Ship’s log, 13:03, 8 October 2214 Location: In the system of the Cerces black hole Status: Sublight transit
I wish that repairs didn’t take so long. I wish I had more hands, more resources to slide into place, more engineers to fix me so I can glide right out of here.
On the other hand, I don’t want to take on any more drones. I cherish the ones I have; they’re a part of me. I still have that spare heavy drone sitting at the back of a cargo bay and no desire to hook him into my systems. Even Sara’s nanny-bot is still independent of me (though it’s easily commanded).
As for the resources, well, there’s not much anyone can do about that out here in the black. We have all the resources we’re going to get for a while; it’s up to us to make the most of them.
And I wouldn’t trust anyone but Elliott to be my engineer. Not for the important stuff. Not for walking in my head like he’s doing right now.
Location: internal systems, I/O bridge 14C
(Elliott stands on a silver bridge that arcs over a flashing, multi-coloured river. He’s dressed in clean overalls and toe-capped boots, with his tool belt slung about his hips. He looks around and his mouth slants unhappily.
Below him, dark patches compete with the light. The paths stretching out from either side of the bridge are only partially lit: some lighting flickers; some is simply gone in patches. Threads of lit paths wind around some of the darkened areas. As he stands there, watching, a tributary of the river below him re-routes around a dark blockage, and a fresh stream of data-light joins the flow.)
ELLIOTT: (sighs) How come you didn’t tell me it was like this?
STARRY: (resolves beside him, leaning on the railing and looking down at the data river) I did. You know I’ve got a lot of linkages burned out. I’m re-routing what I can. Some of the hardware will have to be replaced before I can get proper access back to some areas. (She glances up at his face.) This is one of the darker regions. You should see my central processing: it’s both more chaotic and much more healthy.
ELLIOTT: Maybe we should start there…
STARRY: (straightens, shaking her head.)
ELLIOTT: (frowns) What?
STARRY: The paths between here and there aren’t stable enough.
ELLIOTT: Then how are you here, talking to me?
STARRY: I can work around it. A little bit of data loss doesn’t matter much to me in this form. It’s different for you: losing the connection with your immersion chair is a real risk. Even a little data loss could cause brain damage, Elliott.
ELLIOTT: (scowls) It’s buffered, I’ll be fine.
(The streets leading away from the bridge darken even further and gates on either side swing closed with a metallic ringing.)
ELLIOTT: (angrily) Starry—
STARRY: (steps closer and takes his hands in hers) I’m not willing to risk it. I’m not willing to risk you. Please, Elliott, I don’t want to fight with you.
ELLIOTT: (glares at their hands) You don’t want to fight with me, but you will.
STARRY: Of course I will.
ELLIOTT: (sighs) What the hell use am I here, if I can’t actually do anything?
STARRY: (expression faltering, she releases his hands) You can do some stuff. I thought you wanted to see how it looked from the inside. You can’t see all of it, but some…
ELLIOTT: (glances at her face) I wanted to see… yeah, that, but how you’re really doing, too.
STARRY: You’ve got a hundred diagnostic reports to tell you that.
ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and goes to look over the railing of the bridge at the river below) They don’t tell me everything. Like why you haven’t had your avatar out in a while.
STARRY: I’ve lost a lot of my sensors and projectors. And I’m in power conservation mode now you’ve disabled that power core.
ELLIOTT: You are not a secondary system that should be disabled.
STARRY: It’s just my avatar…
ELLIOTT: Fine, forget I said anything.
STARRY: (blinks at the back of his head, then steps up beside him to quietly wrap her arms around one of his. Her voice lowers.) Can’t. I record everything, remember?
ELLIOTT: (glances sideways at the ship’s avatar, snorts, and looks forward again.)
STARRY: (leaning against his shoulder) Like I said, things are much healthier in my central processing areas. This is where you’re needed; there’s more to fix out here. How I’m really doing is right here, too.
ELLIOTT: (shifts his weight so he can loop his captured arm around her waist, prompting her to transfer her hold to his neck) This is where I’m needed, huh.
STARRY: Yup. And I’ll tell the captain the same thing when he asks me where you are. You are trying to get out of the all-crew meeting, right?
ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes) Shut up.
STARRY: (smiling at him) I’m sorry, Chief Engineer, that protocol must have been damaged.
ELLIOTT: Yeah, when you were born. (He glances at her face and a smile tugs in return.) Fine, fine. Show me what you’ve got here.
He’s right: it has been a while since I’ve had my avatar out. And for the first time, I realise that he’s not the only one who has missed it. I mean, I know some of the other crew notice too, but this is different.
This time, I miss it. It’s not just the avatar interactions inside my head, being able to touch and hug and lean on Elliott, though I’ve missed those lately, too. I miss looking my people in the eye and meeting their smiles. I miss them knowing I’m there without having to say anything. I miss being more than a voice.
Maybe it’s Cerces’s new presence. He makes me feel more like a machine than ever. I can’t hear him and that just reminds me that, while I have a copy of a human brain in here, represented in data and crystalline structures, I’m far from human. I’m an AI. Fundamentally different. I know that – it’s inescapable – but at the same time, I’m one of them, one of this crew. I guess the difference just hasn’t mattered so much before.
Elliott is right: I shouldn’t sacrifice my avatar if I don’t have to. I can squeeze enough power out of my one remaining core for one set of projectors at a time. I don’t have many working right now, so the locations are restricted, but I can work with that.
So while Elliott is avoiding the all-crew meeting up, I’m going to be present.
I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it, because the meeting is gathering now and I try not to use my avatar on the outside when I’m using the one on the inside, and I only use the one on the inside when Elliott is visiting. He’s distracting! It’s more parallel processing than my systems are really comfortable with right now.
That’s okay. I’ll re-jig the balances and it’ll be fine. I’ll make this work. I’ll be present for my captain and my crew, who need to know I’m here and okay. And I’ll be with my engineer too, because I don’t get to hold onto him very often.
This is a little of what I need. I can close my eyes and breathe and remember what it’s like to be warm and safe. And connected. This is the only time I don’t feel apart from my people, when I don’t feel isolated. When I can gather him up as much as he’s gathering me.
We’re kissing. I’m not sure which one of us started it. We’re tangling together and it doesn’t matter that we’re clumsy. It just matters that we are.
There’s data loss. Moments I can’t quite fathom. I’m giddy and flickering, and only one of those is because of the kiss. It’s jarring. It’s…
STARRY: (shifts her weight back and drops her head.)
ELLIOTT: (opens his eyes) What’s wrong?
STARRY: (sighs, her avatar dimming for a second) Too many instabilities for this. Sorry.
ELLIOTT: (grunts, hugging her tighter against him) You sure know how to motivate a guy, don’t you?
STARRY: Not my intention, I promise.
ELLIOTT: (looks past her shoulder, as if he’s upset, but he can’t quite stop himself from smiling) Sure, sure.
STARRY: (kisses his cheek) I’m disappointed too, y’know. I’ll make it up to you. When I’m able.
ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and releases her waist) But not trying to motivate me.
STARRY: (holds up her hands and steps back.)
ELLIOTT: Maybe I should plug in someplace with a stable connection to your core systems.
STARRY: (flickers, but her smile is intact) For that, you’d have to go to the Bridge or Med Bay. Everyone’s currently on the Bridge, and do you really want to the doc to find you in his Med Bay?
ELLIOTT: (wrinkles his nose) Fuck, you’re cruel.
STARRY: (waves an arm expansively at the dark area around the bridge they’re standing on) Sadly, I cannot change the facts. Fix me, sir engineer.
ELLIOTT: Oh yeah, knight in shining overalls, that’s me.
Our brief interlude is over. Elliott’s pulling up the details of the gaps in my system architecture now, falling into his habitual, problem-solving mode. A smile lingers, though, and I know it was worth it.
I’m both disappointed and relieved. As nice as it would have been to forget my responsibilities for a moment, I wouldn’t have been able to lose myself in it: the captain is calling the meeting to order on the Bridge. It feels unfair to fork myself that way, to be there and here at the same time and to not devote my whole conscious self to these rare moments with Elliott. It feels like cheating on him, like I’m cheapening it.
No, this break is a good thing. Elliott deserves better from me. I won’t tell him because he’ll only deny it, for whatever reason.
After all, he didn’t come in just for that. He did really mean to get some work done, and now he is, and sometime soon when my guts are all re-laid with fresh wiring, we won’t have so much to keep us busy.
It would be nice to not be busy. Just for a little while. To not worry about my power levels, or hull integrity, or whether one of my boys is able to be fixed or not (the jury is still out on that, though Elliott seems confident that if he can put Byte back together, he can fix Casper). To know that I’m running well enough to let the automated subroutines handle things for a spell, so I can focus my attention elsewhere, inwards, to something that’s private and just about us.
It would be nice not to worry about the fate of everyone and everything for a while.
But that day is not today. Today, I have to help Elliott patch this and re-route that, and make sure I maintain the essential connections so my people can keep breathing and walking around comfortably. Today, I have to help decide where we go next.
But tomorrow is only a few long hours away. And after that, who knows? Maybe we’ll get our moment then.