19 Oct

Starlit tango

Ship's log, 13:37, 2 March 2214
Location: Junkpile, Lambda 1 system
Status: Stationary

 

My engines are itching. The cargo pod is loaded with supplies and fresh air scrubbers. I have enough parts scavenged from the junkpile to repair myself. My course is set.

The captain hasn’t changed his mind about where we’re going, not even after Cirilli visited him in Med Bay last night. I don’t know what she said to him within the isolation curtain. When she left, her expression was quiet – a change from the barely-restrained thunder she’s been wearing of late – and John looked thoughtfully at her retreating back.

There’s nothing left to do; we’re as ready as we’re going to be. Time to shake this junkpile off my boots.

 

Sublight engines online
FTL drive online
Cargo docking clamp released
Magnetic clamps released

 

I am warm and humming. A touch of thrusters nudges me upwards; another tiny jet swings me around over the cargo pod. I extend my little legs and angle the magnetic feet around to attach to its sides.

 

Magnetic clamps engaged

 

They’re not holding me still this time. The legs retract and draw the pod up against my belly, and I am completely detached from the cargo hold of the poor, wrecked ship that has been sheltering me. I slide sideways out of her shadow, turning to face her as if I want to give her some last words. I would, if I knew what to say. Instead, I stretch my wings out and flutter their sublights on.

She must have been a majestic beast once, this cargo ship, and here she is mixed in with the cheap skiffs, the tugs and service shuttles, the ruined battleships and scarred remains of a luxury liner. I guess this is what we all come to in the end.

Today, though, I’m leaving this glimpse of future behind. I’ll probably return here one day, dark and in pieces, but that won’t be for a while yet. Not if I have anything to say about it.

I turn to weave through the junkpile, struggling to compensate for the extra mass of the cargo pod. I feel potbellied, unbalanced. There’s nothing for the pod to drag against – not unless I hit something with it – but it still feels like it’s pulling at me. Can’t head to the right; I won’t fit. I have to pull myself up and to the left, find a bigger gap.

I’ve never Stepped with an external load like this. I wonder if that will work. I’ll just have to make sure that the mag-clamps don’t let go while I’m not looking. No wonder the captain didn’t want us to load the passengers into the pod until after we arrive in Apus. They’ll stay safely inside my hull for the Step.

I’m picking up a transmission. I wonder who– oh, of course.

 

STARRY: (in Med Bay, voice only) Captain, the Raven Speaks is back.

CAPTAIN: (lifting his gaze away from the status reports shimmering over and around his bed) What do they want?

STARRY: Last time they were here, I suggested that they should give us more money.

CAPT: (sighs and shakes his head) Starry…

STARRY: What? They were bothering me. And now… wait.

CAPT: What is it?

STARRY: I’m picking up a second ship.

CAPT: Another courier?

STARRY: No, too big. Scout, maybe.

CAPT: Relay this to Cameron.

 

He thinks this means trouble. Data flutters across my crystalline synapses. Did I screw up? Did I provoke something?

I don’t want to have to run again. I don’t want them to chase us. I’m so sick of running.

Cameron is pulling the data up on monitors in her quarters and calling for Rosie and Swann to come online too. Cameron is watching Swann closely but she’s not afraid to put him to work if he might be useful. Just between me and my log, I think she’s offering him opportunities to slip up.

Why would the company send a scout out to see me? I only asked for more credit chits; doesn’t take a scout-class ship to carry those. That thing is bigger than I am, even with the cargo pod clutched to my belly, and it’s slow going for her through the junkpile. She has to keep repelling shards out of her way.

Maybe she has more crew for me. They threatened to send more; maybe they decided to ignore my refusal. I don’t want more crew! I don’t need more Is-Tech moles and cast-offs. I know the only ones they’ll send me are the ones that won’t be missed, and that says nothing good about any of those involved. Just look at the two I’ve got from them recently.

That’s the best reason for why the scount is here. Everything else my processors can come up with is worse. Like how decommissioning me might be Is-Tech’s most logical option until the Judiciary heat dies down.

There’s too much debris in the way to get a clear transmission from them. I can’t even pick up their idents from here; I had to piece together the courier’s identity from data shards rebounding through the junkpile.

I’m not going to wait for them. Why stop and ask what they want when I know I won’t like their answer? We want nothing they have. Chase my tailfins, scout, because that’s all you’re getting from me.

I can see the edge of the junkpile and the blue-white glow of the Lambda 1 primary beyond it. Light punctures around me, prickles of the radiance beyond the shelter of wrecks and ruined ships. I increase my velocity to a quarter of sublight, ducking under the shell of a snub-nosed shuttle, weaving around the fat ass of a cargo-hauling engine.

Behind me, I can feel the junkpile shifting. The Raven Speaks and her friend are lifting rocks, looking for me. It is tempting to send a laugh fluttering back to them, but I won’t give them a clue. I tilt ninety degrees and slide through a shrinking gap between a fighter and a cluster of cargo pods. Abruptly, I slip out between the junkpile’s teeth as it sighs.

It’s blinding out here, but my sensors compensate quickly. Radiation washes over me, caressing the protective paint on my hull. My engines vibrate as I take a breath and punch them up to full power, arrowing across the gap between the wreckage and the star.

To my left, the tail of the junkpile curls up and around, drawn inexorably in towards the maw of Lambda 1. The wrecks are roasted lightly on their way down, glowing cheerily warm as they approach their own end. A faint flicker is the final death knell of a ship being devoured on the corona.

This is a silent stage: they don’t cry, or weep, or scream. They drift in a quiet so profound it’s serene. Accepting. Peaceful. I can’t even whisper them a goodbye.

Their fate doesn’t scare me; I’m built differently to them. I’m heading straight for that hungry corona and I have no intention of feeding it today. I’m not quiet, or accepting, or peaceful. I have a trick up my hull-sleeve, and there’s something wonderful about the way it unfolds around me.

 

Star Step drive online.
Filaments extending.

 

The slender threads unpeel from my skin, leaving open channels from my nose to my tailfins, alive with power. I grin into the heart of the star as I approach: this is me, this is what I’m supposed to do. Deep within the gravity charge that is building up, there’s music I can almost hear.

Inside of me, my crew is securing itself. The captain is monitoring my course and the sensor readings of the system. Not a twitch from the direction of Feras; the bulk of the junkpile is shielding me from their sensors. By the time they piece together my existence from the ghosts of transmissions, I’ll be long gone.

My SecOffs are studying the region behind me more closely. The courier has crested the edge of the debris but stopped there; the Raven hasn’t got the radiation shielding that I do. Somewhere behind her, the scout is struggling through. I restrain the urge to flip them the electronic bird.

 

Filaments charging: 20%

 

Swinging around into a close orbit around the star now. I turn my belly out to shield the cargo pod hugged there; it isn’t as protected against the heat and radiation as I am. Another reason why it’s not carrying its passengers yet.

We’re at Step distance and Cirilli is scouring over the Star Step drive readouts. Ebling glances at her with irritation, marking up his own data recordings. Lang Lang is fascinated by the stream of information about the heart of Lambda 1 primary, oblivious to both of them.

 

Filaments charging: 45%

 

STARRY: (shipwide) Preparing for Step. Everyone strap in, please.

 

The almost-music is growing. I feel it swaying and pulsing, and I feed it with more gravity. It hums along the filaments, across my hull. I want to spin in its grip but I mustn’t melt the cargo pod. I only just finished repairing it.

 

Filaments charging: 90%

 

Almost there. Almost time to do the reality-defying dance, to shake my tailfins and sidle outside the universe.

The Raven Speaks is still on the edge of the junkpile, watching me. I’m circling around the star away from Feras so the colony can’t see what I’m about to do. Will the Raven tell tales when she gets back there? Will the company be pleased by this proof that their project is a success?

This might be their only chance to enjoy it, so they’d better make the most of it.

I am swelling to a crescendo, teetering on the precipice. It is time to dance.

 

Filaments charged
Activating portal

 

Mathematics spiral into play on mid-deck, formulae grabbing data by the hand and spinning it onto the floor. I am brimful, bursting with it – it courses through me, along the grooves in my hull to the filaments waving free before me. The music is math weighed down by gravity, thrumming, and the dance weaves in time with it. Filament tips create patterns in the vacuum and I can almost hear it. Almost.

I’m too busy dancing, following the steps laid out before me. I want to throw my head back, close my eyes and find the melody hidden in the math, but I have a job to do. I can feel the rhythm, like a bass beat thumping through the walls around me, and that’s enough. Dance.

It only takes a few seconds, but it feels like a blissful eternity to me.

 

Portal open

 

I slip through before I can change my mind. The freezing/hot wash of the Outside is choking, disorienting. The music slips away from me like a partner in a carnival crowd, drowned out and swept away.

There’s no time to search for it. Distantly, under the roar of too much sensor data, I can feel Lang Lang nudging navigational information at me, like a mouse laying out a trail of cheese crumbs for a tiger.

Focus, Starry, this non-place will unmake you. Apus constellation, find the star called Alpha Apodis. Did something just explode here? Feras is here and not here. Ships, so many ships… Alpha Apodis, there. Here; I am beside it now. Run the calculations four times to make sure I have the right time and place, and once again for luck.

Take a breath before I set the filaments weaving again. There’s too much noise to hear the music but I know it’s still there, beating at me from the Outside. Its rhythm is buried in me like muscle memory. I move in time and it lets me out again.

 

Portal closed
Filaments retracting

 

The cool kiss of the vacuum is welcome, even with a star burning intently beside me. I turn my belly away to save the cargo pod from scorching and pull away into a wider orbit. I am breathless and blinking under the orange light of this new star as I stretch my sensors to scan this system for activity.

The science team look pleased, while my SecOffs are moving into position for prisoner transfer. I’m still dizzy from the Step, as if the echoes of the music are taunting my sensors. I’ve never felt so close to it before; each time I Step, I move closer to understanding its harmony. I get closer to making out the notes and making sense of its rise and fall and swirl and dip.

I want to turn around and Step again, dive back into the dance and bury myself in its euphoria. It was so close this time that my mouth is still watering. I almost had the key to it.

There’s a secret in the music, I just know there is; if only I could hear it.

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6 Responses to “Starlit tango”

  1. One of the Twins Says:

    so have anyone noticed that all the stars she has Steped from dies “shortly” after?? o.O
    Or am i just making things up…

  2. Blik Says:

    @Twin: Only one star has disappeared, I think. But for the life of me I can’t recall which one it was, or find it as I trawl through the archives. Though it’s true that Starry’s arrival caused gravitational fluctuations around the Sun, when she accidentally timestepped. (What do you call the Sun? Terra Sol? or just Sol?)

    It remains to be seen whether the cargo pod suffered any damage from being Outside, or whether the bubble of protection afforded by Starry’s sphere of control was able to protect it. Although I have high hopes for her skill, I’m not sure what happened to the Beholder hasn’t happened again here.

    I can’t wait for the next bit. I’m quite intrigued as to what may be the secrets behind the Music of the Spheres. Glad you’re up and about again, Melanie.

  3. Melanie Says:

    One of the Twins – hi and welcome! Great to hear from you. πŸ™‚

    Blik is correct – only one star has died so far (Grisette, the first one she Stepped to). Other stars have been unstable, though no-one has linked it to Stepping.

    The explosion she picked up during the Step was in the system but not the star itself – it could have been a ship or possibly Feras going up. (I should probably make that clearer!)

    Blik – thanks! It’s good to be back. πŸ™‚

    Yes, the Sun is referred to here Terra Sol. Neither Starry nor Danika are from Earth, so it’s not ‘their’ sun; they don’t have a particular attachment to it. ‘Sol’ means ‘sun’, so Terra Sol is ‘Terra’s Sun’ (Terra being Earth). With so much bouncing around between stars, I thought it helpful to distinguish them. And also to distinguish the stars from their systems (as they usually carry the same name). πŸ˜‰

    Can’t wait to get going on the next bit!

  4. mjkj Says:

    I wonder how they prepared the container for the step – as Starry marks that the Outside will unmake her – it will also unmake the container – even faster if it is not protected as she is…

    I also wonder as to why she did not wait to receive the extra money she requested … and I believe that the other larger ship was to hide her from the Judiciary and bring her out of system concealing her or carrying her…

    Since Starry got to know about Grisette why did she not look for that system to find out / see what has happened?

    And what are all those ships she is seeing? are they on the Outside? or are they inside some systems?

    Further on: if she is on the Outside should she not see herself there from all the other times she stepped – since she is seeing into space and time…?

    *looking forward to the next update* πŸ˜€

    mjkj

  5. Melanie Says:

    Hi mjkj! Loads of great questions there. Some have hopefully been tackled by the next post! πŸ˜‰

    She didn’t hang around to see what the courier brought her because of the second ship – it spooked her. She’s also getting stubborn about relying on Is-Tech and is antsy to make her own way.

    She didn’t look for Grisette during the Step mostly because she got too caught up in the Step itself. I think that Cirilli will ask her to gather some data there over the next Step or two – she’ll have to pay particular attention to do it.

    The ships she sees are any that have ever visited Feras – from the Outside, she can see all of space and time. The limitations of her sensors and processing mean that she can only pick up a fragment of the information out there, so she gets flashes of different pieces of a place’s history.

    There is nothing Outside the universe, and anything that spends too much time there is dissolved and ‘unmade’. So no, there are no Starry-ghosts to see traversing the Outside – even if there were echoes, the Outside would have eaten them by the time she got back. Time in the Outside is a little curious, as it technically doesn’t exist, but neither does matter. Starry is her own little time-space bubble out there.

    I hope all that makes sense! I’m very tired this morning. Enjoy!

  6. mjkj Says:

    Yeah, some are πŸ™‚

    Well, I can understand that – if a big bully-ship is approaching…

    …and making it on her own and making her own way is ok and understandable *hugs Starry* I think she inherited that from Danika…

    Ok, makes sense. It must be quite distracting and she must be quite focused when she is stepping.

    Ah, that makes sense. She looks from the outside into the system at all times – well, speaking of information overload – even for Starry πŸ˜‰

    Ah, well, then there is some kind of “time and space” on the outside that prevents her coming back into the same “time and space” when she steps again, so she does not see herself and does not run or crash into herself. *is relieved* πŸ˜€

    Thank you, Melanie

    mjkj