25 Feb

Pulse

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

 

Location: Outer hull

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

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

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

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Damage control, Starry. You can get around this.

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

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

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

 

Location: Engineering

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

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

DINEEN: Looks like the EMP was bigger this time.

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

DINEEN: But if it gets much bigger…

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

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

STARRY: Compliment me later. Fix me now.

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

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

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

CAPT: What happens then?

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

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

STARRY: It’s more of a feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DINEEN: Well, it’s a mess in here.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Warning
Collision imminent
Warning

 

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

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

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

STARRY: You’re faking a collision alert?

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

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

DINEEN: Precisely.

 

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

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

 

STARRY: (sounding strained) This better work quick.

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: Giving me a headache.

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

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

 

Location: Outer hull

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

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

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

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (grumbles incoherently.)

STARRY: Elliott?

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

DINEEN: (across the room) Another EMP.

CAPT: Damage?

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

DINEEN: Shit.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Location: Outer hull

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

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

 

Warning
Collision imminent
Warning
Warning
Evasive action required

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hurry, Big Ass. Please hurry.

Warning
Evasive action required
Sublight engines online
Thrusters online
Navigation online

 

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

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

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

 

Location: Engineering

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

STARRY: I’ve got propulsion.

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

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

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

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

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

CAPT: What?

STARRY: Four seconds!

CAPT: Starry…

 

Location: Outer hull

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

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

 

Come on, boys. Come on.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

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

 

Location: Outer hull

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

Big Ass’s hand snaps closed.

On the hull beneath them, thrusters flare.)

 

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

 

Location: Engineering

STARRY: Pulling up now, captain.

CAPT: Get us to a safe distance.

STARRY: Fast as my sublights will shove us.

 

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

We’re going to make it through this.

 

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

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

STARRY: Elliott, wai—

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

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

The black kitten’s eyes open.)

 

AI core offline
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18 Feb

Surge

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

 

Warning
Warning
Power surge detected
Systems overloaded
Warning

 

Yes, autolog, I know. I can see all the flashing red warnings painting my insides like I’m bleeding in here.

It hurts. I’m a ship and I don’t have pain receptors, but it hurts.

 

Instabilities in primary systems
Primary systems disabling

 

Oh, shit. We can’t afford for my primary systems to go down. I’m flying around a goddamn black hole!

 

Weapons offline
FTL drive offline

 

Shit shit shit. We don’t need those right now, but my automated safety systems are getting closer to the systems we really do need.

 

Artificial gravity offline
Environmentals offline

 

Okay, I can cope without those for a couple of hours at least. My people will be fine.

 

Thrusters offline
Sublight engines offline

 

Fuck.

 

Inertial dampeners—

 

No you don’t! Not the dampeners, not this close to a huge gravity well. Stop, autolog, stop right there. With no way to control my position or direction, I can’t risk it. My people, all my people, they’ll be blood running down my walls and decks…

 

Error
Error
Error

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (gripping the edge of an open panel in the floor, his eyes are narrowed as he scans the red warnings being projected into the air around him) Starry, what the fuck is going on?

STARRY: (avatar flickering) Power surges. Tripped the auto-safeties, they’re trying to shut everything down.

ELLIOTT: I can see that. But what are these errors?

STARRY: Inertial dampening. Need to keep it up.

ELLIOTT: What? It’s too late, we can’t make the bubble…

STARRY: Not for that; for you. Too close to black hole. Too dangerous, you’ll never survive…

ROSIE: (eyes widening) We’ll be fucking paste.

ELLIOTT: Got it.

STARRY: Pulling out failsafes. It’s not— it’s not—

ELLIOTT: (hesitating) Starry?

STARRY: Fire on the forward deck. Mid-deck. Environmentals offline. Lost communication to right wing.

HALF-FACE: I’ll deal with the fire. (He twists, activating thrusters in the soles of his prosthetic feet to push him past Rosie and out of the upper access hatch.)

ROSIE: (watches him go) I gotta get me some of those.

 

I’m elbow-deep in my own guts, tearing handfuls out. Ripping up some of my few remaining safety measures makes my code crawl and twitch at me. If the dampeners malfunction, they could cause damage too. They could hurt my people. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

I need to make sure we’re okay right now. Just for now.

 

Error
Inertial dampeners online
Error

 

And fucking stay that way, you bastard.

 

STARRY: Elliott, need to isolate the inertial dampeners. Surges could overload them. Need buffers.

ELLIOTT: Right. On it. (He tugs his head and shoulders down into the hole in the floor.)

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPTAIN: (holding onto the handle next to a closed door) Starry, report!

STARRY: (voice only) Busy battling damage, captain. Power surges from the anomaly.

CAPT: (frowning) Gravity is worse than expected?

STARRY: It’s not a gravity anomaly any more. Electro-magnetic. We’ve lost all primary systems. Propulsion is offline.

CAPT: (over internal comms) Lang Lang! What’s our position?

(There’s a pregnant pause before an answer comes through.)

LANG LANG: (voice only, sounding strained) Position is good, captain. We’re exactly where we need to be.

STARRY: Lang Lang, Chief Cameron, and Brenn Haitom seem to be affected by whatever is happening.

CAPT: Affected how?

STARRY: How the fuck do I know? I’m trying to keep myself in one piece and stop a black hole from smearing you all into a paste! Get the doc to see how intact their minds are!

CAPT: Starry—

STARRY: Can’t— fighting primary system shutdown. Just— hold on, captain. Hold on.

 

Warning
Primary systems disabling
Warning
Isolating central processing core…
Error
Central processing core online
Error
Warning
Isolating AI core…
Error
AI core online
Error

 

Leave me alone! I’m fine. I won’t be shut down or shut away by this stupid thing. I can’t be. I need to be here, to deal with this.

 

Location: Engineering

STARRY: Elliott, hurry.

ELLIOTT: I’m working on it!

STARRY: Need buffers. More surges, losing control. (Her avatar flickers and disappears.)

ELLIOTT: I know, I know, just— fuck!

DINEEN: (from where she is secured to a railing) Let me help. I can help!

ROSIE: (pointing her weapon at the Strider’s engineer with one hand) You just stay where the fuck you are.

DINEEN: (huffs with exasperation) I don’t want to die either, y’know.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The dark is broken by flashes of electricity that crawl over the surface of a ball hovering in the air. The anomaly has shrunk down to the size of a basketball again, and spikes outwards to lance the walls and floor with electricity.

Different parts of the spectrum tell different parts of the story. Infra-red shows the ball as a single, hot sphere, while night vision shows that the black kitten is now inside it. The tiny cat is curled into a tight little ball, its eyes squeezed shut. Static sparks in its fur, rippling over its little body in waves.

The rest of the cargo bay’s contents have been released from the pull of the anomaly’s gravity and now bounce around weightlessly again. Two kittens struggle to avoid being struck by anything; the third is still unconscious and limp.

A buzz builds, like a fist curling tight, and then electricity snaps out from the orb, striking the floor and two walls. The inner airlock doors flash a red warning and crack open.)

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass is squatting on the hull, secured by two safety tethers. The moment the airlock’s inner doors fail, his head tilts. He rises from his resting position and pushes off from the hull, letting the tethers spool out. Outside of the invisible, protective shield of the inertial dampeners, the gravity of the black hole snags him and pulls the tethers taut.

Big Ass adjusts the length of the tethers until he is hovering above the right patch of hull. Directly below him, the outer doors to Cargo Bay 1 are still holding.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Oh shi— (There’s a flash and a pop from under the floor, propelling him backwards. He tumbles out of the hole and across the room.)

STARRY: (voice only) ROSIE!

ROSIE: (kicking off a wall, she drops her weapon to dangle on its strap and reaches out to grab the floating engineer) Got ‘im!

STARRY: Is he okay? Elliott! Elliott?

 

Sensors are all over the places. Surges create interference. Can barely construct whole sentences. Is he okay? I can’t tell.

Life signs say he’s still alive. There, that’s his heartbeat; I’d know his patterns anywhere. My Elliott. Why isn’t he moving?

 

STARRY: Rosie, is he okay?

ROSIE: Hold the fuck on. (With Elliott dangling from the loop of her arm, she brings her feet around to cushion her impact against the wall opposite to where she pushed off.)

ELLIOTT: (doesn’t react.)

STARRY: Rosie—

ROSIE: I’m checking! Fuck.

(Snagging a handy strap dangling nearby for stability, she flips the engineer right-side-up and squints at his face. He looks like he’s asleep, with a scorch-mark down one side of his face. The left shoulder of his coveralls smokes faintly.

Rosie pins him to the wall with one knee and presses the back of her left hand to his throat. A holographic readout pops up on her forearm.)

ROSIE: He’s alive, but he’s out. Looks like he took some of that last surge.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

STARRY: Doc, medical emergency, Engineering,

DR SOCKS: I thought I was needed on the Bridge.

STARRY: (louder) Get to Engineering, now!

CAPT: Starry, what’s happened?

STARRY: (losing the volume again) It’s Elliott. He got hit by the surge. He… he’s alive, but…

CAPT: (looks at the doctor and nods) Get to it.

DR SOCKS: (nods and opens the door.)

SARA: (still mesmerised by whatever she can see, she doesn’t notice that her way is now clear.)

STARRY: Captain, you need to get down there, too.

CAPT: What? Why?

STARRY: Elliott… he… I need my engineer.

CAPT: The doc’ll look after him.

STARRY: Who’s gonna look after me? I can’t do this on my own. I need an engineer!

CAPT: (hesitates, watching the doctor’s back as he pulls himself down to the lower level of the ship) You mean Dineen.

STARRY: I don’t know. I don’t care. I need help.

CAPT: (looks down at the child he’s still holding by a fistful of pink dress) All right, I’m on my way. (He tucks her under his arm and pushes off after the doctor.)

SARA: (happily) Kitty!

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The anomaly is smaller now, about the size of a soccer ball. The black kitten’s fur is standing on end as it uncurls in short, stiff movements. Electricity crawls over the little body, wriggling between whiskers and inside its ears.

Inside a vent high on the inner wall, Bit and Byte huddle behind the closed grate and watch the goings-on.)

BYTE: (activates the switch to retract the vent cover, baring him and his brother to the chaotic cargo bay.)

BIT: (looks at Byte and spreads his hands questioningly.)

BYTE: (points at the white kitten floating nearby, its little black feet flapping in its panic. Its breathing is low and shallow.)

BIT: (scans the cargo bay , then nods and flexes his fingers in a purposed way.)

BYTE: (nods too, then pushes off into the gravity-less atmosphere, using his welding torch to propel himself towards the white kitten.)

BIT: (is a half-second behind him, aiming for the smaller tabby kitten on the far side of the cargo bay.)

 

Location: Engineering

ROSIE: (over internal comms) What, captain?

CAPT: (voice only) I’m on my way. Do it, Brasco.

ROSIE: (mutters to herself and loops the strap she was holding onto around Elliott’s arm.)

ELLIOTT: (doesn’t respond.)

ROSIE: (kicks away from the floating engineer and towards the prisoner secured to the railing. She eyes the woman warily.)

DINEEN: (sighs) I really would like to save my own ass.

DR SOCKS: (arrives through the upper hatch and pushes immediately towards Elliott’s prone form.)

ROSIE: (barely sparing the doctor a glance, she’s focussed on the prisoner) You put a finger wrong and I’m gonna shoot something off.

DINEEN: (raises her eyebrows) Understood.

ROSIE: (takes a small can out of a pouch on her belt and sprays the rigid substance covering Dineen’s hands and forearms. It hisses, then the restraint dissolves, releasing globs into the air. The SecOff grimaces at the mess.)

DINEEN: (tugs at the restraint until her hands come free from the railing she was secured to) Starry, can I see the readouts of these surges, please?

STARRY: (voice only) Get to a console. Ad-hoc holographic projectors offline.

DINEEN: (nods and pushes over to the nearest wall to press a panel) What buffers have you got?

STARRY: Not much left. Surges burnt through most of it. Inertial dampeners and AI core partially protected.

DINEEN: (watches the display come up on the wall console and frowns when it flickers) Partially?

STARRY: I’m doing my best.

CAPT: (arrives through the upper hatch, with Sara still in tow.)

DINEEN: Is your Step drive still working?

STARRY: Not online.

DINEEN: Doesn’t look damaged.

STARRY: Active systems are worst hit.

CAPT: (halting next to Dineen) I’m not sure I like where you’re going with this.

DINEEN: I think we can route the surges into the Step drive…

STARRY: So I can explode from the middle?

DINEEN: (grins) So you can extend your filaments and emit the energy safely.

CAPT: Starry, will that work?

STARRY: …it might.

 

It’s a good idea. Who cares if we burn that system out, right? It’s not like I can use it any more. It’s not like I should. I can use the filaments to route the energy out of my core systems, outside my hull.

I just need to disable their gravity charging, reverse the polarity…

I can do this. I should be able to do this.

 

Step drive initialising
Filaments extending

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

BYTE: (has his legs wrapped around the body of the white kitten and is dodging around the floating debris on his way back to the vent. One hand pets the kitten’s head, who now seems less panicked.)

BIT: (has grabbed the tabby kitten, and the kitten is biting his arm. The little body twists and is trying to cling onto him with claws and wrapping legs.)

(In the centre of the room, the anomaly gathers like a fist again. Fur and fabric around the room prickles with the build-up of static. The snap of discharge is brighter this time, hammering into the innards of the cargo bay. A crate explodes, showering splintered plastic everywhere. Already damaged lighting spits sparks. The airlocks creaks in protest, its activation panel flickering through various colours and warnings.)

 

It’s shorting out my airlock controls. I’m trying to lock them down but I can barely talk to it any more.

I can deal with surges from within my own systems, but I can’t generate this kind of spiking. I can withstand a lightning strike on my hull pretty easily, but that one was inside me. That one has direct access to my power lines; every console and interaction point is a chink in my armour. I’m not supposed to need to protect myself from something already inside me!

 

(The airlock creaks again and all its status lights stutter to red. The outer doors shiver.)

BYTE: (is almost to the open vent.)

BIT: (still struggling to get a good hold on the tabby, he tumbles.)

(The black kitten’s eyes open. The anomaly twitches a ripple of energy outwards and the airlock status lights go out.)

 

That wasn’t like lightning. That was different. It was more like….

 

(The outer door seals release and the pressure differential nearly tears the doors right out of their housing. Scraping painfully open, they let the air and contents of the cargo bay out into the yawning vacuum.

Inside the cargo bay, the vent cover snaps shut and closes up, sealing the cargo bay off from the rest of the ship.

The sudden out-rush of the air in the cargo bay sucks crates and tools and all manner of debris out of the airlock, including two small drones and three tiny kittens. The anomaly and its prize remain exactly where they are.)

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass watches the airlock doors shudder open and spreads his arms, ready for the onslaught. As cargo and debris sprays out towards him, he shoves it all away calmly.

Behind him, the black hole begins to move as the ship turns. The debris describes an arc through the dark.

One large, outstretched metal hand closes around an unconscious kitten.)

 

Location: Engineering

DINEEN: (staring at the readouts) Holy shit, that was an EMP.

CAPT: Starry!

STARRY: (voice only) Small one. Localised to the cargo bay.

CAPT: (breathes a sigh of relief.)

STARRY: Airlock’s breached. We’re losing cargo and… (Her voice cracks.) No, my boys.

CAPT: Can you contain the damage?

STARRY: (struggling) For now.

DINEEN: The anomaly’s getting stronger. Ship, we better isolate you so you don’t—

STARRY: No.

DINEEN: What?

STARRY: The airlock breach knocked me out of orbit, put me in a spin. If we don’t get the engines back online and if I don’t pull us out of this, it won’t matter if an EMP fries me.

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13 Feb

Touchpoint

Ship’s log, 23:51, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass pauses in his traverse across the surface of the ship to clip a safety line onto an anchor ring. Turning, he trundles down the curve of the ship’s side, spinning the safety line out behind him.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(Four kittens struggle with the lack of gravity. Claws skitter against the smooth surface of a wall but find no purchase: the bigger tabby kitten drifts away again into the open expanse of the cargo bay’s air.

The white kitten has managed to latch its teeth onto a tether holding the cargo crates to the floor. It mews, the sound muffled by its mouthful, and wriggles to try to catch a claw on the tether as well.

The other three babies bounce about the room in slow motion, waiting for their chance to find somewhere to stick. The smaller tabby has its claws out, in case sporting velcro-like paws will give it an advantage.)

BIT and BYTE: (watch from a vent opening high on an inner wall.)

 

The pieces are all moving into place. We think the next gravity fluctuation will find its mark, if our assumptions about the mark are correct.

We’re not quite sure what will happen. I’m not sure if I’ll stand up to the pressures involved. But my people are working to help us make it through this, working hard.

Dineen is a fly in our ointment, and I can’t yet tell if she is as helpful as she’s trying to appear. She has been making suggestions about what Elliott might be able to do to reduce the damage. It all sounds like it makes sense but the source is suspect. I’m running every modelling permutation I can think of to see if she’s trying to get us to do something silly or dangerous

There’s still so much to do and no time to do it in.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott has a floor panel open and has half disappeared into it. Light glows up from beneath him, the shifting blues and greens of power circuits and artificial gravity generators.

Above and to his left, the Strider’s mechanic is secured to a railing by a rigid substance that covers both of her hands and forearms. She strains to see what Elliott is up to, leaning against the hold of the restraints.)

HALF-FACE: (drifts nearby, his rifle held casually in his hands but his gaze fixed warily on the prisoner.)

DINEEN: (to Elliott) Have you accounted for external compensation?

ROSIE: (enters by the upper access hatch, her jaw set at an unhappy angle. She exchanges a look with the other SecOff and halts her drift near the hatch to block the exit.)

ELLIOTT: (from under the floor) Still don’t need your help!

ROSIE: What?

STARRY: (standing near the section Elliott has lifted up, to the SecOff) It’s okay, he wasn’t talking to you.

ROSIE: (rolls her eyes and huffs) Right.

STARRY: (to Dineen) The inertial dampeners are countering external forces. We don’t need to worry about them.

DINEEN: Even if the hull breaches?

STARRY: Yes. I can keep the dampening bubble intact with a certain amount of hull breached.

DINEEN: (raises her eyebrows) Unusual. On-the-fly compensation?

STARRY: I’m really, really smart.

DINEEN: (lips quirking, she glances towards the other engineer again) How are you planning to define the bubble?

ELLIOTT: (pushes his head and shoulders above the level of the floor and sighs) What fucking bubble?

DINEEN: Isn’t that what you’re doing? Recalibrating the gravity generators to create a bubble to go around the anomaly?

ELLIOTT: Grav-gens can’t do that. I’m configuring it to shape the force around the lower part of the anomaly, like a cradle, but it can’t put a force on top, too. We don’t have coverage there.

DINEEN: (shrugs) It’s hard, but not impossible.

STARRY: You’ve done something like this before?

ELLIOTT: What the hell for?

DINEEN: Once. Wasn’t pretty.

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and dips back down to his work again) Great.

STARRY: What’s involved in building this bubble?

DINEEN: Three grav-gens and about half an hour, for two of us.

STARRY: We’ve got maybe seven minutes.

DINEEN: Well, shit. What about hooking in the auxiliary inertial dampeners?

ROSIE: (eyes narrowing) That sounds like you’re suggesting we fuck up a safety feature.

ELLIOTT: (head coming up again briefly) Actually, that’s not a bad idea. (He gets back to work.)

STARRY: (glancing between Elliott and Dineen) I think I’m with Rosie on this one.

 

The work continues. I can see what Elliott is doing: altering what should be a flat, steady generation of artificial gravity into a moveable cradle of force. While the anomaly pulls in, it’ll be pulling outwards and down (relative to my decks). It should be able to create enough force to counter the anomaly, enough to prevent at least some of the damage.

I fear for anything caught in between the anomaly and the cradle. It’ll be torn apart. There’s not much we can do about that, though.

It also won’t be enough to quash the entire effect of the anomaly; we’d need Dineen’s bubble for that. There’s nothing we can do about whatever is above the anomaly. But it’ll help. With so little time, every little helps.

 

Location: Outer hull

(Ducking under the portside wing, Big Ass clips a second safety tether to another anchor ring. Turning, he comes out from under the wing, trailing two taut safety lines now.

When he’s precisely half way between the two anchor points, he stops and settles down on his metal haunches to wait.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (from under the floor) Starry, what’s it looking like on your end?

STARRY: Looks okay. You need to tie off the feed to— yes, that one.

ELLIOTT: You’ve got full control?

STARRY: (hesitates) Yes.

DINEEN: You’re going to let the ship handle it?

ELLIOTT: (still under the floor) I’m just here to make shit work, not steer it.

STARRY: I can see what needs to be done. And I’ve got better reflexes.

ELLIOTT: You just hang onto your railing there.

DINEEN: (shooting a look at the Lieutenant) Like I have a choice.

HALF-FACE: (regards her impassively.)

ROSIE: (snorts.)

ELLIOTT: (pops his head up and glances at the other engineer) Only way I can see to use the inertial dampening system is to reconfigure where the hull is. Make it think it’s smaller than it is.

DINEEN: Yes. Then you can use it to shield the rest of the ship from the gravitational forces.

ELLIOTT: It’s a good theory, but…

STARRY: We have live creatures in that cargo bay. And we’re in a driving orbit around a black hole. Opening a gap in my inertial dampening field’s hull coverage like that would tear half my side off. If we’re lucky.

DINEEN: I know. That’s why I said use the auxiliary dampeners. Create a second dampening field inside the first.

ELLIOTT: (frowns) Won’t that create feedback between the two fields?

DINEEN: Yes, you’ll need to configure it so they don’t interact.

STARRY: Or they’ll tear me apart.

DINEEN: (shrugs, which makes her wobble against the forearm restraints) I never said it would be easy, just that it could work.

ROSIE: (eyeing Dineen distrustfully) Sounds dangerous to me. You cleared this with the captain?

ELLIOTT: Ain’t even sure I want to do it yet.

STARRY: (sighs) Relaying it to him now.

 

We have three minutes.

I don’t like it. She’s right: it could work. But it’s a dangerous approach.

Suddenly, I see how the Celestial Strider survived so long when she was caught in the tides of the black hole. Dineen kept her afloat any way she could, butchering one system to prop up another, playing a circular game of catch-up until she had no more pieces to move around. Brilliant and inventive, but ultimately temporary.

We’re not that desperate yet and there’s no time to do it well. I don’t want to end up in that position. I can feel my voice sliding into cautious disapproval as I tell the captain what Dineen is suggesting.

Elliott is already looking at the inertial dampening systems. I can almost see his brain ticking over ways to make it work.

I have faith in him. If he sees a way, he’ll be able to make it work.

The captain is frowning. Elliott is fiddling with the settings of the auxiliary system. Four kittens are mewing unhappily at the lack of gravity, calling for their mother. She hasn’t been seen all day.

Two minutes.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPTAIN: (holds onto the handle next to the closed door with one hand and Sara with the other. He shakes his head slowly. Over internal comms,) Monaghan, I don’t like the sound of this plan. I’m not vetoing it, but I want you to be sure before you do anything.

SARA: (has wriggled out of her position on the captain’s back so she can push at the closed door insistently) Kitty. Kitty?

ELLIOTT: (over internal comms, voice only) Sure? We’ve got two minutes, which ain’t time to be sure of anything we can cobble together.

STARRY: A minute and a half.

CAPT: Do your best to keep the ship in one piece. If we lose the cargo in that bay, then we lose it. We must not lose the ship, though.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, I’d kinda like to keep breathin’, too.

CAPT: Do what you need to.

ELLIOTT: Aye aye.

SARA: (twists around awkwardly to look at the captain) Get to kitty.

CAPT: It’s too dangerous, little one. We’ll go when the whale’s done… his thing.

SARA: (screws her face up, somewhere between a tantrum and tears. She strains to get free of his grip.)

 

One minute. The tide rises. If I had hairs on the back of my neck, they’d be lifting.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(Abruptly, silence falls within the cargo bay. The mewling of distressed kittens stops; instead, the four of them look around with wide eyes, pupils big and black. A couple of them struggle to stay attached to the cargo nets and tethers; the other two drift motionless.)

BIT and BYTE: (look at each other.)

BIT: (shrugs.)

BYTE: (activates the vent cover. It slides into place in front of them.)

BIT and BYTE: (shuffle so they can peer through the grating of the vent cover at what’s happening inside the cargo bay.)

 

Thirty seconds. I guess I’m not the only one who knows it’s coming.

Sara is getting more frantic. The captain is holding her away from the walls and floor by the back of her dress now, so she can’t hurt herself, but she’s starting to dissolve into incoherent upset. The doctor has slipped a hand in his emergency medical pack, probably looking for a sedative for the kid.

Elliott is still fiddling with my auxiliary inertial dampening but he hasn’t activated it yet. He’s frowning and moving like he’s not sure about it; usually he’s so determined when working to a deadline.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (scowls at the readouts projected above his left forearm) Let’s just… keep the inertial dampening thing as a backup.

STARRY: Will do. Twenty seconds.

ELLIOTT: (unspools a safety tether from where it is clipped to his belt and snicks it onto a metal loop just under the opening in the floor) Guess we’re as ready as we’re gonna be. I’ll monitor from here.

STARRY: (nods and shifts her weight.)

 

Shipwide

STARRY: Safety harnesses, everyone. Brace for… arrival.

 

Too many of my people are out of position and can’t be harnessed in. After dangling over the last anomaly, the first thing Elliott did before he got to work was to put the safety line on his belt. Now I wish that I had asked everyone to do that.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

SARA: (stops struggling abruptly and falls quiet.)

CAPT and DR SOCKS: (look at her curiously.)

SARA: (twists to look in the direction of Cargo Bay 1, as if she could see right through the layers of bulkhead, and gasps softly.)

 

There’s nothing more worrying than a quiet child. Between Sara and the kittens, I know we’re right about what’s going to happen.

It’s not just the youngsters, either.

 

Location: Crew quarters

BRENN HAITOM: (lifts his head, his eyes unfocussed. A smile trembles on his lips.) I see you there. (He laughs softly, hands rubbing up and down his arms.) How fast does black travel? Come to see, come to see.

(He licks his teeth and whispers,) Welcome, my dark.

 

Location: Bridge

(Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are the only people on the Bridge. They are seated at their stations with holographic consoles wrapping around them, busy with readouts and chatter. The centre of the room hosts a projected representation of the Starwalker, her walls translucent to reveal her internal structure.)

LANG LANG: (presses a command into the projected console and a red light blooms in a forward cargo bay of the holographic ship.)

CAMERON: (waves the sensor channel monitoring the prisoner situation in Engineering into silence and rubs her right temple, wincing.)

LANG LANG and CAMERON: (turn their seats to look at each other through their respective consoles.)

CAMERON: (nods grimly.)

 

I can feel it: a gathering in my belly. I am growing pregnant with it.

Already it feels different than before.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(A spattering of uncertain mews moves around the floating kittens. The small tabby hisses and puffs up, all its fur standing on end. The white one tries to cower behind the cargo it is clinging to.

In an open section between the neat stacks of crates, the air ripples as an anomaly distorts the light. It’s about the size of a basketball.

The pull begins slowly, gently drawing in the loose debris in the room – a random tool, an unsecured crate, a handful of spare bolts, a couple of pieces of clothing – and the four kittens. They fall in and in, clawing at the air, all except one.

The black cat looks ‘down’ curiously, as if falling is the natural thing to do.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Starry?

STARRY: (standing nearby, the avatar staring off into space with her eyes narrowed) Got it. Cradle forming. I’m compensating. It’s not as strong as the last one, not yet.

ELLIOTT: Got green lights here so far.

STARRY: Gravity in the anomaly climbing….

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The loose objects and animals in the cargo bay gain speed as they fall towards a single point. Tethers holding the cargo down creak. One wasn’t secured properly and slithers free, letting a couple of crates tumble loose. The larger tabby kitten bounces off the corner of a crate and goes limp. Metal pings off hard plastic in a rain of clashing noises.

The ripple in the air bubbles outwards, growing half as big again. Bolts are squashed as they pass inside it, mashed into a lump of metal at its centre. The animals fall closer.

A small metal box below the anomaly screeches in protest and the metal of its lid starts to peel up at the edges. An opposing force is holding it to the floor, nailing it painfully in place. Crystalline circuit cards start to slither out of the box, tugged inexorably upwards.

The black kitten is the first of the siblings to near the gravity orb.)

BYTE: (points at the black kitten, then thrusts his arms up in triumph.)

BIT: (drops his hands down by his sides.)

(The black kitten’s left rear paw touches the distortion. Every light fixture in the cargo bay explodes.)

 

Warning
Power surge detected
Warning
Warning
Systems overloaded

 

Oh, shit.

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04 Feb

Anomalies and strategies

Ship’s log, 22:27, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(From an open vent high on the cargo bay wall, there is an echo of soft squeaks, followed by a metallic scrabbling sound.)

 

Location: Engineering

(An upper access panel is open. Elliott floats a metre away from it, one hand anchoring him to a counter. On the other side of the panel, Lieutenant Laurence is aiming a rifle directly at the opening.)

STARRY: (from behind the engineer) Elliott, move to the side!

ELLIOTT: What? Why? Where the fuck is she?

HALF-FACE: (thumbing his weapon, which emits a buzzing noise in response) Dineen, show yourself, right now.

ELLIOTT: (realising that he’s in the Lieutenant’s direct line of fire) Oh, right. Fuck. (He kicks off the counter hurriedly, floating for a railing on the other side of Engineering.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 4

(The inner airlock doors whisper open and Big Ass drifts through them with a grace that belies his size and unwieldy configuration. A brief tug on a handle swings his body around to face the control panel and he starts the airlock cycling around him.)

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

(The captain pulls himself along head-first, using one hand on the railing that threads the length of the corridor. Sara has wriggled around to lie against his back, her hands gripping his shoulders, but she’s comfortable enough now to have her head up, watching the process of their travel curiously.)

SARA: (cheerfully) Kitty soon.

CAPTAIN: Yes, we’ll be there soon.

 

I still wish the captain wasn’t heading down there. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I can contain the damage.

I want to lock the access panel he is approaching, but he’s my captain. Of all my people, he’s the only one who can command me to violate my protective protocols.

I have to trust that he knows what he’s doing. I have to try.

And I’m sending Casper down to shadow him, just in case. He never said I couldn’t watch his back.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (catching himself against the railing, he twists to scan the room behind him. His inertia in zero-G pulls his weight awkwardly against his grip on the rail.) Starry, you got her on sensors yet?

STARRY: I’m trying, Elliott, but she must be… you can’t see her either, can you?

ELLIOTT: (teeth gritted) No.

STARRY: She must be using some kind of light projection technology. And sound dampening. I can’t even pick up her heartbeat

ELLIOTT: Probably doesn’t have one. (Louder, towards the open access panel,) Taser the bitch!

HALF-FACE: Dineen, last chance.

 

Shit. I have my sensors scraped raw, analysing every tiny pico-fluctuation in light and sound and air disturbance. Elliott’s whole body is shouting at me. I’m twitching at shadows. I’m… there, by the door. There’s a spot that’s too quiet.

She’s masking too much. She’s the silence. That’s how I find her. If I zoom in, she is the stationary patch in a shifting swirl of atmosphere and dust.

Gotcha.

 

Location: Engineering access

STARRY: (voice only, pitched very soft and close to the Lieutenant’s ear) I have her. Just inside the upper right side of the door from where you are now.

HALF-FACE: (presses his lips together and pushes off the right wall of the access corridor. He brings his aim around as he drifts, getting a better angle on the spot Starry described. He doesn’t give another warning; his finger moves on the trigger.)

DINEEN: (from inside Engineering, voice only) Hold on! Don’t fire.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 4

(The outer airlock doors open and Big Ass gives a little nudge off the edge of the control panel. He pinwheels out of the opening, describing a perfect arc that ends with his tracks touching the ship’s outer hull. Mag-clamps engage to stick him to the hull and he trundles across the outer surface as the airlock doors close behind him.)

 

Location: Engineering

(To one side of the open access panel, the air ripples uncomfortably, then seems to shatter in a shower of light motes. Within its circle is the Strider’s engineer, April Dineen, with the fingers of her left hand pressed to the inside of her right elbow.

Her right forearm looks like it has exploded into curls of metal. Spiky and prickled with lights, the silver tendrils shiver and shift. Then they un-curl, straightening and melding together with a series of clicks until they form a regular-looking human forearm, hand, and fingers. There’s a brief shimmer, then the metal is covered with what looks like human skin matching the rest of her dark complexion, but is probably another hologram.)

ELLIOTT: (staring at her arm) Fuck.

HALF-FACE: (doesn’t pull the trigger immediately, drifting forward) Anchor yourself against the railing to your right. Now.

DINEEN: (sighing, she obeys, curling her human-looking hand around the railing just behind her) All right, now. There’s no need to panic.

ELLIOTT: (glancing over the rest of her) You disabled the collar.

DINEEN: Hate these damn things. (The collar is still around her neck, but two bits of metal wire poke out from a nub at the front, spoiling the otherwise smooth lines of the device.)

HALF-FACE: You’re an escaped prisoner. Turn around and face the railing.

DINEEN: I came down here to help.

ELLIOTT: (snorts) Yeah, right. Help yourself.

STARRY: (glares at the woman and folds her arms over her chest. Then she blinks and the expression is gone.) Brace yourselves! Gravity fluctuation detected… (She points towards the spot below the access panel, on the forward section of Engineering.)

DINEEN and ELLIOTT: (grab hold of their respective railings with both hands as their feet are drawn towards the spot Starry pointed at.)

HALF-FACE: (partway through the access panel, he’s pulled sideways into the frame. Grimacing, he twists so his body is lying along the corridor wall while trying to keep the aim of his weapon on Dineen.)

(Metal groans as the anomaly forms, invisible but incredibly attractive. Parts and loose tools slide out of the places they have been hovering, falling towards the wall. Some bounce off soft human bodies on the way.)

ELLIOTT: (winces and pulls himself up so he can wrap his arms around the railing, not trusting his grip) Fuck. Was that my favourite wrench? How long, Starry?

STARRY: They only last a few seconds, hold on.

ELLIOTT: What d’you think I’m doing?

HALF-FACE: (groans and his hands shake. Giving up on his aim, he pulls his rifle ponderously back until he can brace it against the corridor wall.)

STARRY: Laurence, you okay?

HALF-FACE: (strained) Heavy.

ELLIOTT: Well, you are mostly metal.

DINEEN: (dangles from her railing, feet pointing at the forward wall, apparently unphased. The railing under her right hand squeaks faintly at the pressure of her grip.)

STARRY: Almost done. Hold on.

 

I can’t do anything to help them. I can’t even send in one of my boys to help, if I had one to spare; my drones would just get pulled into the anomaly. My hologram just stands there, impotent and pointless.

 

(There’s a particularly loud metallic complaint and the knot of metal on the forward wall shudders.)

ELLIOTT: (twisting his head around to look at it) Starry, what the hell…

STARRY: Bulkhead’s warping.

ELLIOTT: Fuck! I gotta…

STARRY: You gotta stay where you are. Fix me later. You can’t stop it, Elliott.

DINEEN: (voice strained) I can help.

ELLIOTT: Fuck off with your ‘helping’!

DINEEN: Gravity-based technology is one of my specialities…

ELLIOTT: Oh, and we’re just going to take your word for it, are we?

STARRY: Shut up, the pair of you! You can’t do anything right now! Except you, Elliott, you need to get on the other side of that railing.

ELLIOTT: What? Why?

STARRY: There’s a trolley coming loose aft of you. Move, now.

ELLIOTT: (grimacing as he struggles to pull himself up against the weight that has been given to him) Okay, okay, fuck.

 

Rosie is just outside the other Engineering door, plastered against the wall too, and she’ll have to wait until this anomaly passes, too. Elliott has to undo his work to let her in.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. It’s taking too long; longer than before. Cerces – it has to be him – is getting stronger.

 

(The repair trolley trembles against the locks holding it in place under the counter, struggling with the weight of the parts inside its drawers and compartments. One of the locks hadn’t engaged properly and a second one gives way. The trolley rotates out from under the counter, turning on the remaining lock.)

ELLIOTT: (clambers heavily over the railing, struggling to get his upper half over it.)

STARRY: Hurry!

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPT: (coming to a stop before a closed hatch) Starry, report.

STARRY: (voice only) Dineen located. Anomaly in Engineering. Dealing with it.

DR SOCKS: (drifting in from an adjoining access corridor to starboard) Captain?

CAPT: I would like you to accompany me to—

STARRY: Might need you in Engineering, doctor.

CAPT: Might?

STARRY: Anomalies are worsening, it’s getting dangerous. Stand by.

 

Location: Engineering

(The trolley shudders and finally breaks free of its moorings, tumbling end over end as it twists its way out from under the counter and across to the forward wall.)

STARRY: Elliott!

ELLIOTT: (has most of his body folded over the railing. He kicks his legs up and tries to roll out of the trolley’s path. It bounces off his ankle as it passes, a corner passing an inch from his head.)

(Abruptly, objects within the room are drifting rather than falling.)

STARRY: Careful, the anomaly is gone.

ELLIOTT: (scrabbles to grab the railing to avoid rebounding away from it.)

(The trolley is still tumbling towards the wall, and impacts it with a metallic clang. Parts and tools of various sizes, freed from the hold of the gravity pocket, bounce and reflect away from the impact and the wall. Pinging off each other, they spray out into the middle of the room.)

DINEEN: (swings herself to the other side of her railing to try to avoid the worst of the plastic and metal rain.)

 

Oh, good, that’s so much better.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(From the open vent, there’s a whisper of movement in the shadows. Then, all at once, a tumble of furry limbs emerge, emitting a chorus of tiny mews. A bundle of kittens drift into the open, gravity-less air of the cargo bay, separating into four distinct bodies.

Paws scrape at the air, trying to find purchase where there isn’t any, and the kittens mew their unhappiness. There is a black one, a white one with black feet, and two tabbies.

At the vent mouth, Bit and Byte catch themselves before they follow the kittens out. Mag-clamping their tiny feet to the vent walls, they survey the results of their work.)

BIT: (points at the larger of the two tabby kittens and holds up five fingers.)

BYTE: (points at the black kitten and holds up six fingers.)

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPT: (looking at a holographic readout above his left forearm) Starry?

STARRY: Assessing the damage and injuries, sir. Bulkhead’s twisted and I’ve got a couple of leaks in there. Shutting off water and air in that section. I’ve lost some sensors and access to a backup filestore.

CAPT: How many more like that can you take?

STARRY: Two, maybe, if no critical systems or damaged bulkheads are hit. Depends where they are. But, I won’t need to.

CAPT: Explain.

STARRY: The spiral has altered, following the movement of our little furry friends. If Lang Lang’s predictions are correct, next anomaly should hit the cargo bay.

CAPT: They’re there?

SARA: (happily) Kitty!

STARRY: Ready and waiting.

CAPT: (nods thoughtfully, glances at the access panel, but doesn’t activate it.)

DR SOCKS: (drily) Am I needed in Engineering?

STARRY: No major injuries. Waiting to see if they’re hurt or just whining. Stand by.

DR SOCKS: Is it worth pointing out that it’s not actually possible to stand right now?

STARRY: Only if you want to be a smart-ass.

 

Location: Engineering

HALF-FACE: (has pushed himself over to where Dineen is, ignoring the debris that bounces off him. He is spraying her hands as they hold the railing with a substance that solidifies immediately, securing her in place.) Stay exactly where you are.

DINEEN: (ducking a spanner) Are you crazy? I can help.

HALF-FACE: (is unmoved and focussed on the secure-spray.)

STARRY: Elliott, are you okay?

ELLIOTT: My fucking tools are attacking me. What is this, karma day?

STARRY: Listen, you said you might be able to counter the gravity fluctuations.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. If I modify one of the generators, I might be able to get it to do that. But I’d have to know which one.

STARRY: We know which one is next. But we only have a few minutes before the next one hits. And… it’s going to be a big one.

ELLIOTT: Bigger than that?

STARRY: It’s gonna find what it’s looking for. Can you do it in time?

ELLIOTT: (ducks and grabs the wrench about to hit him in the head) Fuck. Uh. (He meets Starry’s gaze.) Well, I guess we’re about to find out.

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28 Jan

Checked

Ship’s log, 21:44, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Sometimes, things happen so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Even for a ship, used to managing parallel streams of input, processing, and output, it’s stressful when they all seem to compete at the same level of importance.

My SecOffs are running from the Bridge to the crew corridor, looking for an escaped member of the Strider’s crew. I still can’t detect her on sensors, just the faint blip of life signs that is barely there at all; somehow, she is masked from me.

My bulkheads are starting to creak under the strain of increasingly powerful gravity fluctuations. The anomalies are occurring in a shrinking spiral, homing in on something in the area of mid-deck and the crew quarters. We don’t know what’s causing it, though we have a couple of distinct possibilities: the aforementioned escaped guest, and the black hole we’re currently circling.

Our best connection to the black hole is a two-year-old child, and she says he’s playing hide and seek with the kittens we rescued from Sarabande Station. We think this can only mean that he wants to make one of them into his avatar, so that he can ride with us when we leave here.

I wish I could say that this is the craziest thing that has happened on my decks, but I think the jury is still out on that one.

 

Location: Bridge

(Still in zero-G, the captain is near one of the aft doors with little Sara. Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are at their stations, harnessed in place.)

CAPTAIN: Starry, find those damn cats.

STARRY: (standing calmly nearby, unaffected by the lack of gravity) Bit and Byte in the ducts already, heading to where they found Sara. What do you want me to do when I find them?

CAPT: (looks down at Sara.)

SARA: (kicks at the unresponsive door, using the captain’s body to cushion the recoil.)

CAPT: I need you to herd them into a safer place.

STARRY: And how do I decide what ‘safer’ means? If Cerces really is looking for them, wherever they are found is going to… well, we don’t really know what will happen, but I don’t think it’ll be harmless.

CAPT: Wherever it’s likely to do the least damage.

STARRY: (sighs and nods.)

 

How the hell am I supposed to know the answer to that? We don’t know what will happen when the gravity fluctuations reach the middle of their spiral. By then, the force will be strong enough to warp my bulkheads and my whole structure is at risk.

The only safe place for me is for them to be outside. I could do it, I could just open my ducts to the vacuum and suck the poor creatures out. Cerces can do whatever he wants to them, and… they’ll be dead either way.

That’s the ship logic part of me. Other parts of me have different responses. Those kittens are living creatures: I don’t want to kill them. Cerces might only want one of them; should I sacrifice the rest?

I hate decisions like this.

 

Location: Crew corridor

(Rosie and the Lieutenant have their weapons in hand and are positioned at either end of the corridor.)

ROSIE: (over internal comms) Chief, we got nothing here.

CAMERON: (voice only) She’s definitely not in her quarters. What’s the door looking like?

HALF-FACE: (near the door to the room Dineen and Tasha share, he thumps the activation panel twice in rapid succession. The door slides open and closed again. The panel remains green.) Lock’s disengaged. I can close it but the lock won’t re-engage.

STARRY: (voice only) I’m showing it as engaged, but I’m not getting any diagnostics back. I think she’s blocked my access to it. I’ll send one of my boys down to take a look.

CAMERON: I’ve got an intermittent life sign on the access to the lower levels. Split up and check it out.

ROSIE: (turning her left forearm over to check the holographic display, which is showing a blinking light against a schematic of the ship’s corridors and access ways) Got it. I’ll go port-side.

HALF-FACE: (nodding and setting off) Starboard, check.

 

I hate that I can’t tell where she is. I have honed my environmental sensors to pick up alterations in the levels of carbon dioxide in the air, but that only tells me what section she’s in, not where or what she’s doing.

My sensor systems are clean; it must be a local effect. She’s projecting something that is shielding her from detection. She can’t have covered the entire spectrum, so maybe if I focus on the extremes, I’ll slip around her mask.

There. A whisper of a ghost in the red end of the spectrum. A glimpse of a heat signature. She is masking it but not completely. She’s leaking.

The Chief is right: she’s heading for the lower levels. Where is she going?

Engineering is down there. And that means…

 

Location: Engineering

(The panel next to the forward door turns red.)

ELLIOTT: (hasn’t noticed.)

STARRY: (appears in front of him) Elliott, I need you to lock the doors to Engineering down.

ELLIOTT: (blinks at her through the holographic display hovering in the air between them, then waves it off) I’ve almost got the algorithm down to counter the gravity fluctuations. I think I can modify one of the artificial gravity generators to…

STARRY: I know, but you need to do this now.

ELLIOTT: (glances past her and frowns) Door’s already locked.

STARRY: Dineen got free of her room, Elliott. She can disable my locks. I need you to fix the door so she can’t get in here.

ELLIOTT: She’s coming here?

STARRY: She’s… we’re not sure. She has masked herself somehow, I can’t see her properly. She’s… she’s somewhere close. It makes sense that she’d try to get down here; she’s an engineer. Elliott, please.

ELLIOTT: (scowls and thumbs the fastening of the harness holding him to his stool) All right, all right, I’m going. So this is all her doing?

STARRY: (shakes her head) We don’t know for sure. It could still be Cerces trying to find an avatar.

ELLIOTT: (pushing himself towards the door) Bastard’s trying to take someone?

STARRY: Not someone. We think he’s going after the station’s cats.

ELLIOTT: Fucking cats! Are you serious?

STARRY: Until I get better data, yes.

ELLIOTT: As if they weren’t enough trouble already, fucking around in the ducts, scratching shit up. And the shit! Fuck.

STARRY: Well, maybe we won’t have to worry about that if he succeeds.

ELLIOTT: (catching himself on the handle next to the door with one hand, he flips open the control panel with the other) A cat that cleans up its own shit. Well, why the fuck not.

 

Trust Elliott to find the bright side to something like this. Even when he’s under pressure and being asked to break something, or fix it so its unbreakable. Here’s hoping we don’t have an emergency, because he may end up sealed in there.

Now I wish I hadn’t thought that.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: (looking down at the child bouncing between his chest and the door) Sara, honey?

SARA: (grunts with frustration as the door seems implacable in its closedness.)

CAPT: Sara, look at me.

SARA: (twists her head to look at the captain) Open!

CAPT: Sara, can you give the big whale a message for me?

SARA: (pouts stubbornly.)

CAPT: I just want you to tell him that we want to help. We want to help him find what he’s looking for. He’s looking for the kitties, right?

SARA: (nods.)

CAPT: And you want to go help him, right?

SARA: (nods and kicks at the door, though she’s too far away for it to connect) Open.

CAPT: Well, we’re sending some of Starry’s little friends to help him, too. Starry’s going to help find them.

STARRY: (nods) Yup, working on it. Bit has the kittens in sight.

SARA; (brightens) Kitty?

CAPT: Yes, kitty. Now, if we take you to where they are, will that help Cerces to find them?

SARA: (nods enthusiastically and wriggles) Kitty!

 

Bit is closing on the kittens; Byte is a couple of duct junctions away. The animals are milling around, mewing unhappily. Their mother doesn’t seem to be there. I think they know they’re being hunted and they don’t like it. I don’t blame them.

They are clumsy in the zero-G, too, and that’s probably not helping. Like Sara, they’ve probably never had to deal with it before. Poor kittens flailing with their claws, as if they could sink hooks into the air itself and gain purchase.

 

STARRY: Uh, captain…

CAPT: (shoots Starry a querying look.)

STARRY: The safest place for the kittens to be is, uh. (She glances at Sara, then back to the captain.) Outside. Safest for us.

CAPT: (frowns at the top of Sara’s head.)

SARA: (is focussed on the door again.)

STARRY: I don’t have a whole lot of options. There’s mid-deck, where the major damage would be to the Step drive we can’t really use anyway. But that risks the centre of my structure and I can’t fully predict what that might mean; it depends how strong the gravity gets.

I could try to get them to a cargo bay, away from my core bulkheads. That risks a hull breach and could collapse an entire section.

Or I can flush them out into the vacuum, and hope that Cerces can do what he needs to do before they, uh… succumb to circumstances. And that we can pick them up again before they’re pulled into the black hole.

SARA: (stops what she’s doing and twists to stare at the ship’s avatar) No! No hurt kitty!

STARRY: (lifts her eyebrows at the captain.)

 

How the hell did she know what I meant? She shouldn’t have been able to understand, not at her age. That kid picks up on far too much.

 

CAPT: (cupping a hand around the back of her head) It’s all right, Sara. We’re not going to hurt them.

LANG LANG: Another anomaly, captain. Forward part of mid-deck.

STARRY: (winces) Forward bulkhead starting to buckle. I can’t take much more of this.

CAPT: (to Starry) Cargo bay.

STARRY: (nods) Okay. Bit and Byte have found them. They’re a bit freaked out, but I think they can get the little things moving.

CAPT: What supplies can we afford to lose?

STARRY: (sighs) The extra equipment we salvaged from the station is in Cargo Bay 4, but I don’t know that we have time…

CAPT: What do you mean?

STARRY: That last one was pretty close. If I’m gonna get them somewhere, it’s gotta be quick. Cargo Bay 1, maybe, but that’s where the more essential supplies are.

CAPT: Sara, honey, can you ask Cerces to hold off for a few minutes? We’ll get the kitten for him, but we need time.

SARA: (shakes her head) Whale busy. Hide sick.

CAPT: You can’t talk to him right now?

SARA: (shakes her head again, pigtails bobbing, and pushes at the door with her little hand) Find kitty.

CAPT: Why do you want to find the kitty, honey?

SARA: (looks up at the captain with a sudden wide, bright smile) Hug whale.

 

Well. There’s nothing creepy about that, then.

 

CAPT: All right, we’ll go find the kitten. Come on, hang onto me. (He beckons Sara to loop her arms around his neck.)

STARRY: Captain, I can’t tell what’s going to happen if this is really Cerces’s intention. It won’t be safe for anyone down there.

SARA: (pulls herself up until she’s holding onto the captain’s shoulders.)

CAPT: I know. We’ll get closer, though. Chief, you have the Bridge. Keep me apprised of Dineen’s position.

CAMERON: (nods, not taking her eyes off her console) Aye aye, captain. You should be clear to the forward access to the cargo bays.

CAPT: Thank you. Starry, unlock this door. And have the doctor meet us at the forward access.

STARRY: Relaying the message, sir.

(The door bleeps and slides open, and the captain pushes off down the corridor beyond.)

 

I don’t like this; I don’t want them to go down there. My people need to be far away from whatever is about to happen to those kittens.

Bit and Byte are doing their best to move the animals along as quickly as possible but they’re not making great progress. I’m closing off all ducts except for the ones that spit out into Cargo Bay 1 and telling my boys to make all speed; we don’t have time to waste.

Bit and Byte are looking at each other and positioning themselves behind the clump of kittens, using all four hands to brace the fuzzy things. In zero-G, they should be able to— oh. They’re using their welding torches as thrusters. That’ll work.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott is wrist-deep in the control panel, muttering and swearing to himself.)

STARRY: (behind him) How’s it going? You almost there?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, yeah. Ain’t no-one getting in here… there! Got it. (He pulls his hands back with a jerk and drifts backwards, away from the door.)

STARRY: (nods and sighs.)

ELLIOTT: (kicks off a nearby wall) I’ll just fix the other—

(He is heading towards the access from an upper level, which slides open, revealing a ladder with the Lieutenant at the far end, gliding down through an access hatch.)

ELLIOTT: (with wide eyes, he pivots himself around mid-drift and catches himself on the edge of a nearby counter) Fuck! What the hell are you doing?

STARRY: Laurence is looking for…

ELLIOTT: Not him!

STARRY: I didn’t open it! Dineen? Can you see her?

ELLIOTT: (stares at the open panel unhelpfully.)

HALF-FACE: (brings his weapon around to point towards the open panel) April Dineen! Anchor yourself by that door with one hand and do not move.

 

Oh no. No no no. I can’t even see her. I don’t think they can, either. Does the Lieutenant even have a target to aim at?

Elliott. How can I protect him from someone I can’t see?

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21 Jan

What’s missing

Ship’s log, 20:53, 5 October 2214
Location: Approaching standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Another anomaly, captain.

(In the centre of the room, a light blooms in the holographic schematic of the ship, indicating the location of the gravity fluctuation. It is near the bulkhead between Engineering and mid-deck.)

CAPTAIN: Damage?

STARRY: A few bent tools that Elliott’s going to swear about when he sees them. Bulkheads are under pressure but holding.

CAPT: (nods) Still getting stronger?

STARRY: The anomalies are increasing in intensity by about 5% each time, give or take a percentile.

CAPT: (nods and leans forward to frown at the holographic representation) Do we have enough data to predict the centre of this spiral? What’s it homing in on?

LANG LANG: (hands working feverishly at her console) The spiral isn’t regular enough to pinpoint a centre, but there’s enough data for a range…

(An orange bubble blooms in the hologram of the Starwalker, covering a starboard-side portion of mid-deck and the crew quarters above.)

CAPT: Starry, what parts of the Step drive does that cover?

STARRY: Some of the key controls. The starboard-side filament guidance is in there, and data storage.

CAPT: What doesn’t it cover?

STARRY: Main algorithm programming and processing is aft of the bubble. The rest of the filament guidance centres. It covers maybe a third of the essential Step drive components, but nothing that couldn’t be replaced if we needed to. You think this is about the drive?

CAPT: I don’t like that whatever this is appears to be circling our super-secret star-warping engine. Especially when we used it on our big black friend out there.

STARRY: (nods, looking at the hologram with a frown) I’ll make a list of everything inside that area.

 

I’m liking this less and less. Apart from mid-deck, it’s touching on a handful of crew quarters. Specifically, those holding the Strider’s people.

So it might be Cerces looking to damage the drive that tore a hole in him a few weeks ago. Or it could be one of our guests trying to break open a locked door. Or it could be Cerces trying to convert one of our guests into an avatar for his consciousness.

He said that he needed a ‘conditioned mind’ for that. The Strider SecOff Kinski would count: he reacted like Lang Lang and Cameron did when we tried to leave the system. He’s on the shortlist.

Does Cerces understand enough about us to know that Kinski isn’t one of ‘my’ people? Though that’s not what I meant when I refused the black hole’s request; I meant that he couldn’t have any of them. Kinski might not be one of my crew but his life – and body – is hardly mine to give away.

Checking inside Kinski’s quarters, he doesn’t seem particularly affected by what’s happening. In fact, he’s asleep, harnessed securely in his bunk.

His Chief of Security, Riede, is sharing the quarters with him. Riede is doing some zero-G manoeuvres, keeping his body moving while there’s no gravity. Which is a bit weird, considering that people only tend to do that in long stretches of zero-G. The gravity has been off barely half an hour and he’s already acting like it has been a couple of days.

They have been shut up in those rooms for a while now. Maybe they’re getting restless and stir-crazy.

I don’t have time to worry about that right now. I’ll talk to the captain about it later.

 

(The starboard Bridge door swishes open and Casper trundles in, carrying a squirming bundle. Sara is struggling against his metal arms, sobbing and hiccuping as she tries to get free, tears streaking down her face.)

 

Oh, great. The kid is upset. That’s bound to make this go well.

 

CAPT: (turns at the sounds of a small person straining) Starry, what did you do to get her out of the ducts?

STARRY: Nothing! She isn’t hurt. She was fine until Casper took her away from the duct. She just wants to go back in.

CAPT: (clears the frown from his face and holds his hands out for the child with a warm smile) Hello, Sara.

CASPER: (shifts his grip on the tiny wriggler and holds her out for the captain to take.)

SARA: (looks up at the sound of her name, and her face crumples when she recognises the captain) Kitty.

CAPT: (lifts her into his lap) You were looking for the kittens?

SARA: (nods and sniffs, cuddling into the captain’s chest for comfort.)

 

Goddamn kittens. I had a nice little portion of the cargo bay set up for them, with blankets and scraps of fabric turned into toys (my drones had fun making those), and bowls for water and food. The cats disappeared within an hour of getting on board and haven’t been back in sensor range since. Probably off playing with the dustbunnies in my ducts. Or eating them.

The only one of the station’s cats I have seen on-sensor lately is mother-cat, who is looking suspiciously fat.

 

CAPT: (strokes her hair) You can go find them later. Starry will help you.

SARA: (sniffs again wetly and rubs a fist in her eye.)

CAPT: Sara, honey, do you know what the big whale is up to today?

SARA: (mumbling into the front of his jacket) Kitty.

CAPT: I know you want to see the kitties. I need to know about Cerces. The whale. Is he doing something?

SARA: Kitty!

CAPT: Not right now, honey. Is the whale playing a game?

SARA: (looks puzzled for a moment, then nods reluctantly) Hide sick.

CAPT: (tilts his head to try to see her face better) What was that?

STARRY: (watching the little one curiously) Do you mean ‘hide and seek’?

SARA: (nods.)

CAPT: Who is he playing hide and seek with? You?

SARA: (shakes her head.)

CAPT: Is he doing it on board the ship with us?

SARA: (sniffs and turns her face in against the captain’s chest. Then she abruptly twists and wriggles, pushing away from him.)

CAPT: (swings her around so she can hold onto the arm of his chair and nods at the ship’s avatar.)

 

That means he wants me to let her run around but keep her within the room. So I’ll lock the doors to her and tell Casper not to catch her up again.

She’s trying to get away from Casper anyway, ducking around the other side of the captain’s chair. The zero-G seems to be confusing her; I don’t think she has ever had to deal with it before. She’s seems very determined to get to the door they came in by but can’t figure out how.

Something’s off about her behaviour in the exchange with the captain. I think she’s telling us more than we realise, maybe even more than she realises.

I need to go back over the logs and see what it is I’m missing.

 

CAMERON: Captain, I think we have a problem.

CAPT: Report, Chief.

SARA: (reaches towards the Bridge door but seems nonplussed about how to get there without gravity. Her feet kick at the air and she starts to drift.)

CAMERON: I’m having trouble tracking one of our guests. Starry, where’s the Strider’s engineer, April Dineen?

STARRY: In her quarters.

CAMERON: Are you sure?

STARRY: I… that’s why my sensors say. Why?

CAMERON: I’ve got an extra life sign in the aft crew corridor, and a blip on the room she was in.

STARRY: (frowns) Running diagnostics.

 

A blip, she says. What sort of blip? I… there. When most of my systems were disabled, there was a spike in Dineen’s room. The entertainment systems went down along with all my major functionality, like environmentals. At the moment when they should have had the least running in that room, there was a sudden pull on my power.

The blip was after my initial checks on the Strider crew, and it coincides with a gravity fluctuation in middle portion of the crew corridor. She would have been able to feel it from her room. That can’t be a coincidence.

Sensors in the area have been disrupted. Very cleverly; I can tell only by detailed analysis. Just for a few seconds, there was something strange. Long enough for…

My major system were offline, including weapons and other related security. I was so busy dealing with the fluctuation that I wasn’t watching closely enough. Like, to spot if a door might have been jimmied open.

My sensors show that Dineen and Tasha, the Strider’s pilot, are watching a vid, harnessed loosely into armchairs. But they had a few seconds of cover, long enough to force the door and slip out. Life sign tracking shows only one person in that room now.

If anyone could fool my sensors and slip away, it would be an engineer. Dineen has masked herself, somehow.

 

STARRY: Chief Cameron is right. At least one of our guests is loose.

CAPT: (presses his lips together grimly and nods to the Chief.)

CAMERON: Brasco, Lieutenant, go deal with it.

CAPT: Starry, trip the collar.

ROSIE and HALF-FACE: (release their harnesses and push off towards the portside Bridge door.)

STARRY: I can send the signal but she’s masking herself from my sensors somehow. I don’t show anyone in that corridor. I won’t know if it works.

CAPT: Send the signal anyway. In fact, send it to all of them. I want them disabled before she has a chance to do more.

(The portside door swishes open, letting the two SecOffs out, and closes quickly behind them.)

SARA: (watches the two SecOffs with fascination, then tries to copy them, pushing off the captain’s chair. She squeaks as she floats through the air, tumbling awkwardly.)

 

All of them. All of them?

Shit.

 

STARRY: (stiffly) Signal sent, sir.

 

In a terrible concert, the Strider’s people go rigid, gasping with pain, and then go limp. They drift in zero-G, nudging the straps of harnesses or bumping into a wall. I feel awful but they’re no danger to us for now. Not the ones I know I could reach.

That leaves only Dineen. The ‘her’ I can see in the quarters is still watching the vid, unaffected. How did she do this? I’ve checked and rechecked my systems, and I haven’t been compromised. She didn’t get into me. My diagnostics are clean.

An external factor, then? Some device that would interfere with my sensors. Something that would make me see her in the quarters, and mask where she is right now. Something she had with her? But they were all searched when they were first brought into our custody. How did we miss this?

I’ll ask Elliott; he’ll be able to help. And he’ll be glad of a distraction while we battle with this anomaly problem. While he’s doing that, I’ll keep looking for what’s missing. The things I can’t see, the blip of something out of place.

 

SARA: (bounces off the bulkhead next to the Bridge door and grabs at the safety handle with both hands before she can drift away again. Small socked feet kick at the air.)

 

What’s not there. What’s missing.

 

STARRY: Captain, her whale.

CAPT: What about him?

STARRY: Not Cerces. Her stuffed whale.

CAPT: (turns to look at the child. She doesn’t have the whale under an arm or gripped in one hand.)

SARA: (steadier now, she holds the handle with one hand and pushes at the door with the other, which rotates her away from the panel in a way she struggles to counter. She makes little straining noises as she battles with the zero-G.)

CAPT: Did it get left in the ducts?

STARRY: No, my boys didn’t see it. Scanning… it’s in her quarters. She left it behind when she went looking for the kittens.

CAPT: (glancing at the avatar) You think this is important?

STARRY: I think she hasn’t been out of sight of that toy since we met her. This thing with the kittens, I think it’s more than just a kid wanting to pet something soft and cute.

CAPT: (releases his harness and pushes himself towards the door the child is trying and failing to open.)

SARA: (kicks at the door, and sees the captain coming towards her on the rebound) Open!

CAPT: (catches the handle with one hand and steadies the child with the other. He comes to a stop with a foot on the wall) Sara, honey, why are you looking for the kittens?

SARA: Kitty! Kitty kitty.

CAPT: Why do you want to see them?

SARA: (now that the captain has steadied her, she pushes at the door again) Hide sick.

CAPT: Starry, where are the kittens?

STARRY: They’re not on sensors. My boys are looking now. But…

CAPT: (lifts an eyebrow at her.)

STARRY: …we found Sara not far from the area at the middle of the spiral. If they’re not inside it, they’re close.

CAMERON: It makes sense. Cerces is looking for an alternate solution to the avatar problem.

(Everyone turns to stare at the Chief.)

 

A cat? Cerces said he needed a body and a conditioned, clean mind. The kittens were born under his influence, just like Sara.

And there was something missing in what he said. Something important.

 

STARRY: (eyes widening) He never said he needed a human body.

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14 Jan

Once bitten

Ship’s log, 19:02, 5 October 2214 
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting 

 

Artificial gravity disabled
Inertial dampeners offline

 

That’s three, by my count. Three distinct gravitational fluctuations, each one stronger than the last, each one located in a different part of my structure.

I have disabled all of my gravity and inertia systems. I haven’t detected any malfunctions; my diagnostics are clean. My systems are working just fine. I’ve got no spikes of power in the areas where the fluctuations are occurring.

It’s not me. I’m sure it’s not me glitching.

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (arriving in zero-G drift, he catches the back of his chair with one hand and swings his body down into the seat with the ease of much practice. The safety harness slithers around him, lashing him into place.) Starry, report.

STARRY: (materialising to the right of the captain’s chair) Three anomalies so far, no obvious cause yet.

CAPT: Can we fly out of it?

CAMERON: (arrives, with Rosie and the Lieutenant not far behind.)

STARRY: First thing I tried was to manoeuvre out of the distortion.

 

By which I mean I flew around like a lunatic during the first two fluctuations, pulling stunts I don’t dare do now that my inertial dampeners are disabled. I twisted and turned and writhed; I stopped and started.

 

STARRY: (looking worried) Didn’t matter what I did: the centre of the fluctuation stayed relative to my structure.

CAPT: So it’s coming from inside the ship?

STARRY: Still trying to determine that, sir.

 

It is only occurring on board me, and only in parts of me at a time. Small pockets of gravity, unstable and lasting just a few seconds at a time. But causation and correlation aren’t necessarily related: it might be happening inside my hull, but that doesn’t mean whatever is causing it has to be in here, too.

All eyes turn to me, looking for answers and maybe a culprit. It’s not me, I’m sure of it, but I’m not sure enough to rule it out. I’ve been compromised before.

That thought scares me. It can’t happen again, it just can’t. I won’t let it. I have safeguards…

I can’t think about this right now; have to stay focussed on the problem at hand. Focus, stupid ship. We need to figure this out quickly. If these fluctuations continue to get stronger, someone is going to get hurt.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (gripping the edge of a counter with one hand to keep himself steady in zero-G, his other hand manipulates a holographic console, pulling up diagnostics and data) Starry, you got anything on your end?

STARRY: (materialising to one side of him, standing on the floor as usual) Nothing is showing on my internal systems. Everything is green here.

ELLIOTT: (flicks her a sideways glance) Just gotta stand there like everything is fine, doncha?

STARRY: I’m a hologram.

ELLIOTT: (huffs) And you’re sure none of those Strider bastards have been poking around in your systems?

STARRY: They’ve had nothing but entertainment access, display only. (She shakes her head.) Basic interfacing. I’ve scanned the logs; there’s no sign of tampering.

ELLIOTT: (scowls) Keep checking. Better leave the gravity off until the next— woah. (He grabs the counter with both hands as he’s pulled abruptly into it.)

STARRY: Elliott! (She reaches for him, though her hands don’t make contact.)

(Around Engineering, tools and parts fall towards the port side of the ship, clanging and sliding slowly.)

ELLIOTT: (sucking air back into his lungs) Fuck.

 

It’s definitely not coming from my systems. Not a single surge or burp in power feeds or outputs; the only spikes I’m seeing are in sensor data, reporting the fluctuation’s details. I haven’t been compromised. I haven’t!

 

Location: Bridge

(The Bridge crew are all at their stations now, harnessed in place like their captain: Lang Lang at Navigation; Chief Cameron at Security; and Rosie and the Lieutenant at Weapons consoles. They seem to be in zero-G, except that the captain and Lang Lang’s loose hair drifts towards the starboard side of the ship as if drawn to it.)

CAPT: (watching the readouts on his holographic monitor) Starry, is that another one?

STARRY: Yes. Engineering. It’s passing now.

CAPT: (smooths his long hair back from his face and tucks the length of it into the collar of his jacket to stop it from floating around him) Disable all propulsion systems.

STARRY: What?

CAPT: We have to check that your systems aren’t causing this.

STARRY: But we’re orbiting…

CAPT: Just long enough to be sure, not long enough to fall in.

STARRY: Okay, disabling all systems.

CAPT: I only said propulsion!

STARRY: You’re right: we need to be sure. And I don’t think we’ve got the luxury of time on our side.

 

FTL drive offline
Sublight engines offline
Thrusters offline
Weapons systems offline
Environmental systems offline

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (winces as a wrench bounces off his ankle, then sighs when the gravitational pressure eases back to zero-G) What the hell, Starry?

STARRY: Captain wants to make sure it’s none of my systems.

ELLIOTT: Fuck. All right, but be careful.

STARRY: (softly) Always.

 

Location: Bridge

LANG LANG: (watching her monitor, not the exchange between ship and captain) Orbit degrading, sir. We’re being drawn towards the black hole.

CAPT: How long do we have?

LANG LANG: At this rate, fifteen minutes before we must take correction action.

CAPT: Engines back on in five minutes, Starry. No longer.

STARRY: (nods) Yes, sir.

CAPT: Chief?

CAMERON: Going over the logs of our guests for suspicious activity. Laurence, I’m assigning you some logs to check, too.

HALF-FACE: Aye aye, ma’am.

 

I’m already scanning those logs, but the Chief knows what she’s doing. No harm in having more eyes across it, especially if… well, they might have hidden something from me that an independent mind could pick up. If they wanted to try something.

Though I haven’t been compromised. I’m sure of it.

 

ROSIE: You want me scanning for external threats?

CAMERON: (nods) Eyes and ears, Brasco.

ROSIE: (flips off a salute without looking over, her attention on the sensor readouts wrapped around her station.)

CAPT: (to Starry) Has Sara been located yet?

STARRY: (surprised) Sara? She is in the ducts just below the port side of mid-deck. My boys are trying to get her out, but the only ones who can reach her are Bit and Byte, and they’re too small to do it by force. While she’s awake, anyway.

CAPT: What does that mean?

STARRY: They could drag her if they needed to, especially while the gravity’s off, but not if she’s fighting them. They’re trying to lure her to an exit.

CAPT: I want her up here as soon as you can manage it.

STARRY: I’ve got Casper on standby where she’ll come out. He’ll bring her straight to the Bridge. And, uh… you want her awake, I take it?

CAPT: (eyes narrowing) Yes, please avoid knocking her out if you can.

STARRY: (nods) So she can talk to Cerces. Got it.

CAPT: (nods.)

 

That answers that question: the captain suspects that Cerces could be behind the fluctuations.

That possibility had crossed my processors. Several of them, in fact, and more often as I gather data about the gravity spikes. But I have to make sure it’s not coming from something on board first. If we’re wrong, if it’s not Cerces and we waste time trying to talk to him about it, we might wind up warped into a weird shape before we find out what’s going on. I have to keep looking at all the options until we know. Until we’re sure.

What about a piece of equipment we picked up at the station? We claimed whatever we could from Sarabande, on the basis that no-one there would miss any of it. But almost none of it is hooked up yet, and of the few pieces that are, they couldn’t cause an effect like this.

I’ll disable them anyway, just to be sure: Elliott’s component printer; the new scanner in Med Bay; some toys for Sara. Nothing critical that we need right now.

Oh, here we go.

 

Location: Med Bay

DR SOCKS: (looking over the equipment around the room, which is switching off one by one and falling dark) Starry…?

STARRY: (appearing in front of him) Systems are being disabled to isolate the cause of the gravity fluctuations.

DR SOCKS: These are emergency systems.

STARRY: And they’ll be back online just as soon as we’re sure they’re not part of the problem.

DR SOCKS: And in the meantime?

STARRY: Try not to fall onto anything particularly sharp or hard.

DR SOCKS: (gives her a dry look.)

STARRY: (shrugs) If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.

DR SOCKS: (huffs.)

STARRY: (more gently) Hold on, doctor. We’ll get through this. (She nods at him and disappears.)

 

I’m not sure how the medical equipment could cause gravity fluctuations, but with some of the complex machinery in there, you never know.

What if someone did cause this? Hacked several systems together at once, with unexpected results?

No, I’ve been hacked enough for one lifetime. It’s not that. I have security protocols designed to sniff out such activity and sit on it. I’ve been watching the Strider’s crew closely. It’s one of the advantages of being an AI: I am unblinking.

Another gravity pocket, starboard side, aft end of mid-deck. Everyone feels it, grabbing onto something for stability, even those strapped in on the Bridge. Something groans within my bulkheads.

They’re definitely getting stronger.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (lashing himself to a stool so that he can look over projected diagnostic data) Starry, the readings are higher.

STARRY: Yes. Nothing we’re doing is making any difference.

ELLIOTT: What’s still running?

STARRY: Sensors, holo-projectors, and my core.

ELLIOTT: Your power cells are coming back clean.

STARRY: I’m pretty sure I’m not leaking. It’s not me, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (nods) All right, fire yourself up again.

STARRY: (sighs and nods with relief.)

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Captain, another anomaly detected. Elliott is certain it’s not coming from any of my systems.

CAPT: All right, get yourself back online.

STARRY: Re-initialising systems. But…

 

Medical stations online
Environmental systems online
Weapons systems online

 

CAPT: But what?

STARRY: I don’t think it’s a good idea to put the artificial gravity on yet.

CAPT: Why not?

 

Thrusters online
Sublight engines online

 

STARRY: It could amplify the gravity fluctuations. There’s a higher chance of someone getting hurt. Or it warping one of my bulkheads.

CAPT: (frowning) Yes, that’s why we disabled it in the first place. I agree, leave it off. Same with the inertial dampeners?

 

FTL drive online

 

STARRY: (nods) I think so. Until I can reliably predict these fluctuations – if there’s a pattern at all – I can’t trust that the dampeners will act safely.

LANG LANG: I think there is a pattern.

CAPT: There is? Put it up, navigator.

LANG LANG: (nods and manipulates her console to send the display to the main holographic projector in the middle of the room. 

A skeleton schematic of the Starwalker is drawn in the air, with hotspots shining where each fluctuation has occurred. They light up in order and a line traces between them, starting in Engineering near the starboard-side thrusters, to the portside of mid-deck, to an upper section in the crew quarters, to the starboard wing. Then on to the more recent occurrences: mid-portside of Engineering, the mid-section of the crew quarters, and between one of the starboard-side cargo bays and mid-deck. The line traces a curved path between the points, and quickly depicts a spiral.)

CAPT: Can you predict where the next one will be?

LANG LANG: It’s not quite regular enough yet… we need more data.

STARRY: I think we can predict an approximate location. It won’t be exact, but we can refine it as we learn more.

LANG LANG: (nods, her hands moving again) Yes! We can do that.

(On the central hologram, a cone extends out from the last point, suggesting the next occurrence will be somewhere in the forward section of mid-deck or the crew quarters.)

CAPT: (thoughtfully) They’re still increasing in intensity?

STARRY: Yes, captain.

CAPT: Keep trying to predict where they’ll occur and move people away where we can. But we need the source. And Starry, I want to know if they reduce in intensity now we’re returning to standard orbit.

STARRY: You’ll have the information as soon as I do.

 

The captain suspects that our proximity to the black hole might be affecting the strength of the fluctuations. The data doesn’t seem to suggest that; it was increasing before I cut the engines and we started to drift towards Cerces. The increases didn’t spike but continue to rise fairly steadily.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 3

CASPER: (is mag-clamped to the inner wall of the cargo bay, positioned next to an open duct access panel near the ceiling. He is huddled back from the opening and all four of his hands flex impatiently.)

BIT: (skitters out of the opening and stops when he’s crouching on the wall’s surface. He emits a small noise: a recording of a kitten’s high-pitched mew.)

SARA: (from within the duct) Kitty!

(A small hand emerges from the duct, grabbing randomly at the air. Just above the hand, Byte is tugging on the sleeve to encourage the child on. She grapples with the lip of the duct and squeaks with surprise when a little pull on it sends her shooting half out of the duct and half into the side of it. She blinks and looks like she’s thinking about crying.)

CASPER: (rises from his huddle and closes three hands gently on the child. From his anchored position, he draws her smoothly and easily out of the duct without bumping her further.)

SARA: (relaxes as soon as the drone takes over control of her movement and seems to forget about the urge to cry. As she emerges into the cargo bay’s expanse of air, she leans against the robot’s hold so she can look around.) Kitty?

BIT and BYTE: (skitter away from the child.)

CASPER: (uses his fourth hand to pat her on the head and folds her in against his chest.)

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: Captain, Sara is now out of the ducts. Casper is on his way up here with her.

CAPT: (nods approvingly.)

 

I’m not the culprit; I’m sure of that now. That’s something to take comfort in, though it’s not really helping us much right now. We might have ruled a few things out, but we’re no closer to figuring this out and we’re running out of time. Another fluctuation just warped a door panel in the forward part of mid-deck.

If it’s not me or a piece of equipment plugged into me, that leaves two options: something one of our guests brought on board, or Cerces.

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07 Jan

Author’s Note: great start!

Hi everyone!

I’m really happy with how Starwalker is heading now that it has restarted. Thanks so much for all your feedback and support!

Sadly, this year hasn’t got off to as great a start as the story. I’ve been pretty much sick since 2014 ended (and the last post went up), with a touch of food poisoning and some complications. Battling a bit at this end! I’m on the mend and getting things in order, but this week’s post isn’t ready. And in honour of the new start, I don’t want it to go up until it’s right, even though it pains me to do it so close to getting going again.

So, a bit of a hitch this week. Sorry, my friends. We’ll be back in the swing of things next week.

Stay happy. I hope your 2015 got off to a better start than mine!

Cheers,
~Melanie

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01 Jan

From the inside

Captain's log, 18:24, 5 October 2214 
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting
Log location: Captain’s Cabin

 

This is Captain Warwick reporting after direct contact was achieved between the crew of the Starwalker and the star-born entity known as Cerces.

The official wording might be technically correct, but in truth, it is misleading. We’ve been in contact with Cerces since we arrived here; we just didn’t know it. We have managed some two-way communication before, but it was spotty and unreliable at best, and damaging to my crew’s health. Our most reliable conduit is a two-and-a-half-year-old child, and our greatest success with conversing with this entity disabled everyone on board the ship, including the crew, captain, and all of our various guests.

The official wording might make it sound clean and easy, but the actual experience was far from that. It’s not an endeavour I have any intention of repeating, if it can be avoided.

I have spent most of the last twenty hours reviewing the logs of yesterday’s conversation with Cerces and trying to figure out how to report it. Trying to work out where we go next. I’m not really any closer to either of those answers, but I have realised…

 

Internal comms

ROSIE: (voice only) Hey, captain?

CAPTAIN: Yes?

ROSIE: You seen that brat anywhere?

CAPT: Sara? Not today, no. Have you lost her?

ROSIE: Not me, personally, no. But we, uh, can’t find her.

CAPT: The ship’s only so big, Brasco.

ROSIE: Yeah. You’d think it’d be fucking easy to find one stupid kid. If you see her, can you let us know?

STARRY: She’s somewhere in the ducts. I’ve got some dead sensors near mid-deck, recalibrating to try to pinpoint her location.

CAPT: (pinching the bridge of his nose) She’s in the ducts? Is Monaghan…

STARRY: Elliott’s looking at the dead sensors, yes. We’ll find her, captain, don’t worry.

CAPT: All right. Report in if there are problems.

 

A small child lost in the ship’s ducts. Only on this ship.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Yesterday’s communication with Cerces.

I remember very little of what happened during the time we were a part of the bridge. I have only vague recollections of a sense of caution and a deep desire to communicate, and I can’t distinguish whether they were my emotions or Cerces’s. There was an undercurrent of loneliness and hunger that I’m sure were from the black hole, and a foreboding kind of emptiness. More worryingly, there was a thread of desperation, as if he had been trying to get these messages through to us for some time but lacked the appropriate method until now. It felt barbed to me, as if that desperation was broader than I could sense and would not let itself go unfulfilled.

I can confirm what Chief Cameron and Navigator Cartier reported: there was no sign of hostility from Cerces. I got no sense that he bore us any ill will, nor intended us harm. He doesn’t consider us a threat, except that we might leave him alone here, which is a little surprising considering the Step we completed just a few weeks ago. Unlike his shining star brethren, he doesn’t seem to have been affected by it. Right now, I consider that something to be grateful for.

There was another emotion in the mix, but I find it difficult to place. I’m not sure if it was positive or negative, or if it was simply an effect of the mental bridge between us all. Dr Valdimir reported the same feeling – that there was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on – and suggests that it was something peculiar to our star-born friend, something for which there’s no equivalent in the human emotional spectrum. With no other way to classify it, that will have to do for now.

As for the details of the conversation, I have none except the logs that Starry recorded. The rest of crew report the same sensations: some emotions but no actual details of the communication. None of us remember speaking the words that Cerces put in our mouths. It’s unsettling, being so thoroughly disabled, especially as the captain. I’m supposed to be able to direct the action, guide us towards our desired outcome, and that’s impossible from the inside.

I don’t like to admit it but Starry’s assessment was correct: we rushed into this. As the captain, that was my fault. I didn’t stay objective enough. I should have slowed it all down, taken our time and found a way to direct who was and was not part of the bridge. We should have gone into it with a game-plan, not a vague intention.

As a result, everyone on board was disabled to become part of the bridge between us and the black hole, and it was left to our ship to provide our side of the discussion.

That said, Starry did an admirable job on her own, despite losing her temper at one point. I don’t blame her for that, though she could have handled it better. She’s well aware that shouting at Sara could have hurt us all if Cerces had reacted badly, and she’s very contrite about it. I can only hope that she got the point across clearly enough; surely Cerces understands now that he cannot ‘have’ one of our people.

Which leads me to the core of our discoveries about our friend in the black hole. He wants an avatar: a body in which to travel with us, so that we might help him find where his people went.

This whole subject is so troublesome that it’s hard to know where to start. He needs a living body to become a host, and a mind already attuned to him. Starry has calculated the likely candidates, even though she laid down a flat refusal. The only addition I would make to the list is the Acting Commander back on the station, but his life is not ours to give away, even if we wished to make that leap.

That leaves us… nowhere. We must find another option for an avatar, or find some other way to get Cerces to release us from this system.

Right now, it’s hard to know if we’re closer or further away from a solution after that conversation. Starry was vehement in her refusal to let him take one of our people but I am forced to wonder if a sacrifice will have to be made, for the rest of us to have a chance.

Not yet. There must be another solution. We’re not so desperate yet that I would consider granting Cerces’s request. And, considering that the doctor said we all showed signs of neural overloading, I won’t make any firm decisions until I can be sure that any temporary brain damage we incurred has been properly healed. Dr Valdimir predicts that we will be back at full cerebral health by tomorrow.

I have to wonder how much of Cerces’s request was influenced by Starry herself. It is difficult to know how much Sara truly understands, and impossible to know what meaning she might be passing through to her friend the whale. Was the avatar idea inspired by Starry’s one? Or perhaps it was his conversation with Kess, of which we know very few details. Did he get the idea from his fellow star?

I wish there was some easy way to contact her and ask. I think she would help us. But considering the overloading on the crew, and the damage it did to Lang Lang the last time she was involved, I’ll keep that as a background possibility, if we get desperate enough.

And I’m back to finding another option for Cerces’s problem. No matter how many times I look at it, I can think of no way out. And yet… and yet.

I want to help him. So do the others on this ship. There is something kindred in him, in the way he reaches out to us, and I must force myself to look at it objectively. It is human to crave contact and companionship, and he is not human. Is this compassion for him truly ours, or was it inspired by our contact with him? He took us over completely for an hour. Is this the spirits showing me my path, or is it an echo of his influence?

There is no clear answer to these questions, just like there’s no clear answer to Cerces’s problem. And yet, there is still the desire to help the creature inside the black hole.

The prospect of having him on board the ship might be an uncertain one, but it does bring with it a certain promise. Exploring new systems, searching for an alien race that predates humanity, establishing true contact with sentient beings. This ship was built to break the rules, to shatter the boundaries of science and forge new discoveries. This crew was assembled to explore. The Step program is over now, at our own hands, and maybe we’re exactly the right crew at the right place to make this work.

The doctor has been reserved in his reports about the mental health of the crew, considering that both him and I have been affected by the ghosts and mental touch of the black hole. But I think he would agree that a new purpose would do all of us good. And what more exciting purpose is there than being the first humans in our history to make direct contact with an alien species? Two, if we count Cerces?

I think the crew would sign up for an endeavour like that. I think they would get behind it, those who choose to stay.

But not if it means losing one of their own. I don’t think they’d support helping someone who stole one of their friends and colleagues. Even if we would consider that option, it is unfeasible.

Once again, I am back at the avatar problem. Dr Valdimir is a genius, if his file is to be believed; he must have an idea.

I am tired of standing in a corridor of closed doors.

…what was that?

 

CAPT: Starry, report.

STARRY: (voice only) Captain?

CAPT: My whole cabin just shook. Is there a problem with your inertial dampeners?

STARRY: Uh, yes and no. There was… a gravitational fluctuation.

CAPT: Caused by what?

STARRY: I don’t know yet. Still analysing…

CAPT: (grips the edge of his desk) Analyse faster!

STARRY: Two more fluctuations detected. Captain, you better get up to the Bridge. I’m going to have to disable the artificial gravity generators.

CAPT: (rising and fastening the front of his jacket) Put us on alert.

 

Shipwide

STARRY: Caution, everyone: artificial gravity is being disabled. Hold onto something. All crew to alert positions. Repeat: crew to alert positions.

 

(The door to the Captain’s Cabin shivers as it closes behind him.)

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24 Dec

No cake left

Ship's log, 16:14, 4 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Cerces wants an avatar. He wants to come with us. The captain is definitely going to kill me.

I should get Sara to wake him up. The captain needs to know about this. But what does it even mean, an avatar? What kind of avatar? How does a star go about getting an avatar, anyway? It was different for me; I just used the projection equipment I already had and the image of someone I kind-of used to be. But this is a star we’re talking about – that I’m talking to – and more than that, a black hole. By definition, he can’t project anything; physics won’t allow it.

Although he manages to project his ‘thoughts’, enough to contact and communicate with us. Through us. Does thought transcend physics? Is it the soul?

Yeah, that’s a rabbithole that I don’t dare let my logic processors disappear down into right now. Focus on the avatar, silly ship. There are so many questions and transcendentals really aren’t important right now.

Lots of more important questions. Like: what image would he use, what form would he shape himself into? If I stop the conversation now, we’ll only need to do this weird brain-sharing thing again to work out what it all means. My people don’t need that; they need to have this damned black hole out of their heads, for good.

 

Location: Bridge

STARRY: (crouching near Sara, smiling gently) He wants an avatar, huh? A body?

SARA: (hugging her whale toy cheerfully) Uh-huh.

STARRY: (pointing at the stuffed whale) What sort of body? Would he use this one here?

SARA: (laughing and shaking her head) Issa toy, silly.

CERCES: (voice only) Need flesh. A body. A mind.

 

That is damned creepy. Even though I’m the one stitching it together from the fragmented voices of my people, each word spoken in a different part of me, and imagining it said in a single, voluminous voice, it’s still creepy. I’m not sure if I’m making it better or worse.

Especially when he talks about needing flesh.

 

STARRY: So he needs a real body, huh. Like a real whale? (She points at the stuffed toy.) Swimming in water?

 

I really hope he doesn’t need one of those. I’m not equipped to carry that sort of creature. I mean, I might be able to flood one of my cargo bays, but it would take more water than I’m currently carrying, and put some very strange stresses on my frame. I’d have to rebalance my inertial dampeners, and be very careful about FTL jumps and sharp turns…

 

SARA: (shakes her head.)

CERCES: No whale available.

 

Still creepy. It’s worse when he’s being cryptic.

Actually, now that my logic processors have had a pico-second to pick at those three words, I think I might know what he means. And that’s worse.

 

STARRY: Uh… why would he need one to be ‘available’? Isn’t he making it himself?

SARA: (shrugs and tosses the toy up into the air. She laughs when she misses it and has to scramble to retrieve it.)

CERCES: Cannot emit matter. Cannot create. Require donation.

 

Donation. Of a body. I- uh- no. No.

 

STARRY: (keeping her tone light, the smile becoming fixed in her expression) A donation? Of a body – is that what he means, Sara?

SARA: (reclaims her toy and hugs it to her chest, nodding cheerfully) Present!

STARRY: He wants one of my people?

CERCES: A conditioned mind can provide a form.

SARA: (plonks herself down on the floor and nods eagerly) Hug whale!

 

Conditioned mind. There’s no way that’s a good thing. Right?

 

STARRY: (to the child) Yes, you’ll be able to hug your whale. Won’t that be great?

SARA: Yup!

STARRY: But I’m not sure what he means. Can you ask him to tell me what it means, Sara?

CERCES: A clean mind. Fresh. Young.

STARRY: You cannot have Sara!

SARA: (looks up at the ship’s avatar, puzzled.)

 

No. No way. She’s just a child! She needs to grow up, and figure out who she is, and fall in love, and break her heart, and love again because that’s what we do. He can’t ask this of her. He can’t!

 

STARRY: You want to meet your whale, right Sara? You want to hug him. He can’t have you and do that.

SARA: (nods happily.)

CERCES: She would be lost. Unable to play any more.

STARRY: So there must be other options.

CERCES: There are other clean minds.

STARRY: (lifts her attention away from the child and looks around the Bridge. Her people are scattered around the room: sitting, lying down, standing. Unmoving.)

 

They are all vacant right now, plugged into the black hole. Like he has sucked them out from the inside, making them as empty as he is. Like they’re already gone.

Other clean minds. Other conditioned ones. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but if Sara was a candidate, then perhaps he means the others that he has the deepest connection with. I know who they are: Lang Lang, the Chief, our crazy Haitom, and the Strider’s SecOff, Kinski.

What the hell am I doing? Automatically creating a list of candidates, lining them up as if this is a choice we should make.

Whoever he takes won’t be able to play any more. They would be lost. Gone. The consciousness of a star packed into a human brain.

Lost. One of my people. He wants me to lose another one.

 

STARRY: (blinks rapidly, as if her eyes prickle, and looks down at the child again) No. He can’t have one.

SARA: (gazes up at the avatar, her smile fading.)

CERCES: Need—

STARRY: I said no! You’re asking us to give up the life of one of our own for you, and the answer is no. Why should I lose one of my people so you can look for yours? You grieve, you know we do too, so how could you do that to us? How can you even ask that?

SARA: (lip wobbles as she stares at Starry, her eyes shining with gathering tears.)

STARRY: It’s selfish is what it is. Oh, you’re some great big whale of a star, and we’re just little people. Just because our lives are shorter, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve the chance to live them. My people mean everything to me, and you can’t have one of them.

SARA: (a tear tracks down her cheeks and she makes a little whimpering noise.)

STARRY: (blinks and stares at the child) …shit.

 

I am the worst ship ever.

I forgot. I forgot that, to talk to him, I had to talk to her. I was shouting at a small child. It’s not her fault. She doesn’t even fully understand what’s going on. She’s just talking to her friend for us, and I let my emotions get the better of me, and she bore the brunt of it.

I’m terrible at this. The captain would never have let this happen. Why did he have to get caught up in it all? Why is he standing there, empty and slack-jawed, when I need him?

I have to make this better. Little Sara is crying. What if I make Cerces angry? What if I make him lash out? My people, their minds… I have to fix this.

 

STARRY: (crouching down next to Sara) I’m so sorry, little one. I didn’t mean to yell at you. I’m sorry, shh, it’s all right.

SARA: (sobbing) Wha-a-ale.

STARRY: I know. We’ll work something out. I promise. Just not what he’s asking.

SARA: (sobs.)

CERCES: Avatar.

STARRY: We need to work something else out.

CERCES: Need body. Mind.

 

I don’t have an answer! He can’t have mine. My people need me and I’m… I’m not ready to go yet.

That feels new. I’d give my life up for my people, I would, but I don’t want to die. I’m not done. Like little Sara, there’s so much more for me to do. I don’t truly know what I am, but I live, and I love, and I like being me.

I’m a good ship.

I don’t have time to dwell on this. I have to stop this before Cerces does something we’ll all regret. Before I have really and truly messed this up. Or my status as a good ship will be the shortest-lived thing on board.

But how do I calm down an upset child? I can’t hold her, or pat her knee, or stroke her hair. My holograms can be tactile but I’m not truly solid. I’m no good at this. I wasn’t built to be a nanny ship.

 

STARRY: Sara, you need to calm down, honey. Can you tell Cerces to let my people go now? We’re done talking.

SARA: (buries her face in her stuffed toy.)

 

Keep it light, stupid ship. She’s just a child. I’m not good at lying, though.

 

STARRY: Sara, please? I need my captain back to make this better. Cerces needs to stop talking through them.

SARA: (muffled by the toy) No more whale talk?

STARRY: Maybe later. That’s enough for now.

SARA: Wha-a-ale.

STARRY: He’s not going anywhere. It’ll be fine, little one.

SARA: (whimpers and hugs her toy into her face.)

 

Dammit. I need my captain back in order to get my captain back. Why do I keep encountering these spiralling paradoxes?

 

CERCES: Avatar journey to find people. People are precious.

 

What the hell is he on about now?

 

STARRY: (frowning) Yes, they are.

CREW ON BRIDGE: (bow their heads.)

SARA: (sniffles.)

 

I don’t like this. What is he doing? Wait– they’re falling. Those who are standing are starting to fall down…

 

Artificial gravity disabled

 

(Three people on the Bridge are on their feet: the captain, Rosie, and the Lieutenant. Their knees have gone soft as they started their collapse to the floor, but the sudden shut-off of the gravity stops the acceleration. Inertia drifts them downwards until the gentle impact with the floor bounces them upwards again.)

 

Great. I’ll need to get my boys in here to steady them.

On the plus side, their vital signs show signs of waking up. They’re coming around. Which means that Cerces has left the building.

Good riddance. We might still need to figure out how we’re going to leave the system in one piece, but hopefully he knows now that the price won’t be one of my people.

We’re just going to have to find another way.

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