13 Feb

Touchpoint

Ship’s log, 23:51, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting

 

Location: Outer hull

(Big Ass pauses in his traverse across the surface of the ship to clip a safety line onto an anchor ring. Turning, he trundles down the curve of the ship’s side, spinning the safety line out behind him.)

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(Four kittens struggle with the lack of gravity. Claws skitter against the smooth surface of a wall but find no purchase: the bigger tabby kitten drifts away again into the open expanse of the cargo bay’s air.

The white kitten has managed to latch its teeth onto a tether holding the cargo crates to the floor. It mews, the sound muffled by its mouthful, and wriggles to try to catch a claw on the tether as well.

The other three babies bounce about the room in slow motion, waiting for their chance to find somewhere to stick. The smaller tabby has its claws out, in case sporting velcro-like paws will give it an advantage.)

BIT and BYTE: (watch from a vent opening high on an inner wall.)

 

The pieces are all moving into place. We think the next gravity fluctuation will find its mark, if our assumptions about the mark are correct.

We’re not quite sure what will happen. I’m not sure if I’ll stand up to the pressures involved. But my people are working to help us make it through this, working hard.

Dineen is a fly in our ointment, and I can’t yet tell if she is as helpful as she’s trying to appear. She has been making suggestions about what Elliott might be able to do to reduce the damage. It all sounds like it makes sense but the source is suspect. I’m running every modelling permutation I can think of to see if she’s trying to get us to do something silly or dangerous

There’s still so much to do and no time to do it in.

 

Location: Engineering

(Elliott has a floor panel open and has half disappeared into it. Light glows up from beneath him, the shifting blues and greens of power circuits and artificial gravity generators.

Above and to his left, the Strider’s mechanic is secured to a railing by a rigid substance that covers both of her hands and forearms. She strains to see what Elliott is up to, leaning against the hold of the restraints.)

HALF-FACE: (drifts nearby, his rifle held casually in his hands but his gaze fixed warily on the prisoner.)

DINEEN: (to Elliott) Have you accounted for external compensation?

ROSIE: (enters by the upper access hatch, her jaw set at an unhappy angle. She exchanges a look with the other SecOff and halts her drift near the hatch to block the exit.)

ELLIOTT: (from under the floor) Still don’t need your help!

ROSIE: What?

STARRY: (standing near the section Elliott has lifted up, to the SecOff) It’s okay, he wasn’t talking to you.

ROSIE: (rolls her eyes and huffs) Right.

STARRY: (to Dineen) The inertial dampeners are countering external forces. We don’t need to worry about them.

DINEEN: Even if the hull breaches?

STARRY: Yes. I can keep the dampening bubble intact with a certain amount of hull breached.

DINEEN: (raises her eyebrows) Unusual. On-the-fly compensation?

STARRY: I’m really, really smart.

DINEEN: (lips quirking, she glances towards the other engineer again) How are you planning to define the bubble?

ELLIOTT: (pushes his head and shoulders above the level of the floor and sighs) What fucking bubble?

DINEEN: Isn’t that what you’re doing? Recalibrating the gravity generators to create a bubble to go around the anomaly?

ELLIOTT: Grav-gens can’t do that. I’m configuring it to shape the force around the lower part of the anomaly, like a cradle, but it can’t put a force on top, too. We don’t have coverage there.

DINEEN: (shrugs) It’s hard, but not impossible.

STARRY: You’ve done something like this before?

ELLIOTT: What the hell for?

DINEEN: Once. Wasn’t pretty.

ELLIOTT: (rolls his eyes and dips back down to his work again) Great.

STARRY: What’s involved in building this bubble?

DINEEN: Three grav-gens and about half an hour, for two of us.

STARRY: We’ve got maybe seven minutes.

DINEEN: Well, shit. What about hooking in the auxiliary inertial dampeners?

ROSIE: (eyes narrowing) That sounds like you’re suggesting we fuck up a safety feature.

ELLIOTT: (head coming up again briefly) Actually, that’s not a bad idea. (He gets back to work.)

STARRY: (glancing between Elliott and Dineen) I think I’m with Rosie on this one.

 

The work continues. I can see what Elliott is doing: altering what should be a flat, steady generation of artificial gravity into a moveable cradle of force. While the anomaly pulls in, it’ll be pulling outwards and down (relative to my decks). It should be able to create enough force to counter the anomaly, enough to prevent at least some of the damage.

I fear for anything caught in between the anomaly and the cradle. It’ll be torn apart. There’s not much we can do about that, though.

It also won’t be enough to quash the entire effect of the anomaly; we’d need Dineen’s bubble for that. There’s nothing we can do about whatever is above the anomaly. But it’ll help. With so little time, every little helps.

 

Location: Outer hull

(Ducking under the portside wing, Big Ass clips a second safety tether to another anchor ring. Turning, he comes out from under the wing, trailing two taut safety lines now.

When he’s precisely half way between the two anchor points, he stops and settles down on his metal haunches to wait.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (from under the floor) Starry, what’s it looking like on your end?

STARRY: Looks okay. You need to tie off the feed to— yes, that one.

ELLIOTT: You’ve got full control?

STARRY: (hesitates) Yes.

DINEEN: You’re going to let the ship handle it?

ELLIOTT: (still under the floor) I’m just here to make shit work, not steer it.

STARRY: I can see what needs to be done. And I’ve got better reflexes.

ELLIOTT: You just hang onto your railing there.

DINEEN: (shooting a look at the Lieutenant) Like I have a choice.

HALF-FACE: (regards her impassively.)

ROSIE: (snorts.)

ELLIOTT: (pops his head up and glances at the other engineer) Only way I can see to use the inertial dampening system is to reconfigure where the hull is. Make it think it’s smaller than it is.

DINEEN: Yes. Then you can use it to shield the rest of the ship from the gravitational forces.

ELLIOTT: It’s a good theory, but…

STARRY: We have live creatures in that cargo bay. And we’re in a driving orbit around a black hole. Opening a gap in my inertial dampening field’s hull coverage like that would tear half my side off. If we’re lucky.

DINEEN: I know. That’s why I said use the auxiliary dampeners. Create a second dampening field inside the first.

ELLIOTT: (frowns) Won’t that create feedback between the two fields?

DINEEN: Yes, you’ll need to configure it so they don’t interact.

STARRY: Or they’ll tear me apart.

DINEEN: (shrugs, which makes her wobble against the forearm restraints) I never said it would be easy, just that it could work.

ROSIE: (eyeing Dineen distrustfully) Sounds dangerous to me. You cleared this with the captain?

ELLIOTT: Ain’t even sure I want to do it yet.

STARRY: (sighs) Relaying it to him now.

 

We have three minutes.

I don’t like it. She’s right: it could work. But it’s a dangerous approach.

Suddenly, I see how the Celestial Strider survived so long when she was caught in the tides of the black hole. Dineen kept her afloat any way she could, butchering one system to prop up another, playing a circular game of catch-up until she had no more pieces to move around. Brilliant and inventive, but ultimately temporary.

We’re not that desperate yet and there’s no time to do it well. I don’t want to end up in that position. I can feel my voice sliding into cautious disapproval as I tell the captain what Dineen is suggesting.

Elliott is already looking at the inertial dampening systems. I can almost see his brain ticking over ways to make it work.

I have faith in him. If he sees a way, he’ll be able to make it work.

The captain is frowning. Elliott is fiddling with the settings of the auxiliary system. Four kittens are mewing unhappily at the lack of gravity, calling for their mother. She hasn’t been seen all day.

Two minutes.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

CAPTAIN: (holds onto the handle next to the closed door with one hand and Sara with the other. He shakes his head slowly. Over internal comms,) Monaghan, I don’t like the sound of this plan. I’m not vetoing it, but I want you to be sure before you do anything.

SARA: (has wriggled out of her position on the captain’s back so she can push at the closed door insistently) Kitty. Kitty?

ELLIOTT: (over internal comms, voice only) Sure? We’ve got two minutes, which ain’t time to be sure of anything we can cobble together.

STARRY: A minute and a half.

CAPT: Do your best to keep the ship in one piece. If we lose the cargo in that bay, then we lose it. We must not lose the ship, though.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, I’d kinda like to keep breathin’, too.

CAPT: Do what you need to.

ELLIOTT: Aye aye.

SARA: (twists around awkwardly to look at the captain) Get to kitty.

CAPT: It’s too dangerous, little one. We’ll go when the whale’s done… his thing.

SARA: (screws her face up, somewhere between a tantrum and tears. She strains to get free of his grip.)

 

One minute. The tide rises. If I had hairs on the back of my neck, they’d be lifting.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(Abruptly, silence falls within the cargo bay. The mewling of distressed kittens stops; instead, the four of them look around with wide eyes, pupils big and black. A couple of them struggle to stay attached to the cargo nets and tethers; the other two drift motionless.)

BIT and BYTE: (look at each other.)

BIT: (shrugs.)

BYTE: (activates the vent cover. It slides into place in front of them.)

BIT and BYTE: (shuffle so they can peer through the grating of the vent cover at what’s happening inside the cargo bay.)

 

Thirty seconds. I guess I’m not the only one who knows it’s coming.

Sara is getting more frantic. The captain is holding her away from the walls and floor by the back of her dress now, so she can’t hurt herself, but she’s starting to dissolve into incoherent upset. The doctor has slipped a hand in his emergency medical pack, probably looking for a sedative for the kid.

Elliott is still fiddling with my auxiliary inertial dampening but he hasn’t activated it yet. He’s frowning and moving like he’s not sure about it; usually he’s so determined when working to a deadline.

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: (scowls at the readouts projected above his left forearm) Let’s just… keep the inertial dampening thing as a backup.

STARRY: Will do. Twenty seconds.

ELLIOTT: (unspools a safety tether from where it is clipped to his belt and snicks it onto a metal loop just under the opening in the floor) Guess we’re as ready as we’re gonna be. I’ll monitor from here.

STARRY: (nods and shifts her weight.)

 

Shipwide

STARRY: Safety harnesses, everyone. Brace for… arrival.

 

Too many of my people are out of position and can’t be harnessed in. After dangling over the last anomaly, the first thing Elliott did before he got to work was to put the safety line on his belt. Now I wish that I had asked everyone to do that.

 

Location: Lower level access corridor

SARA: (stops struggling abruptly and falls quiet.)

CAPT and DR SOCKS: (look at her curiously.)

SARA: (twists to look in the direction of Cargo Bay 1, as if she could see right through the layers of bulkhead, and gasps softly.)

 

There’s nothing more worrying than a quiet child. Between Sara and the kittens, I know we’re right about what’s going to happen.

It’s not just the youngsters, either.

 

Location: Crew quarters

BRENN HAITOM: (lifts his head, his eyes unfocussed. A smile trembles on his lips.) I see you there. (He laughs softly, hands rubbing up and down his arms.) How fast does black travel? Come to see, come to see.

(He licks his teeth and whispers,) Welcome, my dark.

 

Location: Bridge

(Lang Lang and Chief Cameron are the only people on the Bridge. They are seated at their stations with holographic consoles wrapping around them, busy with readouts and chatter. The centre of the room hosts a projected representation of the Starwalker, her walls translucent to reveal her internal structure.)

LANG LANG: (presses a command into the projected console and a red light blooms in a forward cargo bay of the holographic ship.)

CAMERON: (waves the sensor channel monitoring the prisoner situation in Engineering into silence and rubs her right temple, wincing.)

LANG LANG and CAMERON: (turn their seats to look at each other through their respective consoles.)

CAMERON: (nods grimly.)

 

I can feel it: a gathering in my belly. I am growing pregnant with it.

Already it feels different than before.

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(A spattering of uncertain mews moves around the floating kittens. The small tabby hisses and puffs up, all its fur standing on end. The white one tries to cower behind the cargo it is clinging to.

In an open section between the neat stacks of crates, the air ripples as an anomaly distorts the light. It’s about the size of a basketball.

The pull begins slowly, gently drawing in the loose debris in the room – a random tool, an unsecured crate, a handful of spare bolts, a couple of pieces of clothing – and the four kittens. They fall in and in, clawing at the air, all except one.

The black cat looks ‘down’ curiously, as if falling is the natural thing to do.)

 

Location: Engineering

ELLIOTT: Starry?

STARRY: (standing nearby, the avatar staring off into space with her eyes narrowed) Got it. Cradle forming. I’m compensating. It’s not as strong as the last one, not yet.

ELLIOTT: Got green lights here so far.

STARRY: Gravity in the anomaly climbing….

 

Location: Cargo Bay 1

(The loose objects and animals in the cargo bay gain speed as they fall towards a single point. Tethers holding the cargo down creak. One wasn’t secured properly and slithers free, letting a couple of crates tumble loose. The larger tabby kitten bounces off the corner of a crate and goes limp. Metal pings off hard plastic in a rain of clashing noises.

The ripple in the air bubbles outwards, growing half as big again. Bolts are squashed as they pass inside it, mashed into a lump of metal at its centre. The animals fall closer.

A small metal box below the anomaly screeches in protest and the metal of its lid starts to peel up at the edges. An opposing force is holding it to the floor, nailing it painfully in place. Crystalline circuit cards start to slither out of the box, tugged inexorably upwards.

The black kitten is the first of the siblings to near the gravity orb.)

BYTE: (points at the black kitten, then thrusts his arms up in triumph.)

BIT: (drops his hands down by his sides.)

(The black kitten’s left rear paw touches the distortion. Every light fixture in the cargo bay explodes.)

 

Warning
Power surge detected
Warning
Warning
Systems overloaded

 

Oh, shit.

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5 Responses to “Touchpoint”

  1. Syphax Says:

    All I could think of was “no way in hell it’s gonna be that easy.” More than worth the wait.

  2. Melanie Says:

    Thanks, Syphax!

    Apologies for the delay on this one, everyone. Been a crazy week. I’m working to be on time for next week. Strap in, here we go.

  3. thomas Says:

    Okay, I understand five and six now; two bots in a throw down.

    Purrfect cliffhanger Melanie. Thanks

  4. Francisco Says:

    Re-reading it, it looks like the distortion is electromagnetic as well as gravitational. They were compensating for the gravitational distortions but the eleotromagnetic took them unawares. Am I right?

  5. mjkj Says:

    Outch… 🙁

    *hugs poor Starry*