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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16 Responses to “Consequences of dancing”

  1. Marcus Says:

    Wonderfully done.

  2. Coyote Says:

    I can’t wait for the next one.

  3. Medic Says:

    It is not okay for the ‘ghost in the machine’ to be seeing ghosts. I’m starting a line over here on the left to give hugs to Starry. Elliot first…

  4. Syphax Says:

    “They’re never allowed off my decks again”
    Please… please don’t turn Starry into a combo of Hal 9000 and that woman from Misery.

  5. Francisco Says:

    “a teensy miscalculation” — I keep thinking of her first step.

    @Syphax: To me it sounds like the phrase “I’m never drinking again” when someone has a hangover.

  6. Melanie Says:

    Marcus – thank you! πŸ™‚

    Coyote – yay!

    Medic – aww, lots of hugs for her!

    Syphax – hee, I’ll try not to. Though now you mention it, it has been a while since she last quoted Hal…

    Francisco – gotta love those understatements.

  7. Francisco Says:

    I have a theory on why Starry can see visions now —
    when she opened the Step portal Cerces gained an insight into how mechanical beings saw things.

    @Melanie: πŸ˜‰

  8. Francisco Says:

    When was the last time she quoted Hal?

  9. Shantien Says:

    Well, this is an interesting new can of worms!

  10. mjkj Says:


    Poor Starry *hugs her*

    I hope Sara can get some enlightenment into the situation.

    As for the Celestial crew – they can verify Starry’s claim of date by calculation.


  11. thomas Says:

    Well, the paradox would have been fun too. Maybe a little twisted with two of Elliott thought!

    Thanks for a great chapter Melanie. I really liked the way Sara has chosen to bond with a four-armed ghost. If gives her something better than a nannybot, and better access to Starry too. I wonder if Elliott is ready for fatherhood yet. With Starry going slightly nutsoid with sensor ghosts, he may need to step into the Parental Trap very soon. Just think about how he could expand her vocabulary. When Starry returns to civilization, Sara would already know all of the correct nautical terms: f*ck, sh*t, etc.

  12. Melanie Says:

    Francisco – hmm, last one was back in Book 3, I think: Blind Spot. Maybe it’s time to work some more creepy AI quotes in… what do you think, GLaDOS time?

    mjkj – very true. I’m sure they’ll look to verify Starry’s claim with their own data, just as soon as they’re done freaking out at the possibility.

    thomas – thanks, I’m glad you liked it! πŸ™‚ Sara’s used to being comforted by a robot, having spent some time with only a nannybot for (physical) company, so I figured it would be fairly natural for her to lean on Casper.

    Ha ha, poor Elliott. Can’t wait for him to explain Sara’s vocabulary to the captain. I love referring to them as the ‘correct nautical terms’ – I may have to steal that. πŸ˜‰

  13. Francisco Says:

    Some other questions occur to me:

    How will the captain respond to the news that Starry is seeing ghosts? How will the crew of the Strider respond when they learn that Starry isn’t exactly human? How will they respond to the news that she sees ghosts?

    Assuming that they don’t try to kill each other, what will the Strider’s crew think of Starry’s helpers (as they have their own personalities)?

  14. Francisco Says:

    How will they take things when they hear about Kes?

    Sorry, for all the posts, I have so many questions.

  15. Medic Says:

    @Francisco – HAHAHAHAHA! Sorry, but you reminded me of the old Batman T.V. show (with Adam West) narrator. “How will our dynamic duo get out of this, tune in next time….”

    Yes, I realize that shows a bit of my age there. However, I can say that I never saw them as new episodes. πŸ™‚

    It has to be because Starry is Actual Intelligence (A.I. hehe). That’s the only explanation I can come up with. Somehow, I get the feeling that Whale is learning to communicate. And the disapproving father is Its way of saying, “Don’t do that again,” to Starry.

    Hey, that reminds me, do you think that Kess could count as a Deus Ex Machina? Or is her Avatar organic more than machine?

  16. Francisco Says:

    @Medic: I had the same thing going through my head when I hit the submit button.

    However, it doesn’t show my age because that series has been repeated several times here (UK).