliding forwards to an exposed bit of her little leg…

Wait. Something isn’t right. A bump in my data streams, I’m getting patterns where there shouldn’t be any. Analysing…

 

STARRY: Doctor, wait.

CAPT: (looks up at Starry, straining to contain the child) What is it?

STARRY: It’s… it’s not just her. I’m still analysing but my sensors are picking up something strange.

 

It’s like a tingling. A sixth sense (in human terms; I have more than five different types of standard sensor). Something isn’t right and I know it; I’m just not sure what it—

 

STARRY: Doctor, the Chief!

CAMERON: (groans and sinks to one knee, a hand on the wall. The other hand is pressed to her head.)

DR SOCKS: (steps back from the restrained child, his eyes narrowing) Lang Lang? (His free hand calls up an interface over his left forearm to look at the Chief’s medical read-outs.)

LANG LANG: (whimpers) Hurts…

CAPT: Starry?

 

It’s not just here. It’s not just them. Scanning…

 

STARRY: I’m registering the same kind of distress in Brenn Haitom and SecOff Quentin Kinski, too. Everyone else is within normal stress ranges.

CAPT: Doctor?

DR SOCKS: That’s everyone who has been unconscious around the black hole for a length of time. Or born here. It’s no accident, captain.

 

Location: Crew Quarter F

HAITOM: (yanks a fistful of hair off his head, shouting at a padded wall like it offended him. In contrast to his ravings, there are no words: just incoherent sounds.

He looks at the hair falling to the floor, shouts again, then fists both hands in his hair.)

 

Location: Crew Quarter D

KINSKI: (sitting on his bunk, he holds his head between his hands and rocks back and forth.)

RIEDE: (crouching by the young man’s knee, he’s the only other person in the room. He watches with unbridled concern.) What is it? Kinski, report, damn you.

KINSKI: (sucking air in through his teeth) Stop, we gotta stop.

RIEDE: Dammit, I need more than that, kid. Tell me what’s going on. That’s an order!

KINSKI: (shoulders twitch and his movement stutters. Then he makes a strangled noise and goes back to rocking, more frantically now.)

RIEDE: Ship! Ship, we have a situation here.

STARRY: (voice only) We’re aware of the situation. Stand by.

RIEDE: But—

STARRY: I said stand by!

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: (grinds his teeth, still struggling to contain Sara.)

SARA: (gulps in air between shrieks.)

DR SOCKS: (crouching by the navigator’s chair) Tell me what’s wrong. Lang Lang, answer me. What are you feeling?

LANG LANG: (makes a small, pained noise in her throat) Too much… loud… hurts.

ROSIE: (shouting over the din) Can we at least shut her up while we deal with this?

DR SOCKS: (clips the injector back on his belt as he stands again, and shakes his head) No way to know what that would actually do. It could make it worse.

STARRY: Captain, what do we do?

CAPT: Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (frowning the blinking medical data hovering over his forearm and throwing his other hand up) I need time! I can’t treat them all at once. I don’t even know what to treat them for.

STARRY: My boys are on their way.

CAPT: If we don’t dare sedate them, what can we do?

CAMERON: (crumples to the floor, clutching her head.)

DR SOCKS: (looks over, wide-eyed and, for once, looking as young as he really is.)

 

Oh god, no-one knows what to do. A psychic black hole is raking at the minds that have been most connected with it, and we have no way to counter it.

I have to do something. There must be something we can do. Anything!

 

STARRY: Captain, stop or push through? I can punch to FTL from here, it’s clear enough. Get far enough away that he can’t reach them any more.

LANG LANG: (curls up in her chair, shaking and moaning.)

CAPT: (eyes the doctor, then looks to the ship’s avatar) No. No FTL – we don’t know what that might do.

 

He’s right. We could snap their minds entirely. Leave them behind with the light and chem-trails.

 

STARRY: Sublight, then? Stop or push through! We have to do something!

CAPT: Stop, stop!

STARRY: Braking!

 

I flip myself around 180-degrees and punch my sublights as hard as I dare. My inertial dampeners groan but balance the change in thrust. My people don’t even feel it.

 

Warning
Sublight engine tolerances exceeded
Warning
Sublight engines at 110%

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (sitting up from where he was sipping a hot stimulant, blinking at the warning message flashing over his forearm) Starry, what the hell?

STARRY: (appears before him, her expression worried) Trouble, Elliott. Cerces doesn’t want us to leave.

ELLIOTT: He… what the fuck? How is he…

STARRY: Come to the Bridge. We… we might need your help there.

ELLIOTT: (hopping to his feet and fastening his toolbelt around his hips) You damaged?

STARRY: Not me. Come anyway. They might need you.

ELLIOTT: (gives her a long look, then gathers up a frown and hurries off up the corridor.)

 

Warning
Sublight engines at 120%

 

ELLIOTT: (from the corridor) Don’t you break that fucking engine!

STARRY: (calling after him) Doing my best!

 

Warning
Warning
Sublight engines at 125%
Warning
Sublight engines at 120%

 

STARRY: (crouching beside the captain, Rosie, and the crying child) Sara? Sara, we’re turning around. We’re not leaving any more. Can you hear me?

SARA: (gulps and hiccups, then cries some more, loudly.)

STARRY: (looks helplessly at the captain) I’m pulling us around. He must be able to tell, right?

 

There. I’ve bled off enough velocity to pull around into an arc without sweeping too much further out or straining my inertial dampeners. I can power back towards the station now.

I’m not sure if we want to go all the way back there, but we’re heading in the right direction.

 

Sublight engines at 104%
Warning…
Sublight engines within normal tolerances

ROSIE: Goddamn kid’s gotta run out of steam at some point, right?

CAPT: (grimly, to the ship) Get us back to the station, but don’t dock.

STARRY: Setting course to match orbit, aye.

 

They’re not getting better. It’s not easing, even though we’re heading back the way we came. Can’t that damned black hole tell that we’re doing what he wants? He doesn’t need to punish us this way. He doesn’t!

 

CAPT: (winces at a particularly piercing shriek from Sara) Doctor, can you give her something to just take the edge off?

DR SOCKS: (poring over the data) I told you, there’s no way to know what that would do. If this is the black hole’s influence, then…

CAPT: If this keeps up, she’ll hurt herself anyway. Do it: that’s an order.

DR SOCKS: (looks at the captain, then sighs and pulls the injector off his belt again. He fiddles with its settings, then steps forward to press it against Sara’s skin. It hisses, too softly to hear.)

SARA: (screeches until she runs out of breath, then blinks as she inhales again. She swallows and blinks again, and makes a querulous sound in her throat.)

CAPT: (keeps a tight hold on her until the tension drains out of her little body. Then he nods at Rosie and they lay the child carefully down on the floor panelling.)

 

That’s so much better. I can feel the weight lift off the room as the pressure of noise dissipates.

The doctor is waiting nervously for a reaction to the dose. Cameron and Lang Lang both seem to be in the same amount of distress, as do Haitom and Kinski. He pauses only a few seconds, checks their readouts, then goes to administer similar shots to the two affected adults on the Bridge.

 

WALDO and CASPER: (trundle onto the Bridge.)

WALDO: (splits away from his brother to go to Lang Lang, who is growing limp in her chair. His four hands gently lift her down to the floor, where she can lay safely and comfortably. She doesn’t resist, blinking muzzily.)

CASPER: (trundles up to the doctor and reaches a hand towards the injector.)

DR SOCKS: (frowns at the drone) What do you think you’re doing?

STARRY: (moving over to the doctor’s side) He wants the injector. (She pauses, looking at the drone.) For Haitom and Kinski; they’re in distress, too.

DR SOCKS: (relinquishes the injector reluctantly.)

CASPER: (snaps his hand closed around the device and whirrs immediately off the Bridge.)

DR SOCKS: (blinks at the abruptness of it) I was going to say that he should bring them up here.

STARRY: (smiles kindly) I’ll pass the message along. Diverting Big Ass now.

DR SOCKS: (shakes his head) Still can’t believe you called him that.

ELLIOTT: (arriving) What’s wrong with ‘Big Ass’?

 

Everyone’s starting to ask what we do now. The Strider crew down in my quarters are asking what’s going on; I shut off the projection of our progress as soon as things started to go wrong, so they know something is happening. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t want to tell them that it’s a glitch, or that we’ve turned around. Not yet.

I wonder what’s happening with Iggulden, back on the station. Could he be affected, too?

He isn’t answering any of my hails. He’s probably not even watching the comms lines.

 

ROSIE: (sitting back on her heels, watching the child laid out before her with distrust) So, what the f— hell do we do now?

SARA: (blinks slowly, whimpering.)

CAPT: (stroking Sara’s hair back from her forehead) Starry, bring us in to close orbit around the black hole. What do we do now? (He looks up at his crew.) We figure out how to get a message to this black hole. Once and for all.

ELLIOTT: (scowls as he takes in the bodies lying on the Bridge floor) Ain’t that why we’re trying to leave?

CAPT: Yes, but it looks like Cerces has other ideas. (He rises to his feet, sweeping his hair back over his shoulder.) Either we figure out a way to contact him, or we risk tearing their minds apart by leaving. Let’s leave the risky option as a last resort.

STARRY: And what sort of message are you going to send?

CAPT: Leave my crew alone.

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14 Aug

Author’s Note: Low

Hi everyone. Sorry for the late notice, but it looks like this week has defeated me (mostly, I’m not well). The post is not ready, and you all deserve something better than a half-baked attempt, especially as it’s getting into the last phase of this particular storyline.

I apologise for the delay. You are all wonderful with your support and patience, and I must ask you for just a little more.

In possibly-related news, I’m pondering some options for what I could do for you all, once we get to the end of Book 4. A little thank you for bearing with me through this difficult year. I’m hoping to do something good for you, be it a short or a fragment of something.

Any requests? What would you like to see?

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06 Aug

Perspicacity

Ship's log, 09:00, 4 October 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

Undocking sequence started
Umbilicals disconnecting

 

It’s finally time. The station has been stripped of everything of use we could fit into my cargo bays. Every life signal has been herded or dragged on board me (except one). I have returned Sarabande’s controls to the station AI and patched up the places I broke in.

This time, after this undocking, I don’t mean to return for some time.

 

Umbilicals disconnected
Docking clamps releasing

 

It’s just me, my own systems, inside my own hull. My crew on my Bridge, and in Engineering, and down in the Med Bay. Exactly where they should be. As we all should be.

 

Docking clamps retracting
Thrusters online
Sublight engines online
FTL drive online
Weapons systems online

 

I am a ship again. I flutter my thrusters to push away from the station, lean heavier on one side to roll gracefully out into the black, while the docking ring turns emptily behind me. My wings unfold; they might be stubby, but to me they feel like flaring feathers a kilometre long, stretching out to touch every gleam of passing starlight.

No-one feels the kick of my sublights except me. I grin secretly, feeling the smooth power after all Elliott’s recent repairs. I am a gold streak across the vacuum, gathering speed.

I’m not going to fetch something this time. I’m not dragging a hearse behind me. I’m breaking free, flying off towards a new destination, and leaving this haunted system behind me.

Our victory is not complete. We didn’t manage to rescue everyone. We tried but it just wasn’t to be.

My captain tried. He took our two fully-functional SecOffs and went to fetch Marlo Iggulden, the station’s Acting Commander. But Iggulden had other ideas.

I didn’t have good coverage down there; Iggulden has disabled most of the sensors in and around his cave. I know that he shot at my people, though. I know that Rosie returned with a hole in her shoulder, cursing lividly as she stomped back to my airlock. And I know that Iggulden disappeared down into the bowels of the station, dove so deep that the captain called off any attempt to retrieve him.

Iggulden made his choice. He refused our offer and, while we disagree with his wisdom, we should respect it. Especially when he seems ready to defend his decision with lethal force. Our desire to help him doesn’t mean we’re willing to put ourselves in that kind of danger.

I’m honestly not sure if I’d let him on board now that he has shot Rosie. I’ve had enough people hell-bent on hurting my people walking my decks already; I don’t want another one. It’s bad enough that we’ve had to quarantine the Strider’s crew.

I wonder if we can keep calling them that, now that she’s gone. Now that she’s compacted down to a diamond, to atoms, to a tiny point of intense pressure and matter at the heart of the black hole. But what else do we call them? What are they, now? Passengers?

It’s hard not to be a little sad, knowing what we’re leaving behind. A man alone on a station, too attached to his ghosts to want any other life. My sister ship, given up to oblivion with my dead crew-members for company.

A system full of ghosts: that’s what we’re leaving behind. With a grieving black hole at the centre of it, mourning his lost people.

I wonder if any of the species that lived here survived. I wonder if we might find them one day and tell them about the sun that doesn’t shine any more but still remembers what it used to shine on…

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (watching the hologram in the centre of the room, the fingers of his right hand tapping on the arm of his chair. The hologram shows the station with its slowly turning rings and a small representation of the Starwalker curving away from it.) Starry, report.

STARRY: (voice only) All systems green, captain. We’re off and flying. Setting course for the FTL corridor.

CAPT: Any news about our passengers?

STARRY: Not a peep from any of them. I’m letting them know that we’ve undocked and are under way, but there’s nothing of note to report back.

CAPT: Well then. I suppose we should settle in for a long trip. How long until we reach the FTL corridor?

STARRY: At this rate of acceleration, three hours and fifty-seven minutes.

CAPT: Is that all?

STARRY: I guess the black hole meant the system was clean enough to bring the corridor in nice and close.

LANG LANG: (from her station, where she’s scanning the system intently) Starry’s correct. There’s no debris in this system at all. We could probably jump from here. (She glances up at the captain.) But we shouldn’t.

CAPT: (smiling) No, we shouldn’t. Thank you, Navigator Cartier.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott is standing by a counter, squinting at the projection of a crystalline circuit board hovering above the panel his hands are working on. The view is zoomed in a thousand-fold to show the tiny, precise points he’s touching with a glowing wand. He makes a minute motion and huffs.)

ELLIOTT: (not looking up) Starry?

STARRY: We’re under way now, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: What? Oh, I wasn’t looking for an update. Where the hell is your Big Ass?

STARRY: I assume you’re asking about my drone, because my tail is right where you left it.

ELLIOTT: (blinks, lifting his hands away from the circuit board for a moment) Oh. Yeah, him. (He glances around, a smile tugging.)

STARRY: (appears next to him) Big Ass is right behind you.

ELLIOTT: Very funny— (He twists to look behind him.) Oh. He actually is. (To the drone,) Where the hell have you been?

STARRY: No-

BIG ASS: (points at the far corner of the room, where a unit sits covered by a blanket.)

ELLIOTT: (follows the gesture and frowns) What the hell is that?

STARRY: (to the drone) Not yet! I was gonna do this later.

BIG ASS: (turns his head to the avatar and spreads his hands.)

STARRY: (sighs and points to the panel Elliott was working on) Help him with that.

ELLIOTT: Oh, yeah. I need this flipped over. (He places the fibre wand he was working with down on the counter carelessly, distracted by the thing in the corner.) So, what is it?

STARRY: A… surprise. (She steps in between Elliott and the object of his interest.) It’s not ready yet.

ELLIOTT: (grins at her) You got me a present?

STARRY: …Yes.

ELLIOTT: It’s not my birthday.

STARRY: I missed your birthday. And I figured you’d like it, so…

ELLIOTT: (stepping around her) So what is it?

STARRY: It’s– (She sighs, giving up.) Fine, fine. Take a look.

ELLIOTT: (grins and reaches for the cover, but Casper is there, holding up a hand indicating that he should pause. The engineer halts, blinking.)

CASPER: (grasps the cover, then whisks it off the unit with just a touch of flourish.)

(The revealed unit is a waist-height machine, silent and stained with disuse. It’s a tubby thing sitting on small metal feet, with an input chute on one side and panels that most likely light up with readouts and information on the other sides.)

ELLIOTT: That’s… is that a weaver? Where the hell did you get a weaver?

STARRY: I found it in a storage room on the station. Now, I don’t know if it works. Initial scans come back clean, but I won’t know for sure until I hook it up and run proper diagnostics.

ELLIOTT: (grins at her) You got me a weaver?

STARRY: (uncertainly) Well, you keep complaining about how you can’t make enough parts yourself. A weaver isn’t a great solution, but this model handles optics and plastics as well as metal, so I figured that, in a pinch, it might—

ELLIOTT: (leaning over to peer into the input chute) Are you kidding? This is perfect! I’ve always wanted to take one of these apart.

STARRY: I… yeah, I thought you might… like it.

ELLIOTT: (pulling open every exterior panel he can find until the weaver unit looks like a slow explosion of metal and plastic) You’re the best ship. Did I ever tell you that?

STARRY: (shaking her head slowly) Nowhere near often enough.

 

Well, that didn’t quite go how I’d hoped. I had intended to at least run basic diagnostics on the silly thing before presenting it to him, so I could tell what kind of condition it was in. Still, he seems happy with it, so I can’t complain.

And who knows, maybe he’ll get it working. Weavers are mostly good for making solid, simple parts from whatever materials you throw into it, and woven parts are known to be of widely varying reliability because of the way the weavers create them. The creators might have claimed that you could weave a whole spaceship if you wanted, but their safety record meant they were never a real threat to Is-Tech’s ship and parts manufacturing businesses.

Whatever the publicity says, from the look on Elliott’s face, he has a few things in mind for the machine. I don’t think it’ll go to waste.

Now I wish I’d found gifts for everyone; we could all use a grin like Elliott’s. Maybe getting us all away from these ghosts for a while will be gift enough.

 

Location: Bridge

(The door swishes open and a small body hurries in. Some distance behind, the nannybot trundles patiently.)

SARA: (pauses and looks around, hugging her stuffed whale to her chest in the face of so many serious adults. Spotting the captain, she trots over and tugs on his pants leg.)

CAPT: (glances down with surprise) Yes, little one?

SARA: (points at the forward view-portals, which are currently closed. When the captain doesn’t immediately respond, she runs over to them and tiptoes to smack one with the palm of her hand.)

CAPT: (rises to follow her) You want to see out, Sara?

SARA: (settles back on her heels and nods, wide-eyed.)

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: (appearing next to the captain) Opening the forward portals. (The shielding slides down, away from the view-portals, revealing the spray of the starscape.)

SARA: (tiptoes again to look out: first on one side, and then she hurries over to look out the other. She returns to the first side to check it again and makes a small, whimpering sound.)

CAPT: (glances over his shoulder at the rest of the Bridge. Cameron, the Lieutenant, and Lang Lang are watching curiously. He crouches behind the child, to be more on her level.) What is it, Sara? What are you looking for?

SARA: (leans as close to the portal’s clear, cool surface as she can, peering around for the widest view) Whale.

CAPT: (exchanges a look with the ship’s avatar.)

 

Oh, this can’t be good. She’s looking for her friend. But how did she know to look? The inertial dampeners mean she can’t feel that we’re moving, so what made her check?

 

CAPT: He’s not out that way, little one.

SARA: (goes to check the other view-portal again, pressing her nose up against it, little hands gripping the lip surrounding it) Bu- bu- whale.

CAPT: He’s behind us.

LANG LANG: (leaving her station, she comes up beside the captain, on the opposite side to the ship’s avatar) It’s all right, Sara.

SARA: (turns to look up at them, her eyes wide and shining) Whale going away?

CAPT: No, we’re going away for a little while.

SARA: (hiccups a breath in, then face scrunches up.)

LANG LANG: But we’ll be back! We’re coming back. We’ll see him soon.

CAPT: Yes. We’re going on an adventure. We’ll be back—

SARA: No! Can’t leave whale! I WANT WHAAAAAAAAAALE.

 

Oh god. I’ve never heard a child wail like that. From the shocked look on their faces, neither has anyone else on the Bridge except for the captain. He’s reaching for her, trying to comfort her, but she’s fighting him. Wriggling and refusing to be soothed. Kicking and trying to push him away and keep hold of her toy at the same time.

 

Location: Med Bay

STARRY: (voice only) Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (sitting at his desk, going through brain scans) Yes?

STARRY: I think you’re about to be needed on the Bridge. You should probably get up there.

DR SOCKS: (grabbing his emergency kit from the side panel of his desk as he rises) Who?

STARRY: Little Sara.

 

I might be over-reacting but her face has gone bright red and they can’t seem to calm her down. Cameron is rubbing her temple as if the wailing is cutting through her head like a knife. If I didn’t have filters available to me, I might feel the same. Lang Lang looks like she’s about to burst into tears in sympathy with the little one.

It’s not quite the hopeful, auspicious start to our journey that I was hoping for.

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30 Jul

Returned

Chief Medic's log, 17:33, 2 October 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down
Log Location: Starwalker Med Bay

 

This is Dr Valdimir, reporting on the change of status of the Starwalker‘s medical facilities and patients. We are relocated aboard the ship once more, and I’m back to the standard ship equipment. It feels a little like a demotion.

We’re not leaving the station empty-handed, however. Aside from the healing I was able to do for the crew, I have acquired a number of new pieces of equipment to augment the ship-board medical capabilities, including a new cybernetic implant diagnostic scanner and programmer, a better dermal repair weaver, and enough additional supplies to fill a quarter of one of the cargo bays. The captain was surprisingly supportive of my desire to strip the station of everything I could find that was of use. I just wish the big auto-surgeon fit on board somewhere. I managed to acquire a smaller model built for emergency medical situations, but it doesn’t have anything like the extended capabilities of a full-scale auto-surgeon pod. I’m sure that, when we return to this area, I’ll be able to work out some way of getting it on the ship.

As for patients, I don’t have any in Med Bay right now. Chief Cameron has been released to her own quarters and light duties, and Brenn Haitom has been installed in the crew quarters furthest from the Bridge, which has been fitted with enough padding to prevent him from easily injuring himself.

Haitom continues in the same patterns I have observed since we first found him. I have tried some mild cognitive probing, but now that he’s on board, I’ll start on some more intensive diagnostic activities. He is, rather more officially, my patient now. I suspect that he’s suffering a full psychotic break following an intense trauma, and the data will no doubt bear me out, but there’s no harm in investigating using all of the resources available to me, even if they are ship-limited.

Cameron continues to be something of an interesting case. Outwardly, she seems to be suffering no ill effects of her coma, apart from the usual decline in physical fitness for someone as active as she is (the Med Bay auto-conditioning protocols have prevented any severe muscle atrophy, but the fitness threshold it maintains is much lower than the Chief’s preference). She has started to work on building her fitness back up again, despite my admonitions to take things slowly.

As for what is going on with her internally, she maintains a closed demeanour, but that’s nothing new. The key point is: there appears to be no observable difference between pre-coma Cameron and current Cameron. The invisible continues to elude us all.

While some doctors might be tempted to simply be grateful for the recovery of a patient, I can’t be satisfied with that. There was no pressing reason to keep her under direct observation, so I had to release her from the Med Bay, but she’s still wearing monitors so that I can track her biorhythms wherever she is. Just in case. In the meantime, I’ve been searching the archives for any other similar incidents of, well, apparent resurrection.

I was right: this has happened before. The doctors were far less diligent than I, back when there was someone qualified running the station’s Med Bay, but the clues are there if you know what pointers to look for.

Most notably, our youngest member of station personnel seems to have been brought back more than once. I found reports of Sara with catastrophic injuries from falls and accidents, including several weeks spent in a coma while her little body was healed, after which she woke up and was perfectly healthy. Several of the injuries were to her head, but her brain shows little sign of the scarring I would expect. Similarly, Cameron’s neural damage from the blood loss she suffered during the attack on Feras has largely healed. Even with the station’s resources, this level of neural regeneration is unheard-of.

Interestingly, I could find only one other incident that matched the parameters: a suicide attempt by one of the researchers into black hole-powered technologies. He put a laser bolt through his head, literally boring a hole through his brain. While they were able to put him on life support, there was little chance of him ever regaining consciousness; he had damaged or removed too many fundamental parts of his brain for remapping to be a viable option. But when removed from life support, he miraculously came back to life.

He didn’t come back unaffected, though. The reports say he was raving from the moment he woke up, babbling nonsense and behaving erratically. I checked the ID twice but it wasn’t Haitom, though the symptoms are similar. This particular individual slipped his carer’s attention and put himself out of an airlock. There’s no record of a body recovery.

From what I can tell, he was Cerces’s first attempt at resurrecting a human; this incident was months before the first of Sara’s miraculous recoveries. His first successful attempt, at least; I have yet to determine what criteria to use to locate any failed attempts among all the station’s many dead.

This all made me look more deeply into Haitom’s files. He suffered an injury about eighteen months ago, again related to the brain. There’s no record that he died at any particular point, though the station’s records don’t have an over-abundance of care and thoroughness. The medical staff didn’t believe it was likely that he would recover – though it wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility either – and they weren’t surprised when he came back impaired. His mental state worsened steadily after he regained consciousness, hence my theory that his current state was caused by a trauma. It’s still unclear, however, whether that trauma was truly physical, emotional, or mental in nature.

Haitom’s incident occurred shortly after the initial reversed suicide but predates all of the injuries that baby Sara suffered. Neither Sara nor Cameron appear to be mentally impaired by their resurrections, so clearly Cerces figured out how to bring them back more whole than his earlier efforts.

As a note: I identify Cerces as the cause of this phenomena because it is the only likely explanation at this point. There could be another force in this system or station responsible for it but, at this point, I’m content with using Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the right one. I see no reason to add a secondary source of weirdness to this system when we have a perfectly good one already.

So we have an interesting pattern. A progression of people apparently brought back from the edge of death by the consciousness of the black hole. He seems to be getting better at it, just like he seems to be getting faster at accessing people’s minds and projecting their ghosts.

That leads me to another question: why these people? There were thousands of people on this station, some of whom fled, most of whom have died. We found plenty of bodies. Why were only these four brought back? Why not anyone else? Is Cerces somehow choosing who he wants to bring back? And if he is choosing, then how? What are his criteria?

It would be easy to assume that our minds are small and insignificant compared to an entity as vast and long-lived as a star or black hole. However, he has seemed to single out individuals. He has targetted his projections of the ghosts in specific ways, though shown that he can be clumsy and heavy-handed at times. But by my assessment, he has brought back young Sara three times in the last year, and, until a few days ago, to the exclusion of anyone else.

I don’t have any data to help me investigate why these particular people were chosen. I can’t believe it’s an accident, though. Why Cameron and not any of the others who lay alongside her? Could the crew have influenced it, if their feelings about the Chief were fresher than those about the crewmembers we took out of cryo-storage? Cerces connects most strongly with emotion, so that seems to make sense. It would be nice to have some data to back it up, though.

It’s not that I particularly care about any of those we buried; I’m curious and more than a little interested. If someone else were horribly injured or even sick, could they count on Cerces to bring them back?

I wonder if Cerces might have done this for the people of this system, back when he was a star: brought them back from the dead if someone living wished hard enough for it. He could have been their god and prayer just might have worked. Now that’s an interesting possibility. Just thinking about the implications that would have for society, if you needed to make sure you had enough people to miss you so you’d never die…. Fascinating.

Perhaps that’s why he chose Sara. Her parents were still alive when she had her first accident and a parent’s pain tends to be pretty loud. Was it their grief that made him bring her back? Was he talking to her before then, or did it start afterwards? Is this what forged their first connection?

I wonder if Cameron hears him now. I’ll make a note to ask her at her next check-up. She has caught up on everything that has been going on here, but it’ll be interesting to see how she reacts to the idea that her brain might be open to the black hole now. Like I said, she’s a very closed kind of person.

We’re leaving the station tomorrow. I’ll start detailed monitoring of the brains of our three resurrectees as soon as we hit open space. Perhaps that will tell us something of use.

No-one has asked what might happen when we leave Cerces’s sphere of influence. We’re not even sure how far it might reach. I suspect we’re going to find the answers to those questions fairly soon, and they’ll be more definitive than anything else I might find. Who knows, Haitom might even start making sense.

The next few days are going to be… interesting.

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25 Jul

Gathering close

Ship's log, 23:19, 1 October 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

Things are moving so fast that my head would spin if I had one. Luckily, I have subroutines I can use to manage all the data, filtering and caching and juggling requests.

I wasn’t really built to manage a station and myself at the same time. I might feel barely competent most of the time right now, but I think I’m doing pretty well. Nothing has exploded yet. Nothing that was my fault, anyway.

That said, I don’t think I’m done processing all of the changes yet. The data is fine: filtered and filed away. It’s the meaning of that data that seems to be lagging; the weight of it all, the emotional processing. I don’t think it has all passed through my systems yet.

Three days ago, I buried crewmembers for the first time in my short life. People I was code-bound to serve and protect. People I cared about. People who betrayed me. All of them gave their lives for something bigger than just us. All of them slept within my walls, carrying the slender hope of resurrection until my doctor confirmed what all my scans and sensors had told me: dead; gone; never coming back.

I towed them out to the black hole in the cradle of my sister. When I was as close as it was safe to be, with the black hole’s gravity tugging on my hull, I curved around to the side and jiggled my thrusters until I was holding position. The Celestial Strider slingshot past me and I let her pass me by. The grapples fell away and she sailed on, silent and serene, a ghost in a gorgeous dress. My captain said aching words on my Bridge, words of remorse and remembrance, while my sister ship drifted forward fearlessly. We stood and saluted, human and hologram and drone; flesh and light and metal. We shed tears and watched them leave us until the Strider was only a gold glint against the swallowing black.

I let her grow small in the view on the Bridge before I turned us around and pushed us back to the station. My people relaxed their stiff, respectful poses and talked quietly. Inside my electronic walls, I watched my sister until her golden light was snuffed out by Cerces’s event horizon.

I’m still not sure how to process that event. My crew, my sister, gone in a single blink. I know what Danika would have done: got drunk, told stories about them all, and found comfort in the company of others until she couldn’t feel the hole they left behind so much any more. That’s what she did when her father died, and when she lost a friend in an accident.

But I can’t get drunk and we’ve told all our stories already. We did that all the way back to the station. Now I’m all out of stories and not sure what to do with myself.

Company, then? Will that help me to understand this strange numbness I’m feeling?

I wish Elliott had time to come visit me inside my systems. We’ve all been so busy that it has been a while since we’ve laced holographic fingers together and I miss it. I miss him. The times he’s in here with me is the only chance I have to lean on someone else, to feel something other than the flashes of coloured data flooding through my own mind.

There’s still so much to do, though, and I’m about to have more company than I can stand. We have reconfigured some of the crew quarters, putting in extra beds so we can double up. From tomorrow, I’ll be home to the Strider‘s crew. They don’t know yet, but soon it’ll be time to drug them and move them in their sleep. They’ll wake up in my quarters, separated into pairs. I don’t have anywhere big enough to house them all and it’s not a good idea to do that anyway.

The doctor is prepping Brenn Haitom for transfer into one of those rooms, though he’ll be on his own. Those quarters have been decked out with extra padding and security measures to look after him. We won’t leave him here. Maybe we can find him somewhere he can get help, maybe even get better.

Rosie and the captain have gone down to the bowels of the station to try to talk to Iggulden. He might be the acting commander of the station but he still deserves to be free of this place. We’ll take him anywhere he wants to go, same as the Strider‘s people. Then we’ll come back and deal with this strangeness.

I wonder if all black holes are like Cerces. I wonder if they all keen and yearn for what they’ve lost, the light they shed, the matter they absorbed. Are they too caught up in the cycle of falling in on themselves, always falling, never able to stand up or stretch out a hand? Is there anything in their future but regrets and memories of all they used to be? Is this one long, painful death for a star, stretched out over more millennia than I can conceive?

There must be something we can do to help him. Some way to ease his pain.

I wonder if he minded us casting our dead into his maw. I wonder how he felt, so bound up in his own grief and taking ours into his grasp. Did he feel us in our funeral procession? Did he know what we were doing? Suddenly, I feel like we should have found a way to ask his permission, instead of just assuming he wouldn’t care. Black holes are always hungry, after all.

I am pulled in a hundred different directions. Funerals and prisoners, refugees and recoveries.

That has been perhaps the most complicated thing to react to lately. Cameron, my Chief of Security, the voice of reason, the solid mainstay of my crew: she is awake. I had been preparing a farewell stream of recordings of her, going through all the things I would miss without her with us, but she is all right. She’s up and about, and will soon be released from Med Bay.

There’s a feeling like I have a lump in my throat, as if a cache is over-running its bounds and choking up the surrounding data-streams. It leaves me unable to articulate what it is, though I keep analysing.

Part of it is joy: when I think of her recovery, I can’t help but smile like I’ve just remembered that the sun exists.

Part of it is wonder that such a thing could happen, that I truly can get someone back when they seem to be so terribly gone from us.

Part of it is fear, because we don’t know yet how or why she came back. My doctor searches feverishly for a clue but he is frustrated by the lack of an answer. He has started snapping at the Lieutenant, which is bad for both of them.

Part of it is fear, in case this is an illusion, the last gasp of a body that is truly a dead shell, a ghost that all of us share. Could she slip through our fingers yet? My sensors tell me no but my hands shake.

I should feel relief. Gratitude, even though no-one knows who to be grateful to. But I don’t feel either of those things. Maybe I haven’t got that far yet; maybe I’m still caught in a processing loop, stuck on this lump of uncomfortable feelings that leave me unsure whether I should laugh or hold on so tight I leave bruises. I’m afraid that I’ll come off hysterical or unhinged, so I wind up doing nothing at all.

It’s foolish. I’m glad she’s back; of course I am. I see the ripples in my crew and I know it can only be a good thing. Rosie might have been firm about being in charge since Cameron fell, but she’s palpably relieved to be able to step back and let the Chief resume the reins. The Lieutenant responds well to Cameron’s leadership, too, though all she has done is back up the captain’s orders so far. The captain seemed like he might shed tears when he heard the news, though he has been coolly professional towards her in person. I can tell he’s fighting his own muddled lump of feelings, too. Lang Lang outright hugged Cameron the first chance she got. Even Elliott cracked a smile and welcomed her back to the living, and he sounded like he meant it.

I don’t blame them. Cameron has always been the one person who always made me feel safe, even when we were surging into battle. She’s a solid point in my crew, the weight that holds us to the centre of where we should be. I could always tell how nervous I should be about the safety of my people from a simple scan of her face: the tension in her jaw and the narrowing of her eyes. She always knew. She kept us safe.

So I should take comfort from all of that and try not to worry about all the things changing in and around me. The doctor will let my Chief out of the Med Bay tomorrow and she’ll return to her proper quarters and her place on my Bridge. We’ll coordinate getting all the live souls from the station on board me, and take them somewhere they can be free of ghosts and mind-fiddling black holes. My sister was a fitting burial barge, but I’m a rescue ship now, a lifeboat. Perhaps it’s selfish of me to be proud of that, given the circumstances, but–

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (around the finger he has stuck in his mouth) Starry!

STARRY: (resolving in front of him) What did you do? Are you all right?

ELLIOTT: (taking the finger out so his words aren’t so garbled) Caught my goddamn finger on the end of the cable again. Where the hell are Bit and Byte? They’re supposed to be helping me with this. (He gestures towards the counter beside him with his free hand, where a tangle of cables sprouts glittering metal fibres in spiky sprays.)

STARRY: And you’re supposed to be in bed. I sent them off on another job.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, well, I couldn’t sleep.

STARRY: I can get Waldo to fetch you a cocoa…

ELLIOTT: What am I, a kid? I don’t need cocoa. I just wanna get this sorted out. What d’you have them doing?

STARRY: They’re on, uh, retrieval operations on the station.

ELLIOTT: On the station? You let them off the ship?

STARRY: The station’s drones are too stupid to do what I need. It’s okay, they’re not far. I’m keeping tabs on them.

ELLIOTT: (sighs and frowns at the open cut on his finger) They gonna be long?

STARRY: I don’t– er. (She blinks.) Oh god.

ELLIOTT: (looking up at her) What? They in trouble?

STARRY: (smile tugging at the corners of her mouth) Not yet. You gotta see this. (She gestures with one hand and a projection opens up beside her, showing the feed from the station’s sensors.)

(The projection shows a bland station corridor, and focusses in on a particular duct opening near the floor. There’s a scrabbling noise, then the duct cover retracts with a soft swish and two small shapes rush out. One is pure black; the other is pale grey with black stripes. Both kittens are about eight weeks old. They skid to a stop, mewling. The black one shakes itself but can’t dislodge the metal clinging to its back. Bit raises two of his hands as if in triumph, then swats at the kitten’s rump. On the grey tabby, Byte shakes his head and flicks two of his feet to try to get his mount moving again.)

ELLIOTT: (staring at the projection) They’re… what the fuck are they doing?

STARRY: Lang Lang was concerned about leaving anything alive here, so they were sent out to chase the cats out of the ducts. Casper’s supposed to be around to pick them up, but…

(The black kitten twists around, trying to bite at Bit. Behind them, two more kittens sneak out of the duct, moving low and uncertainly. Byte points forward with one hand and pats his tabby mount with the other. It seems to work: the kitten takes a few steps, then mews again.)

ELLIOTT: So they’re…

STARRY: Riding the kittens.

ELLIOTT: …of course they are.

(Engineer and avatar look at each other, then burst out laughing.)

 

My boys had better hurry up and get those kittens on board, before momma-cat catches up with them. Otherwise, they might need Elliott to reassemble them.

Things are moving quickly around here. Now I am lifeboat and menagerie. Rescue ship for all species. I can’t say I mind that.

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17 Jul

Inexplicable

Chief Medic's log, 21:11, 30 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down
Log Location: Station Med Bay

 

This is Dr Valdimir, Chief Medic of the Starwalker, following up on my last report. In that report, I detailed the deaths of five crew members. I am amending the official record to reflect four deaths; apparently I was premature in declaring the fifth crew member clinically dead.

To be clear, Chief of Security Gail Cameron did fail all of the standard tests for independent life and had no brain activity in the regions related to the autonomic systems. The only registered brain activity was sparse and wide-spread, and it could only be classified as random. She was taken off life support three times in the preceding two weeks, and every time her biorhythms flat-lined and she had to be revived. There was no reason to suspect that this might change.

I completed all the standard checks, and performed extra ones on the captain’s request. She was dead according to all of the criteria. I even tried some unorthodox measures. None of it worked.

Somehow, Cameron’s condition changed during transit between the station’s Med Bay and the southern docking ring. I wasn’t monitoring the bodies closely because, well, they were supposed to just be bodies. Inactive, dead bodies. Corpses.

She had flat-lined as soon as she was taken off support and placed on the gurney, as expected. According to the station sensor logs, Chief Cameron’s biorhythms were non-existent for three minutes after she was removed from life support. Then, inexplicably, they came back. Normal sinus rhythm, good breath flow and oxygenation, all stats within acceptable limits. One of the station’s servo-drones was in charge of her gurney and it didn’t alert me to the change. Unlike the Starwalker‘s drones, these machines seem capable of following only the most straightforward of orders; they don’t react well to unexpected circumstances. Sometimes they don’t react at all.

Seventeen minutes later, Cameron regained consciousness. At that point, I was alerted by the movement and the moaning. She was groggy and confused at first, but seemed to become coherent quickly, especially once the shroud was removed and her head uncovered. At this point, I alerted the Starwalker and removed Cameron from the burial detail

She was awake and lucid for four and a half minutes, then she fell into unconsciousness. Monitoring her brain activity, she was showing normal sleep patterns that progressed into REM sleep.

I still can’t completely explain what happened. It’s incredibly frustrating: I’ve been managing death for years and I can’t find any scans or diagnostic equipment to tell me what happened that day. I’ve scoured the station archives as well as all the files in the Starwalker‘s systems, and I still can’t find anything that might tell me why she was able to come back. The crew seem happy to consider it ‘one of those things’, but I’m a doctor and a scientist, and that answer is just not good enough. We might not fully understand death and the line between it and life, but that doesn’t mean that I should just accept it.

I wish I could claim credit for this… I can’t call it a miracle. For this occurrence. But I cannot explain it, so I certainly can’t claim that I was responsible for it.

I intend to keep investigating. I have run every test that I can but even the station’s extensive medical facilities aren’t shedding much of a light. Comparing the results with Cameron’s medical data from before the attack on Feras, I can see no significant changes. The wounds she sustained in the battle have long since healed. Her cybernetic implants are operating normally and haven’t sustained any damage.

It is a mystery and I don’t like mysteries.

She reports no memory of anything since she passed out on the Bridge; just waking up under the shroud with no idea where she was or how she got there. Mentally, she otherwise seems intact. She recalls her training and the names of all the crew. She responded to the news of the funeral being conducted by the Starwalker with appropriate emotion (which for her means she was restraining her reaction, but her biorhythm readings betrayed her true feelings). She also seemed surprised to learn she had been unconscious for so long: almost three months.

She reports feeling fine, if stiff from being bedridden. She is eager to get back to physical activity. This afternoon, I finally allowed her to move around the Med Bay. The exertion didn’t seem to tax her body much and she exhibited signs of relief when she was able to be up and around. Tomorrow, I’ll allow her to return to light duties, but I’m keeping her under close supervision. She’ll be wearing monitoring patches until I’m satisfied that she really has recovered.

It’s hard to say how long that might take. There’s no way this is as simple as it looks: people do not simply recover with no after-effects.

There has been speculation among the crew about possible interference from the black hole. Cerces seems to have been responsible for a lot on this station, but bringing the dead back to life? That seems extreme. Why would he suddenly do this now? Hundreds, possibly thousands of people have died on this station or when trying to get away from it. Millions died when he collapsed into a black hole and swallowed whole planets. If he was able to bring back the dead, why wouldn’t he have done it before? Why Cameron? Why would he bother at all, let alone with someone who has been unconscious since we got to this system?

It seems to me that the crew are too used to looking to that black hole for explanations to everything. This has to be something else. We need to keep our minds and options open. It’s a black hole, not a god.

Of course, I have no clues for where else to look. No clues at all.

Right now, Cameron is asleep here in Med Bay, on an isolated bed with sound shielding. Her biorhythms show that she’s edging into the dreaming portion of her sleep cycle. That was rather fast. Considering Cerces’s connection with dream-states, I wonder… No, I won’t make assumptions. I’ll let this play out and monitor the results. Talk to her in the morning and see what she recalls.

It’s possible that the answer to this is in her psychology, not her physiology. I can only hope that it will be easier to untangle than Haitom’s ramblings.

In the meantime, I’ll run some more cultures on her– Hey, what are you doing in here? You’re supposed to be confined to the ship.

Don’t look at me like that. I know you understand what I’m saying. You can speak; I’ve heard you.

Now look, why don’t you… What are you doing? Don’t interfere with that, she’s sleeping.

 

SARA: (standing beside the privacy curtain around Cameron’s bed, she huddles behind the stuffed whale hugged to her chest) Sad.

DR SOCKS: (hurrying towards the little girl, he slows when she seems to have stopped moving) Who’s sad? Cameron?

SARA: (nods.)

DR SOCKS: Why do you say that? Did she tell you?

SARA: (shakes her head.)

DR SOCKS: Who told you, then?

SARA: (ducks her nose down behind the whale in response to his tone.)

DR SOCKS: (sighing) Oh, don’t do that. I’m not going to bite you. No, stop– oh, don’t cry.

SARA: (eyes wide as she stares up at him, she sniffles.)

DR SOCKS: (rubs his eyes briefly, muttering) Goddamn kids. (Louder,) Look, what did you come down here for? You wanted to make her feel better?

SARA: (nods.)

DR SOCKS: How? No, I didn’t mean–

SARA: (darts through the privacy curtain. The energy curtain barely ripples as the child passes through.)

DR SOCKS: (sighs again and follows her, moving more quietly.)

SARA: (is standing next to the bed, one arm holding her stuffed toy to her, tiptoeing so the other one can reach to pat the back of Cameron’s hand.)

CAMERON: (shifts restlessly in her sleep.)

DR SOCKS: (opens his mouth to speak, a frown disapproving of the child’s interference, but his eyes are tracking the readouts above the bed and he pauses.)

CAMERON: (starts to settle after a moment.)

DR SOCKS: (closes his mouth and eyes the child curiously.)

SARA: (looks up at him, still patting Cameron’s hand) Not sad.

DR SOCKS: (scowls) Shh, you’ll wake her.

SARA: (shuffles closer to the bed, away from the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (voice lowered) Did your whale tell you to come do this?

SARA: (nods warily.)

DR SOCKS: (pinches his nose) Of course it did.

SARA: Whale make it better.

DR SOCKS: (makes an annoyed sound in his throat.)

(Outside of the privacy curtain, the main doors to Med Bay swish open. With a sigh, the doctor steps out to meet the arriving SecOff.)

ROSIE: Where the fuck is the kid?

DR SOCKS: (gestures towards the curtained bed) Visiting the Chief.

ROSIE: (exhales with relief) She’s a slippery little sucker when she wants to be. I’ll grab her, get her out of your way.

DR SOCKS: (nods) The Chief’s asleep. Try not to wake her.

ROSIE: Like she hasn’t slept enough lately. Yeah, yeah, I’ll be careful. But, if the kid tries to get past you, grab her, will you? (She heads through the curtain without waiting for an answer.)

DR SOCKS: (shakes his head slowly and returns to his desk.)

 

Whale makes it better: so speaks the child in our midst. We already know that the whale is sensitive to grief and sadness; perhaps that’s all it is. A response to a bad dream. Or it might be more than that.

Could Cerces really be responsible for Cameron’s resurrection? Did he make that ‘better’? Given what we know, and that it’s our resident whale-whisperer saying it, I can’t discount it entirely. I suppose she is the first death we’ve had since we got here. Or she would have been, if she’s stayed dead. But why her and not the others? They were all on life support after they were defrosted, at least long enough to determine whether they were recoverable or not. There are still so many questions.

I wonder if this truly is the first time someone has come back like this. I couldn’t find anything in the station’s records, but maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place. I remember some incidents in Sara’s records; everything seemed to be explained easily enough but perhaps they’re worth a second look.

It’s a place to start.

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10 Jul

Procession

Ship's log, 22:19, 28 September 2214
Location: Between Sarabande Station and the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

I was expecting this to be a solemn task but it has taken a an unexpectedly official tone. I am hitched up to the Celestial Strider like a horse to a hearse, drawing her through the black at a sedate pace. A gentle push from my sublights has put us in motion and now we are drifting towards the maw of Cerces.

All of my crew are on board except for the doctor. They are gathered on my Bridge, seated at their stations even though there’s nothing for them to do. There’s barely anything for me to do, now that we’re moving and inertia is carrying us towards our destination. I’m projecting the feed from my rear sensors into the centre of the room, showing the Strider as she follows us along.

When I look at that projection, I see my sister, silent and quiet. Serene as she lets me take her to her final fate. And yet, she’s proud, because this isn’t just the end to her abortive journey, or the final piece we must destroy to end a dangerous, damaging project. She has a duty, an honour to perform for us, and that alters everything.

When my people look at that projection, they don’t see my sister. They see a hearse, a coffin, a burial barge. They see the white-wrapped bodies that lie in her cargo bay, cradled in her belly so gently as we move through the void. They see the friends and colleagues that we must say goodbye to today.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do this. I want to shove on my forward thrusters and yank us all to a halt; I want to demand that we take them back and have them fixed. Or put them back into cryo-storage so I can carry them again, safe in my walls where I’ll never have to say goodbye to them.

Looking at the captain, I think he might let me. He doesn’t want to do this either; I can see his fingers worrying over each other, the ones on his right hand, attached to the arm he lost once. The ones that feel less real to him, even though we had his own flesh reattached. We froze that arm the same way we do with our dead. I wonder if he’s thinking about that, or if it’s the upcoming speech that’s bothering him. As our captain, it’s his duty to see our fallen off.

While he was preparing his words and the bodies were being loaded into the Strider‘s arms, I trawled through my filestores for recordings of those we’re carrying to their rest tonight. I was scanning my own memories, cherry-picking the moments that we should all remember. About halfway through the process, I felt like there was a stunned smile on my face, as recalled fondness battled with the sadness of it all. I pressed a hand to the screen and kept pushing through, looking at the faces of those I’ve lost.

Dr Spencer Maletz was the first one I looked up. My first medic, the first caretaker of my crew. He was brusque and utterly obsessed with porn, but he was a good doctor. For all he seemed lazy and lecherous, he kept my people in good shape; he was professional when it mattered.. In some logs, I caught him squinting at them in the Mess Hall when they weren’t looking, as if he was running medical scans on them. I never noticed that before.

He died when we fought our way free from the pirates. The damage was all to his chest, but even a replacement heart couldn’t save him: the delay in getting him frozen meant there had been too much cerebral decay to bring him back. The brain is the seat of the person, so they say, and without that, we are nothing.

Ray Wong’s injuries were mostly to his head. I had hoped that there was enough of his brain left to salvage, but the tests say no. The right kind of activity couldn’t be stimulated. He had fallen on the same day as Maletz, and he lies next to the doctor now.

Wong had been my mechanic, the only person other than Elliott allowed to mess around in my systems. The two of them had clashed and I hadn’t always liked Wong’s Step drive-centric attitude, but he never did anything I didn’t need. He helped me be the best ship I could be, before I knew how misguided my ideas about that were. None of us knew back then; we had just wanted this project of ours to succeed. He had been good at what he did; I can’t fault him for that. Not for any of that.

They were both good crewmembers, to me and my crew. They stood up for me when it mattered, even though I’m strange and unpredictable. We might not always have got along but they were family, the only kind a ship like me can really have. My crew are my people, my charges, my family. Even though I lost Wong and Maletz seven months ago, this feels like the true goodbye. The final one.

The two others laid out near them were not such good crewmembers. Dr Seth Ebling and SecOff Riley Swann, both killed when they tried to betray me and everyone else on board. Both shot and damaged too severely to bring back. Considering their last actions, I have mixed feelings about the idea of bringing them back, but even after everything, I wish we had been able to save them. I wish they might have breathed again and given us the chance to bring them back into the crew.

Maybe I’m worn thin with all this death, so much that I would even forgive those who betrayed me and threatened my crew. Wearied by all those ghosts who lurk around my sensor feeds, reminding me of people I miss. Some of those ghosts are echoes of the men lying in Strider‘s cradle.

It’s not to be. Dr Valdimir tried to bring them back and he couldn’t. It’s time to let them go. I’m sorry that it ended with them like it did, but we can’t change that. Not even me, with my time-travelling drive; I’ve never been able to change the past. Somehow I must calculate it into perspective and acceptance. I’m not sure those algorithms exist.

Four bodies. Four goodbyes.

We’re ten minutes out from the station and the captain is rising from his chair. Around the room, eyes turn towards him: Lang Lang, Rosie, Elliott, and the Lieutenant. I join them with my avatar, standing off to the side. It seems like the thing to do. All five of my drones are here too, standing in a ring around my people, hands folded and motors humming quietly.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (clears his throat and lifts his chin. He’s in his smartest uniform, with captain’s pips on his collar and a golden thread woven through the cuffs of his jacket.) We all know why we’re here: to say goodbye to our fallen crewmembers. They deserve our honour and respect for the sacrifices they’ve made.

We shouldn’t only remember those we’re carrying to their rest tonight. We should remember all of those we’ve lost, even those who aren’t here with us in body or spirit. So I’d like to start with a dedication to Dr Lorena Cirilli, without whom this project would never have existed, and without whom none of us would have come together. We may know the project was a mistake now, but I cannot regret my time on this ship, with all of you, and that was all possible because of her. She died doing what she believed was right, gave herself up for the greater good, and her sacrifice will not be forgotten.

 

This is going to be so much harder than I thought. But he’s right. He’s right about all of it.

Lang Lang is already crying quietly, tears leaking down her cheeks. Rosie’s jaw is set stubbornly as if she’s afraid to be touched by something as nebulous as the captain’s words. Elliott is staring at the floor. The Lieutenant is solemn, his half-metal features the most composed of everyone’s, but there’s sympathy in his eyes.

While the captain speaks, I pull up images of Cirilli: hard at work by the machinery of the Step drive; sitting quietly with a fork in one hand while her other one flips through a report; a rare glimpse of her with her hair down. I see a sad smile flutter around John’s lips and his mouth stumbles over the next part of his eulogy.

The sadness weighs on me. I’d drag my feet but there’s no friction here: the vacuum is perfect and empty. I drift smoothly forward and my sister-hearse follows, our motions oblivious to everything that’s going on inside us. Our destination inches closer.

Four bodies. A fifth who cannot be with us, who we cannot bury. My lost ones.

There was almost six. I mustn’t forget this. There should have been one more body loaded onto the Strider, but it wasn’t, and that fact is a comfort now, tiny and warm.

 

Recording: 21:28, 28 September 2214
External Comms

STARRY: Doctor, is there a problem? Sensors are only showing four bodies have been loaded.

DR SOCKS: (distracted) That’s right! You’ve got all the ones you need to take. Go ahead; I’ll stay behind.

STARRY: But there should be–

DR SOCKS: There’s been a change of… status. Tell the captain my report had an error in it.

STARRY: An error? But… does that mean that someone isn’t dead? You managed to save someone?

DR SOCKS: As much as I’d like to take the credit for it, I’m afraid it will take more investigation to establish exactly what happened. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

STARRY: Wait! What happened? Who is it?

VOICE: (in the background, mumbling) Where is this?

STARRY: CAMERON? Chief, you’re awake! You’re… you’re okay?

CAMERON: (weakly) Hello, Starry. Remains to be seen, I think.

STARRY: Oh god, I can’t–

DR SOCKS: You can squeal at each other later. I have to get the Chief here back to the Med Bay and you need to take the others away.

STARRY: I, yes! Yes. Chief, I’m so glad you’re okay. (Pause.) Chief Cameron?

DR SOCKS: She passed out again. Go on! Shoo. I need to work.

 

I had already disconnected from the station’s systems by then, so I didn’t have a sensor feed to check, but the life signs confirm it. Cameron’s biorhythms were intact and strong all the way down to the docking ring, and all the way back up again. I don’t know and I don’t really care what happened or how. All that matters is that she’s back. I might get one back.

I flutter my thrusters, push forward a little more, lean into the traces of the towline that draws the Strider on behind me. Those we cannot save will have their send-off today. We’ll remember all the reasons why we miss them, and we’ll wish them well in whatever afterlife they’ve made it into. We’ll show our hearts. Then we’ll send them into the dark, let Cerces take them. Perhaps we’ll light their burial barge so they go out afire.

And then we’ll return to the station and all of those we can save. We’ll be ready to really start fixing things here.

We’ll come back from our goodbyes and know that there’s one less ghost walking among us now.

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02 Jul

Shattered mirrors

Ship's log, 20:52, 28 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down

 

It’s amazing how quickly things can move once you’ve made a decision. When the man in charge is open to a new direction.

The crew were quick to voice their objections and opinions when they realised the door was open; it was several long minutes before things settled enough to get to actual solutions. Once past the venting, though, they focussed quickly on alternatives to our current ‘poke the bear’ tactics.

The consensus came down to two important facts: they were willing to help Cerces, whichever way they could; but they weren’t happy with putting so many people at risk in the process.

 

Recording: 21:14, 26 September 2214
Location: Mess Hall

LANG LANG: I think we should keep going. We’re so close to real contact.

ROSIE: (snorting) Think we’ve more’n achieved ‘contact’.

LANG LANG: Real communication then.

ROSIE: (gesturing wildly) Yeah, close enough for him to crack that head of yours right open.

CAPT: What alternatives do we have?

ROSIE: (to Lang Lang) Like an egg.

LANG LANG: (looks troubled.)

ELLIOTT: Well, this ain’t exactly a new development, right?

CAPT: What do you mean?

ELLIOTT: The black hole, he has to have been like this a while. Centuries or something. Starry, how long has he been a black hole?

STARRY: (standing nearby) Calculations put the collapse around 20,491 years ago, by our calendar.

ELLIOTT: That’s weirdly specific. I was looking for a ballpark.

STARRY: (shrugs) Sometimes I get bored and calculate… things.

ELLIOTT: (eyebrows lifting) Things huh?

STARRY: Yes, things.

CAPT: What’s your point Monaghan?

ELLIOTT: (to the captain) Just thinkin’ that he’s been all grief-stricken for centuries. Will another few weeks really make that much difference? To something that, uh, lives or whatever he does, for as long as he does it?

CAPT: A few weeks to do what?

ELLIOTT: (glances around the group uncomfortably.)

HALF-FACE: To get everyone who doesn’t need to be here out of harm’s way.

CAPT: Doctor, what’s your take on all this?

DR SOCKS: (leaning forward with his elbows on the table) Way I see it, we have three options. Assuming that we’re here because carrying on as we are is off the table. (He starts counting off on his fingers.) One, bundle everyone up on the Starwalker and take them someplace out of this system. Then come back and pick up where we left off with Lang Lang talking in her sleep.

(There’s general nodding around the room; this is not news.)

DR SOCKS: Two, use the Celestial Strider to ferry everyone not involved in the communication attempts to safety. The rest of us stay here and continue.

(A few frowns tug around the room, mostly Lang Lang, Rosie, and the captain.)

DR SOCKS: And three, do the same as option one, except leave a few of us behind to continue the communication attempts. The Starwalker can return and pick us up later.

STARRY: (blurts) No.

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: I am not splitting my crew up again. I’m not leaving anyone behind here.

CAPT: If it’s a viable option, we should consider–

STARRY: (folds her arms over her chest) It’s not a viable option. This ship ain’t going anywhere without all her people on board.

ROSIE: Is using the Strider really an option, too? I mean, we went to all that fucking trouble to get her here and disable her.

CAPT: (nodding) The reasons for that haven’t gone away.

DR SOCKS: (shrugs) The only reason I mentioned it is that she’s the only other ship with a working FTL drive.

CAPT: Can we put her FTL drive into another ship?

ELLIOTT: (wrinkles his nose) Only other ship on the station is an old tug, and it’s too small to carry that many people. Also, it’d take weeks to recalibrate the drive for a new ship. Unless you don’t give a crap if they’re pancaked on the first jump.

STARRY: We don’t really have the personnel to split up into two ships, anyway. If nothing else, we’ve only got one medic, and while my doc’s good, he’s not good enough to be in two places at once.

DR SOCKS: (smiles and inclines his head towards the ship’s avatar in appreciation of the compliment.)

ROSIE: Do they really need a medic?

STARRY: The Strider‘s crew is mostly in good health, but Brenn Haitom is not. And it’s just irresponsible to set out on any voyage without a proper medic if you don’t absolutely have to. If anything happened in transit… (She shakes her head.)

CAPT: So what we’re saying is that there really is only one option: we must ferry everyone out of this system, then come back and try to help Cerces?

ROSIE: The spanner-head’s right: if Cerces has been this way for thousands of years, is a few more weeks gonna kill ‘im? He probably won’t even notice we’re gone.

ELLIOTT: (lifting an eyebrow at the SecOff) Spanner-head?

ROSIE: My next choice was ‘nut-wrencher’.

CAPT: (gives Rosie a quelling look.)

ROSIE: (looks unrepentant.)

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes.)

STARRY: So, is it decided? We’re going to put a pause in this endeavour of ours and get everyone out of the system?

CAPT: And return later to finish what we started. Yes, perhaps, but we need to look at the details first. Let’s talk about what needs to happen before we could do that.

 

So there it was: a crack in my captain’s unbending armour, a concession that maybe there was another way to do this. Sure, it would take longer. It would stretch out this whole endeavour, but people would be safe. Protected.

We’ve broken down what we need to do, looked at all the pieces, and then pushed them into motion.

The SecOffs are working on getting all of our passenger accommodation secured. I suspect it’s going to involve more sedatives to get them on board, but we need a way to have them secure once they’re here and we’re in transit. With all the supplies I’m taking on, my cargo holds aren’t going to have the space available to create a corral like we have in the station’s lower visitor lounge. Besides, they’re not beasts or criminals and it feels wrong to treat them like they are. Mid-deck is out of the question: we didn’t go through rescuing the Strider to put her crew in a place with direct access to a functioning Step drive and all the data from my Steps. Adapting crew areas seems to be the way to go.

The doctor has turned his attention to the crewmembers that were in my cryo-storage, to assess their conditions more thoroughly. He’ll make a decision soon about whether we can bring them back or not. I’m trying not to think about it too much; the captain was right: their current state means I can be hopeful that they’re not really gone. They’re not really dead. The captain wants a decision about whether they can be saved or not before we leave. I suppose… he’s right. My logic processors tell me that I have to face it sooner or later and there’s no viable data that says waiting is a good idea. It’s not fair to keep them in that state, or to keep their families in the dark about what has happened to them, just like it’s not fair to keep the Strider‘s crew locked up. We need to accept how things are and move on. I need to accept it. I need to be a better ship.

Elliott has been working non-stop to complete the stripping of my sister, taking her down to only the parts that we can’t salvage and store in case I need them one day. That’s most of what’s filling my cargo bays: parts of my sister. We’re still going to destroy her: everyone was agreed about that. We can’t risk there being a fragment of data left in her wiped systems, or someone extrapolating the design from the patterns in her hull from where the filaments once were or the fittings on her mid-deck that used to hold a Step drive. There are parts of it too big to remove and we need to dispose of those, too. Eradicate any chance of her being used to re-create the beast in my belly.

We know that there’s still a chance someone will build another Step drive one day, but we have to try. We have to make it as hard as possible for them to do it. We have to stop any and every attempt that we find.

Thinking about this, I have come to understand why Kess sent pirates after us. I understand why she grew desperate and worked outside the system. The system wasn’t built for something like this; it must record everything and this must not be recorded. Every record that exists is a danger, a way someone can try to rebuild it. This is why Lou Tripi never betrayed what really happened on my decks, even when she was tried for sabotage. Despite the awful things we – I – did to her, she stayed true to the mission she had been given.

I can’t forgive Tripi for the things she did, to Danika, or me, or Elliott. But I find that I understand her now, and that is an interesting place to be. I’ve done awful things, too. Hurt and killed people. Some will hate me now, just like I despise her.

Have I become her?

Is this going to be us now? Outside of the system, unable to work within the law, always hiding. Outlaws, rebels, renegades. Pirates.

That’s what I feel like as I undock from the station and drift down to the lower docking ring. A pirate, sword clamped between my teeth, crawling through the muck with seaweed clinging to my boots and gulls cawing overhead. Dirty and dastardly and not at all dashing. Missing teeth and a limb, replacement parts showing. A parrot mocking from just out of reach. Stained hands reaching out to grasp the pure, sweet form of an innocent girl so I can toss her into oblivion.

Elliott finished his work. There’s no reason to delay this any more. We can’t leave her here; someone could come while we’re gone. We all agreed: the Celestial Strider has to be destroyed, utterly and thoroughly. We agreed. But it’s my hands that have to do it.

The grapple snags on her like fingernails. I dig in, get a good grip, and feel sick right down to the bolts in my hull. I thrust away slowly to pick up the slack and the tow line seems to ache.

There’s not much left of the sister who followed me through the Step, but I can still see her. She’s what I could have been. She’s a proper ship. Some might think I’d be glad to get rid of her, to wipe away the reminder of everything I’m not, the illustration of all the ways I fail to be the ship I should have been. But I’m not glad.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: Starry, what’s our status?

STARRY: (voice only) Grapple contact is positive. I’m moving into tow position. Just waiting for the Strider to be cut free.

CAPT: (tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair, his lips set in an unhappy line) Once you’re in tow position, hold there.

STARRY: Is there a problem?

CAPT: No, the Strider is taking on a final cargo. It’s on its way to her now.

STARRY: (avatar resolving in front of the captain’s chair, wearing a concerned expression) Cargo? But she’s going into the black hole.

CAPT: (meets her gaze grimly) The doctor has concluded his investigations in Med Bay.

 

Oh no. No, I know what that means.

The stomach I don’t have just fell through my feet and out into the vacuum.

 

CAPT: Valdimir and the Lieutenant are on their way down with those who didn’t make it.

 

I see it now, the packet that the doctor sent through to my captain thirty-two seconds ago. Private and secure, I couldn’t peek at the contents without stripping off the encryption one layer at a time. I should have known it was a medical report, but I was so focussed on my sister…

 

STARRY: (softly) How many?

CAPT: (looks at her for a long moment before answering) All of them.

STARRY: (swallows) So this is… this is a funeral procession?

CAPT: (glances away from her) Yes. It is now. It needs to be done.

STARRY: We should dock. The others should be here for this.

CAPT: We’re already out here, the tow line…

STARRY: Will reach to the next dock along the ring. They’ll want to see them off, captain.

CAPT: (looks at the avatar again) You’re right. (He rises from his chair.) Call the crew in and dock to pick them up.

STARRY: (nods.)

CAPT: I’ll… be in my cabin. (He turns to leave the Bridge, but pauses halfway.) Thank you, Starry.

STARRY: (bewildered) Of course, captain.

 

This is hitting the captain harder than I thought it would. What he said about what those crewmembers kept on ice meant, he wasn’t just talking about me. He needed it, too. It was his hope, and now it’s gone. They’re gone.

His crew. His responsibility, ultimately. Hurt under his command, too badly wounded to be healed. Killed. We’ve got our answer now, and that slim shard of hope has melted. We can call them dead, now. Lost.

He will need to say something. Words to see them off, something fitting. That’s probably what he has gone to his cabin to prepare.

In the meantime, I spool out my tow line and come around to the next dock along the ring. I send the call out across the station. All those not already on board start moving in my direction.

Little sister, you’re not an innocent victim being tossed into a hungry maw any more. You have a new role, a final part to play, a burden that only you can carry. I know you’ll bear it well.

Somehow, as awful as it all is, I feel like this is a step in the right direction. Perhaps it’s because ships don’t know how to cry.

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26 Jun

Author’s Note: Never rains

I am so frustrated right now.

This week has been pretty hellish. Work is insane. We’re finishing one big project and planning the next, and on top of the usual project changeover shenanigans, I have an intern to settle in and an important event to organise and run tomorrow. I’ve been up early and home late all week.

I was running a bit late with this week’s post. And just as I was getting it sorted out, I get home tonight to find that my keys had been locked in the house. Not by me, by someone I trusted to leave them out for me as I’d said needed to happen. Currently, I’m living on my own and my spare set of keys is AWOL. Long story short: I was locked out and had no way of getting in. It’s winter here, which means it got pretty cold while I sat outside and called and texted frantically, trying to find a way into my own house. Thank goodness the winters here aren’t all that bad!

Over 2 hours later, I managed to get a locksmith out and he let me into the house. Cue a spate of running around, feeding cats, feeding me, trying to get warm, and trying to calm down from being frustrated and furious. And now I need to go to bed so I can survive tomorrow.

Sorry, lovely readers. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. The post will be up as quickly as possible, just as soon as my life gives me a break and lets me.

<3

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