05 Sep

The Commander

Ship's log, 23:09, 6 July 2214
Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole
Status: Docked and powered down

 

After a full day of poring over station logs, the captain has finally gone to bed. If I could, I would have shut off his access to the logs hours ago; he looks exhausted and there’s months of material to go through yet. But while I’m being repaired, he and the rest of my crew are staying in the visitor’s facilities in the docking ring of the station. Beyond my reach. It’s very frustrating.

With my diminished capacities, there’s not a lot I can do to help. I’m keeping my promise: I’m being careful and not overtaxing my remaining resources. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do something.

I spent most of today reprogramming my little security pup. He’s a bloodhound now, with protocols to locate any references in the logs to where the people might have gone, and why. He’s smart enough for some heuristic scanning and fuzzy logic, as long as I keep the parameters limited. He’ll lick the logs we should look at.

I sent him on his way a short time ago. While I wait for him to sniff out something useful, I’m working my way carefully through the logs on my own. Starting with the most recent, because that seems logical. It’s also where my captain started.

Curiously, it’s dated only a week ago. The day before we arrived.

 

Acting Commander's log, 08:45, 30 June 2214
Log location: unknown
Mode: voice only

ACTING COMMANDER MARLO IGGULDEN: (The voice is male, the tone thin and breathy as if he’s doing something mildly strenuous.) Doreen, stop that. I don’t have time– no, stop. Please? (Pause.) All right, later then? I’m busy here. Yes, busy with Grilya here; it can’t all be about you. (Another pause, as if someone else is speaking. There’s no other voice on the log, however.) Well, if you’re going to shout about it…

Hey, what’s this? Logger’s active. Logger, why are you active?

SARABANDE STATION: The elapsed time since the last station log has exceeded the minimum requirement. Automatic logging enabled.

IGGULDEN: Aw, jeez, is it that time again already? Probably recorded all kinds of random shit… Can we shut it off yet?

SARABANDE STATION: Awaiting minimum log content.

IGGULDEN: Minimum log content. Uh, okay. Well, station’s still standing. Everything’s working just fine. No warnings lately, nothing has happened… Doreen, don’t play with that. You don’t know what it does. Okay, very hilarious. Oh, don’t pout.

Anyway, station’s doing okay. Nothing to report. Log off?

SARABANDE STATION: Confirmed. Logging off.

Strange little log. Stranger that it didn’t pick up who he was talking to. I’ve checked the settings three times and there’s nothing in the logging protocols that would exclude anything in the recording radius, not even ambient sound. If I alter the focus of the playback, I can hear the hum of the station in the background and the whine of moving parts. But no other voices.

Well, that doesn’t help us. Running a query over the acting commander’s other logs show they’re all quite similar: short, nothing to report, quickly closed off. There’s one per month; he must keep hitting the minimum log threshold. He’s not used to being a station commander, then, nor is he a good acting one.

Perhaps the last proper commander’s logs will tell me more. If I can just find… ah, there they are. Last one dated over six months ago.

 

Station Commander's log, 00:17, 1 January 2214
Log location: Commander's office
Mode: video

(The log shows the desk in the Commander’s office, the surface scattered with digi-sheets. One of them blinks with an urgent warning from under layers of other reports.

The woman who slides wearily into the seat behind the desk doesn’t glance at the warning. She splays her hands on the littered surface and looks directly into the sensor recording the log. Grey touches the temples of her hair and she’s unhealthily pale under her Asian complexion. Her dark blue uniform is crumpled, as if she has worn it a day or two longer than she should have. She tugs her shirt straight but that doesn’t help much.

She draws in a breath and sits more upright, and the bearing of a Commander can be glimpsed for the moment. But there’s a weight that crushes everything else out of her, and a hollowness in her gaze.)

COMMANDER NEERU MATTHIAS: Happy New Year.

(She sighs and her shoulders drop.) Except that I don’t think it will be. I don’t think there’s much time left for anyone on this station. We certainly won’t last another year. There are so few of us now.

I received word from the company last week. The quarantine didn’t work; nothing worked. Things are only getting worse. They won’t be sending any more help to us – they won’t throw good money after bad, essentially. They’ve closed the FTL corridors to this system. There aren’t any FTL-capable ships left here, so we’re not leaving.

Unless we can find an answer, we’ll die here. Like everyone else.

I haven’t told the staff. It was Christmas when I got the company’s message and I couldn’t do that to them. Renfrew arranged a New Year’s Eve party, and my people deserve whatever happiness they can find right now.

Barely a hundred of us left and we all know how we’ll end. There’s nothing more I can do for them. I’ve tried everything I know. I even sent messages to the company’s rival, but I have no way to know if they got through. And even if they did, the FTL corridors are closed now. There’s no help coming.

(She sighs again, so heavily, and rubs her eyes with a thumb and forefinger.)

I failed. I failed all of them.

(Something catches her attention and she looks up at something past the sensor’s range of vision. A smile flutters wearily around her mouth.)

No, I’m not sorry, not entirely. I got to spend my last few months with the love of my life and I’ll never be sorry for that.

(She closes her eyes, head tilting as if she’s listening to something pleasing or replaying a fond memory. When she looks at the log sensor again, her eyes are brighter.)

There’s nothing left for me to do now. I expect that this is the last log I’ll ever make.

(She glances up at the off-screen distraction again.)

I know, love. It’s time to go.

(Back to the log sensor again,) Goodbye, Sarabande Station, and thank you. Commander Matthias out.

(There’s a whisper of a smile on her face before the log terminates.)

Watching that, I feel like dustbunnies are scrabbling along my circuits with their many tiny claws: it prickles and makes me want to twitch or itch or something.

There’s so much in there that I’m not sure where to start. I call back my bloodhound to give him new parameters but I can’t decide what they should be.

Let’s start with what happened to the commander. There must be a record of that.

And then… quarantine? Why did they try to quarantine the station, and how did it not work?

Goddamn Star Stepping. We came the short way, cut out the FTL corridors entirely, and that means we didn’t see any of the warnings. I Stepped us right past the safety measures and now we’re behind the cordon, hip-deep in whatever killed all these people.

Matthias didn’t say directly but I’m sure that’s what she meant. Something killed all the personnel here, something that forced the company who spent billions building this station to abandon their investment and shut the whole system down.

There weren’t any warnings when I came here! Nothing in the AI’s messages, nothing in its protocols… nothing to warn us at all. But I guess if they weren’t expecting anyone to make it this far, there wasn’t any need. Maybe it was too late as soon as we entered the system.

I’m pretty sure that even if my hull was whole, I couldn’t protect my crew from whatever this is. But maybe we can figure out what’s going on. There are people here who have survived months with whatever this is; they must have worked it out by now. They could even have fixed it.

I can’t tell if Commander Matthias ever told them that the system had been cut off or if she took that to the grave. Maybe they’re afraid that we’re from their company, come to sterilise the installation and reclaim their investment.

Though, my bloodhound can’t find any record of her death. Could she still be here? No, the station wouldn’t appoint an acting commander if she was, unless she was disabled in some way and unable to perform her duties as commander. But the Med Bay was empty when my doctor got there.

Wait… okay, this is weird. The personnel monitoring system has been disabled. It should alert station security and medical personnel if anyone on the station is in serious physical distress, like a severe accident or a death. From the logs, it was disabled over a year ago.

The commander could have died and no-one would have been notified. The AI would have automatically appointed an acting commander in lieu of any other option. Oh jeez, it makes an awful kind of sense: Iggulden hasn’t been promoted to full commander because the AI can’t verify that Matthias is dead.

This conjecture is all very well, but how do I confirm it? I have a hunch but it means interacting with the station’s live sensor feeds again. Carefully, this time, and at arm’s length; I learned from last time. And I only need one feed in particular.

 

Station sensor relay: live feed
Location: Commander's cabin

(Lights flicker on, splashing the quarters in colour. Sensors show a neat cabin of generous size decorated in cream and burgundy tones. There’s a sitting room with comfortable seating around an entertainment unit, and a dining room with a real wood table. Nearby, there’s a kitchen with sleek, pristine counters that look like they’ve never been used. And finally, there’s a bedroom, where the burgundy deepens into rich reds and the bedspread is a golden throw.

Lying perfectly straight down the centre of the broad bed, warping the surface of the golden thrown, is a woman in a dark blue uniform. Her hands are folded loosely over her belly and her eyes are closed. She’s gaunt; her skin is dried and sunken, stretched across her bones. She turned grey a long time ago.)

 

Oh god, my hunch was right. She’s dead. She’s still there. She’s not even dusty, because the maintenance drones have been cleaning around her and maybe over her, too. They didn’t know what else to do, so they followed their blind little protocols. Did they pose her like that? Did they try to make her comfortable in her final sleep? Did they make the atmosphere so dry she wouldn’t rot?

How many other closed rooms house corpses? I’m afraid to look. Now, it feels like they’re all there, waiting, just behind every sealed door. Thousands upon thousands… no, that’s just silly. They wouldn’t let that happen. They just wouldn’t.

Pull it together, Starry. I have to tell someone. The commander’s death might tell us something about what’s going on here. Poor Commander Matthias, she’s our first real clue about what’s going on here.

My captain is asleep but the doctor might be awake. He’ll know what to do about the body. With the body. I’ll contact him, and try not to peek behind any other doors. Best not to look too deeply until we know what we’re dealing with here.

Quarantine. Maybe the doctor can help me unravel the story behind that, too. In the meantime, little bloodhound, go find me more logs about it, before we start down the same path as these poor souls. Let’s see what we’ve flown into this time.

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7 Responses to “The Commander”

  1. thomas Says:

    Definitely very gruesome to find a corpse the cleaning bot kept clean. Can we get a new cleaning bot?

    If everyone is delusional, then may be the virus and communication with company about it was part of the delusion. Maybe Cerces caused the delusions and that could mean Starry’s younger sister is not really out there. Maybe even the ‘ghost’ sightings are coming from Cerces.

    Okay, enough with the random musings. Obviously, I’m delusional too. there is no way for Cerces to cause group delusions. Or is there?

  2. Francisco Says:

    The main information we need are:

    What is the pathogen/cause of the quarrantine? How is it passed on? What are the symptoms? What can be done to fight it?

  3. Francisco Says:

    On a different note, I now can’t stop thinking of the Red Dwarf episode Quarantine (Series 5, Episode 4). The thing that is relevant to this piece is that the virus had an unusual transmission vector — it propagated over communication links.

  4. Melanie Says:

    thomas – I suspect that Starry won’t be the only one to want to send the station’s bots in for a full sterilisation. And possibly reprogramming. 😉

    Francisco – Yup, all good questions! Tune in next week. 😉

    I had completely forgotten about those episodes of Red Dwarf! I haven’t seen that show for years. I know the bit you mean, though; it was creepy.

  5. mjkj Says:

    Awww…

    Poor Starry. *hugs her*

    Well, at least she has found a clue.

    …hopefully in time before the disease spreads to the crew…

    I wonder if Doc is still awake and if he will able to find the cause.

    mjkj

  6. Melanie Says:

    mjkj – yup, lots more clues incoming! 🙂

  7. mjkj Says:

    *prepares for their impact* 😉