Ship's log, 11:56, 4 October 2214 Location: Near Sarabande Station and the Cerces black hole Status: Sublight transit
I just moved inside the orbital path of Sarabande Station and cut my sublight engines. I’m still heading towards the black hole, but coasting now. It’ll take us a little time to get in as close as the captain would like, and I think we’ll need that time.
My captain is furious. I don’t think I’ve seen him quite this way before, not even when the pirates boarded me and claimed me as their prize. Not even when they put him in chains. Not even when he lost his arm.
I don’t think we fully understand the toll that the past few weeks – months, for him – have had on us. Being plagued by our ghosts, harangued by faces and voices from our pasts, opening wounds we’ve tried to pretend were healed. Wearing at us, a little at a time, piece by piece.
I suppose that means that this man was always in there. The one with his jaw set and eyes fixed firmly on his target, the roiling blackness projected in the centre of my Bridge. The one who seems made of steel, suddenly, with less of the temperance of the spirits he values.
Along the port-side wall of the Bridge, my sedated people have been laid out. Lang Lang and my Chief. Crazy man Brenn Haitom and the Strider‘s SecOff Kinski. At the end, closest to my nose, little Sara is blinking blearily at the ceiling.
They’re no longer behaving like they’re in pain. Dr Valdimir said that he gave them enough sedative to take the edge off, make them dopey, but they’re unresponsive as well. They’re staring at the ceiling, blinking, breathing, but otherwise unmoving. It’s as if they’re listening to something very, very far away, so soft that none of us can hear it. Something like a black hole? It’s possible. It’s all crazy and unlikely, but definitely possible.
I’ve scanned every frequency my sensors can pick up, but black holes cannot emit anything on our spectra. I can find no patterns in the noise. So here we are.
CAPTAIN: (standing in front of his chair, he scowls thoughtfully at the holographic projection. His head tilts towards the doctor standing next to him but he doesn’t glance away from the representation of Cerces.) Wake Lang Lang up.
DR SOCKS: (turned mostly towards his ‘patients’, surrounded by readouts of medical data, each column coded to a different person) Are you sure that’s a good…
CAPT: Idea? You said they weren’t in any distress any more. Cerces should know by now that we’re coming back. We need answers and Lang Lang has the most experience in talking with him.
DR SOCKS: All right, then. (He waves away the displays and they shiver closed.)
CAPT: (tears his gaze away from the hologram. It falls on Lang Lang’s blank face.) Be ready to sedate her again if she reacts badly, though.
DR SOCKS: (going to drop to a knee next to the navigator) Of course.
The way he talks, it’s like my doctor is always prepared for everything that happens. As if there’s never anything that phases him. But I saw his face when my people started to drop. I saw the gap in his experience yawn wide and that startling moment when he realised he didn’t have a clue about what he should do. He touched his limits and he didn’t seem to be very familiar with them.
Me, on the other hand, I’m constantly being surprised. I’m always butting up against my limits and trying to push on through them. I’m used to the realities of my existence.
I guess he’s realising that he is mortal, after all.
He’s holding it together now. Recovering his composure. The captain may not have been a fan of the plan to bring Haitom and Kinski up here, but as I pointed out, we only have one doctor and they all need him. Rosie is hovering nearby with her favourite gun, watching them all, and I don’t think she’ll hesitate to shoot the first threat to her newly-returned Chief. Or a threat to the rest of us, of course.
I don’t think it’ll come to that. Both of the non-crewmembers are wearing captive collars, just in case. So we’ll see, I guess.
In the meantime, Lang Lang is coming around. She’s sitting up and gulping at air as if she has been underwater. She squints and rubs her eyes. I have Waldo bring her a glass of something cool and fresh-tasting, packed with electrolytes and minerals to help re-balance her body. She thanks him, one of the few crewmembers who thinks to do that. He pats her shoulder before trundling off again.
CAPT: (crouching in front of Lang Lang, his expression is concerned) How are you feeling?
LANG LANG: (sipping at the drink) I… I’m not sure. I feel strange.
DR SOCKS: Any pain?
LANG LANG: No… (Her free hand lifts to rub at her temple absently.) Maybe the echo of a headache.
CAPT: Do you remember what happened?
LANG LANG: (thoughtful for a moment, taking her time before she chooses her words) I remember pieces. It was… very loud.
LANG LANG: (nods) He’s furious. And lonely. So very lonely.
ROSIE: (from her position across the room) What, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him?
LANG LANG: He feels. Isn’t that a good enough reason?
ROSIE: (subsides, glaring across the room and readjusting her hold on her gun.)
CAPT: We need to talk to him, Lang Lang. We need your help.
LANG LANG: (looks up at the captain with a trace of helplessness and apology) But we tried that. It was too much for me. We need more time… Isn’t that why we were going?
CAPT: Yes, but he’s not letting us get people to safety. He’s forcing our hand.
DR SOCKS: We still need a way to do this that won’t burn her out.
CAPT: Yes. Any ideas, Lang Lang?
LANG LANG: (shakes her head) I’m afraid not, captain.
DR SOCKS: What about the child? She has the closest connection to him. She seems to understand him without being burnt out.
STARRY: We can’t use a child like that.
DR SOCKS: Why not? He is.
STARRY: You saw how upset she was. We can’t put her through that.
CAPT: (holds up his hand) She can’t articulate his words well enough for us, anyway. We need to be able to speak with him, not just listen to his demands.
The captain is looking for a solution to all of this that doesn’t involve leaving anyone behind.
I can feel the elephant in the room. It’s not on my sensors, not even the itching contact that Cerces’s ghosts cause. But I can feel it, standing right there, taking up space, whuffling noisily in the gaps between sentences.
There’s a very simple solution to this: leave Sara behind. Maybe leave all those who reacted badly when we were on our way. Those five who are lying or sitting on my Bridge, saved and changed by the influence of a sentient black hole.
We could put them back on the station and go. They’d be okay there for a while and we’d be free. And if it was just Sara, well, she has survived all right up until now, right? Even when she hasn’t, Cerces has brought her back and made it all right. So it’s an option. Right?
No-one has pointed this out. No-one has suggested it as an alternative, though I know that every conscious mind on the Bridge right now is thinking it, with the possible exception of Lang Lang. That sort of thing just wouldn’t occur to her. And yet, none of my crew has spoken up about it. Not Rosie, not my ruthless doctor, not my engineer who is still hanging around at the back of the room, looking like he’s not sure if he should be here or back down in Engineering.
I’m glad Elliott’s here. He’s hovering on the edges of the conversation like he might get involved but doesn’t particularly want to step into the spotlight. But if we’re going to need him during whatever this is, it’s most likely going to be here. For once, I might not be the thing that breaks while we figure out how to get free of this mess.
We’ve never left anyone behind and I don’t think we’re going to start now. Iggulden made his choice, but he was free to make it. We can’t let Cerces force us to do this; it’s not his choice to make. So no, I’m not going to mention the elephant either. I’m going to try not to feel it, too.
CAPT: (looking sideways at Dr Valdimir) Doctor, what is it?
DR SOCKS: (staring into space, tapping the fingers of one hand on his leg) Hm? (He blinks at the captain.) Oh. I was just considering options for sharing the neural load.
CAPT: So Lang Lang isn’t overloaded again?
DR SOCKS: Yes.
CAPT: How long would it take to construct something like that?
DR SOCKS: I’m not sure… There are many ways to do something like that.
CAPT: Monaghan, what do you think?
ELLIOTT: (looking nonplussed) Uh… it wouldn’t take long, I guess. I’d have to strip down an immersion couch or two for parts. Would that work with the big guy?
DR SOCKS: Hard to say. Hardware might not be the only solution we need, too.
CAPT: What do you mean?
DR SOCKS: (gestures to the other prone bodies on the floor) We might need to spread it across wetware.
ELLIOTT: Link ‘em all together? That’s really fucking dangerous. The testing alone would take weeks, or we’d be the ones frying their brains.
DR SOCKS: I’ve seen it done before; I can help set it up. It’s tricky, yes, but it’s possible.
ELLIOTT: It’s possible to live in zero-G, too; that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
DR SOCKS: We have Starry, don’t forget. We could use her systems to balance the connection, maybe even provide the central point.
ELLIOTT: You mean have ‘em inside her head while we do this? Oh, no. No fucking way.
STARRY: (standing slightly off to the side) If I can help…
ELLIOTT: (glares at her) I said no.
STARRY: Okay, okay. Cerces hasn’t had a great connection with me so far anyway. I don’t particularly want him any further inside my systems that he’s got already.
CAPT: (holds up a hand) Risking Starry risks all of us. Any solution involving her systems would have to be guaranteed to be safe for her, or none of us are getting out of this system.
ELLIOTT: (to the doctor) We tossed our only other functioning ship into the black hole already, remember, genius?
DR SOCKS: (subsides thoughtfully, frowning.)
LANG LANG: (clears her throat) Um… If you’re thinking about using a cybernetic solution, I’m afraid that won’t work.
CAPT: Why not?
LANG LANG: I don’t have a neural implant.
CAPT: You don’t… I see.
Wow, I thought everyone got one of those these days. I never even thought to check and clearly the doctor didn’t either. From the look on his face, he has realised his mistake; with her recent injury, he has looked at her brain scans a lot lately, but he didn’t pick up what wasn’t there. He missed that piece. He’s rubbing his eyes as if that’ll help clear up his memory.
He looks tired. I wonder when he last slept properly.
CAPT: Doctor, is there any way to help Lang Lang without accessing through an implant?
DR SOCKS: (shaking his head slowly) Not that I know of. There isn’t much research around this sort of thing, not outside… less reputable circles.
He means cracks and mystics. I remember those stories: Danika’s father used to tell them about the breakaway pods of believers who chased space-fairies and glitter dust through the black. They believed they could talk with stars and comets, the vacuum itself, light on its way from distant galaxies, the souls of the dead, and even each other without speaking. Danika used to make up stories about them to scare her little brother before they went to bed, and he’d wind up sleeping with her, clinging to her arm.
Given what we know now, they suddenly don’t sound so crazy. Have we become our own breakaway pod? Is it okay if we just don’t tell anyone that a black hole has been talking to us?
LANG LANG: (abruptly) Cerces knows how.
CAPT: What do you mean?
LANG LANG: He’s done it before; he does it all the time. Touched all of us at once.
STARRY: The ghosts. You all see the same ghosts.
CAPT: (to Lang Lang) You think he’d be able to do this?
LANG LANG: (shrugs apologetically.)
DR SOCKS: But how do we tell him what we want him to do?
(The captain, doctor, and ship’s avatar all turn to look at the dozing child on the floor.)
STARRY: (quietly) Do you think we can get her to understand what we need her to do?
CAPT: I think it’s worth a try. Doctor, wake her up.