29 Feb

The loyalty of pawns

Ship's log, 22:19, 14 March 2214
Location: 8 light-minutes from Terra Sol, Home System
Status: Sublight transit

 

I’m currently fleeing from the expanding debris cloud of an exploded courier ship with her only surviving crew in my cargo bay. My non-security personnel are hurrying for escape pods because one of those picked-up people is threatening to blow me up. Because she’s the physical embodiment of the consciousness of Earth’s sun and she’s pissed off at being used to Step.

Who the hell knew that stars could have a consciousness, never mind an avatar to walk it around in? Or that it was possible to piss off something as massive and powerful as a sun?

She says we’re doing damage. These Steps, somehow they’re hurting the stars they touch.

Me. I hurt them.

I look at her with every type of sensor that I have and I struggle to believe that I could hurt her at all. Radiation flickers around her in tiny flames, through her hair and feathers (and the wings, what the hell are they about?). I can tell that she has enough power in her to obliterate me entirely, harnessed beneath her skin. But she’s barely warming the air around her right now. To bear such energy is one thing, but to control it… I can’t begin to imagine how powerful she must be. Can I even sense all of the resources at her disposal? Could she channel the devastation of an entire star into my flimsy little cargo bay?

I can see that my crew are struggling to believe what she told us. Cameron is a natural sceptic; that’s necessary for her job as Chief of Security. My captain is on the fence but he’s spiritual enough to believe in the possibility of such a thing as this Kess, this star’s spirit walking among us. Rosie and Swann are too stunned to be derisive of the idea, but I get the feeling that that will be their reaction when they’ve recovered from the shock.

But I see things they can’t. I see the ripples of her flames echoed in the surface of the sun, and that echo is delayed by about eight minutes. That’s my distance from the sun in light-minutes, and that means that those patterns are happening on Terra Sol at the exact same time they’re flickering through Kess; the delay is caused by the usual passage of light through the system to my sensors. They have a connection that is faster than light, faster than thought. Like quantum entanglement, perhaps, or…

Now I’m going off on a tangent. Stay on track, Starry. The data says that there is a connection between the star and the woman standing on my deck and I don’t have anything that refutes it. Just because we didn’t know that stars were sentient doesn’t mean that they aren’t.

I should probably say something. Kess is waiting for our reaction. It has been three point eight seconds since she told us her other name is Terra Sol. What the hell do you say to something like that?

 

Location: Cargo Bay 3

STARRY: (staring at Kess, her hologram untouched by the flashing red warning lights on the walls or the flickering golden flames before her. She blurts,) I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

KESS: Who I was?

STARRY: That we were hurting you.

KESS: (tilts her head and regards the ship’s avatar curiously.)

CAPTAIN: Starry, you believe her?

STARRY: (nodding) The sensor data supports what she’s saying, captain. Spectral analysis, fluctuation patterns, radiation readings… there’s no way for her to fake the correlations. She’s linked to the star.

CAMERON: (frowning) No way to fake it that you know of.

STARRY: True. (Her expression draws down into a frown.) Seems there’s a lot going on that I don’t know about.

 

This changes things. This changes everything. Kess chased me here because of something we did, not in pursuit of profits or secrets or anything else. She’s not from a rival company that wants our secrets, or a legal team that sees a way to gain from how we’ve flouted the laws. This isn’t about greed or cruelty or power. This isn’t at all what I thought it was.

She wants to talk to Cirilli. Right now, I’m not inclined to deny her. I’d like a few questions answered myself.

 

Location: Mid-deck Corridor, escape pod access hatch

CIRILLI: (pressing the hatch control and frowning. The hatch isn’t opening.)

EBLING: (leans past her to punch the button with a scowl) What’s the hold-up?

CIRILLI: (shoots him an annoyed glance) Starwalker, the escape pod is malfunctioning.

LANG LANG: (stands behind the pair of them, looking uncomfortable.)

STARRY: (materialising in front of the hatch, forcing the crewmembers to back up to see her) Dr Cirilli, you are required in cargo Bay 3.

CIRILLI: I thought we were under an evacuation order.

STARRY: If you eject now, you’ll end up in the same debris cloud we pulled the Firebird‘s pods out of. I project a 65% chance of survival. If you go to the cargo bay and sort this out, then no-one dies.

CIRILLI: You think that I can make a difference?

STARRY: There’s a pissed-off representative of a star standing on my deck, saying your project is damaging stars and threatening to blow me up if you don’t go talk to her. So, yeah, I think you can make a difference. How about you do us all a favour and move your ass?

LANG LANG: (eyes widening) Someone is here representing a star?

EBLING: Sounds like crap to me.

 

Of course, they won’t take my word for it. Fine, then. They’re scientists, so I’ll show them the data. Let them draw their own conclusions.

 

STARRY: (waves a hand and two graphs appear before her in the air, fluctuating in perfect tandem. She points to one, then the other.) This is Terra Sol. This is the woman in my cargo bay.

CIRILLI: (frowning at the readings) What is that, life signs?

STARRY: Spectral analysis. Look, I don’t have time to argue with you. Just get down there and fix this before she vaporises all of us, okay?

LANG LANG: (gazes in fascination) She’s emitting light?

STARRY: (waves up a third display, showing the video of Cargo Bay 3 and the fiery guest) Yup. Dr Cirilli? She’s going to destroy your project if you don’t talk to her, and everyone in that cargo bay with her. Including the captain.

CIRILLI: (straightens her shoulders and looks the avatar in the eye. Without a word, she turns and strides off down the corridor, towards the hatches to the lower deck and the cargo bay.)

LANG LANG: (blinks with surprise, then hurries off after her.)

 

I should have known that Lang Lang wouldn’t be able to resist this. She has gazed at stars her whole life and now there’s one standing on my deck. It’s only natural that she wants to go see this for herself, to gaze up close. She probably has a million questions for the star’s avatar.

 

EBLING: (watches them go with a bewildered expression.)

STARRY: (putting her hands on her hips) Staying or running?

EBLING: (looks at the escape pod’s hatch and then at the readouts, clearly torn between curiosity and pragmatism) 65%, you said?

STARRY: I was being generous. No idea how big of an explosion she can make.

EBLING: Well, fuck. You’d better be right. (He turns to head off after the women and towards the cargo bay.)

 

Well, that went about as smoothly as I had hoped it would. I know this probably isn’t Cirilli’s fault, but then, isn’t all of this ultimately down to her? It feels simple to blame her. Can this much be as simple as it looks? Nothing else is.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 3

CAPT: You came all this way, went to all this trouble, just to speak to Dr Cirilli?

KESS: No, but it’s a good place to start.

CAPT: I’m afraid she’s unavai–

STARRY: (interrupting) She’s on her way.

CAPT: (frowning at the ship’s avatar) She’s supposed to be evacuating.

STARRY: I think we all need some answers about this, captain. (She gestures towards Kess.) What if what she’s saying is true?

CAPT: My orders were to evacuate, Starry.

STARRY: (folding her arms over her chest) I’m not forcing her to come down here. She’s trying to do what’s best for everyone.

KESS: (watches the byplay with interest.)

CAPT: So am I.

 

He’s angry with me. He’s right: I’m not supposed to go against my captain. Now I feel awful. Protocols and guilt are chewing at me with equal fervour.

Am I being too logical about this? Too emotional? I can’t tell any more. It felt like the right thing to do but now it seems like it’s not. Did I slip?

What if that really was the wrong thing to do? What if Kess is just waiting for confirmation that Cirilli is on board before she blows us up? But that doesn’t make any sense; she must know that the project is bigger than this ship. They could rebuild me, replace Cirilli if they had to. Eventually, someone would do this again, and that’s no good for the star. Right?

Oh no. Now something else is going wrong. It feels like it’s all slipping out of my hands, no matter how hard I try to hold on.

 

Location: Cargo bay access corridor, escape pod access hatch

ELLIOTT: (standing outside an open pod hatch) You take that one, doc, I’ll get the next one.

DR SOCKS: (inside the pod, he ducks down to try to see the engineer past the lip of the hatch, moving awkwardly due to the bulk of his emergency suit) Are you sure? There’s plenty of room…

STARRY: (materialising next to Elliott and looking at him pointedly) Yes, there’s plenty of room.

ELLIOTT: (turns a belligerent glance on the ship’s avatar and punches the hatch control.)

DR SOCKS: Hey– (His protest is cut off by the hatch closing.)

ELLIOTT: (ignoring the doctor, speaking to the ship) If there’s a bomb on board, I’m not leaving. I can disarm it, or–

STARRY: It’s not that kind of bomb; it’s more complicated than that. It can’t be ‘disarmed’.

ELLIOTT: And what if there’s some other kind of emergency? I’m no good to anyone sitting in a stupid escape pod, twiddling my thumbs.

STARRY: Elliott, please. I can’t protect you from this.

ELLIOTT: Then maybe I can protect you.

 

I don’t know how to argue with him. He’s not wrong, but he is. I don’t want him to go. I can’t protect him if he stays and I can’t protect him out there, either. What I said to Ebling was the truth: their chances for survival are not good if they eject now. But if they don’t eject now and Kess really does want to destroy me, she could vaporise me before I had time to eject anything. She could kill everyone before I flipped the switches.

My probability calculations are running, adjusting themselves every second, but there are still too many unknowns to get reliable predictions. I still can’t tell if Kess really will obliterate me. Kill me and everyone I care about in the universe.

Can’t I at least keep Elliott safe?

 

Location: Cargo Bay 3

STARRY: (expression shifting to entreaty) Captain, Elliott’s refusing to evacuate.

CAPT: Is there anyone evacuating?

STARRY: Um. Dr Valdimir is, yes.

CAPT: (rubs a hand over his face) I see. I don’t suppose it would make any difference if I ordered him, either.

STARRY: I don’t know. Maybe?

KESS: (looking around at the Starwalker‘s crew in the cargo bay, who are holding weapons steadily on her and the two rescued crewmembers from the Firebird) Loyal people you have here, Captain Warwick.

CAPT: (straightening his shoulders) Yes, they are. The best.

 

My people are moving into new positions now, like chess pieces on a board. Except there aren’t any players, just pieces moving of their own accord.

My captain should be one of those players. He should be directing things. He tried to protect his pieces but they’re determined to sacrifice themselves. He tried to play a strategy but he was thwarted by his own side. Did I break the game?

Who is our opponent? What piece am I? Am I the board, or is that the galaxy, the stars I move through and between? What does the winner get? What does the winner want?

I think the metaphor is getting away from me. It’s scary. This is too big for me to hold; I’m just a little scout-class ship, an electronic brain in a box made of crystalline networks.

Cirilli has almost made it to the cargo bay. Just a few long, swift strides away. We’re careening towards a meeting and I’m afraid of what she’ll say. I’m afraid of what this Kess will do. My instincts have led to this and there’s nothing in my programming that tells me what I should do. What calculations are there to do when all the data says ‘oh, fuck’?

 

STARRY: (clears her throat and looks to her captain) Dr Cirilli is at the door, sir.

CAPT: (gives her a long, searching look) Let her in.

STARRY: (nods, and the locks disengage on the inner cargo bay doors. They swish open to reveal Dr Cirilli with her science team standing behind her.)

KESS: (turns to face the new arrivals.)

 

Here we go.

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7 Responses to “The loyalty of pawns”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Yayy, update πŸ˜€

    Wow, *is astonished* great one πŸ™‚

    Well, Starry has all her hands and computers full.

    *looking forward to the next update*

    mjkj

  2. Allan Belcher Says:

    Yay! You’re back! Great starting chapter too.

  3. eduardo Says:

    No way to predict what Kess will do, not enough data to extrapolate. Withough this basic fact Starry canΒ΄t do any scenario prediction.
    She has to guess.
    Very good development.

  4. daymon34 Says:

    Well at least Kess can be suprised. I wonder how long she has been around/alive as a human. Being the first avatar of a star they have met, it is impossible to predict how she will react.

    And the only person getting off the ship is the new doctor, and even he didn’t look like he wanted to go alone. Loyal people are nice to have, mostly because they learned they can only depend on each other.

    I wonder how Kess will react to Lang Lang’s question, or even what kind of questions Lang Lang asks.

  5. targetdrone Says:

    yay, update !! thanks for giving us our regular dose again πŸ˜‰
    /me does the happy dance

    and i am really looking forward to where this is going… i mean, there are possibilities there… what if they gain a friend and ally in a star? *grin*

    oh, and something that was’t done in too long now…
    *hugs starry*

    she still has to go a long way to get rid of her insecurities, but i guess thats something every sentient being goes through at some point πŸ˜‰

  6. Medic Says:

    Sorry, I’m a computer geek…

    And now a time for panic. As a fan of Isaac Asimov, I am looking at a couple of logic loops (or as the godfather of sci fi calls it, “robot lock”) that could shut Starry down. I do hope something happens fast that breaks her out of those loops, and soon.

    Her desire to keep her crew safe will have her trying different simulations. As more data comes in she would naturally devote more resources to the job. No matter how advanced a computer is, eventually it will run out of resources (think about your PC, what happens when you run too many programs at once?).

    Now here’s a though, how many other stars have created their own avatars????

  7. Melanie Says:

    Thanks guys! It is good to be back. πŸ˜€ So happy you liked it!

    Starry is struggling with her human vs computer reactions, which is always fun to play with.

    daymon34 – I have a long and varied history in mind for Kess, but I don’t want to give away too much right now. πŸ˜‰
    Poor doctor, sitting all alone in the pod. I wonder if they’ll forget about him in there.

    targetdrone – *dances!* πŸ˜€ And yay for Starry-hugs!
    Yes, she’s still insecure, bless her. She’s only a little over a year old, though. She’ll get there eventually! (If all goes well and the way I plan, Book 3 will shake out a lot of these kinds of insecurities.)

    Medic – I love Asimov’s robot stories. πŸ™‚ Those logic loops and protocol traps (like the Robotic Laws) are one of the reasons Starry had to rip out a lot of her own codelocks; they didn’t play well with her human thought patterns. But yes, she can be caught up in loops if she’s not careful. And there’s much worse to come.
    The question about avatars is a good one! It is entirely possible that I’m toying with ideas for a spin-off centring on star entities/avatars/consciousnesses. As for how many might turn up in Starwalker Book 3… I’m not giving that away yet, either! πŸ˜‰