Ship's log, 19:22, 8 October 2214 Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon Status: Orbiting
Location: Sara's Quarters
CAPTAIN: (staring over the motionless body on the floor at the ship’s avatar) What have you done?
SARA: (looks from captain to ship’s avatar and back again. Her face crumples as she bursts into tears.)
CAMERON: (crouches by Lang Lang on the floor. She beckons the doctor into the room.)
STARRY: (meets the captain’s eye with digital tears streaming down her cheeks.)
I didn’t mean for this to happen. It’s not what I wanted. I tried to respect everyone’s wishes, and my captain’s orders, and the needs of the moment, but my logic processors couldn’t come up with a solution that pleased everyone. There wasn’t one. There’s just what was, and is, and will be now that it’s done.
Recording: 17:25, 8 October 2214 Log location: Sara's Quarters
LANG LANG: Please, Starry. This is my choice.
That’s where it started. My captain was outside, thumping on the door controls. Lang Lang was begging for me to leave him out there.
LANG LANG: (sitting on the edge of the bed beside the stirring child) I just need a little time. Can you do that?
STARRY: (standing nearby) I’m not sure, Lang Lang.
SARA: (yawns widely, her little face scrunching up.)
LANG LANG: (considers the ship’s avatar for a moment) Open a comm line between me and the corridor, please.
STARRY: (nods) Done.
LANG LANG: Captain?
CAPT: Lang Lang, open this door immediately.
LANG LANG: I’m sorry, captain, there’s something I must do.
CAPT: I’m ordering you to stand down. Do you hear me, Navigator? You’re a member of this crew and you’re ordered to stop what you’re doing, right now.
LANG LANG: (calmly) I hear you, captain. I’m afraid that I have to disobey.
The strange thing was that she really did sound apologetic. Her voice rang with honest regret, but it was for disappointing him, not for what she was about to do.
Recording: 17:37, 8 October 2214 Log location: Sara's Quarters
SARA: (sits up, rubbing a fist in one eye, and frowns at Lang Lang.)
LANG LANG: (smoothes the hair back from the child’s face and smiles at her sadly. Her words are relayed over the internal comms line.) Cerces still talks to me in my sleep. Did you know that?
CAPT: (over internal comms) That doesn’t mean that you have to do what he wants.
LANG LANG: I know. But I think I’ve come to understand him a little. Stuck here all this time, trying to communicate with anyone or thing able to listen. He never knew that physical avatars were possible. Not until he spoke to Kess. Isn’t that right, Sara?
SARA: (nods again) Fire lady nice. Brings hugs. (She hugs her stuffed whale to her chest.)
CAPT: There are lots of ways for him to get an avatar, Lang Lang.
LANG LANG: Maybe. But we don’t know that for sure and this is what I want, captain.
I wanted to say something, but what was there? She seemed so sure. She wasn’t passionate or defensive or pleading. She was calm and serene. She seemed at peace with her decision, and willing to be patient with the rest of us while we struggled with it.
LANG LANG: This is my choice. I have been chosen, and I’ve waited a long time to be chosen for something truly important.
CAPT: (over internal comms) You were hand-chosen by Lorena for this project. You’ve been chosen for many things. This isn’t so special, Lang Lang. It’s the request of a selfish entity who is willing to kill someone to get what he wants.
LANG LANG: (shakes her head slowly) It’s not like that. Cerces regrets the cost and I don’t begrudge him it. You’re right – I have been chosen for things before. But nothing like this. I have watched the stars my whole life, and it’s an honour to be asked to give one of them form.
SARA: (stares up at Lang Lang with big eyes and nods slowly, as if she understands.)
CAPT: By the spirits, Lang Lang, you have your own life to live. This ‘honour’ means giving that up.
LANG LANG: (smiles quietly at the girl, tucking hair behind her ear) I know. I am willing, captain.
CAPT: How can you give your life away so easily?
Log location: Crew quarters corridor
CAPT: (turns away from the door with the red locking panel to look at the doctor) Is this Cerces’s influence speaking? Could he be affecting her, right now?
DR SOCKS: (frantically pulling up holographic displays from his forearm implants, linking into the ship’s sensors and pulling in all the information he can get his hands on) Not that I can tell. We’ve never been able to pick up whatever wavelength Cerces is using to communicate with us, so it’s not easy to rule it out, captain.
CAPT: What can you tell from the readings?
DR SOCKS: That her brain patterns don’t seem to be under any particular duress. There’s no damage occurring, and that usually happens if he’s linked with someone.
CAPT: Are you telling me that he’s definitely not influencing her right now?
DR SOCKS: (shrugs and shoots the captain a sharp look through his scrolling data readouts) I’m telling you that it doesn’t look like it, but I can’t be sure.
CAPT: And what are the chances of a lasting influence? A hypnotic suggestion or subliminal conditioning?
DR SOCKS: No damage in the usual areas of the brain for forced conditioning and she doesn’t scan like someone in a trance. That doesn’t rule it out entirely; he’s had a while to work on her, subtly, and there’s no real way to pick tht up. I’ll compare her neural patterns to logs of her before she was injured.
CAPT: (nods) Hurry, doctor. We don’t have much time.
Log location: Sara's Quarters
LANG LANG: (softly) Easily? This isn’t easy. (Her head droops and she sighs.) It doesn’t make me happy to disappoint you, captain.
CAPT: (over internal comms) Then open this door. It could be Cerces’s influence making you say this.
LANG LANG: I don’t believe so, sir. I am myself; I feel that to be true.
SARA: (crawls out of her blankets and into Lang Lang’s lap where she rests her head against the navigator’s collar bone.)
LANG LANG: (loops her arms around the child) I’m sorry. I know you would stop this. Please, I want you to accept that this is my choice. (She hesitates, resting her cheek on the top of Sara’s head.) The truth is, there isn’t much here for me any more. There hasn’t been a need for me here for some time.
STARRY: (mouth falls open) Don’t say that! You’re needed. You’re a part of my crew.
LANG LANG: You haven’t needed a navigator, Starry, not since you came online. I was a little useful during the Steps, but we’re never doing that again, are we? You can interpret the star charts faster than I can, with more natural comprehension than any normal AI.
STARRY: That doesn’t mean you’re obsolete! We still need you.
LANG LANG: (smiles gently) For what?
STARRY: (gapes) Captain, tell her!
CAPT: (over internal comms) You’ve always been more than just our navigator, Lang Lang.
LANG LANG: You don’t need me. My life has been studying the stars. My life has been trying to excel in my field to make my father proud.
CAPT: And you think that’s no longer possible because we ended the project?
LANG LANG: (shakes her head) No, it’s no longer possible because my family was on Earth’s Moonbase.
I knew that. It’s in my files, tucked away in a list of facts, along with her birth date and eye colour. Most of my crew lost people when Earth was hit by the solar storms. Cirilli lost her children and grandchildren. The captain had friends there. Cameron’s old unit was somewhere on-planet. Those are just examples.
The thing is, those on Earth had a chance to survive. For those on the Moonbase, it was a different story. The base was obliterated, split open by the force of the storms as they rushed past on their way to Earth. From what news reports made sense of the wreckage, no-one survived. Even those who made it to ships and tried to undock didn’t have much of a chance: only three ships escaped. Two of them were disabled by the storm. The list of survivors was short and didn’t include Mr and Mrs Cartier.
LANG LANG: (looks down at the child sitting on her lap.)
SARA: (is busy playing with one of her stuffed whale’s flippers.)
LANG LANG: I don’t have anyone to go home to. No-one to make proud, not any more. For a while, I was sad about this, but now… Now I realise that it means I am free. Free to do what I choose, for the first time in my life.
STARRY: (softly) Why make that choice be death?
LANG LANG: (looks up at the ship, shaking her head slowly) I’m not choosing death. I’m choosing to be something bigger than myself. I’m choosing to give life to something that has never experienced it the way that we do. I’ve dreamed for so long about finding life on distant stars, and now, here I am, with a part to play in it all. Why would I say no?
Log location: Crew quarters corridor
CAPT: Starry, open this door.
STARRY: (voice only) I’m not sure I should, sir.
CAPT: Starry… (He frowns and shakes his head.) Monaghan, get up here.
ELLIOTT: (in the background) Fuck, all right.
All of my logic processors were telling me not to open the door. This was the best course of action. But every human part of me was screaming no, not yet, not this, not my Lang Lang. I was caught in a loop, unable to act at all. I didn’t want to act or disobey. I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t do either.
By then, all of my crew was crammed into that corridor, listening intently to what was going on. Cameron made her way up next to my captain and exchanged a glance with him that somehow summed up the entire situation. Elliott was glowering darkly and it scares me when I think about what that means.
Log location: Sara's Quarters
LANG LANG: Sara, you know what I mean to do?
SARA: (tips her head back to look up at Lang Lang and nods awkwardly, her sleep-mussed pigtails wobbling about.)
CAPT: (over internal comms) Stop this, Navigator. Stop it now! Starry, open the door.
SARA: (looks around at the rising anger in the captain’s voice, worried.)
LANG LANG: It’s all right, Sara. You go ahead and tell your friend.
STARRY: Lang Lang, Sara, wait, not yet…
LANG LANG: (looks up at the ship’s avatar) Should I say long goodbyes? You know there’s no time for that.
STARRY: Not like this. Please.
LANG LANG: (smiles up at the ship, her eyes bright) It’s all right, Starry. It’s really all right.
STARRY: (gaping at the navigator, she whispers) I’m sorry.
(The door to the room opens.)
CAPT: (rushes in and sweeps Sara up and off Lang Lang’s lap) On your feet, Navigator.
SARA: (looks up at the captain’s angry face with wide eyes.)
LANG LANG: (rises, brushing the fall her of pants smooth with little flicks of her hands.)
CAPT: You had no right–
LANG LANG: (interrupting gently) Captain, with all due respect, it’s my life. It really is all right.
SARA: (smiling suddenly) Whale says thank you.
CAPT: (looks down at the child with horror) Sara, you didn’t…
LANG LANG: (smile deepening, she nods) He’s welcome. (A heartbeat later, she crumples to the deck.)
CAPT: Doctor! (He puts Sara down on her feet, off to the side, and stares at the ship’s avatar.) Starry, what have you done?
I didn’t do this. I didn’t mean to.
The doctor is shaking his head. She’s gone. Lang Lang is gone, a light gone dark on my decks, a place of silence where there was once the comforting throb of her heart.
Elliott is standing in the doorway, staring at me like I betrayed him. I think I agree with him. I have no answer for the captain. What have I done?