21 Apr

Behold

Ship's log, 17:54, 21 April 2213
Location: Grisette system (unverified)
Status: Wide orbit around Grisette sol (unverified)

 

Elliott just contacted the captain to tell him that the sensor array is ready. After three weeks spinning around this star, we finally get to do something different. It’s time to find out when and where we are. I have my thrusters warm and ready, and my main drive is powering up for the short journey into a closer orbit around Grisette.

 

CAPTAIN: (heading up to the Bridge, over internal comms) Everyone to Step positions, please.

CREW: (various places) Aye, captain.

 

There they go, scurrying about my innards in that purposed, practiced way that trained crew have. Light jogs eat up my deckspace, putting bodies at stations in record time. The Bridge is filling up, mid-deck is humming with preparatory activity, and two of my SecOffs are doing a fast patrol of all the decks, just in case anyone’s out of place.

Within three minutes, the only person who isn’t at his regular station is Elliott. My engineer is in the cargo bay airlock, doing last checks over the sensor array and preparing to launch. Wong checked it over this morning – much to Elliott’s disgruntlement – and everyone is happy that it’s working the way it should be working. There’s a loud, metallic clip as he attaches the tether line and tugs on it.

 

ELLIOTT: (in the Cargo Bay, to himself) No way you’re gettin’ away, mister.

 

It’s an ugly thing. Round and fat, its globe is clamped in by curving strips of metal, each edge of which bears tiny thrusters. Not content to stay within those bounds, the slender spikes of various sensor casings stab outwards. It reminds me of an angry puffer-fish. It’s certainly not something you would want to hug.

 

ELLIOTT: Starry, can you test the links?

STARWALKER: Running diagnostics. Receiving sensor data.

 

The sensors are poking out of their casings now, razor-sharp – it looks like an angry fat thing now. Elliot is the only thing in the airlock apart from the array, so now I’m getting impressions of him from multiple sources: my sensors and all of the array’s. He’s all different colours – heat, radiation, light, sound. His heart is beating a little faster than usual and his eyes are bright. He’s breathless as he looks the spiky ball over for whatever he has missed, excited but not grinning yet.

 

SW: Sensor data looks good. Did you do your hair specially this morning?

ELLIOTT: Very funny. (He takes a few steps back, standing just outside the airlock.) Okay, test propulsion systems?

SW: Initiating array thrusters.

(The sensor array shivers and coughs, then hums steadily. It rises slowly, rolling into a more ‘upright’ position. It skates right, then left, backwards and then forwards in Elliott’s direction. He skitters back another step, but the array stops, rotates slowly, and drifts back to the centre of the airlock.)

SW: Array propulsion is working correctly. He manoeuvres fine.

ELLIOTT: (stepping to the side and pressing the trigger for the inner airlock door to close) Then we’re done here!

 

CAPTAIN: (on the Bridge, over internal comms) Elliott, is everything ready there?

ELLIOT: Locked and loaded, sir.

CAPT: Thank you. (To the Bridge.) Make ready to open a portal. Starwalker, take us into close orbit, please.

SW: Aye aye, captain.

 

My main sublight engines haven’t had a good workout since Elliott fixed them up, and this is a good excuse to stretch my legs. The inertial dampeners shield the crew from the punch of acceleration and it only takes a few seconds for the sublights to press up against their limits, speeding us headlong towards a bright star’s heart. I wish there was air for me to feel rushing over my hull, instead of empty space, radiation, and bouncing light.

Okay, we’re not headed into the star, exactly. I’m angling to breeze just past the corona, where I’ll turn us in for a close orbit. While we hug the star, the Star Step drive will power up, leaning on the gravity trying to suck us into a fiery, burning end.

 

LANG LANG: (on the Bridge, at the nav station) I’m detecting some solar flares in the fourth quadrant of the star.

CAPT: Starwalker, adjust for synchronous orbit above the first quadrant.

SW: Adjusting course.

 

Shame – it might have been fun to dodge the flares as we sped around the star. Now all I have to do is gravitational balancing to hold position against the drag. On the other hand, I’m about to do something far more exciting – I can dodge flares anytime, but how often do I get to look outside the universe?

The new orbit does call for a sudden stop, though. I am reminded of a habit that Danika had in a situation like this, speeding headlong towards a halting point. She’d grin and push faster, until others around her started to look uncomfortable. Aim just a hair off-course, as if we might sail by, and keep the sublight engines burning. When we’re almost there, almost on top of our target, punch with the rear port thrusters to spin around 180-degrees. The arc of the sublights corrects our course to put us on-target, sliding us in sideways, and then flare them up to maximum when we’re facing the opposite direction to slam on the brakes. And here we are, parked on a penny.

From his frown, I think the captain remembers that manoeuvre, too. Danika had a habit of docking that way (though with thrusters, not sublight engines), setting off every alarm and landing with a kiss. It frustrated him then, too. The only times she got complaints was one time when she over-corrected and scorched the side of a dock with her thrusters. I know better than that.

 

CAPT: Dr Cirilli, we are in position.

CIRILLI: The Star Step drive is ready.

SW: Initialising.

 

Star Step drive initialising...

 

Yes, I know, autolog. Thanks for stating the obvious. Tell you what – you talk to yourself in the system log over there and leave mine alone, all right? There. Good.

It’s very warm here. If I barrel-roll slowly, I can check the new heat-shielding is holding properly. It all seems properly bound to my hull and protecting us, but you never know, right? The motion makes my filaments curve around me as they extend, my halo of Medusa manipulators. Gravity draws them towards the star and they draw back, charging themselves with it.

 

ELLIOTT: (back in Engineering) Starry, the Beholder’s ready to launch. Better get it out there before you open the portal.

SW: Okay. Launching now. I’ve put the feeds through on the aft monitors.

ELLIOTT: (turning aft) Great, thanks.

 

While filaments curve over my nose and begin their gravity-weaving dance, my cargo airlock is sliding open. The aptly-named Beholder array hovers its round bulk out of the airlock and up under me. Its feeds are muted right now, the delicate sensors retracted into their casings. Its tether of braided titanium rope and data feed-line trails behind it limply, uncoiling slowly from its nest in the airlock. A drone is monitoring the cable to make sure it doesn’t snag.

Gravity, the great sucking force of the universe, is being folded in on itself, packed down until it pokes through itself in confusion. Foxed, it creates a rabbithole of possibilities. Beneath my nose, the Beholder sees its opening and surges forward, putting in a straight line to the heart of the glowing golden circle I’ve created.

The portal is close but the array seems to move so slowly. Seconds tick by with barely a breath aboard me: everyone is watching the display from my external sensors, tracking the spiky ball’s progress. I shiver as it finally reaches the threshold and pushes through. It feels like it’s trying to pull me with it – the portal is rippling, chewing on the tether like it’s trying to taste us. I want to turn on my forward thrusters, push away from it, but I haven’t moved. There’s no forward pressure, but it’s pulling. Somehow, it’s pulling anyway. I don’t understand, I–

The array’s sensors are unfurling – the great eye opens. Here it comes – wave upon building wave of data, climbing suffocatingly as more and more of its sensitised spikes slide out of their protection. Behold the universe. Behold all of it, at once.

It doesn’t make sense. There is everything there and an empty void at the same time. What one sensor tells me, another revokes, and then they switch stories. It’s a shell game played with stars and voids. Where is it? Can you find it? Keep your eye on the pea, don’t let it get away, did you see what happened to it? If the universe had sleeves, I’d check them for cheating.

It can’t keep track of it all. There’s just so much – Elliott made the Beholder too efficient. It’s closing up over my head and I can’t find the surface. Everything is everywhere and that doesn’t make sense. The paradoxes want to tear me into pieces.

Paradoxes. Time. That’s what I’m looking at: the whole of space and time. Stars born and burning and dying, all at once, forever potential and lost. They don’t live on the golden threads in that outside-world – they are the threads. Those are the paths they weave as the universe expands, all the places that star is and was and has been, its personal timeline.

That’s it. That’s the key, the thing I’m looking for. That’s how we ended up in the wrong time – I opened the portal at the wrong point on the thread. I didn’t allow for the time differentials. I didn’t know!

But now I know what data to pull out of the morass I’m swimming in. If I can focus the sensors, I think I can find the map we need in there. I just have to focus. Push past the parts where it’s telling me there’s nothing there, and the parts that burn, and find… and find…

Something’s wrong. The Beholder, it’s shaking and shorting. There’s nothing out there, but it’s coming apart. I can feel it unpeeling. It hurts. Have to get it back. Have to… my hands are slipping. The portal is fluctuating and I think a filament just broke. Can’t keep it open much longer. Have to get the array back, but I’m losing it. I’m losing my hold on all of it. It wants to swallow me as well. I could fall in and find our answers. Find everything. But it’ll peel my hull off and look at my bones.

My crew. Can’t. Have to get them safe. Have to get them away from this.

 

LANG LANG: (on the Bridge) Solar flare activity approaching first quadrant, captain.

CAPT: Starwalker, report.

 

Have they been talking all this time? I couldn’t hear them. Too much data, too many sensors to pay attention to them all. I’m slipping – gravity is wavering below me, deep in that burning heart. We have to go. Sublight drive, thrusters. Where are they?

 

CAPT: Starwalker?

 

There. There they are. Let’s go, let’s get out of here.

 

CIRILLI: The portal’s collapsing.

SW: (strained) I’m getting us out of here, captain. We’re going, we’re going.

 

ELLIOTT: (in Engineering) Fuck, Starry, what’s going on? (Behind him, a drone is putting out a fire.)

SW: I’m slipping, Elliott. Solar flares, right under me. Didn’t see them coming. Hold on. Just hold on.

ELLIOTT: The IDs are working – just get us out of here.

 

They’re not just flares of gas and light – it’s the gravity fluctuations that come along with them. That cause them. Trying to pull me down, snag me in a fiery lasso and drag me in. No. Not today, not us. Not me.

 

ELLIOTT: Starry! You’re redlining! Dammit, I just fixed those drives!

 

We’re almost there. Two more seconds, and we’ll be clear. Then I can ease off. Two more seconds, and… there. We’re free.

My head hurts so much.

 

SW: I’m sorry, Elliott. Captain. I tried. I tried.

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