14 Jan

Once bitten

Ship’s log, 19:02, 5 October 2214 
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting 


Artificial gravity disabled
Inertial dampeners offline


That’s three, by my count. Three distinct gravitational fluctuations, each one stronger than the last, each one located in a different part of my structure.

I have disabled all of my gravity and inertia systems. I haven’t detected any malfunctions; my diagnostics are clean. My systems are working just fine. I’ve got no spikes of power in the areas where the fluctuations are occurring.

It’s not me. I’m sure it’s not me glitching.


Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (arriving in zero-G drift, he catches the back of his chair with one hand and swings his body down into the seat with the ease of much practice. The safety harness slithers around him, lashing him into place.) Starry, report.

STARRY: (materialising to the right of the captain’s chair) Three anomalies so far, no obvious cause yet.

CAPT: Can we fly out of it?

CAMERON: (arrives, with Rosie and the Lieutenant not far behind.)

STARRY: First thing I tried was to manoeuvre out of the distortion.


By which I mean I flew around like a lunatic during the first two fluctuations, pulling stunts I don’t dare do now that my inertial dampeners are disabled. I twisted and turned and writhed; I stopped and started.


STARRY: (looking worried) Didn’t matter what I did: the centre of the fluctuation stayed relative to my structure.

CAPT: So it’s coming from inside the ship?

STARRY: Still trying to determine that, sir.


It is only occurring on board me, and only in parts of me at a time. Small pockets of gravity, unstable and lasting just a few seconds at a time. But causation and correlation aren’t necessarily related: it might be happening inside my hull, but that doesn’t mean whatever is causing it has to be in here, too.

All eyes turn to me, looking for answers and maybe a culprit. It’s not me, I’m sure of it, but I’m not sure enough to rule it out. I’ve been compromised before.

That thought scares me. It can’t happen again, it just can’t. I won’t let it. I have safeguards…

I can’t think about this right now; have to stay focussed on the problem at hand. Focus, stupid ship. We need to figure this out quickly. If these fluctuations continue to get stronger, someone is going to get hurt.


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (gripping the edge of a counter with one hand to keep himself steady in zero-G, his other hand manipulates a holographic console, pulling up diagnostics and data) Starry, you got anything on your end?

STARRY: (materialising to one side of him, standing on the floor as usual) Nothing is showing on my internal systems. Everything is green here.

ELLIOTT: (flicks her a sideways glance) Just gotta stand there like everything is fine, doncha?

STARRY: I’m a hologram.

ELLIOTT: (huffs) And you’re sure none of those Strider bastards have been poking around in your systems?

STARRY: They’ve had nothing but entertainment access, display only. (She shakes her head.) Basic interfacing. I’ve scanned the logs; there’s no sign of tampering.

ELLIOTT: (scowls) Keep checking. Better leave the gravity off until the next— woah. (He grabs the counter with both hands as he’s pulled abruptly into it.)

STARRY: Elliott! (She reaches for him, though her hands don’t make contact.)

(Around Engineering, tools and parts fall towards the port side of the ship, clanging and sliding slowly.)

ELLIOTT: (sucking air back into his lungs) Fuck.


It’s definitely not coming from my systems. Not a single surge or burp in power feeds or outputs; the only spikes I’m seeing are in sensor data, reporting the fluctuation’s details. I haven’t been compromised. I haven’t!


Location: Bridge

(The Bridge crew are all at their stations now, harnessed in place like their captain: Lang Lang at Navigation; Chief Cameron at Security; and Rosie and the Lieutenant at Weapons consoles. They seem to be in zero-G, except that the captain and Lang Lang’s loose hair drifts towards the starboard side of the ship as if drawn to it.)

CAPT: (watching the readouts on his holographic monitor) Starry, is that another one?

STARRY: Yes. Engineering. It’s passing now.

CAPT: (smooths his long hair back from his face and tucks the length of it into the collar of his jacket to stop it from floating around him) Disable all propulsion systems.


CAPT: We have to check that your systems aren’t causing this.

STARRY: But we’re orbiting…

CAPT: Just long enough to be sure, not long enough to fall in.

STARRY: Okay, disabling all systems.

CAPT: I only said propulsion!

STARRY: You’re right: we need to be sure. And I don’t think we’ve got the luxury of time on our side.


FTL drive offline
Sublight engines offline
Thrusters offline
Weapons systems offline
Environmental systems offline


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (winces as a wrench bounces off his ankle, then sighs when the gravitational pressure eases back to zero-G) What the hell, Starry?

STARRY: Captain wants to make sure it’s none of my systems.

ELLIOTT: Fuck. All right, but be careful.

STARRY: (softly) Always.


Location: Bridge

LANG LANG: (watching her monitor, not the exchange between ship and captain) Orbit degrading, sir. We’re being drawn towards the black hole.

CAPT: How long do we have?

LANG LANG: At this rate, fifteen minutes before we must take correction action.

CAPT: Engines back on in five minutes, Starry. No longer.

STARRY: (nods) Yes, sir.

CAPT: Chief?

CAMERON: Going over the logs of our guests for suspicious activity. Laurence, I’m assigning you some logs to check, too.

HALF-FACE: Aye aye, ma’am.


I’m already scanning those logs, but the Chief knows what she’s doing. No harm in having more eyes across it, especially if… well, they might have hidden something from me that an independent mind could pick up. If they wanted to try something.

Though I haven’t been compromised. I’m sure of it.


ROSIE: You want me scanning for external threats?

CAMERON: (nods) Eyes and ears, Brasco.

ROSIE: (flips off a salute without looking over, her attention on the sensor readouts wrapped around her station.)

CAPT: (to Starry) Has Sara been located yet?

STARRY: (surprised) Sara? She is in the ducts just below the port side of mid-deck. My boys are trying to get her out, but the only ones who can reach her are Bit and Byte, and they’re too small to do it by force. While she’s awake, anyway.

CAPT: What does that mean?

STARRY: They could drag her if they needed to, especially while the gravity’s off, but not if she’s fighting them. They’re trying to lure her to an exit.

CAPT: I want her up here as soon as you can manage it.

STARRY: I’ve got Casper on standby where she’ll come out. He’ll bring her straight to the Bridge. And, uh… you want her awake, I take it?

CAPT: (eyes narrowing) Yes, please avoid knocking her out if you can.

STARRY: (nods) So she can talk to Cerces. Got it.

CAPT: (nods.)


That answers that question: the captain suspects that Cerces could be behind the fluctuations.

That possibility had crossed my processors. Several of them, in fact, and more often as I gather data about the gravity spikes. But I have to make sure it’s not coming from something on board first. If we’re wrong, if it’s not Cerces and we waste time trying to talk to him about it, we might wind up warped into a weird shape before we find out what’s going on. I have to keep looking at all the options until we know. Until we’re sure.

What about a piece of equipment we picked up at the station? We claimed whatever we could from Sarabande, on the basis that no-one there would miss any of it. But almost none of it is hooked up yet, and of the few pieces that are, they couldn’t cause an effect like this.

I’ll disable them anyway, just to be sure: Elliott’s component printer; the new scanner in Med Bay; some toys for Sara. Nothing critical that we need right now.

Oh, here we go.


Location: Med Bay

DR SOCKS: (looking over the equipment around the room, which is switching off one by one and falling dark) Starry…?

STARRY: (appearing in front of him) Systems are being disabled to isolate the cause of the gravity fluctuations.

DR SOCKS: These are emergency systems.

STARRY: And they’ll be back online just as soon as we’re sure they’re not part of the problem.

DR SOCKS: And in the meantime?

STARRY: Try not to fall onto anything particularly sharp or hard.

DR SOCKS: (gives her a dry look.)

STARRY: (shrugs) If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.

DR SOCKS: (huffs.)

STARRY: (more gently) Hold on, doctor. We’ll get through this. (She nods at him and disappears.)


I’m not sure how the medical equipment could cause gravity fluctuations, but with some of the complex machinery in there, you never know.

What if someone did cause this? Hacked several systems together at once, with unexpected results?

No, I’ve been hacked enough for one lifetime. It’s not that. I have security protocols designed to sniff out such activity and sit on it. I’ve been watching the Strider’s crew closely. It’s one of the advantages of being an AI: I am unblinking.

Another gravity pocket, starboard side, aft end of mid-deck. Everyone feels it, grabbing onto something for stability, even those strapped in on the Bridge. Something groans within my bulkheads.

They’re definitely getting stronger.


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (lashing himself to a stool so that he can look over projected diagnostic data) Starry, the readings are higher.

STARRY: Yes. Nothing we’re doing is making any difference.

ELLIOTT: What’s still running?

STARRY: Sensors, holo-projectors, and my core.

ELLIOTT: Your power cells are coming back clean.

STARRY: I’m pretty sure I’m not leaking. It’s not me, Elliott.

ELLIOTT: (nods) All right, fire yourself up again.

STARRY: (sighs and nods with relief.)


Location: Bridge

STARRY: Captain, another anomaly detected. Elliott is certain it’s not coming from any of my systems.

CAPT: All right, get yourself back online.

STARRY: Re-initialising systems. But…


Medical stations online
Environmental systems online
Weapons systems online


CAPT: But what?

STARRY: I don’t think it’s a good idea to put the artificial gravity on yet.

CAPT: Why not?


Thrusters online
Sublight engines online


STARRY: It could amplify the gravity fluctuations. There’s a higher chance of someone getting hurt. Or it warping one of my bulkheads.

CAPT: (frowning) Yes, that’s why we disabled it in the first place. I agree, leave it off. Same with the inertial dampeners?


FTL drive online


STARRY: (nods) I think so. Until I can reliably predict these fluctuations – if there’s a pattern at all – I can’t trust that the dampeners will act safely.

LANG LANG: I think there is a pattern.

CAPT: There is? Put it up, navigator.

LANG LANG: (nods and manipulates her console to send the display to the main holographic projector in the middle of the room. 

A skeleton schematic of the Starwalker is drawn in the air, with hotspots shining where each fluctuation has occurred. They light up in order and a line traces between them, starting in Engineering near the starboard-side thrusters, to the portside of mid-deck, to an upper section in the crew quarters, to the starboard wing. Then on to the more recent occurrences: mid-portside of Engineering, the mid-section of the crew quarters, and between one of the starboard-side cargo bays and mid-deck. The line traces a curved path between the points, and quickly depicts a spiral.)

CAPT: Can you predict where the next one will be?

LANG LANG: It’s not quite regular enough yet… we need more data.

STARRY: I think we can predict an approximate location. It won’t be exact, but we can refine it as we learn more.

LANG LANG: (nods, her hands moving again) Yes! We can do that.

(On the central hologram, a cone extends out from the last point, suggesting the next occurrence will be somewhere in the forward section of mid-deck or the crew quarters.)

CAPT: (thoughtfully) They’re still increasing in intensity?

STARRY: Yes, captain.

CAPT: Keep trying to predict where they’ll occur and move people away where we can. But we need the source. And Starry, I want to know if they reduce in intensity now we’re returning to standard orbit.

STARRY: You’ll have the information as soon as I do.


The captain suspects that our proximity to the black hole might be affecting the strength of the fluctuations. The data doesn’t seem to suggest that; it was increasing before I cut the engines and we started to drift towards Cerces. The increases didn’t spike but continue to rise fairly steadily.


Location: Cargo Bay 3

CASPER: (is mag-clamped to the inner wall of the cargo bay, positioned next to an open duct access panel near the ceiling. He is huddled back from the opening and all four of his hands flex impatiently.)

BIT: (skitters out of the opening and stops when he’s crouching on the wall’s surface. He emits a small noise: a recording of a kitten’s high-pitched mew.)

SARA: (from within the duct) Kitty!

(A small hand emerges from the duct, grabbing randomly at the air. Just above the hand, Byte is tugging on the sleeve to encourage the child on. She grapples with the lip of the duct and squeaks with surprise when a little pull on it sends her shooting half out of the duct and half into the side of it. She blinks and looks like she’s thinking about crying.)

CASPER: (rises from his huddle and closes three hands gently on the child. From his anchored position, he draws her smoothly and easily out of the duct without bumping her further.)

SARA: (relaxes as soon as the drone takes over control of her movement and seems to forget about the urge to cry. As she emerges into the cargo bay’s expanse of air, she leans against the robot’s hold so she can look around.) Kitty?

BIT and BYTE: (skitter away from the child.)

CASPER: (uses his fourth hand to pat her on the head and folds her in against his chest.)


Location: Bridge

STARRY: Captain, Sara is now out of the ducts. Casper is on his way up here with her.

CAPT: (nods approvingly.)


I’m not the culprit; I’m sure of that now. That’s something to take comfort in, though it’s not really helping us much right now. We might have ruled a few things out, but we’re no closer to figuring this out and we’re running out of time. Another fluctuation just warped a door panel in the forward part of mid-deck.

If it’s not me or a piece of equipment plugged into me, that leaves two options: something one of our guests brought on board, or Cerces.

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10 Responses to “Once bitten”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Poor Starry *hugs her*

    I hope they can repair the damage to her soon – and get cerces to stop hurting her…

  2. Spencer Says:

    I love this story, but sometimes the physics bother me. Their orbit is degrading? Why? There is absolutely no reason why you would be ‘drawn towards the black hole’ just because you turn off your engines. I get that you’re using the 15 minute deadline to create tension, but I think the tension is already high enough due to an uberbeing messing around with gravity inside their tiny fragile bubble of air.

    I can’t wait for next week. Is Cerces making itself an avatar, perhaps?

  3. NoNane Says:

    Is Cerces trying to find the Step Drive? I mean, if it even is Cerces.

  4. Syphax Says:

    I have to agree with Sara. Kitty!

    Spencer – I’d assume that they were orbiting close to the black hole (not the point of no return, obviously) but still required some force from Starry’s engines to maintain that orbit and not spagettify.

  5. Zjoske Says:

    “Try not to fall onto anything particularly sharp or hard.”
    You just gotta love Starry!!

  6. Francisco Says:

    I have my own theory: I suspect that Dr Cirilli may have created a virus to help shutdown the project. As they have scavanged the 2nd ship for spare parts…

  7. Melanie Says:

    mjkj – aww, poor ship needs hugs.

    Spencer – Syphax is correct: they are orbiting close enough that disengaging the engines will lead to being drawn in by the black hole’s gravity. It’s a massive gravity well, so you’d have to be really far away to avoid its effect completely. Even the space station would have to have some kind of periodic engine/thruster push to maintain its distance, or eventually fall into the black hole it’s studying.

    NoNane – interesting question! (Which I’m not going to answer. Sorry. 😉 )

    Syphax – Kitty. 😀 Sara was partially inspired by Boo from Monsters, Inc., so this was bound to work its way in eventually.

    Zjoske – if she was less stressed, she would have added something along the lines of, “So, you might want to keep your distance from the Lieutenant for a while.” 😀

    Francisco – interesting theory! (Nope, not going to confirm/deny this one either. 😉 )

  8. Jostikas Says:

    Melanie – Spencer has a point, you’ve got some funky physics at work here. Staying in orbit has nothing to do with height, unless you’re in the atmosphere.

    Above a perfect sphere you could be in orbit 1 meter from the surface, you’d just have to go fast enough to, by the time you’ve fallen 1 cm, have travelled enough to be at a point where the ground is also centimeter further due to the curvature of the planet.

    ISS and other satellites need orbit maintenace, because the Earth is not a perfect spere, and further, they have to deal with atmospheric drag, which, while small, still exists even that high. This still amounts to no more than a small thrust every few days/weeks.

    Coming back to Starwalker universe, and assuming first-Earth physics, being in an orbit that decays irretrievably in 15 minutes would mean that such a thing as zero-G (without artificial gravity) would be impossible. The thrust from the thrusters would create so much relative acceleration between the free-falling bodies and the hull of the ship, that they could probably walk on any surface facing the same way as the thrust vector. Or be crushed on it… I haven’t really run the numbers. That’s especially true around a black hole, where such an orbit is REALLY large diameter, and taking into account the necessary power of thrusters that are able to reach Earth escape velocity. It’s just like being pressed in your seat in an accelerating car.

    Put it short: if your orbit needs near-constant station-keeping to not die, you’re actually not in orbit and can’t experience zero-g (also known as free-fall).

    It’s your story and you can do what you want to. It’s just that up until now, the physics involved have been fairly consistent with what we know from the real world (even including the FTL). This departure from it results in a jarring effect for anyone who has a slightly above average knowledge of orbital mechanics, of whom I suspect there are above the average constituent (is that the right word?) among your readers.

    It’s nothing I’ll stop reading over, the story is way too good for that. It’s just that it’s an unnecessary departure from physics due to plot demands. They we’re already under time pressure due to the anomalies getting stronger, the bit about thrusters added nothing.

  9. Melanie Says:

    Jostikas – ah, I hadn’t thought about zero-G and being so close to the black hole. That was silly. 🙁

    I’ll have a think and fix it up. Thanks for the input – I appreciate it! For now, assume the inertial dampeners are still on; part of their function is to negate external gravitational forces.

  10. Spencer Says:

    Some excellent points here from Jostikas. I especially like the characterization of your readers as having “slightly above average knowledge of orbital mechanics.” I’ll have to keep in mind that my obsessive scouring of wikipedia for weird physics phenomena is probably not representative of all fans.

    One weird property of black holes that you might be able to use is that the event horizon isn’t some hard barrier. If you dived into a black hole you couldn’t actually tell when you crossed the event horizon and doomed yourself to forever spiral towards the singularity. (Assuming you don’t have a Step drive, that is!) However, because of time dilation, to the rest of the universe this would appear to take an infinite amount of time to enter the black hole (also not a problem with a time-traveling step drive). Hopefully Starry’s inertial dampeners are up to the task of fighting those tidal forces!