Ship's log, 12:26, 19 July 2214 Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole Status: Docked and powering up
Environmental systems online Artificial gravity online Inertial dampeners online Station hardline connection terminated Umbilical feeds shutting off Umbilicals disconnected
ELLIOTT: (sitting on a stool, he’s surrounded by projected readouts from all the major systems. There are a few flutters of orange among the green and grey data.) Starry, what does it look like on your end?
STARRY: (voice only) A few tremors but I’m compensating. Give me a few– there, that’s better.
(The readouts flush green. A few last twitches of orange warnings blink and disappear.)
ELLIOTT: Yeah, now we got it. Feel all right?
STARRY: Feels good.
CAPTAIN: (from the station’s control centre) Monaghan, how’s it going out there?
ELLIOTT: (rolling his eyes) We’re doing fine, captain. You can deactivate the docking clamps now.
CAPT: All right, deactivating. (He hesitates.) Just remember: this is a test flight only, you two. Keep it simple.
STARRY: So we shouldn’t take a spin around the black hole while we’re out here?
CAPT: That’s not funny, Starry.
STARRY: I thought it was a little funny.
ELLIOTT: I’ll keep her in line, captain. Ready any time you wanna stop hanging around.
CAPT: You’re clear to depart.
STARRY: We’ll be back before you know it. Starwalker out.
It feels a little weird, saying goodbye to the captain like this. Even though we’re not really going anywhere.
Docking clamps disengaged
Every single time I’ve ever done this, he has been on my Bridge, watching it all carefully. Now my Bridge is empty. He’s still watching but he’s not here; he’s back on the station.
I’m leaving him behind. It doesn’t seem right.
Manoeuvring thrusters online Sublight engines online FTL drive online
On the other hand, I feel whole again. Power flows through every part of me, from the thrusters on my nose to the big ring of sublight engines burning between my tailfins. I spurt the thrusters along my port side and I spin lightly away from the station’s arms. My wings unfold, stretch out straight from my sides, and the sublight strips along their trailing edge come to life.
I feel like I can breathe again.
ELLIOTT: (scowling at the readouts now flowing steadily around him, ranging from green through yellow and orange all the way up to red) Easy does it, Starry. That’s a lot of new equipment; you gotta ease into it.
STARRY: I’m easing, I’m easing. I don’t think I’ve ever taken it this slow before.
ELLIOTT: Yeah, well, even your last retrofit didn’t involve so much structural work.
STARRY: Okay, I promise to behave. I’ll start with the thrusters?
ELLIOTT: Yeah, let’s give them some exercise.
STARRY: Aye aye, Chief Engineer, sir!
ELLIOTT: Don’t call me that.
He’s been crotchety ever since the morning after Lang Lang’s party. I wish I could say that I didn’t know why… but I do. It’s my own fault. I didn’t mean to upset him. I guess I don’t understand him as well as I think I do. Or as well as he needs me to.
It seems that every thing I do for him lately winds up being wrong. Every step I take is a mis-step.
I have to be better than that. Out here in the black, I can’t afford to be stumbling around, bouncing off obstacles and errors. I have to be flawless, sure of myself and every move I’m making. I can’t afford to hesitate, second guess, doubt myself.
Flying is so much easier than dealing with people. Even Danika found that to be true.
ELLIOTT: (gesturing to zoom in on the directional data, then flicks a finger to bring up a holographic representation.)
(The open space to his left flickers, then a projection of the spider-web-like station appears and a small image of the Starwalker. She is drifting near one of the station’s two turning wheels, spinning in a slow spiral.)
ELLIOTT: We’re drifting.
STARRY: Yeah, thrusters aren’t fully balanced. Got one on the starboard wingtip and one on the topside tailfin that are acting up. I’m only getting about 60% power out of each of them.
ELLIOTT: Mark them on the log; I’ll look at them later. Can you work around it?
STARRY: Yeah. Correcting now.
(In the hologram, the little ship stops drifting. She spins in place, turning on all three axes with tiny spurts from her thrusters.)
ELLIOTT: Okay. Straighten us up and fire up the sublights. Let’s take a loop around the station.
STARRY: Firing and looping.
Not even a smile. I’ve been trying to apologise for three days and it still hasn’t made any difference.
And now here we are, just him and me. It’s quiet out here, quieter than it has been for us for a long time. At least, it is for me.
I hadn’t realised how loud the station’s chatter was. All those reports to scan, sensor feeds to monitor, comm lines to listen to. I had to spread myself across so many parts outside of my body to keep an eye on my crew and all the other life signs on the station. I had to scan constantly for signs of trouble on systems that I still only partially know.
Now, there’s no-one in here but us chickens. Just the quiet hum of my own familiar systems turning over. Air moving through my ducts, scrubbers keeping it clean and breathable. Water trickling through the purification systems. Inertial dampeners creating their warm, safe cage to protect me and my people. The glow of my engines, feeding me energy.
As I wind up my sublight engines to full burn, I feel like me again. I push my nose down to loop around the weird spindle of the station and I am a ship. I want to duck down into that forest of spokes. I want to weave through the arms of the docking ring and wave to the captain as I pass the control centre sensors with a waggle of my wings. I want to spin and soar and flip over to shoot back the other way. I want to do all those things this ship body lets me do, fly so fast it makes me want to laugh with the freedom of it.
But Elliott is watching the readouts with a tense scowl and I can all but hear the captain tapping his fingers as he watches the station’s external sensors. And I behave because I promised to.
Recording: 10:23, 16 July 2214 Location: Engineering
(The engineer is sprawled on a makeshift cot tucked under a counter. A booted foot and one arm flop out onto the floor, and they withdraw as he rolls over, blinking blearily. His mouth works as if he can taste something tacky and stale.)
STARRY: (avatar appearing beside the cot, she crouches to look in on him) Morning, sunshine.
ELLIOTT: (clambering out from under the counter, he grunts and looks away from her. Once he’s upright, he rubs at his face with the heel of one hand.)
STARRY: (stands up and watches him, bewildered) Elliott?
ELLIOTT: (grunts and frowns, then plucks at his shirt and sniffs it experimentally. His expression suggests the experiment does not have pleasant results. He heads off towards his quarters.)
STARRY: (stepping in front of him) Elliott, it’s me! It’s really me, Starry. I…
ELLIOTT: (ducks his head determinedly and swerves around her.)
STARRY: (turns to watch as he passes her by, her voice faltering) …got the holo projectors working.
(The door to Engineering opens before Elliott reaches it, and Waldo trundles in carrying a tray with a cooked breakfast and hot coffee on it.)
STARRY: And I had Waldo bring you some breakfast.
ELLIOTT: (stops dead, staring at the drone. He sends a narrow look back towards the avatar.) Starry?
STARRY: (with relief) Yes! Yes, it’s me, Elliott. Really me.
ELLIOTT: (stomps back towards the avatar and swipes a hand through her midriff.)
STARRY: (squeaks, her projection shivering) Hey!
ELLIOTT: What the hell… how is this working?
STARRY: I had the boys fix up the projectors while you were all at the party. They don’t all work yet, mostly just down here in Engineering, but the system is online, and…
ELLIOTT: And you didn’t think to tell me what you were doing?
STARRY: I wanted to surprise you. I thought you’d be pleased.
ELLIOTT: (rubs the back of his neck) Yeah, yeah, ‘course I am. (His gaze roves around the room and snags on something to his right. His expression clamps down.) Jesus fucking Christ.
STARRY: What? What is it? What do you see?
ELLIOTT: (shoots her an unhappy glance.)
STARRY: (with dismay) You can still see her? See me?
ELLIOTT: Do me a favour and turn it off, would you?
STARRY: But… I thought you…
ELLIOTT: (drops his head and turns to walk past the drone and out of the room.)
STARRY: (watches him go, then dissolves, raining light on the Engineering room floor.)
I really thought that once my avatar was back online, he wouldn’t see the ghost of me any more. If I’m there, how can he miss me? How can we both be there at the same time?
The whale, or Cerces, or the black hole – whatever you want to call the thing that’s projecting these ghosts – if it works the way we think it does, then I should have replaced the ghost for Elliott. It doesn’t project the ghosts of people who are here. So what does this mean? Am I still not properly here?
ELLIOTT: Got a few errors on the starboard wing, Starry.
STARRY: Yeah, I think one of the feeds is a bit sticky.
ELLIOTT: (hands moving over the console projected underneath the streams of data) Okay, shut it down. See how you go with the port wing and tail engines.
STARRY: Okay. Compensating.
I have gone over and over that sensor log, trying to figure out what I did wrong. What I could have done differently, apart from not trying at all. It should have worked!
The only thing that stands out for me now is that gesture he made before he would admit that it was me. He passed his hand through my projection to make sure I wasn’t… to make sure he couldn’t touch me.
Because he can touch the ghost. Oh god, he can feel her.
ELLIOTT: The other readings all look good. Okay, bring us back within basic tolerances and shut off the inertial dampeners.
STARRY: Wait, what?
ELLIOTT: We have to be sure that the repairs to your structure will hold. So, shut off the inertial dampeners and do a few manoeuvres.
STARRY: Elliott, that’s dangerous.
ELLIOTT: You do it every time you Step. Come on, you know what the tolerances are, you can do this in your sleep.
STARRY: I don’t sleep.
ELLIOTT: You know what I mean.
STARRY: (after a quiet moment) All right. Bringing us back to stationary.
Inertial dampeners offline
STARRY: You sure about this?
STARRY: I could drop you off and do it on my own. It’d be safer.
ELLIOTT: Yeah, and there’d be no-one to staple your ass back together if something went wrong. Just do it, Starry.
STARRY: Harness first.
ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and slides off his stool to go to a chair on the other side of the room) Yeah, yeah.
(Harness straps slide out from the chair and snake around him once he’s sitting, securing each limb to the chair’s support. The chair’s arms disengage from their fixed position so that they can move with Elliott’s gestures, but they remain tethered to the rest of the chair.)
ELLIOTT: Okay, I’m set.
STARRY: Here we go, then.
Have to be so careful now. I can only use a fraction of my engines’ power or I’ll hurt him. Twist too hard, start too suddenly or stop too bluntly, and he’ll break.
I’m never so aware of how fragile he is until something important fails and I can’t protect him like I should.
I take it carefully, slowly. Accelerating, turning. I watch him lean against the harness, see the chair swivel to cushion his weight with its back. He’s focussed on the readings, his eyes narrowing as he tries to block out how much he’s being thrown around. That way, he has no room to be scared; he has a job to do. He has to make sure I won’t break.
Just as he’s feeling every shift in my motion, so my ship body shifts around him. I creak and flex. I can feel parts of me grinding into place, new bulkheads battling against old. A shiver works its way down mid-deck and then it’s… gone. I bend but I don’t break. The tremors in me settle. I push harder, enough to pin Elliott against his seat, and something deep inside me groans, but there’s barely a blip on the structural integrity monitors. I twist, changing the stresses on my bulkheads, just to be sure, but Elliott is grinning.
I ease off and try not to think about how much I’ve missed seeing that expression on him.
ELLIOTT: And that’s why I’m the best. You’re all sound and good to go.
STARRY: But the starboard sublight and the thrusters…
ELLIOTT: (flips at controls on his console and palms the harness. It unhitches from around him and withdraws back into the chair.)
Inertial dampeners online
ELLIOTT: Take me half a day to fix those bits up, tops. Transmit the report to the captain?
STARRY: Transmitting now.
ELLIOTT: Great. Let’s get back to the station, then.
Inertial dampeners offline Sublight engines offline FTL engines offline Manoeuvring thrusters offline
ELLIOTT: (staring at the readouts around him) What the…
STARRY: (avatar appearing before him) That was me.
ELLIOTT: (waving his display off) What the fuck, Starry.
STARRY: We need to talk, Elliott.
ELLIOTT: (frowns at her) About what?
STARRY: (shakes her head and gestures to her left, where panels in the floor are sliding aside.)
(An immersion couch rises out of the floor, its pieces clicking together. It turns to offer its side to the engineer.)
STARRY: Not out here. In there.
ELLIOTT: I thought you didn’t want me in there.
STARRY: It wasn’t safe then. I’m better now.
ELLIOTT: (gets up and goes to the couch. He puts a hand on it but pauses, looking at it.) The captain’s gonna freak out if we don’t get back.
STARRY: I told him we’re doing some more tests.
ELLIOTT: (frowns at the couch.)
STARRY: (quietly, from behind him) I really do want you to come see me in there.
Maybe this is too little, too late. Maybe he prefers to see the ghost me, out and about on the ship, tactile and whole. Maybe he just doesn’t want to see me at all.
But I don’t want him to miss me any more.
ELLIOTT: (grunts to himself, then slides onto the couch and wriggles into position. He closes his eyes, sucks in a breath, and positions his cerebral implants over the jacks. He sighs and thumbs a switch on the edge of the couch, and his whole body relaxes.)