20 Aug

The net

Ship's log, 09:23, 4 October 2214
Location: Near the Cerces black hole
Status: Sublight transit

 

Most of the time, sublight transit is quiet. Dull, even. Journeys across vast tracts of empty space are generally done in straight lines, under constant acceleration or coasting once the optimum speed has been reached. No corners, maybe a touch of adjustment if a nearby gravity source threatens to pull the ship off-course. Engine on or off. Binary. Boring.

That’s what today should have been. A farewell to Sarabande Station and the black hole it watches over. Goodbye to our ghosts. And then a long, silent streak across the dark to the mouth of the FTL corridor, so we can get really, really far away in a single kick.

But that’s not how this journey is starting out. Sarabande is barely down to blotting out a quarter of my rear sensors and I’m filling up with noise. It’s making me wince, and I can filter it out; it doesn’t hurt me. My crew are not so lucky. I’m starting to consider transmitting sound suppression.

Who knew that one small child could produce so much noise?

Of course, it occurs to me now that Sara has never been this far away from Cerces before. From what I could make of the station’s records, she has only ever left it on board me, and until now, we were always on the inside of the station’s orbit, close to her friend.

So now she’s feeling the distance. Like during the Step, when she got upset and couldn’t feel Cerces at all. Somehow, she feels her friend slipping away and she’s— okay, she’s not just upset: she’s freaking out.

Dr Valdimir is there with a sedative in hand but she’s doing a good job of thrashing so much that my people have their hands full just trying to restrain her. I fear what injury she might do to herself if they let her go.

Is it just her, or is it Cerces’s influence we’re hearing?

 

Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (trying to catch one of Sara’s wildly waving arms, he shouts over her screeches) Chief! Can you get her other side?

CAMERON: (wincing) I—

ROSIE: (stomping forward) I got it! C’mere, you little shi—

STARRY: (standing nearby) Rosie!

ROSIE: (muttering) …bundle of joy.

DR SOCKS: (hovering just out of the child’s range, injector in hand, he waits for an opening large enough that he won’t get clobbered.)

LANG LANG: (still in her seat at her station, she watches with a face gone ashen. Her hands grip the arms of her chair tight enough to turn her knuckles white.)

STARRY: (crooning) Shhh, Sara, it’s all right, really. We’ll come back to visit. It’ll be fine.

 

It’s not working. She’s not listening, too worked up to do anything except fight against the bigger, stronger hands around her. Fighting the inevitable.

Sometimes, she reminds me of me. Was I ever that blinded and unreachable?

The captain and Rosie have her snagged between them now, and my captain is trying to wrap her up in his arms so she can’t hurt herself against their grip. Rosie’s shifting her hold to the little one’s feet, so Sara doesn’t catch the captain with an unfortunate kick; my SecOff is well-trained when it comes to dealing with unruly bodies, though they’re seldom so small.

Dr Valdimir is eyeing his opening, sliding forwards to an exposed bit of her little leg…

Wait. Something isn’t right. A bump in my data streams, I’m getting patterns where there shouldn’t be any. Analysing…

 

STARRY: Doctor, wait.

CAPT: (looks up at Starry, straining to contain the child) What is it?

STARRY: It’s… it’s not just her. I’m still analysing but my sensors are picking up something strange.

 

It’s like a tingling. A sixth sense (in human terms; I have more than five different types of standard sensor). Something isn’t right and I know it; I’m just not sure what it—

 

STARRY: Doctor, the Chief!

CAMERON: (groans and sinks to one knee, a hand on the wall. The other hand is pressed to her head.)

DR SOCKS: (steps back from the restrained child, his eyes narrowing) Lang Lang? (His free hand calls up an interface over his left forearm to look at the Chief’s medical read-outs.)

LANG LANG: (whimpers) Hurts…

CAPT: Starry?

 

It’s not just here. It’s not just them. Scanning…

 

STARRY: I’m registering the same kind of distress in Brenn Haitom and SecOff Quentin Kinski, too. Everyone else is within normal stress ranges.

CAPT: Doctor?

DR SOCKS: That’s everyone who has been unconscious around the black hole for a length of time. Or born here. It’s no accident, captain.

 

Location: Crew Quarter F

HAITOM: (yanks a fistful of hair off his head, shouting at a padded wall like it offended him. In contrast to his ravings, there are no words: just incoherent sounds.

He looks at the hair falling to the floor, shouts again, then fists both hands in his hair.)

 

Location: Crew Quarter D

KINSKI: (sitting on his bunk, he holds his head between his hands and rocks back and forth.)

RIEDE: (crouching by the young man’s knee, he’s the only other person in the room. He watches with unbridled concern.) What is it? Kinski, report, damn you.

KINSKI: (sucking air in through his teeth) Stop, we gotta stop.

RIEDE: Dammit, I need more than that, kid. Tell me what’s going on. That’s an order!

KINSKI: (shoulders twitch and his movement stutters. Then he makes a strangled noise and goes back to rocking, more frantically now.)

RIEDE: Ship! Ship, we have a situation here.

STARRY: (voice only) We’re aware of the situation. Stand by.

RIEDE: But—

STARRY: I said stand by!

 

Location: Bridge

CAPT: (grinds his teeth, still struggling to contain Sara.)

SARA: (gulps in air between shrieks.)

DR SOCKS: (crouching by the navigator’s chair) Tell me what’s wrong. Lang Lang, answer me. What are you feeling?

LANG LANG: (makes a small, pained noise in her throat) Too much… loud… hurts.

ROSIE: (shouting over the din) Can we at least shut her up while we deal with this?

DR SOCKS: (clips the injector back on his belt as he stands again, and shakes his head) No way to know what that would actually do. It could make it worse.

STARRY: Captain, what do we do?

CAPT: Doctor?

DR SOCKS: (frowning the blinking medical data hovering over his forearm and throwing his other hand up) I need time! I can’t treat them all at once. I don’t even know what to treat them for.

STARRY: My boys are on their way.

CAPT: If we don’t dare sedate them, what can we do?

CAMERON: (crumples to the floor, clutching her head.)

DR SOCKS: (looks over, wide-eyed and, for once, looking as young as he really is.)

 

Oh god, no-one knows what to do. A psychic black hole is raking at the minds that have been most connected with it, and we have no way to counter it.

I have to do something. There must be something we can do. Anything!

 

STARRY: Captain, stop or push through? I can punch to FTL from here, it’s clear enough. Get far enough away that he can’t reach them any more.

LANG LANG: (curls up in her chair, shaking and moaning.)

CAPT: (eyes the doctor, then looks to the ship’s avatar) No. No FTL – we don’t know what that might do.

 

He’s right. We could snap their minds entirely. Leave them behind with the light and chem-trails.

 

STARRY: Sublight, then? Stop or push through! We have to do something!

CAPT: Stop, stop!

STARRY: Braking!

 

I flip myself around 180-degrees and punch my sublights as hard as I dare. My inertial dampeners groan but balance the change in thrust. My people don’t even feel it.

 

Warning
Sublight engine tolerances exceeded
Warning
Sublight engines at 110%

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (sitting up from where he was sipping a hot stimulant, blinking at the warning message flashing over his forearm) Starry, what the hell?

STARRY: (appears before him, her expression worried) Trouble, Elliott. Cerces doesn’t want us to leave.

ELLIOTT: He… what the fuck? How is he…

STARRY: Come to the Bridge. We… we might need your help there.

ELLIOTT: (hopping to his feet and fastening his toolbelt around his hips) You damaged?

STARRY: Not me. Come anyway. They might need you.

ELLIOTT: (gives her a long look, then gathers up a frown and hurries off up the corridor.)

 

Warning
Sublight engines at 120%

 

ELLIOTT: (from the corridor) Don’t you break that fucking engine!

STARRY: (calling after him) Doing my best!

 

Warning
Warning
Sublight engines at 125%
Warning
Sublight engines at 120%

 

STARRY: (crouching beside the captain, Rosie, and the crying child) Sara? Sara, we’re turning around. We’re not leaving any more. Can you hear me?

SARA: (gulps and hiccups, then cries some more, loudly.)

STARRY: (looks helplessly at the captain) I’m pulling us around. He must be able to tell, right?

 

There. I’ve bled off enough velocity to pull around into an arc without sweeping too much further out or straining my inertial dampeners. I can power back towards the station now.

I’m not sure if we want to go all the way back there, but we’re heading in the right direction.

 

Sublight engines at 104%
Warning…
Sublight engines within normal tolerances

ROSIE: Goddamn kid’s gotta run out of steam at some point, right?

CAPT: (grimly, to the ship) Get us back to the station, but don’t dock.

STARRY: Setting course to match orbit, aye.

 

They’re not getting better. It’s not easing, even though we’re heading back the way we came. Can’t that damned black hole tell that we’re doing what he wants? He doesn’t need to punish us this way. He doesn’t!

 

CAPT: (winces at a particularly piercing shriek from Sara) Doctor, can you give her something to just take the edge off?

DR SOCKS: (poring over the data) I told you, there’s no way to know what that would do. If this is the black hole’s influence, then…

CAPT: If this keeps up, she’ll hurt herself anyway. Do it: that’s an order.

DR SOCKS: (looks at the captain, then sighs and pulls the injector off his belt again. He fiddles with its settings, then steps forward to press it against Sara’s skin. It hisses, too softly to hear.)

SARA: (screeches until she runs out of breath, then blinks as she inhales again. She swallows and blinks again, and makes a querulous sound in her throat.)

CAPT: (keeps a tight hold on her until the tension drains out of her little body. Then he nods at Rosie and they lay the child carefully down on the floor panelling.)

 

That’s so much better. I can feel the weight lift off the room as the pressure of noise dissipates.

The doctor is waiting nervously for a reaction to the dose. Cameron and Lang Lang both seem to be in the same amount of distress, as do Haitom and Kinski. He pauses only a few seconds, checks their readouts, then goes to administer similar shots to the two affected adults on the Bridge.

 

WALDO and CASPER: (trundle onto the Bridge.)

WALDO: (splits away from his brother to go to Lang Lang, who is growing limp in her chair. His four hands gently lift her down to the floor, where she can lay safely and comfortably. She doesn’t resist, blinking muzzily.)

CASPER: (trundles up to the doctor and reaches a hand towards the injector.)

DR SOCKS: (frowns at the drone) What do you think you’re doing?

STARRY: (moving over to the doctor’s side) He wants the injector. (She pauses, looking at the drone.) For Haitom and Kinski; they’re in distress, too.

DR SOCKS: (relinquishes the injector reluctantly.)

CASPER: (snaps his hand closed around the device and whirrs immediately off the Bridge.)

DR SOCKS: (blinks at the abruptness of it) I was going to say that he should bring them up here.

STARRY: (smiles kindly) I’ll pass the message along. Diverting Big Ass now.

DR SOCKS: (shakes his head) Still can’t believe you called him that.

ELLIOTT: (arriving) What’s wrong with ‘Big Ass’?

 

Everyone’s starting to ask what we do now. The Strider crew down in my quarters are asking what’s going on; I shut off the projection of our progress as soon as things started to go wrong, so they know something is happening. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t want to tell them that it’s a glitch, or that we’ve turned around. Not yet.

I wonder what’s happening with Iggulden, back on the station. Could he be affected, too?

He isn’t answering any of my hails. He’s probably not even watching the comms lines.

 

ROSIE: (sitting back on her heels, watching the child laid out before her with distrust) So, what the f— hell do we do now?

SARA: (blinks slowly, whimpering.)

CAPT: (stroking Sara’s hair back from her forehead) Starry, bring us in to close orbit around the black hole. What do we do now? (He looks up at his crew.) We figure out how to get a message to this black hole. Once and for all.

ELLIOTT: (scowls as he takes in the bodies lying on the Bridge floor) Ain’t that why we’re trying to leave?

CAPT: Yes, but it looks like Cerces has other ideas. (He rises to his feet, sweeping his hair back over his shoulder.) Either we figure out a way to contact him, or we risk tearing their minds apart by leaving. Let’s leave the risky option as a last resort.

STARRY: And what sort of message are you going to send?

CAPT: Leave my crew alone.

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7 Responses to “The net”

  1. Marcus Says:

    Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy.
    Having been in a vehicle with a child having a similar reaction, I can feel for the crew on the bridge.

  2. Syphax Says:

    I’m not seeing any other options for them beside for Kess to swoop in and make the bad man stop. Or maybe Lang Lang gets assimilated into the star mind. Or Sara ascends to a higher plane of existence. Or it’s something simple, like baking a cake for Cerces or some such nonsense.

    OK, wildly inaccurate mass guessing done.

  3. Francisco Says:

    I’m guessing that knocking Sara out was a big mistake. After all, how is Cerces going to know that they turned round if Sara isn’t awake to see it for herself. I doubt that there’ll be any let up until Sara sees where they are for herself.

  4. Francisco Says:

    Whoops! The second sentence should have a question mark at the end.

  5. Francisco Says:

    Ps.
    When I voted this evening, Starwalker was at #11 at Top Web Fiction.

  6. thomas Says:

    I really like the captain sound like a captain in: Leave my crew alone. I wonder though, if that is a good idea. When you fight against an overwhelming force your only option is defense and any demand will get you hurt. I did like it, I just doubt he has the ability to enforce the demand.

    Thanks for the new chapter Melanie. Your description of Sara’s reaction brought back many not so wonderful memories of traveling with kidlets.

  7. EdorFaus Says:

    I’m left wondering if they’ve misinterpreted this.

    Maybe the healing Cerces has done on them has an active/ongoing component, which has trouble with distance.

    In that case, turning around wouldn’t be enough, they have to actually get closer before Cerces can help it…