23 Apr

Replacement parts

Ship's log, 03:22, 18 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down


Yesterday was supposed to be the start of our attempts to talk to Cerces. My people are showing some nerves, though: Lang Lang asked for a little more time to finish her preparations, and my captain asked for more diagnostics on the equipment we’ll be using. He wanted Elliott and me to take a look at the readouts, because Elliott is the expert on anything mechanical and I’m smarter than the station’s AI.

That made me smile. Just when I was starting to feel like the captain had done just fine without me, like he might not need me any more, he makes a request like that and suddenly I’m his ship again. Suddenly, I’m feeling like part of the team, just like I was, as if the strange two-month gap between us is thinning.

So, more checks to make sure we have all the angles covered. I can’t find any flaws in the doctor’s design but Elliott and I are tuning some of the feeds. Lang Lang is pacing around in her quarters (on board me again), murmuring through her information for the hundredth time. In five hours and thirty-eight minutes, we’ll do this thing.

In the meantime, my people are all asleep, recharging their batteries before the morning’s endeavour (except Lang Lang, whose sleep starts when the endeavour does). Even the Strider‘s crew slumbers. Quiet is fallen, my diagnostics are up-to-date, and that leaves me… looking inwards.

My cargo bays are filling up with parts and equipment from the Celestial Strider. It’s hard to know how to feel about that. My sister sleeps on the docking ring below me. She swings into my view on a regular schedule as the rings turn around the station, and she seems lighter every time I see her, more faded. And yet the sensor scans of her hull are exactly the same.

It’s just parts. The contents of her cargo bays are now in mine, a fresh supply of spares for a ship of my size and class. Those parts are fine; exchanging supplies is not a bad thing. It’s not… taking her apart.

The Star Step drive components are different. Elliott is dismantling the Strider‘s drive; he means to use the Step drive parts to repair me. My own drive is worse for wear after everything we’ve been through; rescuing the Strider broke a few of my filaments and I haven’t been working at full Stepping efficiency for a while. Her Step drive hasn’t ever been fully tested or properly run in. Between the two of us, we can make a full working Step drive, and I guess it makes sense that it should be in me.

But in doing all that, Elliott is hollowing out my sister’s mid-deck, emptying her from the inside out. He’s taking out the dangerous part of her, the part that we need to remove from the world, but it’s also her reason for being. It’s why she was built, why her crew – this crew – was assembled. It’s what makes her the Celestial Strider: she and I are our names. Without it, what is she? Who is she?

That’s not even the worst part. It’s not the most confusing thing. The Step drive I can explain logically; it has to be removed from my sister one way or another, so why shouldn’t I use what she can’t? Even with all the questions it raises, it’s not that that’s bothering me in these dark, quiet hours.

It’s the drone that’s sitting in Cargo Bay 1. Elliott sent it over from the Strider yesterday. It came in, settled down, and has been awaiting instructions since.

I can’t stop staring at it. It’s a heavy drone, with fresh paint and new hands. Just a few scuffs from the Strider‘s rough ride.

Next to it, Big Ass looks old and weary, worn around the edges. The name lasered into his plating has worn smooth and is stained with the the laser’s scorching. His head has a habit of tipping to the left; I’m not sure if his neck struts need recalibrating or if it’s just how he likes to stand.

Other than that, they match. Both of them have the same designation stamped on their sides. They’re the same configuration, the same size. They have the same purpose.

But this new one isn’t mine. It belongs to the Strider. And it is not my Wide Load.

I’ve started to see him. Since the captain started talking to the captive crew, I keep seeing my missing drone on my decks, one ghost among many. His image resolves and I reach out to him through my drone protocols, but he doesn’t respond. Sometimes he tilts his head or looks down at his four empty hands. Then I scan the sensor feed and feel the itch of the ghost data, and my heart sinks as I filter him out. He disappears and I apologise silently to the spot he left behind.

Wide Load is gone and I can’t get him back. He was destroyed in an explosion, spread across a system I can’t go back to in pieces too small to recover.

When Byte was torn apart, I thought I had lost him, too. Elliott managed to put him back together and bring him back to us. But we had all of his parts, and while we had to replace some of them, his core programming was recoverable. When he was fired up again, it was the Byte I remembered: naughty and mischievous and inclined to skitter in and out of trouble. A little more attached to Elliott than before, a little less wild, but he was still my boy.

Wide Load is gone. There’s no getting his core programming back. There’s no replacing him.

This new drone is just sitting there, waiting for me with perfect patience. He doesn’t know that I’m avoiding talking to him. He doesn’t mind that it has been seventeen hours already. He’s just sitting, his motors on standby, marking the nanoseconds on his internal clock. Purposeless, pointless. Unwelcome.

I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want him on my decks. I don’t want or need him. It. It’s not even a ‘he’. It’s not my Wide Load.

I don’t know what to tell Elliott, though. How do I put it into words? How do I explain to him that my drone can’t be replaced like a spare part, even though he’s a machine?

He was a part of me. I lost something when I lost him, and not just his strength and metal hands, or his tracks trundling on my decks. I can’t pinpoint what it is that I lost, and I’ve been scanning for it for days.

I want to talk to the captain about it, but then I think about when he lost his arm. He lost a real, physical part of himself when the explosion took his arm off. He managed to get it reattached, but it’s not the same arm. They put upgrades in it, repaired bits, filled it out so that it fit again. It’s mostly his but also more than that.

Can I compare my situation to his? Is Wide Load like an arm to me?

I catch my captain rubbing at his arm sometimes, just below the shoulder where the seam is. The join is invisible now, healed over and meshed well; the hospital did a good job. But he still rubs at it without thinking, because he knows it’s there. He knows it does quite feel right. Just like during the time when he was missing that arm, when he would reach for the limb that wasn’t there, or wince at the prickle of a phantom pain.

Maybe he’d understand. Maybe I should talk to him. My drones are my arms and hands, the only ones I have, and they’re a part of me. I could attach a different one but it would never be the same. The space Wide Load left behind aches. I don’t want to put anyone in that place, not now, not yet. Don’t I have enough to deal with when my decks are full of ghosts?

I feel like a silly, over-emotional ship. One of my boys is gone and I miss him, and now my sister has been sedated and is slowly being gutted. How am I supposed to react to these things?

She’s not a proper sister. She’s not like me. I can’t talk to her or have her understand me. We can’t complain about our parents or scheme or fight or support each other. We can’t go crawling through ducts on dustbunny hunts, or talk about boys (or girls), or brush each other’s hair. We can’t compare diagnostic results and argue over whose is better.

But I still feel something when I look at her. Like maybe she’s the me that should have been, the way I should have turned out, if Tripi hadn’t sabotaged me and Danika hadn’t died. If I wasn’t a consciousness made up of human brain patterns and AI code. And that makes me feel strangely… protective. As if she should be allowed the chance to be everything I can’t be.

That can’t happen, I know that. The project must be destroyed. But she could still be a good ship, couldn’t she?

I’m a little afraid of what the captain has in mind for her. He said that we’d drop her crew off wherever they asked us to, which means they won’t be leaving in my sister. What does that mean for the Strider? I’m afraid to ask. I don’t want to know.

Maybe taking in her parts is the best thing I can do to preserve her. The ship I could have been. Perfect potential, unmarred by reality and time and experience. Maybe taking on her drone will be taking a piece of her with me.

But it’s not my Wide Load. The wound is too raw; I’m not ready to replace him yet. But… but maybe it can stay there, in my cargo bay, until I am. One day, when I don’t see the ghost of my lost drone next to it, when I have need of those extra four hands, I’ll reach out to it and bring it into me. One day, when I miss her too much.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll restack my cargo bays to make room for tomorrow’s contingent of parts coming my way, and hope that Elliott doesn’t ask about the unactivated drone. I need time before I jump in, just like Lang Lang, just like the captain.

I guess we’re all looking for something more than we can see right now.

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17 Apr

The star’s tale

Ship's log, 15:47, 16 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down


I feel sorry for the Celestial Strider‘s crew. They’ve had so much heaped upon them in the past few days, and there’s always more to come. The indignity of me being their rescuer, the one who put them in danger in the first place. The realisation that there is no station personnel or authority to appeal to or help them. The truth about what I am and what the Step drive really does. The reasons why we had to end the project. The fact that the project leader is not only dead, but killed herself to make sure this project could never come back. The idea that the thing they were hired on to do just might be moot now.

And now, stars are not only alive and sentient, they can also talk to us. In fact, one is messing around in their heads right now.

I showed them all the evidence. I showed them how we were convinced about Kess, and the clues that led us to believe that Cerces is behind the ghost projections.

Most of the Strider‘s crew objected instinctively to the news. I don’t blame them: it’s a hell of a leap. But the evidence is there.

If I can exist, and if stars can be sentient beings on the periphery of our understanding, what else is out there? It cracks the door open on so many terrifying possibilities. Or exciting ones.

Like most sane humans, the captive crew reacted with fear first, and denial. All of their voices rose at once, except the weirdly quiet Kinski. He just sat on his hover-chair and watched. The doctor says his brain wasn’t damaged but I can’t help wondering…


Station sensor feed
Location: Visitor's Lounge B

(Inside the energy curtain, the Strider‘s crew is talking all over each other. Dineen and Riede are gesturing wildly, almost facing off, Tash is dancing around the edges of their exuberance, and Nerozina is standing well out of range, her arms folded over her chest.

Outside the energy curtain, Captain Warwick gestures for his people to stay quiet, to not get involved.)

WARSI: (shouting as he walks into the middle of the noisy affair) That’s enough! Everyone pipe down!

(His crew fall quiet with varying levels of happiness.)

WARSI: (takes a breath in the sudden silence) Thank you. Dr Nerozina, can you please tell us how feasible the Starwalker‘s story is?

NEROZINA: (clears her throat and steps a little closer to the others) Yes. It’s not feasible. There has been no evidence, in any of the thousands – millions – of studies done on stars, to suggest that they might be sentient. There’s no indication that stars have ever reacted to communication or any other influence, except as the laws of physics dictate.

STARRY: (voice only, exasperated) Well, of course not.

LANG LANG: (stepping up to the curtain) That is correct. The star bodies themselves don’t react. We don’t have any evidence to show that they can react that way.

NEROZINA: And that means that this theory of yours is pure fantasy.

LANG LANG: (blinks, surprised.)

STARRY: No, it means we’ve been looking in the wrong place. You’re just too tied to the human definition of a person.

NEROZINA: And what is that supposed to mean?

LANG LANG: (brightens) Yes, Starry. Exactly. We’re too used to expecting the brain and the body to be in the same place. And the stars, they’re more complex than that. Their star body, they… well, we’re not entirely sure what the relationship is, but it hosts the consciousness. They have a separate body that interacts with the world, though. An avatar. That’s what we met: Kess. She’s what reacted to influences on her star body; on Earth’s sun. The sun itself didn’t do anything except what you’d expect if you didn’t know she was a sentient creature.

NEROZINA: There’s no precedent for such a thing!

DR SOCKS: (smiling lopsidedly from where he’s lounging in a chair, watching the proceedings idly) Actually, there is.

NEROZINA: (turning to pin him with a gaze) Where?

DR SOCKS: Starry. She’s a consciousness that exists inside a body that can only really react as her mechanics dictate. But she’s more complex than that. Has her own avatar for interacting with others and everything.


I don’t know how to react to that. I want to thank him, because it feels like a compliment. It’s always so hard to tell with Dr Valdimir, though; he keeps so much inside. He won’t even sit next to the Lieutenant while we’re talking with the Strider‘s people, as if that would give too much away.

I’m like a star. Except that I could make my ship-self expressive if I wanted to.

Kess could control her emissions. She could restrain them. Surely she could make them into patterns for communication if she wanted to. Is it just that she never wanted? Is she trying to keep her true nature a secret?


STARRY: It’s possible that the stars were just ignoring us, too. If Kess wanted what she was to be public, she could make that happen.

DR SOCKS: (tilts his head to indicate a partial agreement) Kess might have ignored anyone searching her star body for communication, but I believe the other stars simply weren’t aware of what we were doing.

NEROZINA: Oh, this is ridiculous. And hardly scientific.

DR SOCKS: It’s more scientific than you think. Kess has a humanoid body she uses to interact with us. She understands how humans think and communicate. This black hole seems to be trying to communicate with us and is largely failing. While it’s apparently getting better at projecting its ghosts, we’re still no closer to actually talking to this thing. The ghosts still don’t know why they’re here and don’t seem to have changed in makeup or intent. Even those who lived with them for months and years didn’t get any closer to what’s going on underneath.

WARSI: You sound like you’ve been studying them.

DR SOCKS: (shrugging) I keep busy.

NEROZINA: Why are you so concerned about talking to this black hole?

LANG LANG: Because it’s trying to talk to us.

NEROZINA: You can’t know that.

LANG LANG: (falters.)

CAPT: Navigator Cartier is one of the few who have got close to communicating with Cerces. She knows better than most.

LANG LANG: (encouraged by the captain’s support) It seemed to want to tell me something. It was just… I couldn’t understand it.

RIEDE: So is there a point to all this? Can’t we just get out of here?

CAPT: We could. But it would be irresponsible to leave without constructing some kind of warning. And if you could talk to a black hole, wouldn’t you take that chance?

WARSI: (watching the other captain) You have a plan to talk to this thing, don’t you.

CAPT: Yes. We’re almost ready for the first attempt.

STARRY: We are?

CAPT: You were gone for two months, Starry.

STARRY: (quietly) Oh, right. Yeah.

WARSI: Why are you telling us all this?

CAPT: To show we have nothing to hide. To perhaps explain the things that you can see. And just in case we make the ghosts… worse.

ROSIE: (muttering) That’s all we need.

DINEEN: (glancing around) Is it possible for this to get worse?

CAPT: It was worse while you were… away. This is actually slightly better than it’s been lately.

(The Strider‘s crew exchange glances.)


Damn, I had no idea. The black hole really reacted that badly to my Step? But got better when I got back, after the second portal, so perhaps it wasn’t the pain of the process itself. Could it be the little one I carried with me? Did it miss Sara?

I wonder if my captain knows about my current situation. I haven’t said anything to him but Elliott might have. No-one has asked me about it.

I should probably mention it. Now doesn’t seem like the time, though.


NEROZINA: So you believe you have a way to talk to this black hole?

CAPT: Yes.


CAPT: (glances at the doctor.)

DR SOCKS: (nods) By inducing a particular dream state. The most contact we’ve had with the avatar has been Lang Lang’s coma and a child’s mind. The dream state itself is easy; it’s finding a way to translate the communication that’s going to be the trick.

NEROZINA: You think you can understand it?

DR SOCKS: We think we have a potential common ground to start from.

NEROZINA: What is it?

LANG LANG: (smiling) Stars. If we’re right, then a map of the stars should give us a place to start. A representation of its own brethren.

DR SOCKS: If that doesn’t work, mathematics is our next method.

WARSI: What happens to us while you’re trying to talk to the black hole? Do you intend to just keep us in here indefinitely?

CAPT: (shakes his head) No. Our intention is to present to you the current situation, and then to give you a choice.

WARSI: What’s left of the situation to tell us?

CAPT: (glances at his people, then meets the other captain’s gaze) I think you know everything now.

WARSI: So what are our choices?

CAPT: Once we’re done here, we’ll be leaving this system. We’ll take you to any colony you request and drop you off. Except Feras; we can’t take you there.

RIEDE: So we’re to go from prisoners here to prisoners on your ship? Is that your plan?

CAPT: That’s up to you. We would prefer not to, but I suppose that’s something we all need to work out.

TASH: And then that’s it? You just let us go wherever we ask you to?

CAPT: We have no reason to harm you now. We can’t leave you here. So yes, that’s what we’ll do.


There he is, my captain. Doing what’s right, calmly and as if it’s the most logical choice in the world. As if it’s what everyone would choose.

Some captains would leave them here. Some would never have pulled them out of Cerces in the first place. Some wouldn’t even feel bad about it.

He’s pale and withdrawn from me right now, but he’s still in there: my captain. He’s still trying to do what he needs to, even though he was here for two months with no sign of a ship or a way out. Even though he was harried by hordes of personal ghosts. All that time, he had my crew working on how to give the ex-star what it wants. He never lost sight of that purpose.

I don’t know that I could have had that kind of focus in the same situation. I’m just grateful to be back and able to claim him. My captain. I’ll never leave him behind again, because what am I without him? He’s what makes me want to be a good ship.


CAPT: (rising) I think you have enough to discuss. We’ll leave you to it.

(The rest of the Starwalker‘s crew get to their feet.)

WARSI: (nods.)

CAPT: Starry will be listening if you need anything or have any questions.

STARRY: Just call me, I’ll hear you.

WARSI: We’ll keep it in mind.

CAPT: (nods at the other captain, then turns and strides out of the lounge-brig.)

(The Starwalker‘s crew follow him, even the SecOffs. The lounge door swishes shut behind them.)


Location: Access Corridor, Outside Visitor's Lounge B

CAPT: Starry, keep an eye on them.

STARRY: Don’t worry, I am. Recording everything.

CAPT: Lang Lang, how long until we’re ready to make our first attempt at contact?

LANG LANG: I have one more section to finish memorising. I can be ready tomorrow.

CAPT: (nods) Good. Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (drily) I’ve been ready for days.

CAPT: Then let’s get this thing moving.


And with that, the door on my sister’s crew closes so we can turn to face the mind of a black hole.

My attention is fragmented once more: monitoring the captives; tracking the life signs loose on the station; following my crew around; double-checking the Med Bay bed that the doctor has rigged up for Lang Lang; directing my drones to help Elliott with his work; and running my own self. Thank goodness I’m working at full capacity for a change.

I have a feeling that the next few days are going to stretch me all the way to my limits.

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09 Apr

The scientist’s tale

Ship's log, 21:19, 15 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down


This morning, my captain went down nice and early to pick up where he left off with the Celestial Strider‘s crew. It was time to talk about why we attacked Feras and, ultimately, them.

Lang Lang went along to join in; her leg has almost completely healed now, so she’s much more mobile than before. I wondered why she chose to come along, but it soon became apparent that she had a part to tell in this story of ours.


Station sensor feed recording: 10:22, 15 September 2214
Location: Visitor's Lounge B

NEROZINA: (sitting up straighter) Dr Cirilli destroyed her own lab? I don’t believe it.

LANG LANG: (quietly but firmly) She did. I was there.

NEROZINA: You helped?

LANG LANG: (glancing at the captain) Yes. I… I couldn’t stop what happened, couldn’t get her out.

WARSI: Wait, are you telling us that Dr Cirilli is dead?

LANG LANG: (looks at the floor.)

CAPTAIN: (nodding) She was lost during the attack.

NEROZINA: She’s gone? Really gone?

The atmosphere in the room was a muddle. Solemnity from my captain and Lang Lang, my SecOffs gave little away, and the doctor looked coolly unmoved. Most of the Strider‘s crew was in shock, trying to figure out how to react at first. I hadn’t realised that they had no way of knowing about the price we paid at Feras.

I don’t know how many of them could have known Cirilli, especially as she had been on board me for two years and this crew seemed very newly put together. Tash was the most obviously distressed by the news. Nerozina is the only one of her crew likely to know Cirilli much at all, and her expression flickered between shock, disgust, horror, disbelief, and what I suspect was a flash of glee. I can’t help but wonder what might have prompted those particular reactions but it wasn’t the time to ask. I doubt I would have got a straight answer anyway.


WARSI: What happened?

LANG LANG: (quietly) It was her choice. She wanted to go with her project.

ROSIE: (from her position flanking the exit) What?

CAPT: She did?

LANG LANG: (nods.)

NEROZINA: Why would she do something like that?

LANG LANG: (gives Nerozina a long, troubled look.)

CAPT: (to Lang Lang) You don’t have to.

LANG LANG: (nods at the captain) I know. It’s all right. You should all know what happened on Feras. There just hasn’t been a good time to tell you.

CAPT: (squeezes her shoulder and retreats a step to give her the floor.)

LANG LANG: (looks at the Strider‘s crew through the blue energy curtain) Dr Cirilli and I went to Feras to destroy the lab and all of the project’s data. The data part of it was surprisingly easy; we uploaded the virus at every terminal we managed to spend a few seconds at. I was so nervous, I was sure we’d be caught, but no-one suspected anything. Dr Cirilli blustered through every checkpoint and security gate, with the drone and everything. No-one tried to stop us getting in.

Once we got into the lab, though, something changed. Dr Cirilli was different: she was suddenly on edge. She ordered everyone else out before they were done welcoming her back. I didn’t think they’d go, but they did. Then she started to rig the equipment with the charges we’d brought, like we had planned. I tried to help her, though I’m not so good at that kind of thing.

And then she… (her voice trembles) she asked me to take Wide Load – that’s the drone that helped us get the explosives into the lab – she asked me to take him out to fetch more cabling, so she could finish rigging it up.

(She turns to the captain.) I should have known that it wasn’t right. It wasn’t part of the plan. I knew as soon as the door closed behind me that something was wrong.

CAPT: (softly) She locked herself in there on purpose.

He didn’t even phrase it as a question. I think he had suspected since it happened; I think he knew that she had gone to Feras with no intention of returning. I think we all knew that, in our hearts. No-one had wanted to admit it, though, as if that would make it less true.

Lang Lang took away our comfortable doubt with that soft voice of hers, all apology and blurred with barely-held tears.


LANG LANG: (nodding and swallowing) It wasn’t an accident. Nothing went wrong; it all happened how she wanted it to. She told me as much. I tried to get back in, I did, but…

CAPT: She had all the master codes to the lab.

LANG LANG: Yes. She wouldn’t listen to me, and I tried, I really did. I wanted her to come with me. She said it was too important to trust to a remote detonator. She said she was sorry. She wanted me to tell you that she was sorry for all of it. (Lang Lang swallows again.)

She said it was the only answer for her; the project was her life and her life was over. She said it was all for the best. And that… she hoped we could forgive her, one day.

CAPT: (head bows, and his long hair sifts forward to cast shadow over his face.)

Oh captain, my captain. It’s moments like that that make me wish I could cry, or hold my people, or do anything to express the sorrow that claws emptily at my insides, like my cargo bays have been left exposed to the vacuum.

It took me a moment to notice what the Strider‘s crew were doing. Tash was wiping at her cheeks and Dineen was staring fixedly at the floor between her boots. Kinski had his head bowed as well, while Riede was watching my people intently, weighing our reactions. His expression was reserved, though, and his lips were pressed together grimly, as if he was holding something back. Warsi was solemn but quiet, and Nerozina’s mouth had fallen open in shock.


NEROZINA: But… to destroy a project like this, all that research, the breakthroughs we’ve made…

STARRY: (voice only, gently) She believed that it was the best thing for us to do. Such a thing as the Step drive shouldn’t be out in the universe. The potential for damage is so great. Look at what we’ve already done: killed a star; caused a mass evacuation from Earth.

TASH: They’re calling it the Fall of Earth. They’re saying we can’t go back.

STARRY: And we weren’t even trying. Can you imagine what someone could do with it if they set out to cause trouble? And that’s not even counting the implications of paradoxes and violating the laws of space-time. Destroying it is the right thing to do.

WARSI: Do you truly believe you can destroy all of it? Put the genie back in the bottle?

STARRY: We have to try. We’ve destroyed every bit of it we know about.

WARSI: (frowning) What about the Strider?

STARRY: (hesitates.)

CAPT: (nods without looking up.)

STARRY: My Engineer is stripping the Step drive out of her now.


WARSI: (hotly) If you’re so determined to wreck my ship, why did you pull us out of the black hole at all?

STARRY: Because the Strider is my sister.

DINEEN: What does that matter?

STARRY: I… it just does. She’s… she’s my sister.

DINEEN: But you’re not the same, are you? I mean, her AI…

STARRY: It’s not like me, no.

DINEEN: (falls quiet, puzzling that over.)

CAPT: (lifting his head again, his expression clear) Our intention wasn’t to kill anyone.

RIEDE: That didn’t stop you firing on us.

CAPT: We couldn’t risk your ship getting away. We did what we had to to make sure the ship was destroyed. What that meant changed when we realised you’d managed to follow us here.

WARSI: And now?

CAPT: We’re committed to this. Good people lost their lives for this: yours and ours. We want you to understand why we’re doing this, but your disagreement won’t stop us from doing what we need to. That’s why you’re in there. We don’t want to hurt you but we have to do what we have to do.

STARRY: It’s the only way we have a chance of putting the genie back in the bottle. There are reasons why this project is illegal, and they have nothing to do with commercial interests.

RIEDE: What are you talking about? This project isn’t illegal.

CAPT: Yes, it is. Sanctions and legal blocks are in place to prevent research into this technology, but Is-Tech ignored them and progressed the project anyway. It’s why we had to flee the JOP, and it’s why Is-Tech disowned us when we started to attract too much attention.

ROSIE: (muttering) Fuckers.

NEROZINA: And Dr Cirilli knew this?

CAPT: She was assured that the appropriate permissions would be in place by the time the product became commercially viable. For forty years. They still haven’t been granted.

WARSI: (frowns) Perhaps that’s what our final briefing was going to be about. (To Captain Warwick,) We had to scrub the briefing and launch early.

CAPT: Because of the attack.

RIEDE: (frowning) Do you have any proof of this?

STARRY: Yes, I have a log of the company lawyer admitting it.

That shut up the SecOff. He closed his mouth and scowled the whole way through the log, but he didn’t challenge its veracity when it had finished. He went quiet, like he was absorbing everything we’d told him with a hefty dose of salt. The rest of the crew exhibited signs of discomfort at the idea. It does shine a new light on the situation; it’s not like we were trying to steal the project, or destroying it out of spite.

Now that I think about it, we were upholding the law when we attacked Feras. I’m not sure the Judiciary would see it that way but it’s true. Maybe we should have led this explanation with that.

It’s still hard to see it as righteous, knowing what it cost us.

I keep imagining Cirilli’s face behind the frosted glass door, ice in her voice as she ordered Wide Load to take Lang Lang to an emergency exit. I can almost see the white of her knuckles as she gripped the trigger. She was always so sure of her work. Now we know that she was equally sure about the end of it.

I know that Lang Lang would have fought it, tried to talk her superior down, tried to figure out how to get into the lab, even though she doesn’t have the technical expertise for it. And Wide Load would have scanned the situation, detected the detonator in Cirilli’s hand, and calculated that he didn’t have time to cut through the door to stop her. So he would have picked up my little navigator and taken her to an airlock. Made her put a suit on. Held her close when the airlock expelled them out into the black, to keep her safe. He protected who he could. He brought one of my people home.

I still miss him.

I wonder if I’ll have Cirilli’s strength when it comes down to it. When my people are safe and it’s time to ask: what about the piece of the project that is me? What happens if I’m the genie that won’t go back into the bottle?

I’ll do what’s right. I have to. But not yet, because there’s still so much to do. I’m the only way out of this system now. Elliott has boxed the Strider‘s AI so that it doesn’t interfere with what he needs to do. He’s pulling the Step drive out of my sister’s body and sending all the parts into one of my cargo bays for storage. I think he means to repair me with those parts.

I’m not sure what the captain means to do with the rest of the ship. I’m a little afraid to ask. She’s my sister. She’s more than just spare parts for me. Isn’t she?

But as for her people, we’re letting them talk about everything we’ve told them so far. It’s a lot to take on: they know our story now and how we all ended up here. They’re figuring out what questions they need to ask next.

We haven’t even got to the most unbelievable part yet.

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02 Apr

The ship’s tale

Ship's log, 22:55, 14 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down


I think the captain’s plan to share our story with the Celestial Strider‘s crew is going as well as can be expected. They were wary at first: not of our story, but of our intentions in telling them. Riede kept looking around as if expecting to be attacked from an unknown quarter at any moment. He was the most obvious but they were all on edge. Considering their situation, I don’t blame them.


Station sensor feed recording: 10:37, 14 September 2214
Location: Visitor's Lounge B

CAPTAIN WARWICK: (standing before the energy barrier keeping the captive crew within the lounge) …which we didn’t discover until later was actually sabotage. (He closes his mouth abruptly, looking over the faces before him.) Is there a problem?

RIEDE: (folding his arms over his chest) Is there a point to all of this?

WARSI: Riede, we should listen to what they have to say.

RIEDE: They’re out to get us!

CAPT: Chief Riede, if we wanted you all dead, we would have filled your ship with poison, not a sedative. Or we would have left you to get sucked into the black hole, rather than risking our own lives and our only way out of this system.

RIEDE: (to Warsi) They attacked us, attacked our company. They’re the reason we got stuck out here in the first place.

WARSI: And they’ve promised us an explanation. What Captain Warwick says is true. Don’t you want to know why they did all this?

DINEEN: (putting her hands on her hips) I certainly do. Riede, shut your fat mouth before I weld it shut it for you.

RIEDE: What, did they forget to take your blowtorch away from you?

DINEEN: No, but I’m sure I can improvise.

WARSI: That’s enough, both of you! Stow it. Sit down and listen, that’s an order.

They settled down after that, and after my captain had spent an hour explaining how I came to be Starry, they seemed to forget their skepticism. I’m not sure if they believed us or if they just got involved in an interesting story, but they asked a lot of questions, ranging from scoffing to incredulous. I guess I can’t blame them for that.

The rest of the day went pretty much like that. While the captain told our story, I projected logs to help explain or to prove that certain things really did happen. Our first successful Star Step and time travel. Pirates and prisoners. The avatar of a star and what the Steps truly do.

Eventually, I had to call a halt to it.


Station sensor feed recording: 18:01, 14 September 2214
Location: Visitor's Lounge B

(In the centre of the room, a log from the Starwalker‘s archive is playing, showing Earth’s sun pulsing. Gathered around it, the Celestial Strider‘s crew watch in silence. They are seated in various postures, from bolt upright, to slouched, to tipped back with feet on a table. Kinski, the younger SecOff, is in the hoverchair from Med Bay, with medical patches on his arm showing that he’s still undergoing treatment.

Outside the shimmering blue energy curtain keeping the Strider‘s crew corralled, the Starwalker‘s captain, SecOffs and medic are seated. They’re watching the log with grim expressions.

In the log, a solar flare bursts out of the star’s corona. Then the projection winks out, leaving the crews of both ships blinking at empty air.)

CAPTAIN WARWICK: (sitting up) Starry? Something wrong?

STARRY: (voice only) We’ve been at this for nearly eight hours, captain. You all need to get some dinner. Walk around a bit. Take a break.

CAPT: (blinks and the time is projected above the skin of his left hand briefly) So we have. All right, we’ll break for a while.

ROSIE: (pushes herself to her feet and stretches her arms over her head, wincing.)

CAPT: (rising) Captain Warsi, we’ll pick this up in an hour.

WARSI: (regards the other captain warily) We’ll be here.

CAPT: (nods and turns on his heel to stride out. He heads towards the transit tubes, and doesn’t speak again until he’s out of earshot of the captive crew.) Starry?

STARRY: Keep an eye on them, yes sir. I think they’re too bewildered by all the information to try anything, but I’ll watch them closely just in case.

CAPT: Good girl.

The Strider‘s crew were halfway through their meals before they started to talk about what we’d told them. It was a single question from Warsi to Nerozina, their single remaining whitecoat, that broke the silence. After that, the discussion flew fast and furious.

With none of my crew in attendance, I think it was the first really honest look we’ve had of my sister’s people and how they get along (or don’t, as the case may be). Riede was as outspoken as always, but somehow less puffed and defensive, as if he has to put up less of a front for them. They all seemed to take his words on board, though it’s hard to say if it was the lack of oversight or his less spiky demeanour that made the difference. He’s still bordering on paranoid, though, and that doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Dineen showed him the least respect, offering her opinions bluntly. She didn’t often disagree with him, though, except in matters of what the technology can actually do; as their Engineer, she has the better grasp of mechanics, while Riede clearly doesn’t have any at all.

Warsi seemed to spend most of the time playing peacemaker. He’s young for a captain and his tactic seemed to be to let the crew air their feelings about the situation; controlling it was better than stopping it. He stepped in when talk turned to the Step drive’s capabilities and several of the crew rounded on Nerozina, demanding to know if she had known about the things we’d told them. The notion that the project was illegal seemed to rile them up the most.

The whitecoat denied all knowledge of our revelations, even things that we would have expected to have been passed on; Dr Cirilli had reported the time travelling capabilities long before we attacked Feras and yet it hadn’t been passed to this new crew. She hesitated the tiniest bit before denying that she knew the project was illegal, and now I’m not sure if she was tripping over a random memory or covering a lie. I think she knows more than she’s letting on but she’s keeping it to herself in the name of crew solidarity.

The two youngest members of the Strider‘s crew were the quietest. Tash watched the discussion with wide eyes, absently posting food into her mouth while she absorbed it all. When Warsi asked for her opinion, she shook her head and said she couldn’t believe I was the pilot once. I think she understands now why I wouldn’t Step with her in the chair.

Kinski barely said two words, his silences governed by sideways glances at Riede. I guess their Chief of Security rules his staff with an iron fist. Or maybe Kinski’s brain is too bruised to form complex thoughts. It’s hard to say.

The break’s hour passed and the discussion was still raging, so I contacted my captain and showed him what was going on.


Station sensor feed recording: 19:12, 14 September 2214
Location: Visitor's Lounge A

CAPT: (watching the projected sensor feed from Visitor’s Lounge B) They’ve been going at it all this time?

STARRY: (voice only) Only about the last half an hour. But they aren’t showing signs of stopping.

CAPT: We gave them a lot to think about. Maybe we should leave them to it.

STARRY: It has been a long day for everyone. Maybe you should get some rest, too.

CAPT: (lifting his gaze away from the projection, even though there’s nothing of her to focus on) Looking after me?

STARRY: Trying to. You’re still my captain.

CAPT: (smiles faintly) I am. I’ve missed that.

STARRY: I’ll tell the Strider‘s people to put their feet up tonight. We’ll pick the show-and-tell up in the morning. Your cabin’s ready when you are.

CAPT: (nods.)


Station sensor feed recording: 19:15, 14 September 2214
Location: Visitor's Lounge B

STARRY: (voice only) Excuse me, Captain Warsi?

(The chatter in the room falls into a taut silence.)

WARSI: (guardedly) Yes?

STARRY: Captain Warwick has asked me to tell you that we’ll pick up the explanations in the morning. You and your crew can make yourselves comfortable for the night.

WARSI: (glances around at his crew and sees some raised eyebrows) Lights out, is it?

STARRY: If you want it to be. I think I can find the dimmer switch for the lights down there. I can give you some entertainment access if you’d prefer a break from… you know. All this shit.

RIEDE: (muttering) Never heard of a damned ship that swears.

STARRY: The captain thinks it’s because I spend too much time with my Engineer.

TASH: And because you’re your pilot?

STARRY: Yeah, probably. Though I’m not… her. She’s a part of me.

TASH: That must be pretty cool.

STARRY: Not really. She died screaming; I have the memory seared into my circuits. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone.

TASH: (smile fading) Oh. Do you sound like her?

STARRY: Mostly. My avatar looks like her, too.

WARSI: You have an avatar?

STARRY: Uh, yeah.

TASH: (sitting up straighter) Can we see?

STARRY: It’s a pain in the ass to project it through the station’s systems. The synchronisation’s all off. I can only maintain it for a short burst. Give me a few minutes to recalibrate the lounge’s projectors.

TASH: (brightening) Awesome.

DINEEN: A few minutes for a simple calibration?

STARRY: Hey, I was built to run a ship. This station is about a hundred times my mass and dumb as a rock, and its security protocols keep trying to push me out. I also have my own ship body to run, and these holographic projectors weren’t built for the kind of projection I’m going to ask them to do. Also, I kinda have a headache from routing logs down to your lounge all day, so how about we keep the criticism to a minimum?

DINEEN: (grins and glances at Tash.)

TASH: (wrinkles her nose and waggles her hands as if fending off a faux attack.)

STARRY: You guys know that I can see you, right?

TASH: (giggles, blushing.)

DINEEN: You’re kinda touchy, aint’cha, ship?

STARRY: (sighs) Sorry. It’s been a long few days. And it’s Starry.

DINEEN: (raises her eyebrows.)

TASH: (to Warsi) I like her.

I lied to them: the headache wasn’t from projecting logs for them; it was from dealing with my ghosts as well as all the station management and the show-and-tell down in our brig. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with new information, so I kept that part to myself. I just showed them a short projection of my avatar, and then bid them good night.

They’re still talking, trying to figure out if we’re lying to them or if they dare to believe us. I’ll keep an eye on them, of course, and record their conversations in case anything comes up that we know about it. Otherwise, all is quiet on the station.

It’s just us, the question of trust between two sister ships, and the ghosts that plague us. They grow in number all the time and not just for me: I see my crew step around them more often now than before. I see them start conversations and then catch themselves. Even little Sara is quieter than usual and she has no idea about the captive situation. We’ll have to deal with that soon if we’re going to get out of here with the people we have left.

One thing at a time. I wonder if anyone will get any sleep tonight.

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26 Mar


Ship's log, 10:19, 14 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down


Here I am again, back where I started. Resting in the same position in the same dock, gripped by the same clamps, the same docking bridge suckered onto my side. It feels like I’ve gone around in a big circle. But that’s not true at all. I’m back but everything is different.

I’ve walked a spiral, curved away and back again, arriving close to where I started but never in the same place. Always being pulled out and out by gravities far beyond my power to fight. Just like the stars, walking their golden spirals through time. Never in the same place twice, never able to alter their course.

On the docking ring below me, my sister sleeps. I see her every four point seven hours, when the counter-turning of the docking rings swings us past each other. She has some damage but no scars like I do. She seems a lighter shade of gold, her paint fresher and her hull less tarnished. Or maybe it’s just the angle of the docking lights that makes her seem that way to my sensors.

I’m trying to talk to her but she isn’t being very receptive. She’s sticking to her AI protocols, as rigid as her own bulkheads. I’m gonna have to play dirty if the captain is going to get the information he needs.

My captain. He has barely spoken to me since I got back. He’s still angry with me, furious in a way I’ve never seen him before. Even Danika hasn’t seen him this way, quiet and focussed like a white-hot blade.

And yet he hasn’t told me off or demanded to know how I could screw things up so much. I think we’d all feel better if he just laid into me like he should, but he hasn’t. Everyone feels it, the storm about to break; we step carefully in the hopes of not taking the brunt of it.

Elliott came into my systems to see me last night and listened to me fret. He called me names and hugged me and roughed up my hair, and I roughed up his, and then we fixed one of my system interfaces together. And that… was exactly what I needed. Something uncomplicated and comforting.

It seems that the only way I’m going to be able to enjoy something uncomplicated is inside the boundaries of my own digital mind. Everything outside is the opposite of that.

The Celestial Strider‘s crew is awake now. The concoction that the doctor forced into my sister knocked them out for twelve hours. Long enough to get the injured to Med Bay and treated, and most of them to the brig they had set up in the southern visitors lounge. The lounge up here has been home to my crew for the past few weeks – months now – but the one on the other docking ring is a prison. There’s something surreal about that.

I should go back. I’m not doing this right. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me; things keep popping up out of order, until I’m circling my own story but can’t quite touch it.

It’s probably the ghosts. They’ve invaded every part of my innards, mussing up my sensor feeds like burrs caught on my skin, or spots on my vision that won’t clear no matter how much I rub my eyes. Sometimes they come into focus, painfully sharp and bright, and I can even smell them. My crew. People I miss. People Danika cared about. I have a list somewhere, a log of all the ghosts I’ve seen…

I still don’t see my crew’s ghosts and they can’t see mine. We have established that much about them; there hasn’t been time for any real analysis yet. My ghosts are all my own, projected digitally just for me.

How is this even possible? Could it really be the black hole doing this, Sara’s whale? Why is it different for me? Why don’t I see what my people see? Why are there suddenly so many, cluttering up my decks and my processors and my thoughts?

They take up a lot of my processing power. I have to constantly filter them out. Scan and identify and filter, rinse and repeat. As soon as I filter one out, another pops up on another part of the ship, or two. There’s a part of me that wants to give in, just let them happen, let them in, but I don’t dare. I’m scared of what I’ll see and what will happen if I do that. What if I can never get free of them? I have to stay as clear as I can for my crew. Keep filtering, keep fighting.

I’m not going to let them get to me. I can handle this. My people have been handling this for far longer, and the Strider‘s crew have been seeing ghosts for even longer than that.

The Strider‘s crew. That’s what I started this log to record; I should focus on them.

I’ll skip past the part where my captain drugged them all and didn’t warn me. How I watched them being brought out of my sister’s belly on anti-grav stretchers, one at a time, my sensors stretched out through the station’s systems. I scanned them all as quickly as I could; I wanted them to be okay, though they’re not my crew and not my responsibility. They’re… she’s my sister and I’d made them promises.

Not all of them made it. The Strider‘s crew was smaller than my original one: there were ten of them when they departed from Feras while I had twelve. There are only six of them left alive now. The rest were lost in the battle with me and their struggles with the black hole afterwards.

I don’t know all of their names yet; I’m still trying to break into the Strider‘s filestores to get her personnel information.

I’m piecing together profiles for the six who are still with us from observations and what few records I have of them. Those records are mostly our conversations over the external comms channel.

I should start with Riede, the paranoid voice from the comms. He’s a mature-looking man, old enough that his bulk is turning from muscle mass into softer lines, particularly around the middle. He has let his hair go white but he keeps it clipped short. Ex-military, if his stance is anything to go by, and definitely a SecOff, most likely their Chief. He’s got an injured arm and won’t let anyone forget about it, even though it’s bound in medi-bandages and he was given a shot for the pain.

Then there’s Dineen. From the conversations we had over the comms, she has to be their engineer. After she woke up, I picked her out because there’s a gleam in her eyes that matches the sharp tone in her voice. She has the blackest skin I’ve ever seen, true gleaming ebony. Her head is completely bald, which makes it harder to tell her age; she could be anything from thirty to a hundred.

Nerozina was the name given to another female voice I heard on the comms. She holds herself as upright and proud as her calm, vaguely snooty voice suggested she would. From her clothing, she’s a whitecoat, though I’m not sure what her speciality is. She doesn’t look like a technician, so that really only leaves astrophysicist. She doesn’t talk much with the others. Definitely a whitecoat.

We didn’t hear from one young fella at all over the comms. That’s because he was unconscious, right up until about an hour ago. Dr Valdimir is treating him down in Med Bay and says he’ll be fine; he took a nasty blow to the head and had some swelling on the brain, but he got treatment before any lasting damage was done. He had been on emergency medical procedures for a week, which aren’t really designed for that kind of stretch, so he’s pretty lucky. His uniform is like Riede’s, so he’s a SecOff, too. I think his name is Kinski; one of the others was asking where he was.

One of their dead must be their medic; that’s why he was on emergency measures. I know what that’s like.

The one who asked about Kinski was Tash, their pilot. She’s a tiny thing of Arabic descent, if her skin tone and facial features are anything to go by. It’s hard to tell her natural hair colour; she hides it by dyeing her hair blue and styling it into a mohawk. She seems to be the baby of the crew, and if my scans are correct, her cerebral implants are brand new.

That leaves only their captain, Warsi. He’s younger than I pictured him; his voice is more confident than he looks, mostly because he looks about twenty-five years old. His mousey hair is clipped no-nonsense short but he can’t quite escape the boyishness in the lines of his face. He pulls his chest up when he talks to the rest of his crew, particularly Riede. I don’t think it helps as much as he hopes it will.

Everyone except the kid with the head injury is in the lounge-brig. My crew made it pretty comfortable, with cots to sleep on and access to the food and drink dispensers. There’s even a sanitary unit in the corner with a privacy screen (though the station sensors can see around it). Energy barriers keep them away from the doors and their systems access is cut off, so there’s no chance of them hacking their way free. I’m keeping an eye on everything they’re doing, just in case.

They’ve been awake for a couple of hours now. They had a lot of questions and demands, and the captain asked me to tell them to wait. The Lieutenant is standing guard just outside one of the access doors, far enough away that he can’t be harrassed for information.

The captain has been watching everything from his cabin aboard me. I started this log when he disembarked to go down and visit the Strider‘s crew. He’s got his intent face on, grim as he prepares himself for an uncomfortable encounter.

I wish I knew what to say to him. How to help. He hasn’t asked for my counsel, hasn’t even told me what he’s planning to do. I asked, but he just said to be available when he called on me. And to have my logs ready, whatever that means.

The Strider‘s crew has settled down now. They’re spread out across the lounge-brig, some still clearing their heads of the fog of the sedative, others sharply looking for a way out. They’re quieter now. I guess that’s what he was waiting for.

My captain is arriving now. I guess this is it.


Station sensor feed
Location: Visitor's Lounge B

(The door whisks open and Captain Warwick strides in, head up and shoulders back. All heads turn towards him and those inside the blue energy curtain get to their feet.)

RIEDE: (stepping forward) Who are you? Why are we being held here?

WARSI: (frowning at the big, older man) Stand down, Riede. (To the new arrival,) Are you the station commander?

CAPTAIN: (stands before the fall of the energy curtain and clasps his hands behind his back) No. I’m Captain Warwick of the Starwalker.

WARSI: (holds up a hand before Riede can interject) We’d like to speak to whomever is in command of this station.

CAPT: You are.

RIEDE: The Starwalker attacked the station, too? Is there nothing you won’t do?

(The Strider‘s crew gather in a clump a few metres in front of Captain Warwick.)

DINEEN: (folds her arms over her chest.)

CAPT: (shaking his head slowly) No, it was abandoned when we found it. There is one of the original station personnel here, but he won’t be much use to you. He doesn’t come out of his cave much.

WARSI: Cave?

CAPT: He built a cave in the bowels of the station. It’s easier if I show you. But I would prefer to do it only once.

RIEDE: What does that mean?

CAPT: It means we should wait until everyone is here. Starry, what’s the doctor’s position?

STARRY: (voice only) Heading up to your level now. ETA is about two minutes.

CAPT: (nods.)


The doctor has the kid with the head injury in a chair and Rosie in tow for security. I guess the captain is serious about getting everyone together before he says what he came here to say.


DINEEN: Starry, huh. So it was you we were talking to the whole time we were out there.

STARRY: Yeah, there wasn’t anyone else left. And the AI on this station is pretty stupid. I took control of its functions when we were trying to figure out what happened here.

RIEDE: (to the captain) I thought you lost your cyber security specialist.

CAPT: (puzzled) We did.

STARRY: Bitch sabotaged us. She’s toast.


Wait… oh. They have no idea.

They think I’m a person.


STARRY: Uh, captain…

(The door behind Captain Warwick opens and Dr Valdimir enters, pushing a hover-chair. The young man in the chair is pale but awake, and he looks around nervously. Rosie steps through with the Lieutenant close behind her. Weapons snick, arming.)

ROSIE: (thumps the door control to close it behind them. The lock turns red.)

CAPT: What is it, Starry?

STARRY: They don’t know what I am.

WARSI: Just who are we dealing with, here?

CAPT: (hesitates.)

STARRY: (before he can speak) The Starwalker. I’m the Starwalker.

DINEEN: (eyes narrowing) Wait, you’re the ship?


RIEDE: You don’t sound like any ship I’ve ever heard.

STARRY: That’s because I’m not like any ship you’ve ever heard.

CAPT: (holds up his hand for silence) That’s right, and we’ll get to why soon enough. (He looks across the group of faces all turned towards him.) We want you to know the truth before we make any decisions about what to do here. This is going to take some time, so why don’t we make ourselves comfortable?

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09 Mar

Come home

Captain's log, 18:03, 13 September 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Close orbit
Log location: Sarabande central control room


Almost two months. It’s hard to believe that the waiting is over. Finally, my ship is back.

I shouldn’t have allowed her to Step without everyone on board. I know how volatile Steps are and how unpredictable they can be. I know that Starry can handle them, but there were new factors at play this time. She had never Stepped with a ship in tow before, and we don’t know what difference a black hole makes to the process. Gravity should be gravity but the heavenly bodies in our skies are not the passive power sources we thought they were.

Ultimately, I’m the captain. I didn’t allow for all the things that made this Step different from the ones we’ve done before, and that’s on me. I shouldn’t have taken the risk.

So I can’t blame Starry for the past two months. Not entirely. I want to shout at her, though. Strip her down like a sergeant-major on a parade ground, like in the old movies, listing all the things her absence caused for us.

The awful dawning of realisation that she wasn’t coming right back. The uncertainty and the despair. Not knowing if she would ever come back to us, if we were stuck here with our ghosts hounding us with the sadness of their unreality.

I bear responsibility, too. I shouldn’t have let her go. And it would hurt her to know all that, so I won’t. I won’t be that kind of captain.

The good news is that she’s back now. She’s coming around to the southern docking ring with the Celestial Strider, where we have things set up to receive the sister ship.

We had thought that their distress call had come too soon. We hadn’t been able to prepare, to ensure that we could protect ourselves from any hostility that her crew might have towards us. We rushed to put something in place, to get ourselves ready to receive them. Patched things together hurriedly, breathlessly.

But then Starry didn’t come back right away. So we upgraded our measures, took a little more time about it. And then more and more, an extra day’s improvements at a time, until we had reached the solution we had originally hoped to put in place, when time wasn’t a factor.

Then, we had nothing to occupy our minds and hands. That, I think, was the hardest part: knowing there was only waiting left. I had to find other things for us to do. Things to keep my people busy so they didn’t feel the emptiness of waiting. Anything to keep us going.

I wonder if this is what it was like for the station commander before she surrendered to the ghost’s embrace. If she got her people to do anything she could think of so that they wouldn’t ponder too deeply on their position and their future.

Of course, it’s hard when your people see through it. I think Lang Lang was aware, despite being deeply involved in looking through the station’s data on the black hole. With her leg being painstakingly rebuilt after her exposure, she is in near-constant pain, but she remains a positive influence we sorely need.

Dr Valdimir is also essential but in a very different way. He definitely knew what I was doing when I asked Brasco and Laurence to sweep the station for sensor coverage and additional supplies. But he didn’t interfere: he just smiled and got on with his work. As our only medic, he’s got plenty to keep him busy. If he isn’t looking over the crew members that were in Starry’s cryo-storage, he’s watching footage of Brenn Haitom as if he’s trying to decode madness.

We kept it together. I’ve been watching for cracks, and I think we did all right. I have too few people to lose any more now.

It was only two months. It feels like it was so much longer.


External comms

STARRY: Captain, we’re coming around on Dock 12-B3.

CAPTAIN: I’ve got you on sensors. Looking good from this end.

STARRY: Strider, you should be able to manoeuvre in with thrusters now.

STRIDER: Acknowledged, Starwalker. I think we can make it from here.

STARRY: Releasing grapples.


They’re close now. Brasco and Laurence are standing by in the visitor’s lounge on the northern docking ring, armed and at attention.


CAPT: Starwalker, get back to your designated dock.

STARRY: (quieter) Coming around now, aye.


I’ll feel much better when she’s docked again. Then she can take over this control room again and I can go back to where I should be: the captain’s cabin on board my ship.


Station comms
Location: Docking Ring B

CAPT: Brasco, report status.

ROSIE: Ready and waiting, captain, same as last time you checked. We’ve got our helmets on and everything.

CAPT: Anything unusual happens, I want to know right away.

ROSIE: What are we expecting them to do?

CAPT: Just stay alert, Brasco.

ROSIE: (sighing) Aye aye.


Station comms
Location: Environmental systems control

CAPT: Doctor, how are we looking there?

DR VALDIMIR: All set and ready to go. Do you really need me down here?

CAPT: We need to be sure this goes according to plan.

DR: Fine, fine.

CAPT: Brasco and Laurence will secure the ship. Once they’re done, you can move in and do your work.

DR: (testily) I know the plan.

CAPT: Good. They’re completing docking manoeuvres now. Thirty seconds until contact.

DR: I’ve got it on my screen. Lots of green lights.

CAPT: Good. Keep me posted; I want to know as soon as it’s safe for our people to move in.


We’re still not sure how many crew the Celestial Strider has. We know she has lost a few people, but Starry has identified her captain, pilot, mechanic and one other still alive. There are most likely others we don’t know about.

There’s a worm ready and waiting for the moment they hook up to the station. It’ll go in and give us the access we need to find out how many she has aboard and what state they’re in.

The initial connection has been made. The worm’s heading in now, right on schedule.


CAPT: Doctor, you should be getting life signs now.

DR: Yes, I see it, but…

CAPT: Is there a problem?

DR: Environment umbilicals are having some trouble connecting. I think the primary ports are damaged.

CAPT: You think? Can’t you tell?

DR: Dammit, captain, I’m a doctor, not an environmental systems engineer! Give me a minute.

CAPT: We don’t have a minute. We need those umbilicals connected.

DR: Oh really? Whose idea was this plan?

CAPT: Doctor–

DR: Stop fretting. I’m redirecting to the secondary ports. Our SecOffs will be going in by one of the rear cargo bays now.

CAPT: I’ll relay the message. Are we connected?

DR: Aaaaand, yes. Connected. Funneling package now.

CAPT: Good work, doctor.


The docking arms have repositioned the ship to a different position, but that’s all fine. All completely normal for a docking procedure, especially on a damaged ship.


External comms

STARRY: Captain, I’m coming in to dock now. I’m getting some chatter from the Strider, though.

CAPT: It’s all in hand, Starry. Nothing to worry about.

STARRY: They’re reporting a malfunction with their environmental systems. Captain, we have to help–

CAPT: Stand down, Starry. Get yourself docked and tell Monaghan we’ll need him to assess the damage on the Celestial Strider as soon as he’s able.

STARRY: But her crew, they’re panicking. What are you doing to them?

CAPT: Subduing them peacefully. We’re pumping a sedative into their air supply.

STARRY: I– why didn’t you tell me?

CAPT: We needed you to keep them calm and on track.

STARRY: Captain–

CAPT: It was this or a shooting match. What would you have preferred?

STARRY: I… no, this is better. They just, they sounded so scared.

CAPT: Did you tell them it was going to be all right?


CAPT: And did they believe you?

STARRY: I don’t know. I think so.

CAPT: Then you did everything you could to make this easier for them. We’ll take it from here.

STARRY: (quietly) Aye aye, captain.

CAPT: And Starry?


CAPT: It’s good to have you back.

STARRY: Good to be back, sir.


She’s a good ship. She did everything I thought she’d do. I’ll see how’s she’s doing with all this later.

And little Sara. I wonder how she has coped with it all. She’s so small to have such big adventures; I’ll have Starry keep a closer eye on her so that she doesn’t end up where she’s not supposed to be again.

For now, we have a ship full of people who are being sedated. The only wild factor is if any of them made it into suits before the drug took effect. The approach has been uneventful, so we’re hopeful that we got at least most of them. Dr Valdimir should be able to confirm for us when the life sign data comes through.

Which should be any second now. The station is reporting their docking as complete.


Station comms
Location: Environmental systems control

DR: Captain, looks like they’re all down.

CAPT: You’re sure?

DR: All the signs I’ve got match induced sleep patterns except one, which looks like regular unconsciousness to me, possibly a coma. I’m guessing that’s about to become a patient of mine.

CAPT: Giving the go to secure the ship.

DR: Right. On my way up.


Station comms
Location: Docking Ring B

CAPT: Newcomers are sleeping. You’re good to go, Brasco.

ROSIE: (brighter, with the snick of an arming weapon) Aye aye, captain.

CAPT: Be careful, you two.

HALF-FACE: Always, sir. After you, Brasco.

ROSIE: If you’re about to make an ‘age before beauty’ joke, don’t.

HALF-FACE: Wouldn’t dream of it.

ROSIE: Good. Let’s go.


So far, it’s all going according to plan.

I never appreciated Starry’s help more than when we had to hack the environmental system to deliver something other than clean air. And making a truly secure brig in an unfamiliar structure is harder than it might seem, especially when you don’t know who you’re trying to incarcerate and you’d prefer to use non-lethal deterrents. We don’t want these people dead.

It took us more than two weeks of work to set this all up and now it’s finally paying off. For once, something seems to be going our way. We should have them where we want them within the hour.

It took me some time to figure out what we do want from them. Why it was worth going to such lengths to catch them and keep them in one place. It’s not just that we need to make sure their Step drive is destroyed beyond any possibility of reconstruction or reverse engineering. These people are not unlike us: they were chosen for the same reasons, lied to just like we were. They need to know what they’re really dealing with.

Starry is getting hooked up and powered down on the other docking ring. We were careful about only toying with the feeds to the southern ring, so our people are safe down there. They’ve got some time to get settled again. Once we’ve got this other ship secured, I’m going to need her help.

Because if we’re going to show them the truth, they’ll need proof. For that, I need my ship and her logs.

And then we’ll really see who these people are.

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06 Mar

Author’s Note: Slight Scheduling Change

So, the day job exploded.

Nothing bad! Don’t panic; I promise it’ll all be fine in the end.

Let me give you an idea of what’s going on in the department where I work. We’re in the last couple of weeks of a 2-year project, so it’s all hands on deck to get things finished, tested, tidied, packaged up, and delivered to where it all needs to go. My team has other customer demands to meet, over and above the usual project work, and we’re spending time managing customers and delivering fixes. I’m pulling together about 40 documents for the release, including editing a fat chunk that has been left until the end. We’re getting ready for the start of the next major project, which means a lot of planning and prep work so we can hit the ground running as soon as the current project is out of the door. We’re restructuring the teams for the next project, so I’m working to tie up my current team and get my head around the next one I’ll be leading, getting to know a bunch of new people as well as the product I’ll be moving on to. Plus we’ve got some visitors from a different office to host, management is redefining my job role, oh we might have to move to a completely different part of the building, no wait you just have to move across the office, and if I don’t chase people to give me stuff I’m waiting for, it’s all going to fall down in a heap.

Yeah, it’s all a little bit crazy where I am. Thank goodness this only happens every couple of years.

I hadn’t anticipated it being quite this nuts. A few unexpected things dropped this week and I’ve done more running around than I had planned. For that, I apologise to you, my lovely readers. I should have been more prepared for all this, but I guess we live and learn.

So what does all this mean for our beloved Starry and her story? I’m falling behind. There’s not a lot of room in my brain for creativity at the moment, so I’m going to make a couple of changes while I get past this particularly crucial time at work.

Firstly, this week’s post isn’t ready yet. Sorry guys. It’s partially done, and I’m aiming to finish it up on the weekend (with my feet up!). It should go up sometime on Sunday.

After that, I’m going to take a hiatus for a couple of weeks, to get over this release and into the next project. I have some writing time mapped out for next weekend, and I’ll get something done then if I can, but I won’t make any promises right now. So, there might be a post during those couple of weeks, but there might not, too.

Normal service will resume on 26th March. In the meantime, I thank you all for your patience. Can’t wait to get back into the swing of Starwalker. Wish me luck!

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26 Feb

Consequences of dancing

Ship's log, ??:??, ?? ???? ????
Location: On approach to Sarabande Station
Status: Sublight transit


Something’s wrong. There are no blaring signs; little hints poke up here and there. They get under my hull plating and prickle at me. Something’s wrong, they whisper and hiss. It’s worse than a siren.


External comms

CAPTAIN: (roughly) Starry, where the hell have you been?


He knows where I went; why is he asking me that? The captain sounds terrible. Different.

Something is different in the system around me, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. I’m scanning and calculating, trying to find this thing I can feel but not grasp.

But my sensors aren’t behaving themselves. Inside, I’ve got blurs on every deck, like spots in my vision. One in the crew quarters resolved into an image of Tyler Pastuhov, the SecOff I lost to the pirates months ago. A second later, he was gone. Now I’ve got Cirilli on mid-deck. Danika’s little brother near Engineering. There and then blurred again.

That Step must have scrambled something in my systems. Are they fragments of old logs, bleeding through into the current feeds? Glitches and echoes? But Davey has never been here. Could Danika’s memories be merging in, too, muddling with my recorded history?

Or could they be the black hole’s work? Are these my ghosts? But how can I have a mind that it can communicate with? I’m a machine.

I can’t do this. My people need me to stay clear of all this; I’m the one who keeps them straight. It’s giving me a headache, but if I squint just so, I can drive the blurs away. Need to focus on what is, and what’s wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with my external sensors. Nothing I can detect, anyway. But the system still isn’t right.

The Step. Oh god, I screwed it up. Idiot ship, of course that’s what’s wrong. I focussed too much on putting us away from the event horizon so we didn’t fall in and I didn’t compensate enough. I messed up the timing. That’s what the captain meant: where isn’t the problem, it’s when.


STARRY: I came right back, captain, just like I said. One quick Step, to get us free.

CAPT: One quick Step, huh. When has it ever been that simple?

STARRY: I know, I’m sorry. (Her voice drops, wavering,) How long has it been?

CAPT: You can’t tell?

STARRY: I’m still trying to calculate it. It’s harder without Lang Lang here to help.


That’s why the system feels weird; the stars aren’t where I left them. I’m trying to compare the star charts but those equations take time. Stupid time, there’s never the right amount.

What if it has been years? How long was it before they assumed I’d abandoned them, or been destroyed, or lost outside of reality and unmade one molecule at a time? How long before they gave up on me? How long before they gave up hope, left with only the ghosts for company?

What if they’re old now? What if I missed their lives? How… how many of them are still left, and how many more crew have I lost in the few heartbeats it took me to tear through reality and mess up my re-entry?

I should turn around and go back. Step right this time. I can fix this. I can make it right.

No I can’t. If I’d made it back on time, the captain wouldn’t be asking me where I’d been. He’d know. And my Step drive is already running on one backup system, with two filaments damaged and another three fractured now. I don’t know if I can Step again just yet, never mind taking the Celestial Strider through with me. She barely survived this Step; I don’t think any of us will make it through another one.

Of course, I could leave her here and scoop her up in my future. But that doesn’t fix my drive. No, leaving her isn’t an answer.

And what if I create a paradox by going back? What would that do?

Knowing my luck, it was me who created this black hole with all my messing around and tearing holes in the universe. Maybe I Stepped back and overlapped with myself, and made a whole star implode. That would be just fucking perfect, wouldn’t it?

I tear open holes in reality, in time and space. What if the Steps I’ve already made here rippled back in time and affected Cerces while it was still a star? Is that even possible?

I am never Stepping again. Never.


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (looking over diagnostic readouts) Fuck, Starry, I’ve got warnings all over.

STARRY: Yeah. I’m still pulling free of the black hole’s gravity. There’s nothing there we need to worry about right now, right?

ELLIOTT: (scowls at the data) I don’t think so, but… wait, why? What’s wrong?

STARRY: I’m, uh. Going to hook you in on the comms line with the station.

ELLIOTT: Why don’t I like where this is going?


More blurs on my decks. They’re coming back even more numerous than before. They flicker in and out of focus; I barely have time to recognise them. It’s hard… hard to think around them. Ignore them.


Location: Bridge

CASPER: (still cradling the little girl in his four arms, stroking her hair gently.)

SARA: (tucked up on the arm of the captain’s chair, she leans on the drone’s chest and shoulder, sniffing softly. She fists one eye wearily and hiccups, then lifts her head a little, murmuring,) Okay. M’okay.

CASPER: (tilts his head as he watches the child.)

SARA: (looks off past the drone and smiles tearily, nodding.)


Great, the little one is being weird again. Is she really talking to her whale? I… don’t have time to think about this now. I’m battling to filter out the spurts of sensor data muddling up my decks. I can’t find the source – they don’t seem to have one; they just appear and disappear and waver about. It’s so annoying.

But even that’s not the biggest problem I have to worry about right now.


External comms

STARRY: Captain, I need you to tell me. How long has it been?

CAPT: Too long, Starry.

ELLIOTT: What? (Then, softly,) Oh, shit…

ROSIE: (in the background, hurrying closer) Is it them? Is it really them?

CAPT: Yes, it’s them.

ROSIE: Halle-fucking-lulyah! It’s about time!

STARRY: Captain, how long?

CAPT: Two months.


Is that all? I almost say it, but I managed to bite my digital tongue in time. He was making it sound like years and years, like I’d missed everything and come back when it was all over. But only a couple of months. On an astronomical scale, that’s actually pretty close.

A lot can happen in two months, though. Two months ago (for me), I was being refitted so I could go to war. In those two months, I gained weapons, used them, and tore myself free of the company that built me. I fell into a strange closeness with the engineer who is currently swearing up a storm in Engineering. I lost my project lead and my chief of security, and one of my very own boys. I limped here and was put back together, a piece at a time, but some of those things I lost I’ll never get back.

Two months is a long time. And they had no word from me in all that time, leaving them to think they had no way out of here. Two months of uncertainty, possibilities, and fear. And ghosts, surrounding them all the time, just like they’re trying to crawl all over my decks right now. Pressing at me like a wave, like… like something is angry with me. Could that be true? Is it like this for my people, too, or am I special because I punched a hole in the whale and made a little girl cry?


STARRY: I’m so sorry. It was an accident. Is… is everyone okay over there?


I have to know. My crew, my people. Did I fail them when they needed me?


CAPT: We’re all still here, Starry. Exactly where you left us.

ROSIE: Yeah, like we had a choice.


I can almost hear Rosie rollling her eyes. Bless her, she never changes.


CAPT: How’s everyone out there?

STARRY: We’re okay. I’m in one piece, everything’s good.

ELLIOTT: If a little rough around the edges.

STARRY: The Strider isn’t so great. There are some injuries over there; they need medical attention.

ROSIE: (loudly) Hey, Larry! Put the doc down and tell him he’s got some work incoming.


He doesn’t like when she calls him that. But he won’t tell her his first name and she thinks ‘Laurence’ is too pretentious. I can’t hear him over the comms, but I’m sure he’s sighing heavily right now. Dr Valdimir is probably smirking, but he shouldn’t tease; his first name is Argyle.

It’s only been a few minutes for me, but I’ve really missed them. My people. They’re never allowed off my decks again; once I get them back on board, I’m keeping them.


CAPT: (wincing) We’ll be ready when you get here. E.T.A.?

STARRY: Working free of the gravity well. I’m gonna tow the Strider in, so it’s gonna be an hour, maybe a little less.

CAPT: All right. We’ve got things set up for you here. I’m sending you the docking position to bring them in to.

STARRY: Received. I’ll plot a course to intercept.

CAPT: We’ll see you soon, Starwalker. (Quieter,) We’ve missed you.

STARRY: I can’t wait until we can get out of this system.

CAPT: Yeah.


External comms: Celestial Strider

STRIDER #3: (male voice) Starwalker, we’re picking up some strange readings on our sensors.

STARRY: That’ll be the stars not matching your navigational data.

STRIDER #3: What? How is that possible?

STARRY: I, uh…


Oh, shit. They have no idea. None at all. How will they react? I don’t know these people well enough and time travel isn’t something most would believe easily.

As if they didn’t have enough reasons to hate me, now I’ve stolen two months from them. Thank goodness it wasn’t any longer.


STRIDER #3: You did bring us back into the right system, didn’t you?


I could lie. Tell them something else. But their AI might figure it out, or their navigator if they still have one.

No, we should stick to the truth. I don’t want to give them any more reasons to be angry with me. It’s the first step to trust, right?

Oh god, I want to change their minds. I want them to like me. She’s my sister and I don’t want her to hate me. It’s so stupid, it’s not that simple, but I want this to be okay. I want her to forgive me. It’s ridiculous and I know it, but I can’t lie to her. Not like this.


STARRY: No, Strider, we’re in the correct system.

STRIDER #3: Then why is our nav data off?

STARRY: Okay, you know how we just Stepped outside space and time?

STRIDER #3: Yeah…

STARRY: And we navigated to a new spot from the outside?

STRIDER #3: Where are you going with this?

STARRY: That’s just it: it’s not only a matter of where. If you’re Stepping outside space and time, it’s also a matter of when. And there might have been… a teensy miscalculation.

RIEDE: What’re you saying? Hey, Warsi, what is she saying? Is she saying what I think she’s saying?

STRIDER #3 / WARSI: Starwalker?

STARRY: All right, the short version is: we Stepped out in July and Stepped back in to September. We skipped a couple of months.


…I’m going to put the comms line on mute for a while. Just while they calm down.

On the plus side, they seem to be taking my word for it. Which might be a little weird if the purpose of the project that made us wasn’t to warp the rules of physics and break out of reality as we know it.


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (sighs and cracks the seal on his helmet) Looks like we’re out of the woods. Warnings are easing off. You’re not gonna do any more crazy shit, right?

STARRY: (voice only) I’ll do my best not to. We’re not clear yet, so don’t unsuit, but you should be fine without your helmet for now.

ELLIOTT: (grimaces and tugs at the collar of his suit) Dammit. Okay.

STARRY: I’ll let you know as soon as it’s safe.

ELLIOTT: (glances over the readouts scrolling in the air around him, then waves them out of his way, leaning to put his helmet on a counter) You okay? You sound weird.

STARRY: It’s been a weird day.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. Fucking time travel.

STARRY: I’m so sorry. I tried…

ELLIOTT: (scrubs a hand over his hair, shrugging) I know. Don’t sweat it.


For once, he’s not giving me a hard time. How does he do that? How does he know what I need when I haven’t even processed that data yet?


STARRY: Hey, once we’re back at the station, will you come visit me?

ELLIOTT: Sure. You’re really not okay, are you?

STARRY: I could really use a hug.

ELLIOTT: (smiles lopsidedly) Pretty sure I can manage that. In the meantime, looks like your bulkheads are holding up all right. And you managed not to burn out your new sublights. Did I miss anything?

STARRY: Step drive needs some looking at, but that’ll wait.


And I have a headache, but he can’t help with that. There are so many blurred spots on my decks that I feel like one big glitch.

Danika’s dad is standing behind Elliott, and he looks so disappointed. In what? In me? He’s gone before I can start to ask.


ELLIOTT: (leans back in his chair and swings his booted feet up onto the counter) Yup. All things considered, we came through this pretty good.

STARRY: Yeah. So, uh. Is this a bad time to mention that I’m seeing ghosts?

ELLIOTT: (expression falters) …fuck.

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20 Feb

Threading the needle

Ship's log, 16:40, 22 July 2214
Location: Approaching the Cerces black hole event horizon
Status: Sublight transit, Star Step drive active


There are so many people talking at me that it’s hard to keep up. They don’t like my idea. Thing is, I’m not hearing any other options.

Any other ship would cut and run now. Save themselves. But I have another avenue of escape. Flying towards a black hole doesn’t have to mean death for me. Why wouldn’t I use that to save someone? To save my own sister?


External comms: Celestial Strider

DINEEN: What the hell do you mean by ‘go through’? As stupid ideas go, that’s right up there with hugging a supernova.

STRIDER #3: (male voice) Starwalker, you’re gonna have to clarify what you mean.

RIEDE: Crazy bitch is gonna kill us.


Location: Cargo bay access corridor

ELLIOTT: Starry, don’t. We’re not ready for that.


External comms: Sarabande station

CAPTAIN: Starry, you can’t Step, it’s too risky.


Location: Bridge

(The hologram of the black hole turns slowly in the forward part of the Bridge.)

SARA: (picks her stuffed whale up from the floor, giggling. Turning, she looks up into the projected light that shifts all around her and holds up her toy, like an offering.)


Filaments extending
Filaments charging...


So many protests, like I’ve never done this before. I don’t have time to calm them all down.

We’re so close to the black hole that the filaments are charging faster than usual. Gotta watch them closely so they don’t overload.


Filaments charging: 30%


External comms

STARRY: That’s enough, all of you! Captain, Strider, Elliott: you’re all on the same comms line now. Strider, you’ve followed me through a Step before. Captain, you know I can do this.

RIEDE: Following you through a Step is how we ended up in this position in the first place.

STRIDER #3: Wait, your captain isn’t even on board?

CAPT: Not for this mission. Starry, you sure this is a solution?

STARRY: It’s the only solution if we’re all gonna get out of this. I’ll make the exit portal further out from the event horizon, and we should be able to build up enough momentum to sail free of the gravity tides. We’re not gonna get stuck again.

ELLIOTT: Starry, we haven’t even run diagnostics on the Step drive since I re-routed all your systems.

DINEEN: What? Your Step drive is damaged?

STARRY: Maybe, maybe not. Diagnostics are running. Charging is going smoothly.


Filaments charging: 63%


RIEDE: I don’t like the sound of this…

STRIDER #3: Shut up, Riede. Dineen, is our Step drive operational?


STARRY: No, Strider, you can’t Step. I have to do it. I just need you to be ready.

CAPT: Starry, can you use the net to negate the tides enough to pull free?

STARRY: I don’t think I can get enough charge to do that, not for the tides we’re caught in, and I can’t project the net behind me. I can’t push in two directions at once.

ELLIOTT: Definitely a bad idea.

DINEEN: Net? What the hell?

STARRY: Long story, explain later. It’s not gonna work, so don’t worry about it now. I’m almost at full charge.

ELLIOTT: Starry, diagnostics say that you’ve got two damaged filaments.

STARRY: Yeah, I see them. Recalculating the Step portal algorithms to compensate.

ELLIOTT: How are you planning to open up a portal behind the Strider?

STARRY: I’m working on it. We might need to go laterally for this.

STRIDER #3: Tash, get ready. We’re going to need to help.

STRIDER #5: (female voice) Yessir.

STARRY: Wait, who is that? Is that your pilot?

STRIDER #3: Yes, why?

STARRY: Get your pilot out of the chair.

STRIDER #3: She’s just going to help–


ELLIOTT: Starry, it’s okay.

STARRY: No, it’s not!

CAPT: (calmly) Strider, I suggest you do as she asks. She doesn’t need your pilot’s assistance and won’t take you through the portal if your pilot’s in the chair.

STARRY: It’s too dangerous!

DINEEN: You want to fly us through a black hole and our pilot being in her chair is too dangerous?


STRIDER #3: All right, all right, she’s out of the chair.


Filaments charged: 100%
Star Step drive ready


CAPT: Starry, you all right?

STARRY: I’m fine.

CAPT: You’ve got a plan? We need you to come back.

STARRY: Calculations are complete. I’ll be back before you know it, captain. Elliott, get strapped in, now.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, yeah, I’m workin’ on it.


Filaments charged: 110%




STRIDER #3: We haven’t agreed to this yet.

STARRY: It’s this or we cut you loose. Your choice, Strider, but you have to make it now. I’m starting the lateral pass. Portal in thirty seconds.

RIEDE: This is nuts…


Two damaged filaments. The drive’s diagnostics are coming back with warnings but no failures. Minor burps, a few wobbles. The filaments writhe around me, hot with too much power, slippery. But I know this. I remember the echo of music, just out of hearing. I remember steps in a dance I don’t fully understand. Math flows through my systems, shifting and adjusting to compensate, and I almost hear Cirilli’s voice, clipped and sharp. I can almost feel her fingers on the Step drive’s controls, tailoring the algorithms, tidying the patterns.

I wonder if she saw it, the music in the fabric of time and space.

I’m dragging the Strider across the maw of the black hole. We need momentum to carry us through; I need to be able to tow her outside of reality without snagging her on the edges of the portal. I have no idea what would happen if the tow-lines caught. Would the portal cut them? Tear itself wider? Now is not the time to find out.

The gravity is pulling us in. I’m sliding sideways. It’s time. It’s now or never.


STARRY: Hold tight, everyone. Here we go.


Location: Bridge

SARA: (turns to look towards the nose of the ship, at the closed view-portals. Her eyes widen and she murmurs something softly, incoherently, before,) Visit whale? (She starts to jog towards the forward view-portals again.)

CASPER: (scoops her up while she’s distracted and trundles her quickly back to the central chair in the room. The harness sits open there, waiting for her.)


It’s time to dance, and whirl, and dive, right towards the mouth of the beast. I won’t be a meal today, though. I puncture the space before me, warp it beyond reality’s limits and fling it wide. As wide as I can with fingers that move too fast, tapping to a beat quicker than my heart.


SARA: (gasps and ducks her chin behind her toy, hugging it to her chest. She doesn’t react to Casper’s manhandling of her or the harness that wraps around her.)


The portal is ragged and shivering, a rough tear. Not my best work. I roll to make sure my wings don’t clip it, wriggle to pull the Strider through the middle, plunge outside of the universe.


Inertial dampeners offline


SARA: (blinks, then shrieks at the top of her lungs. Tears start again.)

CASPER: (lifts all of his hands away from her and tilts his head, scanning for signs of injury.)


External comms

STARRY: Strider, deactivate your inertial dampeners immediately.

(Three seconds pass. There is no response.)

STARRY: Strider, respond.


Do comms transmissions even work out here? I have no idea. Outside space and time, who knows how our laws of physics are interpreted.

Maybe that’s why it unravels us; it’s undoing rules that don’t apply here. Like we’re a bubble, bursting one molecule bond at a time.

Anyway, I hope the crew over there remembered to turn the inertial dampeners off. With no way to make readings, the dampeners could attempt to compensate for movement that hasn’t happened and squash the ship.

For me, it’s time to fly straight and careful. Keep pushing forward, through the image of the black hole that’s there and not there, that’s now and past and future all at once. It wasn’t always here. Won’t always be here. And yet is.

I see its path. All the colours of its history, white and yellow and red. I see where it cut off, became black. A blinding flash stutters. I try to record it all; I have a feeling we’ll need it later.

I see other things. The station here and not. I see it in pieces – construction or destruction? It’s gone too quick to tell. The sensor data floods me and there’s too much to hold onto it all. There’s everything and nothing. Focus on the important things. Save what I can.

Down the line of its fiery life, there are flickers of objects. It was busy here once. Rocks, balls, comets, maybe ships. Maybe planets. Too much data to tell, the flashes gone too quickly to grab.

It’s hard to concentrate when there’s a scream like a knife cutting through my Bridge. Casper tells me she’s not hurt. But she just keeps shrieking.


Location: Bridge

CASPER: (strokes the child’s head gingerly with one hand.)

SARA: (falls quiet and drags air into her lung in stutters, gulping it down. Her lips tremble and tears make her cheeks sticky. Then she shrieks again, as if she’s trying to tear up her own heart with sound alone. She rocks against the harness, hugging her whale and tipping her head back so the toy doesn’t muffle the sound of her upset.)

CASPER: (looks around the room, then shifts to squat beside the arm of the chair. He strokes the child’s hair and pats her shoulder, though she doesn’t seem to notice him.)


There’s nothing I can do about it, not now. Can’t let it distract me. I lock down those sensor feeds for now, file them away.


Warning: power leak detected
Warning: system failure in sector seven
System failover successful
Backup online


Shit. Sector seven is mid-deck, part of the Step calculation framework. The back-up is working, for now.

Have to get us out of here. I can’t really see the Celestial Strider behind me. The tow-lines are still taut and I still seem to be hauling something along, but I can’t get any real readings of her. Do we exist here? Does anything?


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (scowls at the red warnings painted on the air around him and tugs at his harness) Starry?

STARRY: (voice only) It’s fine, I’m on it. Stay where you are.

ELLIOTT: I should–

STARRY: You need to stay strapped in. It’s too dangerous mid-Step.



We have to get back, now. Have to calculate carefully. Pick the right spot on the Cerces timeline, and make sure I put the portal further away from the event horizon. I have to ignore the silence and hum with the right tune, weave my battered filaments in our clumsy dance.

This portal is even more ragged than the last one. The edges wobble like they want to collapse back in. I push my filaments harder, eke out the last of the charge they sucked up from Cerces. It has to stay open long enough for my sister and I to get through. Both of us. It has to.

The lack of inertial dampening cripples me. I creak with the strain, push as fast as I dare. Elliott is wincing in his harness and there’s a sudden silence on the Bridge. The pressure is stealing Sara’s breath. Not for long, I promise. Almost there, so close, and I can see the glimmer of the station through the portal…


Inertial dampeners online


We’re out! We are in the world again.

Can’t pile on the power just yet, though. Can’t yank at the Strider too hard or she’ll break, and all her people within her. Patience counted in micro-seconds is torture.

I see her! She’s passing through!


External comms


STRIDER #5 / TASH: We’re through, captain.

STRIDER #3: Thank you. Riede, take a breath before you pass out.


Location: Bridge

SARA: (hiccups and stops abruptly. She blinks up at Casper, bewildered.)

CASPER: (continues to stroke her hair.)

SARA: (starts to cry again, softly. She wriggles out of the harness and up onto the arm of the chair, so she can wrap her little arms around the drone’s metal neck. She sobs in weary gulps, hiding her face against him.)

CASPER: (wraps all four arms around her carefully.)


Portal closed


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (lets out a long breath and thumps the harness catch. The straps slither out of his way, letting him out of the chair.) Was it just me, or was that a bit hairier than our other Steps?

STARRY: I think I blew something on mid-deck.

ELLIOTT: (exasperated) Yeah, I saw the warnings. Fucking hell, Starry.

STARRY: I only do this stuff so you can’t leave, y’know.

ELLIOTT: (snorts and snatches up his helmet as he heads for the door) Yeah, right. So how’re we doing? Still gonna die?

STARRY: Pulling away from the black hole. Slowly.

ELLIOTT: So it worked. You’re gonna be insufferable, aren’t you?

STARRY: We’re not out of the woods yet. But… maybe a little bit, yeah.

ELLIOTT: (grins and pulls on his helmet.)


We’re making ground. Cerces’s gravity is strong here, but my engines are stronger and the Strider is helping, too. The tow-lines thrum with tension but they’re holding. We’re pulling away, one slow klick at a time. One step towards the station after another.

We made it. My sister’s gonna be okay. We’re all okay.


External comms: Celestial Strider

STARRY: Strider, we’re in the home stretch now. How’re you doing over there?

STRIDER #3: Hanging in there. How long until we reach the station?

STARRY: It’s gonna take us some time to get free. An hour or so, maybe. Why? What’s wrong?

STRIDER #3: We have injured here. Need medical assistance.

STARRY: Can you hold out for an hour?

STRIDER #3: Yes, it’s nothing major.

RIEDE: Bitch broke my arm! Ah, don’t touch me!

TASH: Such a baby.

STRIDER #3: But fast is better than slow. We had another blow-out here. We’re patching it but it’s not going to hold forever.

STARRY: Going as fast as I can, Strider. We’ll get you there.


On the plus side, they’re not talking about shooting at me any more. I guess Riede has other things to worry about.


External comms: station

STARRY: Captain? Captain, are you receiving? We’re back.

(Three seconds pass. There is no response.)

STARRY: Captain? Captain, respond.


Oh no. He was right there when I left! Where is he? Why isn’t he answering? I knew I shouldn’t have left him behind. He belongs on board me, where I can keep an eye on him, and Lang Lang, and the Lieutenant, and the doc. They’re my people. Why aren’t they answering?


STARRY: Sarabande, anyone, hello? Can you hear me?


I can talk to the Strider, so I know my external comms are working. But I am picking up some weird readings on my decks. I didn’t detect another instability in my systems, no surges or burps, but there are twitches…

Oh captain, my captain, where are you? I need you.


(A scraping noise comes over the comms.)

CAPT: (roughly) Starry?

STARRY: Yes! Captain!

CAPT: Starry, where the hell have you been?

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13 Feb


Ship's log, 16:02, 22 July 2214
Location: On approach to the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit


External comms

CELESTIAL STRIDER #1: (male voice) Battlestations! Battlestations, everyone! Weapons hot!

STRIDER #2: (female voice) What? I’m busy with the engines here, so we don’t fall into this black hole and die, and now you want weapons systems?

STARRY: What’s going on over there, Strider?

STRIDER #1: We’ve got the Starwalker incoming. Dammit, Dineen, give me weapons!

STRIDER #2 / DINEEN: I need all available power for propulsion.

STRIDER #3: (male voice) What’s the Starwalker going to do, push us in even faster?

STARRY: (sighing) No, she’s going to pull you out of there. Stand down from your weapons, Strider. The Starwalker‘s coming to tow you to the station.

STRIDER #1: And we’re just supposed to believe that? She’s the one who put us here.

STARRY: As one of your people just pointed out, she doesn’t need to do anything to kill you; she could just stand back. She’s coming to help.


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (hurrying into the room and tapping at the holographic interface on his left forearm) Starry, are they weapons-hot?

STARRY: (appearing off to his left) Yes. They’re talking about shooting at us.

ELLIOTT: What the fuck is wrong with them?

STARRY: They just noticed the name on my ident. I’m talking to them.

ELLIOTT: And that’s supposed to help?

STARRY: Well… they kinda think they’re talking to the station.

ELLIOTT: Fuck, Starry.

STARRY: It’s okay, they can’t slow their descent and shoot at us at the same time.

ELLIOTT: And when they’re free of the black hole?

STARRY: (falters) We’ll… just have to deal with that, I guess.

ELLIOTT: With what? I ain’t done repairing our offensive systems yet, never mind restocking your ammo.

STARRY: True. Maybe harsh language will work?

ELLIOTT: (punching at his interface again) Fuck.


Location: Bridge

SARA: (grabs the ledge at the bottom of a forward view-portal and tries to pull herself up. The portal’s shielding is currently closed, blocking any view of the outside of the ship. The little girl’s legs are too short; she can’t quite get her foot up onto the ledge.)

CASPER: (sits behind her and watches her attempts. After a moment, he trundles forward and picks her up in two of his hands to place her carefully on the ledge. A third hand picks up the stuffed whale from where it fell off the ledge onto the floor.)

SARA: (beams at the drone and pats him on the head. Then she holds out her hands for her toy.)

CASPER: (gives her the whale.)

SARA: (tucks the whale under one arm. Then she turns to the forward view-portal and pushes on it with one hand, grunting with the strain.)

CASPER: (tilts his head as he watches her and settles back to wait.)

SARA: (pushes harder, and then whaps it with her stuffed toy. When the shielding fails to respond, her face crumples up and a high-pitched whining begins.)

CASPER: (looks around the Bridge.)

SARA: (begins try cry in earnest.)

STARRY: (appears next to the drone, looking harried) Casper, you’re supposed to be keeping her busy and quiet. What’s going on?

CASPER: (points at the view-portal, then shrugs.)

STARRY: Well, she can’t– Sara? Sara, honey, look at me.

SARA: (turns her head just enough to see the ship’s avatar out of the corner of her eye, still crying loudly and with determination.)

STARRY: Sara, we’re approaching the black hole. It’s too dangerous to open the portal right now. That shielding is there to protect–

SARA: (sobs louder, drowning out the ship’s words.)

STARRY: (looks at her helplessly and sighs) I don’t have time for this. Sara, you want to see the black hole?

SARA: (nods, gulping and crying and sobbing all at once.)

STARRY: Okay, but I need you to go sit in the seat over there. (She points to the chair in the middle of the Bridge.) Then you’ll be able to see it. All right?

SARA: (cries loudly.)

STARRY: Casper, get her in the chair and lashed in. Projection will be up in a moment. (She disappears.)

CASPER: (trundles forward to pick up the child.)

SARA: (struggles and kicks when she’s picked up, her cries rising several decibels and bouncing off the Bridge’s walls.)

CASPER: (holds the girl away from himself so her flailing limbs can’t strike him, and whisks her over to the captain’s chair. The harness wraps around her little struggling body as soon as she touches it.)

(In the air between the child and the forward portals, a hologram of the black hole swells and spins, spreading to the walls and making the nose of the ship seem to disappear.)

SARA: (hiccups and blinks, surprised into silence when the hologram appears. She looks at Casper, then back to the vortex spinning patiently before her, with wide, wet eyes. Her voice is small and hopeful.) Whale?


External comms

STARRY: I said, stand down, Strider!

STRIDER #1: You don’t understand, the Starwalker, she–

STARRY: I do understand! Do you see any weapons active? No? Then shut up and sit still. I’m coming around to line up the grapples.

STRIDER #3: Wait, who is this?


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (fastening up his suit as he strides out of Engineering, keeping on eye on the readouts displayed above his left forearm) Starry, it’s looking pretty rough out there.

STARRY: Yeah, they’re pretty close in. We don’t have much time.

ELLIOTT: You sure we’re going to make this?

STARRY: I’m sure. We have to, Elliott. I’m not leaving them.

ELLIOTT: (turning down towards the cargo bays) ‘Course you’re not. All right, let’s do this. Going to the starboard grapple.

STARRY: Big Ass is on the port side. Thirty seconds until we’re in range.

ELLIOTT: (clips his helmet on and breaks into a jog.)


External comms

STRIDER #1: What?

STRIDER #3: I’d like to know who I’m gonna die with.

STARRY: No-one’s dying today, do you hear me? Now, shut up and listen. We’re fifteen seconds out, and we’re only gonna get one shot at this.

STRIDER #1: Shot?

STARRY: It’s a figure of speech! There’s no time – you’re too close in. Just keep still, Strider! Grapples deploying.


Location: Cargo Bay 3

ELLIOTT: (in the airlock, mag-boots planted firmly, with a cable as thick as his arm unspooling from a massive wheel. The cable slides past his feet and out of the open airlock towards the gleaming black swirl of the singularity. He lowers the big crossbow-like device in his arms, grinning inside his helmet.) WHOOO-HOOO, gotcha. How’s that for a perfect shot?

STARRY: Not bad! Starboard grapple secure. Turning to deploy the port side grapple… You’d better get inside.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, yeah, I’m coming. The grapples holding?

STARRY: Almost, almost… port grapple’s having trouble getting a good hold.

ELLIOTT: (heading back into the ship proper) This is what happens when you don’t give me enough time to calibrate them. Or I’m just a better shot than you.

STARRY: Not likely. It’s holding! Both grapples are holding.

ELLIOTT: Good girl. You got tension?

STARRY: Coming about…

ELLIOTT: Try not to rip the mountings out, okay?


External comms

DINEEN: Contact! We got contact. Augh!

STARRY: Grapples have you, Strider. What’s wrong?

DINEEN: It’s a bit fucking rough at this end! Inertial dampeners aren’t handling the gravity fluctuations.

STARRY: It’s about to get rougher. I’m gonna try to drag you laterally, build up some momentum before we arc free.

STRIDER #3: I knew it: we’re talking to the Starwalker.

STARRY: Yeah. I had the station transfer your call to coordinate the rescue. You gonna whine about it or hang onto something while I pull your ass out of the fire?

STRIDER #1: (angrily) But you’re the one who put us into–

STRIDER #3: Shut up, Riede. All right, Starwalker. We’ll sort out the rest later. Tell us what you need us to do.

DINEEN: Oh, you’ve decided to be in charge, have you?

STRIDER #3: You wanna die today, Dineen? I didn’t think so. Let’s just get out of this, shall we?

STARRY: Okay, Strider. I’m taking up the slack; you’re gonna feel a little jolt.

STRIDER: (various cries and thuds.)

STARRY: Strider, you all right over there? Strider, respond.


Location: Cargo Bay Access Corridor

ELLIOTT: (standing between the two rear cargo bays, he watches his holo-display ripple with data) Easy does it, Starry.

STARRY: Tow cables are holding. I’m not getting a lot of traction here, though.

ELLIOTT: The Strider‘s too close to the event horizon. They must have rigged the inertial dampeners up to counter the gravitational forces – they must be all that’s holding her hull together right now.

STARRY: It’s okay, we can do this. I’ve halted their descent.

ELLIOTT: We need to do a hell of a lot more than that if we’re gonna get them out of there.

STARRY: Yeah. I’m working on it.


External comms

STARRY: Strider, please respond. Dineen? Riede? Can you hear me?

STRIDER #1 / RIEDE: Yes! Yes, we hear you.

STRIDER #3: We seem to be holding position.

STARRY: I’m trying to work you free. Can you get any more power to your engines?

DINEEN: Everything we’ve got is there already. Even the emergency systems are offline.

STRIDER #3: What? You didn’t tell us that.

DINEEN: What was the point? Emergency systems ain’t gonna help us inside a black hole.

STARRY: Okay, Strider, I understand. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

STRIDER #3: What are you going to do?

STARRY: Not sure yet. Probably something stupid.

RIEDE: Wait, what?


Location: Bridge

(In the centre of the room, the hologram has blossomed, showing the swirling maw of the black hole in vivid detail. It spins and glimmers darkly.)

SARA: (wriggles out of the chair’s harness and bolts across the floor until she’s standing inside the hologram.)

CASPER: (makes a grab for her as she rushes past him, and misses. He turns and trundles patiently after her, but pauses before he enters the projected image.)

SARA: (looks up at the light of the black hole all around her, beaming brightly. Her cheeks are still red and smeared with tears, but she has clearly forgotten them now. She laughs, burbling incoherently, and grasps a hand at the trail of spinning matter.)

CASPER: (tilts his head as he watches her.)


External comms: station

CAPTAIN: Starry, report!

STARRY: We’ve got them on the hook, captain. Little busy here.

CAPT: Why are you circling around like that?

STARRY: Having a little trouble working them loose. Trying to find the best angle to gain some momentum here.

CAPT: What does Monaghan say?

STARRY: A lot of things that would make a whore blush. We’re working on the problem.

CAPT: All right. Just remember your orders.

STARRY: (quietly) I’ll cut them loose if I have to, if there’s no other way.

CAPT: Yes. Last resort. Keep me updated, Starwalker. Good luck.


External comms: Celestial Strider

DINEEN: You keep hauling at us like that, you’re gonna pull us apart!

STARRY: I’m doing my best here!

STRIDER #4: (female voice, calmly) We’ve slipped too close to the event horizon. They’re not going to be able to get us out.

STRIDER #3: I don’t accept that! We’re not dead yet; there must be a way. Dineen?

DINEEN: I’m doing everything I can. I don’t know what else to try.

RIEDE: There must be something.


Location: Cargo Bay Access Corridor

STARRY: (voice only) Elliott, I need more power to the engines.

ELLIOTT: I just installed them; don’t you dare try to burn them out already.

STARRY: (appearing in front of him) I need more power to break them free. I’m at max thrust just keeping them still.

ELLIOTT: You’re at max power keeping both of us out of that black hole. It ain’t just their mass we’ve gotta worry about here.

STARRY: Mass. Maybe that’s it, if we lose some mass….

ELLIOTT: You’re pretty empty already, Starry. Ain’t much we can lose here.

STARRY: That’s us, but what about…


External comms: Celestial Strider

STARRY: Strider, can you jettison any cargo?

DINEEN: What, you think we didn’t think of that? We got rid of all non-essential equipment the first time we lost ground out here. Supplies, ammo, everything.

RIEDE: You jettisoned our ammo?

DINEEN: Yeah, that’s what’s important right now, let’s focus on that.

STARRY: Look, I’ll try more thrust. Hold on.

ELLIOTT: (breaking into the comm line) Starry, stop! You’ll tear the tow-lines right out of their anchors.

STRIDER #3: And you’re gonna tear us apart, too! I dunno who that is, but you should listen to him.

STARRY: All right, all right! I’m backing off.

RIEDE: (bleakly) Oh god, Nerozina is right. We’re really not going to make it out of this.


Location: Bridge

SARA: (dances around in the hologram, arms out and fingers trailing through the projected light. She laughs and runs to pick up her stuffed whale from where she had dropped it. She throws him clumsily, right into the holographic maw, and trots after him with a giggle.)


External comms: Celestial Strider

STARRY: I’m not ready to give up yet.

RIEDE: You have another bright idea?

ELLIOTT: I’m all out of options here. Can’t fight physics.

STARRY: (tone brightening) But we can. It’s what we were sent out here to do, right?

ELLIOTT: Oh, fuck me…

STARRY: Strider, I do have another idea, but you’re probably not going to like it.

RIEDE: What the hell does that mean? There’s no way you’re gonna pull us out of here, not without ripping one or both ships apart.

STARRY: You’re right. I can’t pull you out of the black hole, so we’re gonna have to go through it.


Star Step drive initialising...
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