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.
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?
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.
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.
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.