Ship's log, 08:18, 24 September 2214 Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole Status: Docked, powered down
After the ghosts started talking, they just kept increasing. More of them, more voices, more noise, all asking the same question. Where are my people?
As if I didn’t already have enough competing for my attention, suddenly all of my feeds were crawling with activity. The crew of the Celestial Strider was shouting for attention, their hands clapped over their ears. Brenn Haitom was sitting in the middle of his cell, arms wrapped around his knees and his head tipped back. His eyes were screwed shut as he made the most awful keening I’ve ever heard come from a human throat. The family of cats I’ve been tracking skittered into the ducts and huddled there, all puffed fur and wide eyes. Elliott yanked on his ear protectors, then pulled them off and threw them across the room. I guess there’s no getting away from something that’s being projected directly into your head. Little Sara ran straight over to the nannybot and grabbed her stuffed whale so she could hug it. Then, curiously, she huddled into the ‘bot’s side and let the machine pat her on the head.
I tried to filter the ghosts out of my feeds, but they popped up too quickly for me to make much headway, so I gave up and focussed on dealing with the things I could actually help with.
Recording: 16:23, 23 September 2214 Location: Visitor Lounge B
WARSI: (hands over his ears, voice raised) …need help. Can. You. Hear. Me.
STARRY: (voice only, loudly) We’re aware of the phenomenon, Captain Warsi. We’re working on it. You just need to be patient.
RIEDE: Patient? They’re everywhere! We can’t breathe in here.
STARRY: They’re not real.
RIEDE: What did you do?
STARRY: We made contact.
WARSI: What are you doing about it?
STARRY: Anything we can. I’ll let you know. Just hang in there.
Recording: 16:23, 23 September 2214 Location: Engineering
STARRY: (voice only, loudly) Elliott, I need you to get to Cargo Bay 4.
ELLIOTT: (wincing and scrubbing at his hair) What? Why?
STARRY: Sara’s in there. She needs someone and you’re closest.
ELLIOTT: The whole damn place is full of ghosts! I can’t get through.
STARRY: Tell them Sara needs you. They’ll move.
ELLIOTT: Why would they–
STARRY: Please, Elliott. She’s just a kid and she’s alone in there.
ELLIOTT: (muttering) Fucking hell. (Louder,) All right! Move your ghostly asses, I’m comin’ through! (He takes a step, then looks surprised and takes another. Apparently, it’s easier than he expected.)
There wasn’t much I could do for Haitom, so I just hoped he wouldn’t get any more crazy than he already was. And I guess I’m hoping that we’ll be able to help him properly once we’ve got a handle on all of this.
Meanwhile, down in the station’s Med Bay, my people were trying to figure out what the hell to do about it all. How do you stop a black hole from talking to you when you can’t talk back?
Recording: 16:31, 23 September 2214 Location: Sarabande Station Med Bay
DR SOCKS: (watching the captain) I don’t think it’s working.
CAPTAIN: (loudly, to the air in front of him) …need you to stop talking! It’s too much! (He glances at the doctor and sighs.) I think you’re right. Do you have a suggestion?
DR SOCKS: (turning his attention back to Lang Lang, who is curled up on the bed) Not one that you’ll like.
LANG LANG: (has folded herself up as small as possible, her hands covering her face. She whimpers softly, too quietly for anyone to hear. Her shoulders shake as if she’s sobbing.)
ROSIE: (makes a slow, sweeping motion with one arm, muscles flexing as if she’s pushing someone out of her path so she can get closer to where the captain and doctor are) Well, what are the chances that it’s gonna stop on its own?
DR SOCKS: (shrugs) We have no way to know.
CAPT: Tell me your idea, doctor. Even if I won’t like it.
DR SOCKS: (frowns at Lang Lang’s readouts and flicks at them with the fingers of one hand. The display shifts obediently.) Cerces seems to have figured out how to use the ghosts to send us a message. But he – it – doesn’t appear to be able to hear us. The only time we’ve had any two-way communication was… (He gestures at Lang Lang.)
CAPT: (frowns) We can’t send her in again.
ROSIE: Look at her, she’s still fucked up from the last trip. What is wrong with her?
DR SOCKS: The ghost activity is causing her some pain. Likely to be residual sensitivity from her recent contact.
CAPT: Can you give her something for it?
DR SOCKS: (drily) The best thing would be to sedate her, but I don’t think that’ll have the desired result.
CAPT: (sighs and runs a hand over his hair) No.
DR SOCKS: (hands moving on his interface again) I’m giving her as much pain relief as I can.
LANG LANG: (hands fall away from her face and she blinks, unseeing. Then she goes limp, her head drifting to rest on the bed listlessly.)
ROSIE: (scowls at the doctor) She gonna be okay?
DR SOCKS: Too early to say. If this keeps up, none of us will be okay.
ROSIE: What, you think it’ll melt our brains or something?
DR SOCKS: That, or it’ll be impossible to sleep and we’ll all go crazy from sleep deprivation.
CAPT: We’re not sending her in again. She’s in no state. What else can we do? Starry, can you transmit a message to Cerces?
STARRY: (voice only) Sure, transmitting a ‘please desist’ message now.
DR SOCKS: There’s no evidence to suggest that the black hole can read our coded messages.
CAPT: (sighs) No, but it can’t hurt. Do you have any other ideas, doctor?
DR SOCKS: (shakes his head) No. Seems our friend the black hole broke our best avenue of communication, right when we need her.
HALF-FACE: (from the end of the bed) But he didn’t break all of our methods of communication, did he?
CAPT: (turns to look at the SecOff) What do you mean?
DR SOCKS: (blinks at the Lieutenant) The child. Of course.
HALF-FACE: (nods at the doctor.)
STARRY: On it. Elliott’s with her now.
Recording: 16:44, 23 September 2214 Location: Cargo Bay 4
(Elliott is sitting on a crate with a pair of small arms wrapped around his neck, holding Sara awkwardly in his lap. She’s sniffling into his neck and he pats her back, looking nonplussed. The nannybot and Casper stand nearby with metallic patience.)
STARRY: (avatar resolving in front of the engineer) Elliott, we need to talk to Sara.
ELLIOTT: (winces and squints up at the ship’s avatar) Do you have to do that? You just appeared inside someone.
STARRY: (shifts to the left a little bit) Sorry. That better? It’s important.
ELLIOTT: What do you need to talk to the kid about? She keeps whining that her whale is unhappy.
STARRY: We need her to talk to him for us.
ELLIOTT: What the… oh, f– I mean, I– (He stops and closes his eyes for a moment.) Okay, hold on.
(He rearranges Sara so that she’s sitting across his lap and starts to gently pluck her arms from around his neck.) Hey. Hey, look at me, kid.
SARA: (whines in protest and tries to hold onto him, but she’s no match for his strength. Her face crumples up like she’s going to cry in earnest.)
ELLIOTT: Hey, no no no, don’t do that. (He gives Starry a helpless look.)
STARRY: (gently, as she crouches down in front of the engineer) Hi, Sara. I know it’s upsetting, but we want to make it better. We need your help. Will you help us make your whale feel better?
SARA: (stops trying to cling to Elliott’s neck and looks at the ship’s avatar. Tears streak her cheeks and she sniffs wetly.)
ELLIOTT: Yeah! Yeah, that’s right. You can do that, kid. Help us make the whale all better.
SARA: (stares up at Elliott, her eyes big while the rest of her seems tiny. Her expression starts to crumple up.)
STARRY: (quickly) It’s okay, Sara, we know you can do it. We have a special job, just for you. Something only you can do.
SARA: (makes an uncertain noise in her throat, as if aborting a sob, and looks at the ship again.)
ELLIOTT: (stays wisely quiet this time, nodding at the ship to continue.)
STARRY: (gives Elliott a Look, then smiles at the little girl) We want you to tell your friend that we hear his message. He can stop asking us now. Will you tell him that?
SARA: (stares at the ship.)
STARRY: Can you do that? Let him know that it’s okay. Everything’s okay. We understand.
STARRY: It’s kinda noisy, isn’t it, Sara?
SARA: (nods slowly.)
STARRY: Yeah. He’s just being noisy because he’s trying to tell us something. He doesn’t know we can hear him. He’ll be happy once he knows that. Can you tell him for us? That we can hear him?
SARA: (hesitates, then nods slowly again.)
STARRY: Good girl. When he knows we can hear him, he won’t have to shout so much. Right? And then he’ll be happy again.
SARA: (leans sideways into Elliott’s chest, swallowing) Okay.
It wasn’t over that easily. It took a while for the onslaught to ease, for the volume of ghosts to stop rising, and then to recede. Little Sara needed a lot of reassurance. I think she was getting mixed communications from Cerces, muddled emotions, but she seemed to believe us. She took our comfort and squeezed her eyes shut in concentration, over and over until something shifted. It’s hard to say what; maybe it was just the way her little shoulders relaxed finally. Abruptly, it was done.
She refused to let go of Ellliott’s coveralls for some time, all the same; he had to sit there with her in the cargo bay until she felt better, and even then she only let go so that he could pick her up. She looked sleepy, so I suggested that he take her to bed, and he was only too happy to lay her down under the watchful sensors of her nannybot. There, finally, she was ready to relinquish her hold on him.
Recording: 18:04, 23 September 2214 Location: Crew quarters access corridor
ELLIOTT: (closes the hatch behind him and sighs mightily) Thank fuck for that.
STARRY: (standing beside him, she folds her arms and tilts her head.)
ELLIOTT: What? She can’t hear me. (He heads off towards Engineering.)
STARRY: You might want to change before you go back there.
ELLIOTT: Why? (He pauses and looks down at himself, and wrinkles his nose.) Dammit, how does one tiny thing like that have so much damn kid-juice in her?
ELLIOTT: (turning towards his own quarters) I really don’t want to know what it is beyond that.
My feeds were calming slowly around then. All over the station, tension lifted and people seemed to be able to breathe deeper, easier. The ghosts stopped clamouring on my decks and I was able to filter them out faster than they appeared.
They haven’t completed disappeared. They’re still there, like a murmur in the background, and they still only say one thing. Now, though, it’s a whisper, a mumble, not a shout.
Over in Med Bay, the doctor was finally able to make Lang Lang more comfortable and start the diagnostics on the neural damage she suffered. He says that it can be repaired but it’s going to take some time. It has put a delay into the captain’s communication plan, but that’s okay: we need to figure out the next step anyway.
The discussion about exactly what happened was delayed until this morning. The captain requested the logs and spent half the night going over them. The doctor did the same with his own data. I collated what I could and made my own theories, because it’s hard not to.
And now, here everyone is, getting together over breakfast.
Live feed: station sensors Location: Visitor Lounge A
(The captain glances around at his crew. They are all sitting at the same table for once, and the silence that has fallen is expectant. Lang Lang is the only one not present; she is still sleeping in Med Bay.)
CAPT: (clears his throat) So. Let’s start with what we know. Kess was involved, but do we know what her role was?
ELLIOTT: How did she even know we were here? Because that’s kinda creepy.
ROSIE: She able to track us or something?
CAPT: That’s a good question.
DR SOCKS: I think it might have been more mundane than that.
DR SOCKS: We don’t know if or how Kess knew we were here. But we do know that Cerces knew which star we call home.
CAPT: (sighs) Because that’s the first thing Lang Lang told him.
DR SOCKS: Yes. She was using the star charts to try to establish a baseline for communication. Seems she was successful.
ELLIOTT: So, you’re saying that Cerces called Kess? Not the other way around?
CAPT: And she broke down the communication barrier. He can speak our language now.
ROSIE: So he immediately decided to swamp us with one creepy-ass question.
HALF-FACE: Do we know it was his question?
(The rest of the table turn querying looks on the SecOff.)
With the Fall of Earth, Kess just lost all of her people, too.
ELLIOTT: (muttering) Fuck.
CAPT: Is there any way to tell which star the question was from?
DR SOCKS: (shrugs) From what we have seen, Cerces seems aware that he… ‘ingested’ his own system and its inhabitants.
ROSIE: And by ‘seen’, you mean ‘heard in the ramblings of a nutjob’, right?
DR SOCKS: Under analysis, he makes a strange kind of sense. Sometimes.
STARRY: (voice only) But it’s Cerces making the ghosts, isn’t it? He’s the one who has been trying to talk to us this whole time; why would he use his first opportunity to ask someone else’s question?
ROSIE: (rolls her eyes) So what, the black hole might be in denial?
DR SOCKS: It’s possible.
CAPT: (exasperated) It’s all possible. We don’t know enough yet to be able to understand the question.
ELLIOTT: All that trouble for four words, and he still managed to fuck it up?
STARRY: I think, for the first ever alien encounter, we’re doing pretty good.
CAPT: It means that our work isn’t finished here. Let’s get to it, people.