Ship's log, 22:19, 28 September 2214 Location: Between Sarabande Station and the Cerces black hole Status: Sublight transit
I was expecting this to be a solemn task but it has taken a an unexpectedly official tone. I am hitched up to the Celestial Strider like a horse to a hearse, drawing her through the black at a sedate pace. A gentle push from my sublights has put us in motion and now we are drifting towards the maw of Cerces.
All of my crew are on board except for the doctor. They are gathered on my Bridge, seated at their stations even though there’s nothing for them to do. There’s barely anything for me to do, now that we’re moving and inertia is carrying us towards our destination. I’m projecting the feed from my rear sensors into the centre of the room, showing the Strider as she follows us along.
When I look at that projection, I see my sister, silent and quiet. Serene as she lets me take her to her final fate. And yet, she’s proud, because this isn’t just the end to her abortive journey, or the final piece we must destroy to end a dangerous, damaging project. She has a duty, an honour to perform for us, and that alters everything.
When my people look at that projection, they don’t see my sister. They see a hearse, a coffin, a burial barge. They see the white-wrapped bodies that lie in her cargo bay, cradled in her belly so gently as we move through the void. They see the friends and colleagues that we must say goodbye to today.
There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do this. I want to shove on my forward thrusters and yank us all to a halt; I want to demand that we take them back and have them fixed. Or put them back into cryo-storage so I can carry them again, safe in my walls where I’ll never have to say goodbye to them.
Looking at the captain, I think he might let me. He doesn’t want to do this either; I can see his fingers worrying over each other, the ones on his right hand, attached to the arm he lost once. The ones that feel less real to him, even though we had his own flesh reattached. We froze that arm the same way we do with our dead. I wonder if he’s thinking about that, or if it’s the upcoming speech that’s bothering him. As our captain, it’s his duty to see our fallen off.
While he was preparing his words and the bodies were being loaded into the Strider‘s arms, I trawled through my filestores for recordings of those we’re carrying to their rest tonight. I was scanning my own memories, cherry-picking the moments that we should all remember. About halfway through the process, I felt like there was a stunned smile on my face, as recalled fondness battled with the sadness of it all. I pressed a hand to the screen and kept pushing through, looking at the faces of those I’ve lost.
Dr Spencer Maletz was the first one I looked up. My first medic, the first caretaker of my crew. He was brusque and utterly obsessed with porn, but he was a good doctor. For all he seemed lazy and lecherous, he kept my people in good shape; he was professional when it mattered.. In some logs, I caught him squinting at them in the Mess Hall when they weren’t looking, as if he was running medical scans on them. I never noticed that before.
He died when we fought our way free from the pirates. The damage was all to his chest, but even a replacement heart couldn’t save him: the delay in getting him frozen meant there had been too much cerebral decay to bring him back. The brain is the seat of the person, so they say, and without that, we are nothing.
Ray Wong’s injuries were mostly to his head. I had hoped that there was enough of his brain left to salvage, but the tests say no. The right kind of activity couldn’t be stimulated. He had fallen on the same day as Maletz, and he lies next to the doctor now.
Wong had been my mechanic, the only person other than Elliott allowed to mess around in my systems. The two of them had clashed and I hadn’t always liked Wong’s Step drive-centric attitude, but he never did anything I didn’t need. He helped me be the best ship I could be, before I knew how misguided my ideas about that were. None of us knew back then; we had just wanted this project of ours to succeed. He had been good at what he did; I can’t fault him for that. Not for any of that.
They were both good crewmembers, to me and my crew. They stood up for me when it mattered, even though I’m strange and unpredictable. We might not always have got along but they were family, the only kind a ship like me can really have. My crew are my people, my charges, my family. Even though I lost Wong and Maletz seven months ago, this feels like the true goodbye. The final one.
The two others laid out near them were not such good crewmembers. Dr Seth Ebling and SecOff Riley Swann, both killed when they tried to betray me and everyone else on board. Both shot and damaged too severely to bring back. Considering their last actions, I have mixed feelings about the idea of bringing them back, but even after everything, I wish we had been able to save them. I wish they might have breathed again and given us the chance to bring them back into the crew.
Maybe I’m worn thin with all this death, so much that I would even forgive those who betrayed me and threatened my crew. Wearied by all those ghosts who lurk around my sensor feeds, reminding me of people I miss. Some of those ghosts are echoes of the men lying in Strider‘s cradle.
It’s not to be. Dr Valdimir tried to bring them back and he couldn’t. It’s time to let them go. I’m sorry that it ended with them like it did, but we can’t change that. Not even me, with my time-travelling drive; I’ve never been able to change the past. Somehow I must calculate it into perspective and acceptance. I’m not sure those algorithms exist.
Four bodies. Four goodbyes.
We’re ten minutes out from the station and the captain is rising from his chair. Around the room, eyes turn towards him: Lang Lang, Rosie, Elliott, and the Lieutenant. I join them with my avatar, standing off to the side. It seems like the thing to do. All five of my drones are here too, standing in a ring around my people, hands folded and motors humming quietly.
CAPTAIN: (clears his throat and lifts his chin. He’s in his smartest uniform, with captain’s pips on his collar and a golden thread woven through the cuffs of his jacket.) We all know why we’re here: to say goodbye to our fallen crewmembers. They deserve our honour and respect for the sacrifices they’ve made.
We shouldn’t only remember those we’re carrying to their rest tonight. We should remember all of those we’ve lost, even those who aren’t here with us in body or spirit. So I’d like to start with a dedication to Dr Lorena Cirilli, without whom this project would never have existed, and without whom none of us would have come together. We may know the project was a mistake now, but I cannot regret my time on this ship, with all of you, and that was all possible because of her. She died doing what she believed was right, gave herself up for the greater good, and her sacrifice will not be forgotten.
This is going to be so much harder than I thought. But he’s right. He’s right about all of it.
Lang Lang is already crying quietly, tears leaking down her cheeks. Rosie’s jaw is set stubbornly as if she’s afraid to be touched by something as nebulous as the captain’s words. Elliott is staring at the floor. The Lieutenant is solemn, his half-metal features the most composed of everyone’s, but there’s sympathy in his eyes.
While the captain speaks, I pull up images of Cirilli: hard at work by the machinery of the Step drive; sitting quietly with a fork in one hand while her other one flips through a report; a rare glimpse of her with her hair down. I see a sad smile flutter around John’s lips and his mouth stumbles over the next part of his eulogy.
The sadness weighs on me. I’d drag my feet but there’s no friction here: the vacuum is perfect and empty. I drift smoothly forward and my sister-hearse follows, our motions oblivious to everything that’s going on inside us. Our destination inches closer.
Four bodies. A fifth who cannot be with us, who we cannot bury. My lost ones.
There was almost six. I mustn’t forget this. There should have been one more body loaded onto the Strider, but it wasn’t, and that fact is a comfort now, tiny and warm.
Recording: 21:28, 28 September 2214 External Comms
STARRY: Doctor, is there a problem? Sensors are only showing four bodies have been loaded.
DR SOCKS: (distracted) That’s right! You’ve got all the ones you need to take. Go ahead; I’ll stay behind.
STARRY: But there should be–
DR SOCKS: There’s been a change of… status. Tell the captain my report had an error in it.
STARRY: An error? But… does that mean that someone isn’t dead? You managed to save someone?
DR SOCKS: As much as I’d like to take the credit for it, I’m afraid it will take more investigation to establish exactly what happened. Now, if you’ll excuse me…
STARRY: Wait! What happened? Who is it?
VOICE: (in the background, mumbling) Where is this?
STARRY: CAMERON? Chief, you’re awake! You’re… you’re okay?
CAMERON: (weakly) Hello, Starry. Remains to be seen, I think.
STARRY: Oh god, I can’t–
DR SOCKS: You can squeal at each other later. I have to get the Chief here back to the Med Bay and you need to take the others away.
STARRY: I, yes! Yes. Chief, I’m so glad you’re okay. (Pause.) Chief Cameron?
DR SOCKS: She passed out again. Go on! Shoo. I need to work.
I had already disconnected from the station’s systems by then, so I didn’t have a sensor feed to check, but the life signs confirm it. Cameron’s biorhythms were intact and strong all the way down to the docking ring, and all the way back up again. I don’t know and I don’t really care what happened or how. All that matters is that she’s back. I might get one back.
I flutter my thrusters, push forward a little more, lean into the traces of the towline that draws the Strider on behind me. Those we cannot save will have their send-off today. We’ll remember all the reasons why we miss them, and we’ll wish them well in whatever afterlife they’ve made it into. We’ll show our hearts. Then we’ll send them into the dark, let Cerces take them. Perhaps we’ll light their burial barge so they go out afire.
And then we’ll return to the station and all of those we can save. We’ll be ready to really start fixing things here.
We’ll come back from our goodbyes and know that there’s one less ghost walking among us now.