25 Jul

Gathering close

Ship's log, 23:19, 1 October 2214 
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked, powered down


Things are moving so fast that my head would spin if I had one. Luckily, I have subroutines I can use to manage all the data, filtering and caching and juggling requests.

I wasn’t really built to manage a station and myself at the same time. I might feel barely competent most of the time right now, but I think I’m doing pretty well. Nothing has exploded yet. Nothing that was my fault, anyway.

That said, I don’t think I’m done processing all of the changes yet. The data is fine: filtered and filed away. It’s the meaning of that data that seems to be lagging; the weight of it all, the emotional processing. I don’t think it has all passed through my systems yet.

Three days ago, I buried crewmembers for the first time in my short life. People I was code-bound to serve and protect. People I cared about. People who betrayed me. All of them gave their lives for something bigger than just us. All of them slept within my walls, carrying the slender hope of resurrection until my doctor confirmed what all my scans and sensors had told me: dead; gone; never coming back.

I towed them out to the black hole in the cradle of my sister. When I was as close as it was safe to be, with the black hole’s gravity tugging on my hull, I curved around to the side and jiggled my thrusters until I was holding position. The Celestial Strider slingshot past me and I let her pass me by. The grapples fell away and she sailed on, silent and serene, a ghost in a gorgeous dress. My captain said aching words on my Bridge, words of remorse and remembrance, while my sister ship drifted forward fearlessly. We stood and saluted, human and hologram and drone; flesh and light and metal. We shed tears and watched them leave us until the Strider was only a gold glint against the swallowing black.

I let her grow small in the view on the Bridge before I turned us around and pushed us back to the station. My people relaxed their stiff, respectful poses and talked quietly. Inside my electronic walls, I watched my sister until her golden light was snuffed out by Cerces’s event horizon.

I’m still not sure how to process that event. My crew, my sister, gone in a single blink. I know what Danika would have done: got drunk, told stories about them all, and found comfort in the company of others until she couldn’t feel the hole they left behind so much any more. That’s what she did when her father died, and when she lost a friend in an accident.

But I can’t get drunk and we’ve told all our stories already. We did that all the way back to the station. Now I’m all out of stories and not sure what to do with myself.

Company, then? Will that help me to understand this strange numbness I’m feeling?

I wish Elliott had time to come visit me inside my systems. We’ve all been so busy that it has been a while since we’ve laced holographic fingers together and I miss it. I miss him. The times he’s in here with me is the only chance I have to lean on someone else, to feel something other than the flashes of coloured data flooding through my own mind.

There’s still so much to do, though, and I’m about to have more company than I can stand. We have reconfigured some of the crew quarters, putting in extra beds so we can double up. From tomorrow, I’ll be home to the Strider‘s crew. They don’t know yet, but soon it’ll be time to drug them and move them in their sleep. They’ll wake up in my quarters, separated into pairs. I don’t have anywhere big enough to house them all and it’s not a good idea to do that anyway.

The doctor is prepping Brenn Haitom for transfer into one of those rooms, though he’ll be on his own. Those quarters have been decked out with extra padding and security measures to look after him. We won’t leave him here. Maybe we can find him somewhere he can get help, maybe even get better.

Rosie and the captain have gone down to the bowels of the station to try to talk to Iggulden. He might be the acting commander of the station but he still deserves to be free of this place. We’ll take him anywhere he wants to go, same as the Strider‘s people. Then we’ll come back and deal with this strangeness.

I wonder if all black holes are like Cerces. I wonder if they all keen and yearn for what they’ve lost, the light they shed, the matter they absorbed. Are they too caught up in the cycle of falling in on themselves, always falling, never able to stand up or stretch out a hand? Is there anything in their future but regrets and memories of all they used to be? Is this one long, painful death for a star, stretched out over more millennia than I can conceive?

There must be something we can do to help him. Some way to ease his pain.

I wonder if he minded us casting our dead into his maw. I wonder how he felt, so bound up in his own grief and taking ours into his grasp. Did he feel us in our funeral procession? Did he know what we were doing? Suddenly, I feel like we should have found a way to ask his permission, instead of just assuming he wouldn’t care. Black holes are always hungry, after all.

I am pulled in a hundred different directions. Funerals and prisoners, refugees and recoveries.

That has been perhaps the most complicated thing to react to lately. Cameron, my Chief of Security, the voice of reason, the solid mainstay of my crew: she is awake. I had been preparing a farewell stream of recordings of her, going through all the things I would miss without her with us, but she is all right. She’s up and about, and will soon be released from Med Bay.

There’s a feeling like I have a lump in my throat, as if a cache is over-running its bounds and choking up the surrounding data-streams. It leaves me unable to articulate what it is, though I keep analysing.

Part of it is joy: when I think of her recovery, I can’t help but smile like I’ve just remembered that the sun exists.

Part of it is wonder that such a thing could happen, that I truly can get someone back when they seem to be so terribly gone from us.

Part of it is fear, because we don’t know yet how or why she came back. My doctor searches feverishly for a clue but he is frustrated by the lack of an answer. He has started snapping at the Lieutenant, which is bad for both of them.

Part of it is fear, in case this is an illusion, the last gasp of a body that is truly a dead shell, a ghost that all of us share. Could she slip through our fingers yet? My sensors tell me no but my hands shake.

I should feel relief. Gratitude, even though no-one knows who to be grateful to. But I don’t feel either of those things. Maybe I haven’t got that far yet; maybe I’m still caught in a processing loop, stuck on this lump of uncomfortable feelings that leave me unsure whether I should laugh or hold on so tight I leave bruises. I’m afraid that I’ll come off hysterical or unhinged, so I wind up doing nothing at all.

It’s foolish. I’m glad she’s back; of course I am. I see the ripples in my crew and I know it can only be a good thing. Rosie might have been firm about being in charge since Cameron fell, but she’s palpably relieved to be able to step back and let the Chief resume the reins. The Lieutenant responds well to Cameron’s leadership, too, though all she has done is back up the captain’s orders so far. The captain seemed like he might shed tears when he heard the news, though he has been coolly professional towards her in person. I can tell he’s fighting his own muddled lump of feelings, too. Lang Lang outright hugged Cameron the first chance she got. Even Elliott cracked a smile and welcomed her back to the living, and he sounded like he meant it.

I don’t blame them. Cameron has always been the one person who always made me feel safe, even when we were surging into battle. She’s a solid point in my crew, the weight that holds us to the centre of where we should be. I could always tell how nervous I should be about the safety of my people from a simple scan of her face: the tension in her jaw and the narrowing of her eyes. She always knew. She kept us safe.

So I should take comfort from all of that and try not to worry about all the things changing in and around me. The doctor will let my Chief out of the Med Bay tomorrow and she’ll return to her proper quarters and her place on my Bridge. We’ll coordinate getting all the live souls from the station on board me, and take them somewhere they can be free of ghosts and mind-fiddling black holes. My sister was a fitting burial barge, but I’m a rescue ship now, a lifeboat. Perhaps it’s selfish of me to be proud of that, given the circumstances, but–


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (around the finger he has stuck in his mouth) Starry!

STARRY: (resolving in front of him) What did you do? Are you all right?

ELLIOTT: (taking the finger out so his words aren’t so garbled) Caught my goddamn finger on the end of the cable again. Where the hell are Bit and Byte? They’re supposed to be helping me with this. (He gestures towards the counter beside him with his free hand, where a tangle of cables sprouts glittering metal fibres in spiky sprays.)

STARRY: And you’re supposed to be in bed. I sent them off on another job.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, well, I couldn’t sleep.

STARRY: I can get Waldo to fetch you a cocoa…

ELLIOTT: What am I, a kid? I don’t need cocoa. I just wanna get this sorted out. What d’you have them doing?

STARRY: They’re on, uh, retrieval operations on the station.

ELLIOTT: On the station? You let them off the ship?

STARRY: The station’s drones are too stupid to do what I need. It’s okay, they’re not far. I’m keeping tabs on them.

ELLIOTT: (sighs and frowns at the open cut on his finger) They gonna be long?

STARRY: I don’t– er. (She blinks.) Oh god.

ELLIOTT: (looking up at her) What? They in trouble?

STARRY: (smile tugging at the corners of her mouth) Not yet. You gotta see this. (She gestures with one hand and a projection opens up beside her, showing the feed from the station’s sensors.)

(The projection shows a bland station corridor, and focusses in on a particular duct opening near the floor. There’s a scrabbling noise, then the duct cover retracts with a soft swish and two small shapes rush out. One is pure black; the other is pale grey with black stripes. Both kittens are about eight weeks old. They skid to a stop, mewling. The black one shakes itself but can’t dislodge the metal clinging to its back. Bit raises two of his hands as if in triumph, then swats at the kitten’s rump. On the grey tabby, Byte shakes his head and flicks two of his feet to try to get his mount moving again.)

ELLIOTT: (staring at the projection) They’re… what the fuck are they doing?

STARRY: Lang Lang was concerned about leaving anything alive here, so they were sent out to chase the cats out of the ducts. Casper’s supposed to be around to pick them up, but…

(The black kitten twists around, trying to bite at Bit. Behind them, two more kittens sneak out of the duct, moving low and uncertainly. Byte points forward with one hand and pats his tabby mount with the other. It seems to work: the kitten takes a few steps, then mews again.)

ELLIOTT: So they’re…

STARRY: Riding the kittens.

ELLIOTT: …of course they are.

(Engineer and avatar look at each other, then burst out laughing.)


My boys had better hurry up and get those kittens on board, before momma-cat catches up with them. Otherwise, they might need Elliott to reassemble them.

Things are moving quickly around here. Now I am lifeboat and menagerie. Rescue ship for all species. I can’t say I mind that.

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6 Responses to “Gathering close”

  1. zjoske Says:

    Great to see the chief is getting back. I just wonder how much contact she had with cerces when she was in stasis. Will she give us another view of the whale after Langlang?

  2. Osolodo Says:

    The internet needs more small robots riding kittens. šŸ™‚

  3. Jostikas Says:

    HA! that has been a while coming: http://www.starwalkerblog.com/signs-of-life/#comment-20167

  4. thomas Says:

    Wow! The mutant telepathic cats are headed towards the Ark. That was great Melanie. Thanks

  5. Marcus Says:

    I needed the laugh this chapter gave me. Wonderfully done.

  6. Melanie Says:

    zjoske – very good question. šŸ˜€

    Osolodo – ahahahaha. šŸ˜€

    Jostikas – it has indeed! See, I keep these things in the back of my brain until I can use them.

    thomas – you’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. šŸ™‚

    Marcus – thanks! Comedy can be hard to write, but the drones do the work for me.