Ship's log, 16:32, 15 June 2214 Location: Beta Apodis to Alpha Centauri FTL corridor Status: Sublight transit
Tick another fixed star off my list: Alpha Apodis is healed and settled down again. We only Stepped in and out of it once, fairly recently, so it was much easier to soothe her patterns than the other stars. I’m running short on heat-reflective paint again but I’m all patched up and running fine.
The only one we have left now is the primary star of Lambda 1: the star that shines on Feras. Our goal, our enemy. The last point in this journey of ours.
It won’t be the end of our journey, though, not if I have anything to say about it.
Things have been quiet over the past couple of weeks. I’m geared up and powering on, and my crew are doing the same. We’re almost back to Alpha Centauri; to the place where a colony lived and died and fell from our memories. The crossroads of old, forgotten FTL corridors. From there, Lang Lang has plotted a course through the back corridors to the JOP, and then we’ll take the usual FTL route to Lambda 1. We’ll sneak into Feras’s orbit in the midst of all the other ships heading that way; Is-Tech will never know we’re there.
But first, the captain has called the crew together onto the Bridge. I think he wants to talk to them all, check their resolve in this endeavour of ours. Make them sign a contract in blood. Something like that.
Everyone is gathered on the Bridge and, for once, my central holographic display is inactive. The crew sits in a ring of chairs with the consoles disabled. They’re like the Knights of the Round Table, with my captain as their king.
If he’s Arthur, does that make Cirilli his Guinevere? Then who’s Lancelot?
Interestingly, the ‘everyone’ we have gathered today includes the Lieutenant. Rosie escorted him from his cell-quarters with a scowl and a shove, and he walked placidly enough. He still wears the captive collar, in case he decides to get uppity.
He’s looking shiny today. The doctor repaired his prosthetics and the metal is dark and bright at the same time. Both legs, one whole arm, half of the other arm, and half of his face. It’s hard to know whether he’s more metal than flesh; under his shipsuit, part of his torso is also metal. He stands a few centimetres taller than Rosie, who is currently my bulkiest crewmember, and he’s as broad as she is across the shoulders, but she’s still the most aggressive presence on my decks.
This is ship business: I’m not sure why the captain ordered him to attend. The crew was surprised to see him when they arrived; even the doctor raised an eyebrow as he took his seat. The only one who didn’t blink was Cameron, but she seldom flinches anyway. I’m sure the captain discussed this with her, though. He must have.
CAPTAIN: (clears his throat and rises from his chair. Apart from the ship’s avatar, who is standing behind the captain’s right shoulder, everyone else is seated. Around the room, the murmurs die away and heads turn towards him, giving him wordless attention. He inclines his head towards his people in acknowledgement.) Crew of the Starwalker, we are approaching the next phase of our plan. Our next destination is Feras and we all know what that means.
(An uncomfortable silence gives tacit agreement to that phrase. The crew knows and is grimly determined. If there were smiles around the room before he started to speak, they’re gone now.)
CAPT: (nods slowly, pleased that they’re all on the same page. He looks around but finds no ripples of reluctance in the faces gathered here.) Monaghan, the refit is complete?
ELLIOTT: (shifting in his seat and frowning) Yeah, captain. All done now. We’re armed and ready to go. (He looks like he wants to say something else, but a glance around the room at the rest of the crew makes him subside.)
CAPT: (smoothly, as if he hasn’t noticed) Good, thank you. (To the Bridge as a whole,) We’ve lost people on our way to this point. We’ve missed them, and I’m sure that we’ll continue to miss them in the work ahead. This endeavour of ours is going to take every hand we’ve got, and that’s why I called you all here today.
ROSIE: But we’re all on board with this already. You need us to sign up again?
CAPT: Not you, Brasco. (His gaze settles on the Lieutenant, who is sitting quietly and watching the proceedings.) Chief, over to you. (He sits down.)
I’m with Rosie: puzzled and starting to suspect the captain’s intentions. He’s right: we need all the help we can get right now. And he has been asking a lot of questions lately about our captured pirate. What I think of him, how he has been behaving. I had no idea he was leading up to something…
CAMERON: (still seated, she inclines her head towards the captain and gives the Lieutenant a direct look) Yes, thank you. Mr Laurence, you’ve been of value to us recently. You’ve proven that you can be here without acting against the good of the ship. You could have sabotaged us by giving us bad information about the contacts at Dyne, but you didn’t.
(Her eyes sweep the circle.) We’re currently short of a SecOff or two. Therefore, my first question is for the crew. Would you accept him as a crewmember?
(Several people begin talking at once: mostly Cirilli, Rosie, Elliott, and, surprising to most, Lang Lang. The doctor stays quiet, smiling to himself and folding his arms over his chest. The Lieutenant shoots him a querying look but the doctor shakes his head, denying any knowledge or responsibility.
The vocal response is mostly surprise and outrage, and much questioning of how the pirate could be trusted. He was, after all, their captor once upon a time, before the crew forcibly freed themselves.)
I’m quiet on the Bridge but on the inside I’m asking all the same things. But saying that… even as I’m stunned, my calculations run through the reasons and permutations. It makes sense. We need a SecOff and he’s got skills in security. Hell, he’s got implants and prosthetics built for it. And he’s not a bastard. Even when he was in charge of me, he wasn’t a bastard about it.
That has to count for something. But is it enough to take off that collar? I don’t have calculations for that: there are no reliable algorithms for trust.
CAPT: (allows the discussion to roll on for half a minute, then lifts his hands for silence. It takes a few seconds to take hold but eventually the voices fall quiet enough for him to speak.) We’ve had many betrayals in the past couple of years. Most of them from people we’ve trusted because they were a member of this crew. Can taking a chance on an outsider be much worse for us?
ROSIE: (grumbling and crossing her arms) Guess we already know we’d need to keep an eye on him.
CAMERON: (leans forward and props an elbow on her knee) I am curious, Mr Laurence: why didn’t you try to free yourself or hurt us since you’ve been under our control?
HALF-FACE: (looking nonplussed but answering anyway) The mission was to get you to Kess. You got to her, so there was no need for me to do anything; the mission I was sent on was over. And while I was injured, there wasn’t much point in trying to escape. Wouldn’t exactly have got far.
CAPT: And after your injuries were healed?
HALF-FACE: Not many captors would bother healing a prisoner.
That’s all he seems inclined to say, as if that should explain everything. This kindness seems to surprise him, even now, and yet, he wasn’t cruel to us when he was the captor. I suppose it makes a kind of sense, now I think about it.
Now I have to wonder where he has been imprisoned before. When in his life was he touched by such unkindness that he would accept incarceration without complaint because the captors are nice?
Not that I’m complaining. Actually, I’m pleased that he finds it a reason to like us. I never wanted to be a prison ship. I want a crew I can take care of, who will take care of me. That’s all.
CAPT: (considers the Lieutenant for a moment, then nods and accepts that answer.)
ELLIOTT: (eyeing the pirate) Are we really this desperate?
CAMERON: We’ve got gaps we should fill if we can. A pair of experienced hands on our weapons won’t go to waste in what lies ahead.
(There’s a brief murmur of discomfort in the room at the mention of the upcoming violence.)
LANG LANG: What other gaps do we have?
CAMERON: The only one we haven’t been able to fill yet is a way to destroy the project’s archived data. The best way would be to poison the data itself, but we’d need an electronic infiltration expert for that.
Like Tripi was. I don’t want another one like her on my decks. Not anywhere within sensor range of my Elliott. Never again.
DOC: I’ve been reading some of the recent studies in organic viruses and electronic security. There’s some interesting work being done in that area.
CAMERON: Are you saying you can build a virus for this?
DOC: (shrugs) I can look into it; one of my doctorates is in virology.
ROSIE: One of your doctorates? Aren’t you twelve years old?
DOC: (to Rosie, drily) I’m an over-achiever. (To the Chief,) I’d need help with the coding side of things.
CAMERON: (nods) We’ll talk later about this.
Elliott is looking uncomfortable at this idea. I’m not surprised: the mention of organic viruses and electronics has probably put him in mind of what Tripi did to him. I dislike the whole notion already, even though I know that it’s probably necessary.
I’m really starting to hate the term ‘necessary evil’. It keeps cropping up lately.
CAPT: (returning to the original topic) Are there any objections to the Lieutenant here joining the crew?
(There’s a general air of disgruntlement but no-one speaks up.)
CAPT: (turning to the ship’s avatar) Starry? You haven’t said anything yet. He’d be your crew, too.
What? He’s asking me? Uh…
STARRY: (blinking at the captain) I don’t know. I know we need the help. We just… lost a SecOff, and we were short to start with. (She shifts her weight and glances at the Lieutenant.) I don’t like the idea of him carrying weapons around my– around the rest of you.
CAPT: If he’s a SecOff, he’ll need to.
STARRY: (frowning) I know. (She strides across the circle to stand in front of the pirate and looks at him searchingly.) Can I trust you?
HALF-FACE: (meeting her gaze without flinching) I’m loyal to my captain and my mission.
STARRY: Isn’t signing up with us being disloyal to both?
HALF-FACE: My mission finished the moment Kess stepped onto this ship. I’m free to sign up with another ship if I choose to.
STARRY: If you do anything to hurt my crew, you know that I’ll vent you out of the nearest airlock. Maybe have my drones pull some bits off you first.
HALF-FACE: (nodding without taking his eyes off hers) I understand.
STARRY: Okay then. (She glances around.) Same goes for the rest of you. I’m sick of all that shit. If you’re with us, be with us. (She stalks to the edge of the circle, to stand next to Elliott this time, tugging her shipsuit straighter. She mutters so only he can hear,) Marshmallow, huh.
ELLIOTT: (smothers a smile.)
CAPT: All right. Thank you, Starry.
CAMERON: (taking her cue from the captain, she turns to the pirate again) So the next question is: what’s your choice, Mr Laurence? Will you be a member of this crew, reporting to me?
HALF-FACE: (gives the floor before him a thoughtful look, before turning to the Chief) Yes. I’d rather be of use than not, and I’m no stranger to piracy.
LANG LANG: (frowning) Piracy?
HALF-FACE: Yes. You’re outlaws. Isn’t that why you had to change your ident? Even if you weren’t already, what you’re setting out to do will make you pirates.
LANG LANG: (blinks and looks uncomfortable.)
CAPT: Mr Laurence is right. We’ve been outside of the law for a while now and that’s not looking likely to change.
That explains the Lieutenant’s comfort with us. I guess none of us thought of it as piracy before. I mean, we’re not doing regular pirate things: we’re not attacking ships for our own benefit; we’re not stealing or killing out of hand. I like to think we have higher motives than that.
But we are outlaws. We’re moving further and further away from the accepted way of living. Will we ever be able to find our way back? We’ve just left the centre of the pirate world, but did we really? Is it literal or metaphorical?
(There is silence on the Bridge as the crew mull over the captain’s words. Some look around, checking the expressions of the others, while a few consider the decking in front of their feet for inspiration.)
ROSIE: (scowling, she itches at the silence and is the first to break it) So, metal-face over here’s part of the crew now?
CAPT: (exchanges a look with Cameron) Yes. Starry?
STARRY: (walks over to the Lieutenant again.)
I should say something. This feels like a moment where things change irrevocably. But what is there to say?
Trust. It always comes back to that and I feel scarred and old. I’m scared and it still hurts. My filestores keep those betrayals fresh, preserved in pristine rows of code. It hurts.
But he’s not the only one here with secrets and motives I don’t know about. I can’t blame him for those who damaged me, any more than I can blame Lang Lang or Rosie.
There is no algorithm for trust. You just have to give it and hope. I have to trust the captain and the Chief in this, too.
STARRY: You know what we’re doing: we’re trying to save the stars. We’re preserving the universe. We’re trying to set things right.
HALF-FACE: (nods) I understand.
STARRY: (watches him closely, then tilts her head.)
(The little red light on the Lieutenant’s collar blinks, then shifts to green. There’s a soft snicking sound and the pirate removes the band from around his neck.)
HALF-FACE: (cradles the collar in one metal hand thoughtfully.)
STARRY: (frowning at him) Don’t fuck this up.
HALF-FACE: (smiles with the flesh side of his mouth; a trace of relief that shows just for a second. Then he’s all seriousness: he rises slowly to his feet. His joints whirr in the silent Bridge and he draws his shoulders straight to give the ship’s avatar a crisp salute.) I’ll do my best not to, ma’am.
He’s not supposed to salute me; that’s the captain’s prerogative. But maybe it works in this strange situation of ours. I can see the captain smiling to himself out of the corner of my eye.
STARRY: (hesitates, then lifts a hand in a salute in return, releasing the Lieutenant from the pose) You can call me Starry.