Ship's log, 15:23, 23 September 2214 Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole Status: Docked, powered down
This is the fourth day in a row that Lang Lang has gone under to try to communicate with the black hole. She says that she is making progress and she seems to be working out how to exchange ideas and concepts, but it’s slow going.
The captain is reservedly pleased with how it’s going. It’s not moving forward as quickly as he had hoped, but at the same time there does seem to be definite forward progress. He’s quiet and patient, though I suspect that he’s wondering if this will give us what we’re looking for. We all want to solve whatever is going on with Cerces but if it’s a toil of several months, he has to balance it against the mental health of the crew.
The exchanges between Lang Lang and the black hole have already created noticeable fluctuations in the ghost population. Sometimes they increase, filling up my sensors and slowing my processing down as I’m forced to filter them all out, one at a time. And it’s not just me: whenever I’m swamped, the people on the station don’t seem to know where to turn next, hesitant as if all space around them is full of bodies. At other time, the ghosts are a single, concentrated point of projection, staring into space with melancholy. We’ve done some preliminary mapping, and the changes seem to correlate to the nature of the ‘discussion’ that Lang Lang is having with our ex-star acquaintance.
The doctor has little to say about the whole thing. He seems curious, going over the readings and reports with bright-eyed interest, but he clams up when asked about the outcome of the endeavour. Too early to say, he says. He might not be willing to commit to an opinion but I know he has ideas.
That’s all he’ll give us about the impacts on Lang Lang, too, and I’m not sure that he’s telling us everything he knows. I see him going over the data, I catch the little signs in his expression that mean he has spotted something – a press of lips, the twitch of a muscle in his jaw, a curve of his eyebrow – but when pressed, he reports nothing of interest.
I can’t spot any particular pattern when I go over the data myself. Whatever he’s seeing there is beyond my medical knowledge; I have fairly comprehensive files but at the higher levels, medicine can be as much art and instinct as science. I have noticed that Lang Lang seems less rested and more headache-prone after each session, though she claims she’s fine.
Why won’t anyone just say what’s really going on?
In between induced comas, my doctor and captain have been talking to the two experts in black hole communication on the station: Brenn Haitom and little Sara.
It’s hard to get anything particularly useful out of Sara, mostly because she has the attention span of a squirrel on speed. Her verbal development is also lagging behind the norm for her age; a full sentence is a rare occurrence. At least she’s cheerful about it all, though.
Haitom is a different matter. Getting any kind of coherent sense out of him is a trick, and requires the skills of a master jigsaw puzzle solver and a metaphor interpreter. It’s also working the human side of my brain, and it feels a bit like trying to describe a symphony to a deaf and blind person using only interpretive dance.
Station sensor recording: 14:22, 21 September 2214 Location: Brig Level B, Sector B12, Cell B12-6
(There are patterns smeared all over the walls in varying shades of brown and rusty-red. Below, bright blue and green crayons have been mashed into the floor by careless feet. The patterns seem to be fragments of words and diagrams, mixed together into a pattern reminiscent of a kaleidoscope.
The cell’s occupant sits with his back to the rear wall, his legs stuck straight out in front of him. He’s tearing into a hunk of meat in his hands, teeth ripping and mouth sloshing as he chews. His eyes track the man leaning against the door-frame, though; he eats with absent instinct.)
DR SOCKS: (maintaining a carefully casual pose, hands innocuously in his pockets) Do you like meat, Brenn?
BRENN HAITOM: (chewing and speaking through his mouthful) Not yours. Not your sort of meat. Not yours, no.
DR SOCKS: (crooks an eyebrow) Okay. You just have yours, then.
HAITOM: (tucks his chin down a little and mumbles incoherently into his mouthful.)
DR SOCKS: Brenn, are we alone here?
HAITOM: (eyes narrowing at the doctor) Relativity is complicated. (The next few words are garbled, then he swallows a part of his mouthful and speaks more clearly.) …never really alone. Always someone watching, watching. Digital eyes. Watching. Spinning eyes. Spinning eyes in our brains, till they whirl us up and look out through us.
DR SOCKS: (suppressing a sigh) I was asking in a less metaphysical sense. Is there another person in the room with us, right now?
HAITOM: (pauses for a distinct second, perfectly still. Then he says,) I’m not delusional. (He glances down at the meat in his hand, then throws it away with apparent disgust.)
DR SOCKS: I didn’t say that you were. It’s just a question.
HAITOM: Questions, questions. (He swipes the back of a wrist across his mouth, swallowing the last of his meal hastily so he can speak.) Always questions. What are you doing, why are you doing that, will you look at this, can you see, can you see, can you SEE? (He rocks forward, folding his legs under him so he winds up crouched.) Can you see, doctor? Can you?
DR SOCKS: (head tilting) I haven’t asked you if you could see. Who asked you that?
HAITOM: The eye! The eye in the sky so high, it looks through all of us. (He hisses,) All of us.
DR SOCKS: The black hole asks you questions?
HAITOM: Questions, always questions. Never the right answers. Never true, never good, never right. Can’t see what it wants. It sees all, but we can’t see it. Swallows all the light, all the good, all the life. Swallows us up, like meat. (He glances at where the hunk of meat landed.)
DR SOCKS: You think that it wants to harm us?
HAITOM: It is what it is what it is. Time is a circle. What has happened before will happen again. And we’ll be safe in the arms of eternity. (He stares at the floor and pokes at it with a fingertip.) Safe for eternity. Never let us go. It must be all light in there, because it swallows it all. All light, all life. Swallows it up and keeps it safe. Circles always happen again.
DR SOCKS: Brenn, does the black hole mean us harm?
HAITOM: (huffing and rolling his shoulders) Questions, always questions, but can’t understand the answers. Always wrong. Wrong.
DR SOCKS: (watching the man’s crouch closely) Does it hate us?
HAITOM: …wrong. Doesn’t even know how to listen. (He scowls and thumps the floor with a fist.) Hate. Love. It’s the same circle. It’s all circles here and it’s hip to be square. It’s where you are on the circle, dancing and spinning. Like your preference for meat; it’s all the same. Always spinning.
DR SOCKS: You don’t see the ghosts, do you?
HAITOM: (lifts his head and looks the doctor right in the eye) The only person I miss is me. (His voice rises in volume, stepping up towards a shout.) Me. I used to be here but I’m not any more. (He rises from his crouch.) And if I’m not here, I can’t miss anyone else, can I? I want myself back! You hear me? ME!
DR SOCKS: (straightens from his lean against the door-frame) I understand, Brenn, it’s all–
HAITOM: IMPOSSIBLE. GIVE ME BACK, GIVE ME BACK– (He snarls and launches himself at the doctor.) MEEEEEEEEE.
DR SOCKS: (shouts and falls back a step, a hand coming out of his pocket. There’s a small device in his grip and it goes off, firing a dart at the rushing madman.)
HAITOM: (stumbles a step when the dart hits and blinks at Dr Valdimir.)
DR SOCKS: Starry!
STARRY: (voice only) Are you all right, doctor?
DR SOCKS: (breathing quickly, not taking his eyes off the man swaying in front of him) Fill that damned cell with sedative. And clean it up while he’s out, would you?
HAITOM: (staggers one more step and then pitches over. By the time he hits the floor, he’s limp and unconscious.)
STARRY: No problem. I’ll keep him out for a while.
That’s the last time the doctor is allowed down there without a SecOff escort.
While I’m not sure how to interpret most of what Haitom said, I get a sense of foreboding from it. Maybe it was just the rambling of a madman who looked too long into the abyss. Maybe it really did look back into him and made him forget who he was.
I wonder who he was when he was sane. I keep running searches for logs from before his incarceration, but I can’t bring myself to look at the results. I think if I see who he used to be, if I know just how far he has fallen, I’ll be scared for my crew. For my Lang Lang, putting her mind on the line. What if he was just like her and this is what too much black hole contact did to him?
I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see the future in him. My people deserve better.
Besides, the captain wouldn’t let it happen. He wouldn’t let her go into that coma day after day if that was a risk. And the doctor would know. He knows more about what Haitom’s ramblings mean than he’ll let on. He might not be the kindest doctor in the world, but I don’t think he’d waste his own time if he thought she might end up the same way.
Right? Right. My Lang Lang is strong. She can do this.
And anyway, not everyone who has contact with Cerces winds up a rambling lunatic. We know this. Little Sara is the sun to Haitom’s stormclouds.
Recording: 19:41, 22 September 2214 Location: Mess Hall
(The captain is sitting at a table working his way through a bowl of stew when a giggle comes from under a nearby chair. Behind him, the nannybot trundles in through an open door, a stuffed whale dangling from one metal hand. Small feet patter off in the opposite direction.)
CAPTAIN: Starry, can you please close the Mess Hall doors?
STARRY: (appearing on the far side of the captain’s table) Of course. Someone is fighting bedtime. (The doors whisper closed, starting with the one in front of the tiny escape artist.)
CAPT: Were you just going to let her run off?
STARRY: I figured she’d wear herself out eventually.
SARA: (yanks to a stop and looks up at the door, her mouth falling open in surprise. She huffs, then turns and runs off in another direction.)
NANNYBOT: (pauses, scans, and adjusts her trajectory. She has to move slowly to weave through the tables, pushing chairs patiently out of her way.)
CAPT: (giving the ship’s avatar a quirk of a smile) You’re letting her give you the run-around?
STARRY: (shrugs) She gets cranky if she’s put down before she’s ready. I mostly try to avoid the whining and the crying. (She nods her head towards the spot beside the captain and smiles sweetly.)
CAPT: (looks down to where the ship indicated.)
SARA: (is standing there, reaching out to grab a fistful of his sleeve so she can tug on it. She meets his gaze and her eyes go all wide.)
CAPT: Well, hello there, pretty girl. And what might you want?
SARA: (glances at his hand and the spoon it holds, then back up to his face) Hungry.
CAPT: Oh, really? I’m pretty sure you’ve had dinner already.
STARRY: (drily) And cookies. And milk. You said no drugs, so I held off on the brandy.
CAPT: (to the child) This is my dinner, sweetpea.
SARA: (gazes up at him sadly) Huuuungry.
CAPT: (considers her for a moment, then puts his spoon down and picks her up. He places her on his lap, turning her so that she’s facing the table.) Come sit here with me for a while. How’s that?
SARA: (wriggles a bit, then reaches for the bowl. She peeks over the edge, then dips a finger in it, to be placed in her mouth.)
CAPT: (picks up his spoon and resumes eating around the child) Not that hungry after all, hmm? Is it you that’s hungry, or your friend?
SARA: (twists her head so she can look at the captain’s face) Whale.
STARRY: (blinks with surprise) How did you know?
CAPT: You were right; she shouldn’t be hungry. And we know that her friend communicates in feelings.
STARRY: You think she can’t tell the difference?
CAPT: (looks down at the top of Sara’s head) I think she can’t always tell us the difference.
SARA: (dabbles fingertips in the bowl and licks the stew juice off them, but she doesn’t seem terribly interested in it.)
STARRY: (comes around the table and crouches next to the captain’s chair) Sara, is your whale friend always hungry?
SARA: (glances sideways at the ship’s avatar, then nods.)
CAPT: Can you tell us what else your friend feels?
SARA: (gazes intently at her fingers.)
STARRY: (looks queryingly at the captain.)
CAPT: (shakes his head at the ship.)
SARA: Tired. Want sleep now.
STARRY: (opens her mouth to speak, but is forestalled by another shake of the captain’s head.)
CAPT: Well, he has been out there for a long time, all on his own. That’s bound to be tiring.
SARA: (looks up at the captain, beaming suddenly) Whale’s my friend.
CAPT: (smiling back at her) That’s right, he has you now. You keep him company.
SARA: We play games. (She looks to the ship’s avatar.) You’re hard.
STARRY: (blinks at her) Uh… I’m made of projected light.
SARA: (shakes her head emphatically.)
CAPT: You mean for the whale to talk to?
SARA: (nods emphatically.)
STARRY: Oh. Well, uh. It’s kinda hard to deal with for me, too. You can go ahead and tell him not to bother. I’m all right here.
CAPT: (gives her a frown.)
STARRY: (shrugs at him.)
SARA: You miss.
STARRY: Uh… I don’t understand.
SARA: (insistently) You miss.
STARRY: (looks helplessly at the captain.)
CAPT: She means that you miss people.
STARRY: Yes, but… but I’m okay with that. (To the child,) The whale doesn’t need to help me with that. I’m okay.
SARA: (reaches out to pat the avatar’s arm) Okay. (She blinks when her hand passes through the sleeve and arm.)
STARRY: (to the captain) I’m not getting the feeling that she’s getting me.
CAPT: (smiling faintly) Maybe she thinks she knows what’s best for you.
SARA: (waving her hand curiously through the avatar’s projection) Whale knows best. Tingly! (She giggles and pulls her hand out to look at it.)
CAPT: (exchanges a curious look with the avatar, then puts his spoon down again) All right, I think it’s someone’s bedtime. (He scoops Sara up and stands.)
SARA: (kicks her feet) Game!
CAPT: (settling her on his hip) Hm, how about a story?
SARA: (nonplussed) Story? Story… game?
CAPT: No, sweetpea. A story. I’ll tell you all about it.
STARRY: (rises and moves out of the way. Behind her, the Mess Hall doors open.)
NANNYBOT: (arrives next to them.)
Poor kid hadn’t heard a story before. How messed up is that? I guess a nannybot really isn’t a full substitute after all. She’s programmed for all sorts of tasks, including vocal prompts to help with speech development, but stories apparently aren’t part of her repertoire. Maybe her family disabled the functionality, wanting that to be something that they did together.
They set the nannybot to look after the kid permanently. I think they knew they weren’t going to be here for her. But they never programmed her to tell their daughter stories. Maybe they hoped that there would be someone here to do that. Instead, she got stuck with a lunatic and a hermit for company, until we arrived.
The captain emerged from her new quarters after being in there only twenty-three minutes. I didn’t hear a peep from her all night; I think that’s the easiest she has ever gone down to sleep. I guess stories really are magic to kids.
Now, of course, she’s treating my cargo bays as her own personal jungle gym. Casper is keeping pace with her at floor level, ready to catch her if he needs to, but she’s a monkey. I think it’s only going to get worse as she gets bigger, though at least there’ll be less chance of losing her in the ducts.
I really do prefer it when she’s sleeping.
Uh oh, I’m getting an alert… it’s from the station’s Med Bay. Lang Lang’s feeds just spiked.
Live feed: station sensors Location: Med Bay
(Red warning lights flash over the bed where Lang Lang lies, projected into the air above a holographic representation of her body. In both projection and reality, the navigator’s body is arched, taut like a harpstring. Air saws between her teeth.)
DR SOCKS: (is already arriving at the bedside. His hands move quickly across the warnings, pulling up the information and ordering changes of drug doses.)
(Patches on the patient’s temple and throat flash, acknowledging the orders.)
LANG LANG: (bucks against the bed. She whimpers, struggling to breathe. Her heels kick ridges in the blanket. After five long seconds, the tension starts to ease. It drains from her muscles, pouring her back into a prone position on the bed. Her settling is disturbed by twitches, tremors rippling through her body.)
DR SOCKS: (catches one of her wrists lightly and places it back on the bed. He barely takes his eyes off the read-outs as her biorhythms move towards consciousness.)
LANG LANG: (comes awake abruptly, sitting up, air snaggling in her throat. She shrieks, shoves herself backwards, skitters right off the edge of the bed, and just keeps on shrieking.)
Uh oh. Time to call in… everyone.