Ship's log, 20:52, 26 September 2214 Location: Sarabande Station, near the Cerces black hole Status: Docked, powered down
It has been a strange couple of days. Tension has been seeping through the atmosphere like a gas leak, hissing its way into every feed and weighing down every breath. Everyone on the station is feeling it, from the corralled crew of the Celestial Strider to my people going about their business. Even the troubled Brenn Haitom, rattling around in his padded cell, and the reclusive Iggulden down in his cave. I watch them all on the sensor feeds and see it in the angle of their shoulders and the edge to their voices.
It’s hard to say what’s causing it. The ghosts are mostly behaving themselves now; they linger around the edges of my sensors where I can quickly filter them out, and they don’t seem to be distracting my people as much as they were. They still repeat those same four words, though, that question that remains barely understood, and they don’t seem inclined to say anything else. Cerces seems to be content to hover in the background like little Sara asked him to but his influence is wriggling through the station like an earworm.
Unanswered questions nibble at us like dustbunnies in the dark, with teeth too small to cause anything more than annoyance and always gone when the lights come up. It’s causing patterns that I don’t like to see. It’s making me worry about things I never thought I’d have to consider. And it’s not just Lang Lang that I’m worried about.
Recording: 11:54, 25 September 2214 Location: Visitor Lounge A
ROSIE: (leaning back in a chair with her feet on a table) …stupidest question.
CAPTAIN: (enters from the ship-side and walks to the counter.) We may not fully understand it yet. (He gives the SecOff a pointed look as he passes her.)
ROSIE: (rolls her eyes and swings her feet down off the table.)
ELLIOTT: (seated nearby working on the plate of food in front of him) Are we even sure we want to?
CAPT: That’s what we set out to do here.
ROSIE: Yeah, but I don’t want to be the one to tell him that he ate ‘em all.
CAPT: What do you mean?
ROSIE: His people. What d’you think he’s gonna do when we tell him it’s his fault?
CAPT: (hesitates) Cerces has never shown any hostility towards us.
ELLIOTT: No, but he’s got fuckin’ big feet and he ain’t exactly graceful about where he puts ‘em.
LANG LANG: (sitting opposite Elliott, hands wrapped around a steaming mug) I’m sure I can explain it so he won’t do that. I’ll do better next time, I promise.
CAPT: We know you will, Lang Lang.
ELLIOTT: (frowns at the navigator) Hey, it wasn’t your fault.
LANG LANG: (to her mug) I should have tried harder, done something to control his reaction.
ELLIOTT: He’s a fucking black hole. There ain’t no controlling that.
HALF-FACE: (seated beside Rosie, he plays a spoon around in a bowl of soup and gives Lang Lang a sympathetic look) Truth is that we haven’t ever seen him angry. He’s sad and grieving, and lonely. The doc thinks that’s why he shows us the people we miss, because it’s the emotion that he finds so familiar in us.
ROSIE: And look at what he did without even meaning to. In his ‘grief’. Fuck.
HALF-FACE: (nods slowly) The kid pilot from the Strider still won’t come out of her bunk.
LANG LANG: You truly think he would react that badly?
HALF-FACE: (half-shrugs) He could.
ELLIOTT: Wouldn’t you?
CAPT: (sharply) He also might not.
ROSIE: Yeah, but– (Her voice trails off when her gaze flicks past the captain and a hand slides under the table, to where her handgun is strapped to her hip.)
CAPT: (turns around to see what she’s looking at.)
(From the station-side of the lounge, Acting Commander Iggulden stumbles in through the doorway. He’s rumpled and grubby, and thinner than the last time they saw him, almost gaunt. His eyes narrow beneath strands of wispy, greying hair.)
IGGULDEN: You! Found you bastards.
HALF-FACE: (quietly gets to his feet, a hand resting on his weapon.)
CAPT: Something we can help you with, Acting Commander?
IGGULDEN: I damned-well hope so! What the hell are you people doing up here? You’re ruining everything!
CAPT: We’re trying to fix what’s happening here.
IGGULDEN: Fix? Fix what? There’s nothing wrong! Not until you came. Now they’re broken.
CAPT: What’s broken?
IGGULDEN: The apparitions, of course. You did something, I know you did. (He waggles a finger at the captain.) I saw you all scurrying around like rats when it happened.
LANG LANG: (pales) I- I’m sorry.
CAPT: (glances over his shoulder at her) We’re going to do what we can to fix it.
LANG LANG: I’ll go back in as soon as possible, I promise, Acting Commander.
IGGULDEN: What, more of the same? No. No no no. Haven’t you messed them up enough already with that annoying damn question they keep asking? Damn tape barely keeps them quiet for long. You need to stop whatever it is you’re doing. You hear me? Stop, before you go and make it worse.
ROSIE and HALF-FACE: (exchange a glance.)
CAPT: I’m afraid that we have to finish what we started.
IGGULDEN: No, you don’t!
CAPT: We don’t take orders from you.
IGGULDEN: (stepping towards the captain, his finger stabbing at the air) About this you do. I’m the Acting Commander of this station, and if you wanna stay here, you obey my orders. You live by my rules. You hear me?
CAPT: (looks levelly at the man in front of him and doesn’t argue.)
IGGULDEN: (lifts his head at the silence and snorts loudly) Good. Just try not to mess anything else up. This is my station and I got it set up just the way it needs to be.
CAPT: (nods at the Acting Commander.)
IGGULDEN: Good. (He waves his hand around in an accusatory gesture, including the two SecOffs with the captain.) Y’all behave yourselves now.
(With that, he turns on his heel and stalks off, back into the station.)
ROSIE: (exchanges another glance with her fellow SecOff, then looks uncertainly at the captain) So, uh, does that mean…
CAPT: (turns sharply to face his crew) The plan goes ahead. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy when we started and nothing has changed. We will fix this, and then everyone will be happy, including the Acting Commander. Is that clear?
Shorty after that, the captain took his meal and returned to his cabin aboard me. No-one had much lunch that day; they didn’t seem to have the appetite for it. Everything seems to taste a little sour.
That wasn’t like him. I’ve reviewed that log several times now and it’s still hard for me to believe that it was really my captain there. He has never pulled rank on the crew like that before, nor shut down a discussion so harshly. He has always been open and welcoming. Reasonable. When did he lose his hold on reason?
I feel those lost two months yawning between us. Just when I think that I have my captain back, when I see the man I know he is, I glimpse something like this and the ground slips out from beneath my landing gear. I catch myself double-checking my docking seals in case something has come loose and the vacuum is unbalancing me. But it’s not. It’s my captain, it’s Danika’s John, and he’s neither of those people right now.
I don’t know what to do. My crew exchange glances like they want to protest but they hold their tongues. There’s reluctance in every step they take to carry out their orders, and something festers in the silence. Because right now, their orders are to wait, and waiting means too much time to think. Too much time to question.
I remember a time like this, many months ago. My crew was different but the feeling was the same: disgruntlement and leanings towards rebellion. Mutiny. There was a discussion in my Mess Hall that a SecOff steered towards that subject, and when everyone realised where these feelings were headed, they backed away. They weren’t prepared to go to that extreme. This isn’t the same. There’s no Tyler to diffuse the tension – I lost him to the pirates. I don’t have assurances to give. All we have is a need for trust, and that trust is being worn thin. Sometime – probably soon – that trust will run out and someone will do… something. I don’t want to think about what that something might be.
I want to be a good ship. I want to do what my captain orders me to. But I’m also his Executive Officer. I’m supposed to be the one to question his orders. I’m supposed to be the one who legitimises a mutiny.
So I guess it’s on me, then. Now is as good a time as any, and I think if I run any more calculations on this, I’ll analyse my way out of it. I owe it to my crew to do this. And my captain owes me answers
Location: Captain's Cabin
(The captain is seated at his desk, the fingers of his new right arm toying with a data disc. He stares into space, his expression solemn, almost morose.)
STARRY: (voice only) Excuse me, captain?
CAPT: (lifts his head and puts the disc down) Yes?
STARRY: (resolves in front of the desk, her hands clasped behind her back) There’s something I need to ask you.
CAPT: (leans back in his chair, watching the avatar closely) Go ahead.
STARRY: It’s about this thing with Cerces: the attempt to communicate with him.
CAPT: (jaw tenses.)
STARRY: (quickly, before he can interrupt) Why are we still pushing forward with this?
CAPT: You know what we’re trying to achieve, Starry.
STARRY: Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question.
CAPT: (frowns) Nothing has changed. We knew this wouldn’t be easy when we set out. Should we let the first hurdle discourage us?
STARRY: No. But things have changed: we know a lot more now. Shouldn’t we also consider what we’re doing in light of what we know?
CAPT: Do you think I haven’t?
STARRY: (hands flopping to her sides) I think you haven’t talked to us about it. And before you tell me that it’s your prerogative as captain, I know that, but you’re not even asking for input. For ideas or alternatives. That’s not like you. Something is different this time, and I want to know: why are you so determined to see this through?
CAPT: (sharply) We’re the only ones who can do this. We have a duty…
STARRY: Do we? Maybe we did when we started all this, but it’s different now. (She steps closer to the desk.) We have proof. Data. We could take it to someone, show them what’s really happening here, ask for help. And before you say that it would be endangering other people, it’s already not just us. We’re affecting everyone on the station. We’re risking all of them. We have options to mitigate that but we’re not even talking about it. Instead, you do what you just did and get all prickly about it. You’re never prickly. So we’re still pushing forward, and I don’t understand why.
CAPT: (staring at her) I just told you–
STARRY: (takes another step and brushes fingertips against the surface of his desk) I don’t want the company line, captain. We don’t have a company any more and we’re so far past that. (More gently,) I want to know what’s really going on here.
I’m worried about you. I want to say that to him but it’s not the right time. There’s a wall between us; I can almost feel it shivering with the weight of our words, but too much empathy right now will push him away. It’ll make the wall solidify as he tries to solidify himself. He’s still my captain, and even if it’s my job to worry about him, now isn’t the time to tell him that.
Stay focussed. Lean carefully. The slow blade pierces the shield.
There. There it is, his eyes cutting off to the side. The air escaping his lips in the tiniest of sighs. A crack in the wall. My captain…
CAPT: I can’t just bow to the pressure of those who are so easily scared by what we’re doing.
STARRY: It’s not about bowing to them and it’s not that people are scared. It’s not about them at all. You’ve never refused to listen before. Why won’t you talk about it? What’s this about?
CAPT: (gaze drifting towards the far corner of the room) Starry…
STARRY: I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on! You’re losing us, captain. You’re pushing us all away. And it’s not fair. Can’t you see what’s happening? You’re losing us.
CAPT: (blinks and focusses on her again, frown kindling) You don’t understand.
STARRY: That’s why I’m here: so you’ll explain it to me.
CAPT: It’s not that simple.
STARRY: I’ve got lots of processors. Don’t make excuses! Just tell me!
CAPT: (sharply) I am not making excuses.
STARRY: (throwing her hands up) Yes, you are! You’re not even trying.
CAPT: How dare you–
STARRY: Well, you’re not! You keep shutting us out and pushing us away and all I want is for you to tell me why, so we can–
CAPT: This isn’t about you!
STARRY: Then who!
CAPT: It’s about the ghosts! (A hand gestures towards the corner he was looking at before.) It’s about seeing them again, being able to talk to them again. It’s about everything I ever lost!
There it is. What I’ve been looking for: the reason.
I hardly know what to make of it, though.
STARRY: I… but we’re trying to get rid of the ghosts.
CAPT: (hesitates) Have you ever lost someone, Starry? Someone you loved?
STARRY: I… of course I have. I’ve lost crew.
CAPT: You didn’t love them, not the same way I mean. Not like family. And you didn’t really lose them; they were all put in cryo, or on life support. You still have hope for them, don’t you?
STARRY: Uh, yeah, I guess so. Never say never. But I lost Wide Load, too.
CAPT: (shakes his head) Imagine if you lost Monaghan. Imagine how you’d feel then.
STARRY: (pales) What are you saying?
CAPT: You can’t, can you? No-one can, not until they’re there. The hole it opens up inside.
STARRY: Your family?
CAPT: (nods) That feeling, that’s what Cerces latched onto in us. He understands. That’s how he finds who to show us, because that’s how he feels about his people. They’re gone, and he’s the reason why.
STARRY: (eyes widening) So it’s not just grief… it’s guilt too?
CAPT: Yes. He’s responsible. Don’t you see, Starry? All that matters to him is finding them again. Making amends. Finding peace.
Finally, it’s starting to make sense. The captain is talking about his family. There isn’t much in my files, but I know he was captain of the ship they died on. He was, ultimately, responsible. This is about so much more than just grief, or duty, or what’s right.
It’s about redemption.
STARRY: Which is why he’s asking the question.
CAPT: (nods) The question. And we can give him the answer. He gave us a gift. He may not have known it, but he did. He let me see them again. Talk to them. Be with them. You… you cannot know how much that means to me.
STARRY: I think I’m getting an idea.
CAPT: Don’t we owe it to him to do the same? We can give him closure. We can give him peace. We have to do this.
STARRY: No matter the cost?
CAPT: No lasting damage was done. We got through it.
STARRY: This time! He wasn’t even trying. We both know that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
CAPT: He’s in pain, Starry. Even you feel it. We owe it to him to help.
STARRY: And you owe it to your crew to worry about their pain. This isn’t like going rogue against our company. This is bigger than just us. There are civilians – innocents – here. Don’t you trust us enough to do what’s right, for Cerces too?
CAPT: (looks at the avatar for a long pause) Trust.
STARRY: Look, I know I messed up with the Step, and I’m sorry. But I’m here now, we all are, and I’m not leaving again without everyone on board.
CAPT: Not even if I order you to go?
STARRY: (folds her arms over her chest) You’re my captain. I don’t go anywhere without you. Ever again.
CAPT: (smiles sadly) That so.
STARRY: (smiles back lopsidedly) Yeah, it is. Just give us a chance to figure this out. Let us help. Please?
CAPT: Whatever happens, I’m seeing this through.
STARRY: So will we, if you let us.
CAPT: (sighing) All right. Call the crew together.
CAPT: You seemed insistent.
STARRY: (smiles at him, properly this time, and flips him a salute.)
It’s not over. It’s not fixed. But suddenly, I feel like we have a better chance of getting there.