25 Feb


Ship’s log, 00:11, 6 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Adrift, orbit degrading


Location: Outer hull

(The stars tumble around the ship with the large, lightless patch that is the black hole, wheeling around on all three axes. The cargo and contents that were sucked out of the breached airlock wind in a curve behind the ship. From the nose of the ship, filaments extend and waver like hair follicles.

Big Ass is suspended above the hull on safety tethers. He opens a compartment in his chest, usually reserved for tools and arm attachments, and places a limp bundle inside.

Then he thrusts through the traffic of crates towards a small mote, the safety lines spooling out behind him. A crate bounces off one of the lines, making it thrum unhappily and putting a dent in his journey.)


Location: Cargo Bay 1

(After the airlock breach, the bay is mostly empty, apart from the cargo that was secured enough to withstand the gravity fluctuations and the loss of pressure. There isn’t much of that.

In the gaping space, the soccer ball-sized anomaly crawls with electromagnetic energy. Inside, the tiny body of a black kitten twitches with its eyes closed, for all the word like it’s dreaming of chasing dustbunnies in the ducts.

Static and pressure builds around the anomaly in the vacuum of the cargo bay, like it’s holding its breath. The pulse of its release is invisible, signalled only by a tiny cat convulsing in an uncomfortable way.)


Another EMP. I’ve already lost the outer airlock to one of those; I’m still trying to re-route control so I can close it. Assuming that the breach didn’t warp the doors too much to close, that is, and that there are enough un-fried circuits for me to find.

I’ve lost half of the sensors in there. The anomaly is off-centre, towards the outer hull end of the bay; the ship-side sensors are still working. But if that pulse keeps growing, I’m going to lose them all and then I won’t have any idea what’s going on inside my own cargo bay.

After that, I’ll lose the door controls currently sealing the breach off from my inner corridors. The entire deck will lose pressure.

Damage control, Starry. You can get around this.

Alternate sensor usage, so there’s always some on, some off. I’ll only lose the active circuits to an EMP. Isolate and rotate.

Lock the inner door down to emergency manual controls only. Shut down the circuits there, too. No power, nothing to fry.

If only it was that simple to get us out of this spin.


Location: Engineering

(Dineen, the Strider’s engineer, is currently working at a terminal, surrounded by red warnings and tapping furiously at the controls. The captain is hovering in the zero-G nearby, watching her closely. Beyond him, Rosie is keeping a close eye on proceedings as well, fingering the weapon hanging from its shoulder strap.

Across the room, the doctor is scanning an unconscious Elliott, who is tethered to a wall by a dangling strap.)

DINEEN: Looks like the EMP was bigger this time.

STARRY: (voice only) Yes, but you don’t need to worry about that.

DINEEN: But if it gets much bigger…

STARRY: I’m putting measures in place. You need to focus on the engines. I need propulsion and helm control back.

DINEEN: I… see what you’re doing in there. Wow, Monaghan said you weren’t a regular AI, but I never credited that you were this different.

STARRY: Compliment me later. Fix me now.

CAPT: (to Dineen) Starry works closely with our engineer. Starry, how long until those EMPs will start to cause real problems?

STARRY: I’ve locked the inner doors down, so the breach shouldn’t get any worse. I’d recommend sealing the hatches there in Engineering, too, just in case. Hard to calculate the rate of expansion yet, but we’ve got maybe twenty minutes before it reaches a critical system.

ROSIE: (frowns and pushes off a railing to head for the upper access hatch.)

CAPT: What happens then?

STARRY: Hard to say. I’ll have to re-route systems, but I’ve got a lot of internal damage from the surges… let’s just say it’s gonna get interesting.

DINEEN: (lifting an eyebrow while her hands continued their hurried work over the console’s controls) Your calculation is ‘interesting’?

STARRY: It’s more of a feeling.

DINEEN: (shakes her head to herself) The more you know.

CAPT: How long until the EMP reaches the first of our people?

STARRY: Uh… Maybe two-thirds of the time it’ll take to reach critical systems. Less to reach where the Strider’s people are.

DINEEN: Before it reaches implants? That’s not going to be pretty.

CAPT: (frowns and nods) Do what you can.

DINEEN: Yeah. So, what the hell happened to your safety protocols?

STARRY: They kept putting us in danger, so they got reconfigured.

DINEEN: Well, it’s a mess in here.

STARRY: You’re gonna have to deal with it. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen worse.

DINEEN: (grins suddenly) Oh, you have no idea.


Not sure I like that grin. She seems to be homing in on the right area, though.

I had to give her engineer-level access to my systems to do this. I’m not entirely comfortable with that: those are my core safety protocols she’s poking around in. But I can’t do it all myself. I have to try to mitigate the damage and keep an eye on what’s happening, and somehow keep us all alive. We do what we have to.

Does Cerces know what he’s doing to us? He could create this avatar only to eat it up with his black hole self. Can he really be oblivious? Does he not care?

Sara seems calm. She’s drifting along next to the captain, her head turned towards the cargo bay where the anomaly is, and humming to herself. It’s like she can see what’s happening, right through my walls.

Somehow, I think if Cerces knew how dangerous our situation was, she’d be more worried. Instead, she’s calm and happy, smiling cheerfully. And waiting.

I wish I knew how long this was all supposed to take. I— What the hell is Dineen doing?


Collision imminent


CAPT: (frowns at the warnings flashing on Dineen’s console) Starry…?

STARRY: There’s nothing out there. Dineen, what are you doing?

DINEEN: Disrupting your safety protocols is going to take too long. I’m working around it. Making them work for us.

STARRY: You’re faking a collision alert?

DINEEN: I’m reconfiguring the sensors to pick up the black hole’s event horizon as a solid barrier.

STARRY: So the collision alert will counter the surge shutdown and restart the engines.

DINEEN: Precisely.


It’s smart. This is why I wanted her hands free to help. But… now I have conflicting warnings in my systems. It wants me to send a distress signal. Who the hell would get it in time? Stop it. Work around it.

The protocols are trying to form a logic loop. Start up / shut down / start up / shut down… SHUT UP. STOP, just stop.


STARRY: (sounding strained) This better work quick.

CAPT: Starry?

STARRY: Giving me a headache.

DINEEN: (still working feverishly) Almost there, hold on…

STARRY: I’m spinning towards a black hole. What, precisely, would you like me to hold onto?


Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass closes a huge metal hand around a fragile bundle of metal and fur. He tucks it carefully into his chest compartment.

His blocky head turns, scanners active. Some distance away from him and the ship, there’s the bright little light of a welding torch trying to act as a thruster to push its bearer back towards the hull. It’s not working: the drone is losing ground as the ship spins; every time he comes into view, he’s a little further away.

Big Ass adjusts the length of his safety tethers to move through the drift of debris towards the little light. Another stray crate clangs off a tether and it strains, the groan of metal vibrating up the line into the drone’s form. He activates his thrusters and the tether gives way entirely, whipping off the hull and swinging him out in the wrong direction.)


Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (grumbles incoherently.)

STARRY: Elliott?

DR SOCKS: (pressing a scanner to the engineer’s neck) He’s coming around, give him a moment.

DINEEN: (across the room) Another EMP.

CAPT: Damage?

STARRY: Bigger this time. Circuits outside the cargo bay affected. New estimate: six minutes until it reaches critical systems.



Elliott’s okay. I don’t like it when he’s so quiet. I don’t like it when he’s hurt. But he’s okay. The doctor is with him.

Cerces and I are going to have some choice words when this is all over.

Assuming, of course, that whatever Dineen is doing doesn’t wipe my vocabulary libraries. I feel like all sense is dribbling out of my ducts, replaced by self-important protocols shouting that no, they have priority, because safety is paramount.

I’d ignore them and look out of my external sensors, but the spinning only makes me dizzy.

Focus, Starry. You need to orient yourself so that you’re ready to pull out of that spin as soon as the engines come back on. You’ve done this a hundred times. Danika loved this sort of thing, never puked once; it’d be a shame to spoil that record now. Especially without the means to actually vomit.


Location: Outer hull

(With one safety line flung out into the black, Big Ass flares his thrusters to push back towards his little brother. The remaining safety tether pings unhappily under the strain.

Abruptly, he turns his bulky form around, his base pointed outwards from the ship, and activates his mag-clamps. The little light of Bit’s welding torch spins into view. After a second, most of the little drone’s legs extend towards his big brother in return, reaching for the magnetic attraction.)


Collision imminent
Evasive action required


I think it’s starting to work. Dineen is making changes to the severity of the warnings, leaning on the immediacy of how quickly a collision will kill us compared to a surge that has finished.

This would be easier to do if the pulses weren’t sending new surges through my circuits, but I guess we can’t have everything. I’m routing the worst of the excess power out through the Step drive’s filaments, and that is helping to buffer the rest of me. Small steps, small steps.

Another EMP. That one covered most of the adjacent cargo bays. I’m shutting down every system I can, trying to save as many circuits as possible. Squeezing myself down to a small nub, locating my main processing in Engineering to be as far from the next pulse as possible, talking in intermittent snatches with the rest of me.

Still spinning. Still hurtling towards what my sensors are now telling me is a solid barrier. My boys are outside, dangling on a string, and Big Ass just missed grabbing his brother with his mag-clamps.

I feel like it’s all slipping through my fingers and there’s nothing I can do.


(Big Ass’s head turns to watch Bit’s light drift right past him, though closer than before.

Bit looks ahead, at the nose of the ship that is spinning towards him. He’s not close enough to reach the hull, but the filaments are trailing randomly outwards. The tiny drone readjusts his position and activates his mag-clamps again.

His position wobbles, then comes to an unsteady pause on the side of a filament. Little feet clamber to get a more solid purchase, awkward as he has to work around the bulk of the limp kitten he’s still attached to.

Big Ass deactivates his mag-clamps and begins to thrust towards the filament. The safety line spools out behind him.)


Bit! There’s hope yet. Except… wait. I’m routing surges out through those filaments. He can’t be on there. I can’t afford to not discharge, not even to save him.

Hurry, Big Ass. Please hurry.

Evasive action required
Sublight engines online
Thrusters online
Navigation online


Dineen did it! I can feel my engines powering up, and the spidery web of thrusters on my hull coming back to life.

All I need to do now is squint and pull us out of this spin. And not yank my boys around too much. If I move too quickly, I’ll ruin the rescue attempt.

Come on, Big Ass. Grab him already. We don’t have time.


Location: Engineering

DINEEN: (huffs, grinning) Got it. Starry?

STARRY: I’ve got propulsion.

CAPT: (activates his personal holographic interface, which hovers above his left forearm) Position?

DINEEN: (blinks and turns her head towards the bulk of the engines at the rear of the room) How come I can’t hear the sublights spinning up?

ELLIOTT: (across the room, muzzily) What the fuck happened?

DR SOCKS: (speaks lowly and calmly to the engineer.)

STARRY: Still falling, captain. Just need to get my drones secure.

CAPT: What?

STARRY: Four seconds!

CAPT: Starry…


Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass stretches on the end of his tether, a hand reaching forward. The filament bearing Bit’s clinging form wavers back and forth, reacting to the extra weight and the turn of the ship.

The little drone stretches out two of his feet with his mag-clamps active, trying to pull himself towards his big brother without losing hold of the filament.)


Come on, boys. Come on.


Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The kitten in the ball of energy trembles. Electricity crawls around inside the ball like it has a mind of its own, throwing shards of blue-white light around the cargo bay floor. Pressure builds like a fist again.)


Location: Outer hull

(The two drones are within a metre of each other. Bit abruptly lets go of his anchor, pushing off the line towards the heavy drone and towing his kittenish burden.

Big Ass’s hand snaps closed.

On the hull beneath them, thrusters flare.)


That’s it! Now I can get us out of here.


Location: Engineering

STARRY: Pulling up now, captain.

CAPT: Get us to a safe distance.

STARRY: Fast as my sublights will shove us.


It feels so good to have power again. Countering a three-way spin is an old game; it only takes a few seconds to smooth myself out and pull up into a swoop away from Cerces. Sublights punch satisfyingly. I won’t be eaten today.

We’re going to make it through this.


STARRY: Energy building in the anomaly again. EMP on the way.

ELLIOTT: (appearing at Dineen’s shoulder, scowling) The fuck you think you’re doing? (He reaches past her to jab a rapid sequence into her console.)

STARRY: Elliott, wai—


Location: Cargo Bay 1

(All at once, the electricity in the ball dives into the kitten and the light disappears.

The black kitten’s eyes open.)


AI core offline
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13 Responses to “Pulse”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Starry!!!!!!!!!! *hugs Starry*
    😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮
    I hope she will come back online again… *hopes*

  2. Syphax Says:

    You know how long a week is to wait, right? A long ass time.

  3. Francisco Says:

    I’m hoping that she shut herself down to protect her circuits.

  4. Marcus Says:

    Keep stopping our hearts like this with cliffhangers and someone just might not make it, lol

  5. Melanie Says:

    mjkj – well, I was thinking that that would make a good end to Book 4. What do you think?
    …okay, I wasn’t thinking that at all. 😉

    Syphax – I know, I’m sorry. It just won’t come any faster!

    Francisco – nope, Starry didn’t shut herself down. 😉

    Marcus – I’m sorry! I’ll try to make this one the last one. For a while. Let our hearts calm down a bit.

  6. mjkj Says:

    🙁 Gaaaaaahhhhh… 😮 *is shocked* 🙁

    😮 *heart stops* 😕

    Gah, do not joke about something like that 😮 😮 😮

    You can not leave Starry dead that long… 🙁 🙁 🙁 *sniffs*


  7. thomas Says:

    And Elliott’s impersonation of the Lone Ranger saves the day. :-)) Or maybe not! :{

    Great chapter Melanie. Thanks

  8. thomas Says:

    sad >:[ 🙁 🙁 :-c :c :-< :?C :< :-[ :[

  9. Andrew Says:

    Love the story, without a doubt, but I do have a certain amount of “orbital mechanics doesn’t work that way” feedback.

    For most purposes, a black hole is no different from any other star. It doesn’t “suck” things in any more than any other object with the same mass would. A ship in a reasonable orbit around a black hole wouldn’t spiral into it any more than the earth spirals into the sun.

    Ships in low orbit around a planet need a certain amount of thrust to maintain orbit because the atmosphere doesn’t just suddenly stop, and atmospheric drag slows them down. But it’s not much — rockets on the International Space Station give it an orbital boost roughly every two months. A ship in orbit around a star (black hole or not) wouldn’t even need that, because space is basically empty.

    An interesting, sort of counterintuitive bit of orbital mechanics is that if you’re close in to a star, no kind of jolt is going to make much difference to your orbit, because if you’re orbiting close you’re orbiting fast, and if you’re orbiting fast, it takes a really *big* force to change which direction you’re going. If you’re far out and moving slow, a small force can make a big difference to where you end up by the time you reach the other side of your orbit, but if you’re close in and moving fast in a circular orbit, it takes a ton of work to change that.

    Orbiting close in to a black hole would have other hazards, like being bathed in X-rays from the accretion disk, and tidal stresses (the simple fact that one side of the ship is substantially closer to the black hole than the other side means that there’s a difference in gravity from one side to the other that tends to tear the ship apart — though it’s easy enough to say that clever artificial gravity technology can fix that one).

  10. Rhel Says:

    Andrew, there is a little-known clause to any readers contract: Suspension of Disbelief!

    A writer can do all the research s/he wants, it all comes down to what makes a good story. Nitpicking over details can slow down even a great story. Our Dear Writer obviously spent enough time writing about how a plausible Star Jump Drive works that skipping it was the best way to deal with it.

    Besides, it’s one of the most common sci-fi tropes – ignoring it, I mean.

  11. mjkj Says:

    *pokes* you still alive??? 😕

  12. Andrew Says:

    Rhel, suspension of disbelief works better if you don’t spend it on things like gravity.

  13. Melanie Says:

    Firstly, sorry for the delay on the next post, everyone. It has been a hellish week and I’m fighting just to stay afloat. Got a bit of time off this weekend, so I’m playing catchup. The next post is up now! Sorry it took so long. 🙁

    Andrew – I understand your concerns. However, orbits and what affects them depends on what type of orbit you’re in and what forces are in play.

    In this case, Starry is in close enough that she has to be in motion to balance the black hole’s gravity and maintain orbit. I slipped up a few posts ago when cutting the engines dented the orbit; unless the orbit requires constant thrust (which it shouldn’t if it’s a stable orbit in clear, open space, and she’d had plenty of time to get herself in a stable orbit), this wouldn’t happen.

    However, this time around, cutting the engines didn’t do that. Blasting a crapload of atmosphere and cargo out of an airlock, on the other hand, did. It put her in a spin and altered her trajectory, knocking her out of the stable orbit she was in. Once gravity is winning, it tends to keep winning. The cut engines meant she couldn’t correct her course until she got them back online.

    The time pressure in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that she was very close to the black hole, but rather that she had to change course before she suffered too much internal damage to be able to do it at all.

    As for the other stuff about being close to a black hole: the inertial dampeners protect the ship and its contents from external gravitational forces, and she’s built to fly really close to stars, so she’ll have pretty solid radiation shielding.

    Does that help to address your concerns? It’s possible that I haven’t explained things as clearly as I’d like. I’m juggling a lot of elements at the moment, and it’s always a tricky balance to strike. I’m totally open to feedback, so if you think there’s stuff in there that isn’t made clear enough, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. 🙂