20 Feb

Threading the needle

Ship's log, 16:40, 22 July 2214
Location: Approaching the Cerces black hole event horizon
Status: Sublight transit, Star Step drive active

 

There are so many people talking at me that it’s hard to keep up. They don’t like my idea. Thing is, I’m not hearing any other options.

Any other ship would cut and run now. Save themselves. But I have another avenue of escape. Flying towards a black hole doesn’t have to mean death for me. Why wouldn’t I use that to save someone? To save my own sister?

 

External comms: Celestial Strider

DINEEN: What the hell do you mean by ‘go through’? As stupid ideas go, that’s right up there with hugging a supernova.

STRIDER #3: (male voice) Starwalker, you’re gonna have to clarify what you mean.

RIEDE: Crazy bitch is gonna kill us.

 

Location: Cargo bay access corridor

ELLIOTT: Starry, don’t. We’re not ready for that.

 

External comms: Sarabande station

CAPTAIN: Starry, you can’t Step, it’s too risky.

 

Location: Bridge

(The hologram of the black hole turns slowly in the forward part of the Bridge.)

SARA: (picks her stuffed whale up from the floor, giggling. Turning, she looks up into the projected light that shifts all around her and holds up her toy, like an offering.)

 

Filaments extending
Filaments charging...

 

So many protests, like I’ve never done this before. I don’t have time to calm them all down.

We’re so close to the black hole that the filaments are charging faster than usual. Gotta watch them closely so they don’t overload.

 

Filaments charging: 30%

 

External comms

STARRY: That’s enough, all of you! Captain, Strider, Elliott: you’re all on the same comms line now. Strider, you’ve followed me through a Step before. Captain, you know I can do this.

RIEDE: Following you through a Step is how we ended up in this position in the first place.

STRIDER #3: Wait, your captain isn’t even on board?

CAPT: Not for this mission. Starry, you sure this is a solution?

STARRY: It’s the only solution if we’re all gonna get out of this. I’ll make the exit portal further out from the event horizon, and we should be able to build up enough momentum to sail free of the gravity tides. We’re not gonna get stuck again.

ELLIOTT: Starry, we haven’t even run diagnostics on the Step drive since I re-routed all your systems.

DINEEN: What? Your Step drive is damaged?

STARRY: Maybe, maybe not. Diagnostics are running. Charging is going smoothly.

 

Filaments charging: 63%

 

RIEDE: I don’t like the sound of this…

STRIDER #3: Shut up, Riede. Dineen, is our Step drive operational?

DINEEN: Well–

STARRY: No, Strider, you can’t Step. I have to do it. I just need you to be ready.

CAPT: Starry, can you use the net to negate the tides enough to pull free?

STARRY: I don’t think I can get enough charge to do that, not for the tides we’re caught in, and I can’t project the net behind me. I can’t push in two directions at once.

ELLIOTT: Definitely a bad idea.

DINEEN: Net? What the hell?

STARRY: Long story, explain later. It’s not gonna work, so don’t worry about it now. I’m almost at full charge.

ELLIOTT: Starry, diagnostics say that you’ve got two damaged filaments.

STARRY: Yeah, I see them. Recalculating the Step portal algorithms to compensate.

ELLIOTT: How are you planning to open up a portal behind the Strider?

STARRY: I’m working on it. We might need to go laterally for this.

STRIDER #3: Tash, get ready. We’re going to need to help.

STRIDER #5: (female voice) Yessir.

STARRY: Wait, who is that? Is that your pilot?

STRIDER #3: Yes, why?

STARRY: Get your pilot out of the chair.

STRIDER #3: She’s just going to help–

STARRY: GET THE PILOT OUT NOW.

ELLIOTT: Starry, it’s okay.

STARRY: No, it’s not!

CAPT: (calmly) Strider, I suggest you do as she asks. She doesn’t need your pilot’s assistance and won’t take you through the portal if your pilot’s in the chair.

STARRY: It’s too dangerous!

DINEEN: You want to fly us through a black hole and our pilot being in her chair is too dangerous?

STARRY: YES.

STRIDER #3: All right, all right, she’s out of the chair.

 

Filaments charged: 100%
Star Step drive ready

 

CAPT: Starry, you all right?

STARRY: I’m fine.

CAPT: You’ve got a plan? We need you to come back.

STARRY: Calculations are complete. I’ll be back before you know it, captain. Elliott, get strapped in, now.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, yeah, I’m workin’ on it.

 

Filaments charged: 110%

 

Shit.

 

STRIDER #3: We haven’t agreed to this yet.

STARRY: It’s this or we cut you loose. Your choice, Strider, but you have to make it now. I’m starting the lateral pass. Portal in thirty seconds.

RIEDE: This is nuts…

 

Two damaged filaments. The drive’s diagnostics are coming back with warnings but no failures. Minor burps, a few wobbles. The filaments writhe around me, hot with too much power, slippery. But I know this. I remember the echo of music, just out of hearing. I remember steps in a dance I don’t fully understand. Math flows through my systems, shifting and adjusting to compensate, and I almost hear Cirilli’s voice, clipped and sharp. I can almost feel her fingers on the Step drive’s controls, tailoring the algorithms, tidying the patterns.

I wonder if she saw it, the music in the fabric of time and space.

I’m dragging the Strider across the maw of the black hole. We need momentum to carry us through; I need to be able to tow her outside of reality without snagging her on the edges of the portal. I have no idea what would happen if the tow-lines caught. Would the portal cut them? Tear itself wider? Now is not the time to find out.

The gravity is pulling us in. I’m sliding sideways. It’s time. It’s now or never.

 

STARRY: Hold tight, everyone. Here we go.

 

Location: Bridge

SARA: (turns to look towards the nose of the ship, at the closed view-portals. Her eyes widen and she murmurs something softly, incoherently, before,) Visit whale? (She starts to jog towards the forward view-portals again.)

CASPER: (scoops her up while she’s distracted and trundles her quickly back to the central chair in the room. The harness sits open there, waiting for her.)

 

It’s time to dance, and whirl, and dive, right towards the mouth of the beast. I won’t be a meal today, though. I puncture the space before me, warp it beyond reality’s limits and fling it wide. As wide as I can with fingers that move too fast, tapping to a beat quicker than my heart.

 

SARA: (gasps and ducks her chin behind her toy, hugging it to her chest. She doesn’t react to Casper’s manhandling of her or the harness that wraps around her.)

 

The portal is ragged and shivering, a rough tear. Not my best work. I roll to make sure my wings don’t clip it, wriggle to pull the Strider through the middle, plunge outside of the universe.

 

Inertial dampeners offline

 

SARA: (blinks, then shrieks at the top of her lungs. Tears start again.)

CASPER: (lifts all of his hands away from her and tilts his head, scanning for signs of injury.)

 

External comms

STARRY: Strider, deactivate your inertial dampeners immediately.

(Three seconds pass. There is no response.)

STARRY: Strider, respond.

 

Do comms transmissions even work out here? I have no idea. Outside space and time, who knows how our laws of physics are interpreted.

Maybe that’s why it unravels us; it’s undoing rules that don’t apply here. Like we’re a bubble, bursting one molecule bond at a time.

Anyway, I hope the crew over there remembered to turn the inertial dampeners off. With no way to make readings, the dampeners could attempt to compensate for movement that hasn’t happened and squash the ship.

For me, it’s time to fly straight and careful. Keep pushing forward, through the image of the black hole that’s there and not there, that’s now and past and future all at once. It wasn’t always here. Won’t always be here. And yet is.

I see its path. All the colours of its history, white and yellow and red. I see where it cut off, became black. A blinding flash stutters. I try to record it all; I have a feeling we’ll need it later.

I see other things. The station here and not. I see it in pieces – construction or destruction? It’s gone too quick to tell. The sensor data floods me and there’s too much to hold onto it all. There’s everything and nothing. Focus on the important things. Save what I can.

Down the line of its fiery life, there are flickers of objects. It was busy here once. Rocks, balls, comets, maybe ships. Maybe planets. Too much data to tell, the flashes gone too quickly to grab.

It’s hard to concentrate when there’s a scream like a knife cutting through my Bridge. Casper tells me she’s not hurt. But she just keeps shrieking.

 

Location: Bridge

CASPER: (strokes the child’s head gingerly with one hand.)

SARA: (falls quiet and drags air into her lung in stutters, gulping it down. Her lips tremble and tears make her cheeks sticky. Then she shrieks again, as if she’s trying to tear up her own heart with sound alone. She rocks against the harness, hugging her whale and tipping her head back so the toy doesn’t muffle the sound of her upset.)

CASPER: (looks around the room, then shifts to squat beside the arm of the chair. He strokes the child’s hair and pats her shoulder, though she doesn’t seem to notice him.)

 

There’s nothing I can do about it, not now. Can’t let it distract me. I lock down those sensor feeds for now, file them away.

 

Warning: power leak detected
Warning: system failure in sector seven
System failover successful
Backup online
Warning

 

Shit. Sector seven is mid-deck, part of the Step calculation framework. The back-up is working, for now.

Have to get us out of here. I can’t really see the Celestial Strider behind me. The tow-lines are still taut and I still seem to be hauling something along, but I can’t get any real readings of her. Do we exist here? Does anything?

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (scowls at the red warnings painted on the air around him and tugs at his harness) Starry?

STARRY: (voice only) It’s fine, I’m on it. Stay where you are.

ELLIOTT: I should–

STARRY: You need to stay strapped in. It’s too dangerous mid-Step.

ELLIOTT: Fuck.

 

We have to get back, now. Have to calculate carefully. Pick the right spot on the Cerces timeline, and make sure I put the portal further away from the event horizon. I have to ignore the silence and hum with the right tune, weave my battered filaments in our clumsy dance.

This portal is even more ragged than the last one. The edges wobble like they want to collapse back in. I push my filaments harder, eke out the last of the charge they sucked up from Cerces. It has to stay open long enough for my sister and I to get through. Both of us. It has to.

The lack of inertial dampening cripples me. I creak with the strain, push as fast as I dare. Elliott is wincing in his harness and there’s a sudden silence on the Bridge. The pressure is stealing Sara’s breath. Not for long, I promise. Almost there, so close, and I can see the glimmer of the station through the portal…

 

Inertial dampeners online

 

We’re out! We are in the world again.

Can’t pile on the power just yet, though. Can’t yank at the Strider too hard or she’ll break, and all her people within her. Patience counted in micro-seconds is torture.

I see her! She’s passing through!

 

External comms

RIEDE: …GONNA DIE, ALL OF US. HOLY–

STRIDER #5 / TASH: We’re through, captain.

STRIDER #3: Thank you. Riede, take a breath before you pass out.

 

Location: Bridge

SARA: (hiccups and stops abruptly. She blinks up at Casper, bewildered.)

CASPER: (continues to stroke her hair.)

SARA: (starts to cry again, softly. She wriggles out of the harness and up onto the arm of the chair, so she can wrap her little arms around the drone’s metal neck. She sobs in weary gulps, hiding her face against him.)

CASPER: (wraps all four arms around her carefully.)

 

Portal closed

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (lets out a long breath and thumps the harness catch. The straps slither out of his way, letting him out of the chair.) Was it just me, or was that a bit hairier than our other Steps?

STARRY: I think I blew something on mid-deck.

ELLIOTT: (exasperated) Yeah, I saw the warnings. Fucking hell, Starry.

STARRY: I only do this stuff so you can’t leave, y’know.

ELLIOTT: (snorts and snatches up his helmet as he heads for the door) Yeah, right. So how’re we doing? Still gonna die?

STARRY: Pulling away from the black hole. Slowly.

ELLIOTT: So it worked. You’re gonna be insufferable, aren’t you?

STARRY: We’re not out of the woods yet. But… maybe a little bit, yeah.

ELLIOTT: (grins and pulls on his helmet.)

 

We’re making ground. Cerces’s gravity is strong here, but my engines are stronger and the Strider is helping, too. The tow-lines thrum with tension but they’re holding. We’re pulling away, one slow klick at a time. One step towards the station after another.

We made it. My sister’s gonna be okay. We’re all okay.

 

External comms: Celestial Strider

STARRY: Strider, we’re in the home stretch now. How’re you doing over there?

STRIDER #3: Hanging in there. How long until we reach the station?

STARRY: It’s gonna take us some time to get free. An hour or so, maybe. Why? What’s wrong?

STRIDER #3: We have injured here. Need medical assistance.

STARRY: Can you hold out for an hour?

STRIDER #3: Yes, it’s nothing major.

RIEDE: Bitch broke my arm! Ah, don’t touch me!

TASH: Such a baby.

STRIDER #3: But fast is better than slow. We had another blow-out here. We’re patching it but it’s not going to hold forever.

STARRY: Going as fast as I can, Strider. We’ll get you there.

 

On the plus side, they’re not talking about shooting at me any more. I guess Riede has other things to worry about.

 

External comms: station

STARRY: Captain? Captain, are you receiving? We’re back.

(Three seconds pass. There is no response.)

STARRY: Captain? Captain, respond.

 

Oh no. He was right there when I left! Where is he? Why isn’t he answering? I knew I shouldn’t have left him behind. He belongs on board me, where I can keep an eye on him, and Lang Lang, and the Lieutenant, and the doc. They’re my people. Why aren’t they answering?

 

STARRY: Sarabande, anyone, hello? Can you hear me?

 

I can talk to the Strider, so I know my external comms are working. But I am picking up some weird readings on my decks. I didn’t detect another instability in my systems, no surges or burps, but there are twitches…

Oh captain, my captain, where are you? I need you.

 

(A scraping noise comes over the comms.)

CAPT: (roughly) Starry?

STARRY: Yes! Captain!

CAPT: Starry, where the hell have you been?

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16 Responses to “Threading the needle”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Oh, seems like she messed up the time again (this time unwantedly) and entered later than she thought…

    Poor Starry… *hugs her*

    So, it seems the step hurt the black hole and Sara felt it? I wonder what she can tell the others later…

    mjkj

  2. Kunama Says:

    Aaaaaaagh noooooooo nooooooooooo
    The time calculation part was in that part of the ship!
    *shakes fist at* don’t you dare be late with next week’s! Don’t!
    *rocks feverishly in a corner*

    ……
    (bleh no I don’t actually mean that, take the time you need)

  3. Marcus Says:

    I get the feeling its been months, or maybe years since they went through.

  4. Zjoske Says:

    Great chapter!! Cannot wait for the next one.
    I wonder if it is only hours that have passed or weeks! I’m sure Capt is gonna give hell to Starry when she docks.

  5. Zjoske Says:

    PS I wonder if sarah was upset because of the altered reality or because of the pain this jump caused to the whale!!

  6. Syphax Says:

    Whelp. Fuck.
    Based on zero evidence whatsoever, I’m gonna say she’s been gone for… three months. That’s my wild ass guess.
    And Starry and Tash/pilot person are going to butt heads or be the best of friends aren’t they?

  7. Francisco Says:

    My guess is that it’s been decades and the captain is an old man.

  8. Shantien Says:

    !!! That is all.

  9. Melanie Says:

    mjkj – Yup yup. πŸ™‚
    A little hint, though: Sara wasn’t crying because of the portal’s effect on the black hole. (It might not be clear in this post, but there are hints. Timing is key. It’ll become clearer later, I promise.)

    Kunama – I’ll do my best! I promise!
    Sorry for the late posting of the last couple of entries. I’m readjusting some things on my end, with limited success; it’s a work in progress. I’ll try to do better for the next one! If only so you can come out of your corner. πŸ˜‰

    Marcus – I’m saying nothing. πŸ˜‰

    Zjoske – Think the captain will be the only one? πŸ˜‰ Poor Starry.
    (See also little hint above.)

    Syphax – I almost put the length of the gap into the end of the post, but it’s so much more fun to consider the possibilities. πŸ˜‰
    And yes, it’s definitely going to be one of those. Or both.

    Francisco – That is kinda tempting… uh oh. I just got an image of Grandma Rosie in my head. I could have so much fun with that. Ahahahahaha.

    Shantien – πŸ˜€

  10. thomas Says:

    What Captain said seems slightly out-of-sync because regardless of how long Starry was missing, he knew where she went. If he had asked, β€˜what took you so long?’ I would agree that she went forward in time. The Captain did not say anything about being gone for a long time, so I wonder if Starry stepped backwards in time and the Captain did not know she went to rescue Strider. Instead of everyone on Sarabande being older, they are at least somewhat younger.

    I wonder who Sara saw. Was she old enough to remember her parents when they died? Or maybe someone else important in her life on Sarabande?

    You did great again Melanie! Thanks, but you did scare me. I first thought Starry had stepped so for back that none of the crew were on the station.

  11. Kuro_Neko Says:

    Great chapter! Can’t wait until the next one.

    My take on Sara’s reaction was when the portal closed with Starry on the outside, Sara could no longer feel the Whale’s presence, something she’s felt her entire life (since she was born on the station). That’s why she stopped screaming once Starry opened the second portal, her connection to the Whale was restored.

    As to the time skip, it can’t have been backwards, since it’s been shown that Starry doesn’t overwrite her earlier self, instead there are simply two of her in the same time period. So if she’d gone backwards she’d see her earlier self still docked at the station. Also, since we’ve seen that causality is circular with this sort of time travel, Starry would in addition have memories of seeing herself exit from a step if she had gone backwards. So it’s gotta be forwards if anywhere. Though I too am curious about the Captain’s wording. Unless he assumed she stepped somewhere else in the intervening time she’s been gone rather then a step in time. We’ll find out in a week.

  12. thomas Says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention, Starry used backup data for the Step calculation. Backup data means she based the calculations on the past, and this might imply she calculated a reentry in her past. Since she can go forward or backward in time once she enters the ether, I really think she made a small mistake a arrived at the station before she left. Now Melanie has three ships to write about instead of just Starry and Strider.

    Of course, Starry Deux also carries duplicates of Sara and Elliott. Well, actually I am not sure which Starry is the original and which is the knockoff copy. No amount of head banging will solve that dilemma too.

    Oh joy, we get two grouchy engineers.

  13. Kuro_Neko Says:

    If Starry arrived before she left, then the Captain wouldn’t be asking where she’s been, cause she wouldn’t have left yet. Starry would also have had memories of seeing her future self if that was the case. And even if that is what happened, there wouldn’t be three ships (four actually, since there would be a past-Strider as well) for very long, since past-Starry and past-Strider would have to step to become future-Starry and future-Strider.

  14. Francisco Says:

    Thomas,

    Using backup data does not mean that a person would end up in the past (although that’s possible). You are imagining a situation where everything is logged as:

    Today’s data: xyz
    Yesterday’s data: …
    etc.

    Only an idiot would store data that way. Scientists would almost certainly store data in this format:

    Stardate 44390.1: xyz
    Stardate 44390.0: …
    etc

    That way you always know where you stand. However, you do have a point in that back up data in critical systems could blow up in your face (but it’s still better than nothing).

    Say, for example, the backups are made once a week (hopefully, they’re made more often but Starry has been undergoing repairs). Say they are backed up on Sunday. On Tuesday a new star is found and/or the position of a star was found to be inaccurate. If you’re projecting forwards and backwards in time you would need the new data to correctly predict the locations of nearby stars, and then there would be perturbations of the locations of other stars, etc.

    Why is this important? Our galaxy is rotating and, as the universe is expanding, which means that, over the course of a star’s life, the star moves relative to other stars and galaxies. From what I recall of previous steps, the way to get to a particular point in time is to intercept the star at the location it would be at that time (she see’s stars as lines marking the course during their lives).

    You might be right and she’s gone back in time but it could just as easily be forward in time. I have to agree with Kuro_Neko in that we have no evidence that she did go back in time. After all Melanie has always shown how events fit together when Starwalker has gone to the past.

  15. Medic Says:

    Too many unknown variables. Since, I hope, Mel wouldn’t do alternate timelines on us, that means there either was a temporal step, or they were Outside for too long. In either case, I just hope Starry doesn’t need to do another Step to get things on track.

    I’m going to agree with Kuro_Neko about Sara. He connection to Whale was suddenly gone. She’s a baby, and doesn’t really know how to express what’s she’s feeling at the moment. However, I get the feeling that Whale is about to have its reveal.

    I know, I know, you never say Melanie.

  16. Melanie Says:

    thomas – thanks! Sorry for the scare. I almost made it worse: I was tempted to have the captain take some time to get to the comms, and have Starry wondering why the station was so quiet. But I’m not quite that mean. Not today, anyway.
    Ha ha, two Elliotts. Okay, I’m really not that mean. πŸ˜‰

    Kuro_Neko – can’t fault your logic. πŸ™‚

    Francisco – time travel hurts my brain. I need to stop doing it. πŸ˜‰

    Medic – you know, I was thinking just the other day about alternate dimensions and the Step drive… but no, not yet. Starry Steps within her own reality; let’s stick with that. πŸ˜‰
    And it’s no fun if I tell you, right?