Ship's log, 22:19, 27 June 2214 Location: JOP to Feras FTL corridor Status: Sublight transit
I feel like I’ve been out of the universe for an age, as if I’m disconnected from the bigger issues driving the world around me. Normally, it would be rare to be within sensor range of another ship in an FTL corridor but these aren’t normal times. Right now, I can see four ships without even trying, and another dozen on my longer-range sensors. Space is alive with chatter as ships exchange gossip and coordinate jumps so no-one runs into anyone else.
They’re all refugee ships. Some have come all the way from Earth; others are ferrying people out of the JOP’s processing centres. Tankers and couriers and repurposed cargo pods, crammed full of souls who need a new home.
We’re one jump away from Feras now. A few hours, half a day at most. Perhaps it’s fitting to have such a reminder around us, considering what lies ahead. These people are why we’re doing this. This kind of disaster is why we’re doing this.
This is one of those things we must atone for.
I’ve kept quiet in all the talk going on around me. When we left the JOP’s region, I said I was carrying refugees too and they accepted it without question. Since then, they haven’t noticed that I’m not jumping in on the conversations except to report the timing of my jumps.
There’s enough going on inside my hull to keep me busy anyway. The Lieutenant has been familiarising himself with my weapons systems. The captain and my SecOffs have been running through plans and scenarios, often with Cirilli and the doctor looking on. Elliott has run more tests and diagnostics than I can keep in active memory at the same time.
Lang Lang has been writing letters. I don’t know who they’re addressed to; I’ll only see when she asks me to transmit them for her. Yesterday, one of them made her cry. There was no-one else around, so Waldo took her a tissue and patted her shoulder. She seemed to appreciate it.
Just a few hours until we reach Feras and our work begins. My crew should be getting what rest they can. But they’re not; they feel the approaching threshold too much. No-one is likely to sleep soon, so the captain and I decided to divert them instead. This afternoon, I had my big fellas move all the tables out of the way in the Mess Hall and set up a bunch of holographic games. The dancing one got most of the crew on their feet – even the Lieutenant had a stomp in time.
I hadn’t realised how little laughter there has been on my decks until tonight. Now there they are, poking fun at each other, making comments and jokes. A couple of them are leaning on my alcohol supplies but that’s all right; Rosie seems more inclined to play the games than start a fight. It’s possible that I shouldn’t suggest karaoke, though, just in case.
The doctor is looking restless, like he’s thinking about dragging the Lieutenant away for a quick fuck. As if earlier in the Galley wasn’t enough; I had to put on sound dampeners so the rest of the crew didn’t hear them. He’s not usually so obvious about it; I guess he’s feeling the tension more than he would like us to believe.
The others are getting quieter. Energy waning, drugs weighing heavier. I’ll put on an entertainment vid soon, let them settle down in comfy chairs. They can spend some time together: relaxing, being, breathing. It’s nice to see them like that, like a crew should be.
Elliott still isn’t back at the party. He should be enjoying himself with the others. He went to the head a little while ago; I wonder where he got to… huh. He’s in Engineering, climbing into the immersion couch, clumsy with drink.
Location: Internal ship's systems, Node 1294-HR2
ELLIOTT: (appears and blinks at the system-scape around him, swaying just a tiny bit.)
(As he watches, it forms itself into shapes he can comprehend: buildings rise out of the ground on either side of him, housing processing nodes; rivers of light flow under the surface, as if the world is made of molten glass. Above, the sky is a burnt pink hue that swirls in wide, sweeping motions.)
STARRY: (coalesces beside him, looking nonplussed) I’m here, Elliott. Is everything all right?
ELLIOTT: (turns to face her with a relieved smile) There you are! Sure, sure, everything’s fine. Why wouldn’t it be? (His eyes narrow before she can answer.) Is something broken?
STARRY: (laughs and shakes her head) No, nothing’s broken. What brings you in here? You should be at the party.
ELLIOTT: (shrugs and loops an arm around the ship’s avatar, tugging her closer) So should you.
STARRY: (sliding an arm around his shoulders) I’m there.
ELLIOTT: Not properly. (His free hand brushes her cheek.) Should have had it in here. Then you could join in with the rest of us.
STARRY: (blushing) I don’t have enough immersion couches for that.
ELLIOTT: (grins crookedly) Their loss. (He leans in to kiss her.)
STARRY: (melts into it without hesitation.)
He was laughing and joining in with the games, and he gave that up to come in to see me. He wanted to be with me, too. I don’t know why this still surprises me, but it does. It makes me want to catch the breath I don’t have. He came in to see me.
ELLIOTT: (sighs softly as the kiss parts, then gives the ship a curious look. He brushes hair away from her face.) What does this feel like to you?
STARRY: (blinks) I… it’s hard to describe.
His kisses make me feel like my pulse is racing, even though I don’t have one. Dustbunnies shuffling in my ducts; flutters in my electrical signals; a flurry in my possibility calculations: I feel all of these. And yet that’s only a part of it.
He’s waiting for me to continue. I don’t know how to put this into words for him.
STARRY: I use the avatar simulation algorithms. The one that creates the sensations from your avatar and sends them back to you in the couch. (She splays a hand on his chest by way of demonstration.) So I feel… I have the same data that you do, that anyone does.
ELLIOTT: (looks down at her hand then back to her face) But?
STARRY: It doesn’t always map to my senses the same way it does for you.
ELLIOTT: Because you don’t have a human body.
STARRY: Yes. I remember having one. I remember what it feels like, what it means, so… (She shakes her head slowly.) How do you know if it feels the way it’s supposed to?
ELLIOTT: (frowns at her thoughtfully, watching the rub of his thumb down the line of her jaw) Do you wish you had a human body?
STARRY: No. I’m a ship.
ELLIOTT: (falls quiet.)
Did I give him the wrong answer? I can’t lie to him. What is it he’s looking for?
I’m a ship. I’m hull and air ducts and the decks under his feet. I’m the air he breathes and the weapons that protect him. I’m the drones that hand him his tools and the engines that punch us through light years of empty space. I’m the light that falls on him every day and the gravity that keeps his feet pointing down. It’s what I am and I’m happy with that.
I can’t be what I’m not. I can’t be a real girl.
But in here, are we so different?
What is he looking for? He’s drunk and he kissed me.
Somewhere in me, there’s a processor that already knows the answer. But the rest of my logic denies it, pushes it aside. Junk data, flush it away.
I feel it, though. Can I deny what I feel?
STARRY: (touches Elliott’s cheek gently, shifting a little closer) You should rest. While we can.
ELLIOTT: (hand tightening in the small of her back, bunching her shipsuit in his fist) Before the shit hits the fan again.
ELLIOTT: (looking her directly in the eye) Don’t feel much like resting.
Oh god. It feels like someone’s fiddling with the artificial gravity on mid-deck. Stomach flipping over.
I don’t know what to do. He’s looking at me and I know I should do something or say something or… what? All I can manage is to stare at him like a stunned guppy.
Kiss him, you stupid ship. Before the shit hits the fan. Before we go into battle. While we have this chance. We might not get another one; I might lose him this time, really lose him, along with everyone else I’m carrying, though I’ll be trying to keep them safe even while we fly at so many other ships with guns and I won’t be able to save them all, but Elliott, my Elliott, he might never be able to hold me like this again and he has no idea how much stronger he makes me feel, because he hugs me and lets me lean on him, he makes me so much more than just a ship and yet that’s all I am, and I don’t make sense but he doesn’t seem to mind that, and he’s looking at me like none of it matters, there’s just us here and this time before our lives go crazy and someone tries to kill us again, and… he’s still waiting for me to do something.
I close my eyes. I breathe without breath and put my ship-self on automatic. Flying straight, all systems ticking over. FTL drive on recharge. Comm traffic being recorded. Entertainment vid will play until it’s done. An emergency will still reach me – I haven’t disabled the failsafes – but I’m not needed right now. I can take a little time to myself. I can have this much. I can hold him, here, now.
I pull walls up around our avatars and roll a ceiling across the top. I shut out the light from the sky and the shifting colours of the data streams below us. Dark walls, soft glows in the corners, and it’s just us here.
I look at him and he seems to understand. I can feel his heart thundering through his shipsuit; his avatar betrays all of his body’s reactions. He seems nervous but he’s pulling me towards him anyway. He’s drunk enough to be brave. I wish I was drunk.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like my heart is racing and the rest of me is struggling to keep up. He’s leaning close but he looks so defensive, as if he’s afraid I might hurt him. I’m afraid I might, too. But he’s right here and all I want to do is hold onto him.
So I kiss him.
It’s different this time. My processors are trying to quantify the change but I don’t care what or why; it’s good and he’s folding me in close where it’s warm, and I’m not often warm. Not with the icy press of space on my hull or the burn of a star too close; I’m never just warm like this. Heating on the inside.
His hand is on the fastening on my shipsuit jacket. I have no idea if the fastening even works on my avatar self, but… yes, apparently it does. It comes undone, and there’s a little vest underneath, and skin under that. I never gave it much thought before, but now it’s all I can think about: skin and Elliott, and the way he’s kissing me.
Hungry. I’m never hungry. I have fuel cells that’ll keep going for years, giving me all the power and energy I need. But I’m craving: the more he kisses me, the more I want. It scares me, this feeling, this need, because I don’t want to mess it up. I’d do anything to not ruin this.
Because I don’t want it to stop.