Ship's log, 20:16, 28 June 2214 Location: Feras orbit, Lambda 1 system Status: Docking approach
On the outside, I move serenely, sweeping around to docking bay Alpha 62. They’re squeezing me in between a freighter and another scout-class, the clamps extending at an awkward angle to account for the bigger ship’s bulk.
I should be enjoying this. Manoeuvering myself around to slip into the scout-sized gap, lining myself up to the open mouths with just a little flare, and sliding in for the softest kiss because I’m just that good at what I do.
Today, there’s no flare. There’s no jaunty little wiggle of my tail-fins. There’s no last-minute decelleration to taunt those who are monitoring me and fearing that I’ll miss the mark. Today’s not a day for games or fun. I’m behaving. I’m running the numbers and landing with AI precision.
Not only because I have to: I’m just not in the mood to take this lightly. In this position, Danika might have grinned hard and played her games anyway, too proud to compromise who she was for the circumstances, but I’m not her. I’m responsible for my crew and my mission, and I’m too proud to let myself compromise that. I report my progress to the Port Authority with rote precision. I mix in with the morass of landing ships. I lift my chin but I don’t stand out from the crowd.
Inside, I am not so calm. My scenario predictors are scrambling over the numbers as fast as I can stuff them in. Calculations and re-calculations. Checks and double-checks. If I had a need to breathe, I’d be breathless right now, pulse hammering at me like my power couplings were threatening to overload.
Smile. Calm. Try not to be infected by the tension skittering deep in my ducts on dustbunny claws, or hurrying around on my decks on heavy boots, metal tracks, and light ship-shoes. I track them all without effort – I’m built to track multiple targets both inside and outside my hull – but it’s still hard to keep up. Focus, Starry. Fold wings in tight and come around 180 degrees to present the correct side to the docking bay. Cut engines, thrusters only. Five minutes.
Location: Docking bay 3
(Three crewmembers are gathered near the inner airlock doors. Wide Load squats before them, holding a large briefcase on two of his hands. Dr Cirilli is looking over the contents while Lang Lang stands by, looking worried. The navigator is generally trying to avoid looking into the briefcase at the neat rows of explosives. She swallows and smoothes her already-neat hair back into her ponytail.
Cameron is speaking to Cirilli, gesturing to the devices in the briefcase.)
CAMERON: …and then you’ll have time to get back to the docking bay to meet us. Just stay in contact so we can coordinate.
CIRILLI: (touches a device thoughtfully and looks over the row as if she’s counting them, possibly calculating where they’ll go. Ten in total.) I understand. It may take some time to get to where we need to be.
CAMERON: (nods her understanding) We don’t know what red tape you’ll need to get through first.
CIRILLI: Exactly. They’ll have questions.
CAMERON: You know what you’ll tell them? (She looks meaningfully at Lang Lang.)
LANG LANG: (feels the Chief’s gaze on her and glances up) Yes, ma’am. We know the line to take.
CIRILLI: (confidently) They’ll want to see the data. They’ll let us in to where we tell them.
CAMERON: Good. And their own security protocols will stop them from peeking inside that case until you’re where you need to be.
CAPTAIN: (striding into the cargo bay) Chief, everything in order here?
CAMERON: (turning to face him) Yes, captain.
CAPT: Are you both ready to go?
CIRILLI: (nods crisply and closes the case with calm, deliberate motions. The fastenings engage with a snick.)
LANG LANG: (doesn’t look anywhere near as cool and collected as Cirilli when she nods.)
CAPT: (to the navigator) It’s not too late to back out, if you don’t feel you can do this.
LANG LANG: (looks up at him with wide eyes) I know, but I am going. You and Chief Cameron are right: there will be less suspicion if there is two of us from the project in attendance. I am… not well practised at this sort of work. (She swallows, then makes a visible effort to pull her shoulders straight.) I’ll do my best. For the stars.
CAPT: (squeezes her shoulder) Thank you, Lang Lang. (He looks to Cirilli.) Lorena, a moment, if you please?
CIRILLI: (hesitates, then nods and steps aside with the captain.)
CAMERON: (to Lang Lang) You’ll do just fine. Remember that the precision we require is for their good, not ours. If you can get to the labs, there will be minimal casualties.
LANG LANG: I know. I was raised not to lie, Chief Cameron. My family believes in honour.
CAMERON: Right now, honour dictates a higher calling than any contracts we signed.
LANG LANG: (glancing at the case and murmuring) For the stars. I believe in that, too.
Sometimes, I think that Lang Lang is the most moral of all of us. She struggles with this more deeply than the rest. But she still didn’t hesitate to volunteer to go along with Cirilli to the central labs. She knows that it will be more legitimate if there’s two of them, less suspicious, and they are the only two left of the original science team.
I worry about her, but strangely, not about her strength. She’s showing her nerves but her biometrics don’t suggest that she’s panicking inside. She’s not walking a knife edge; she just doesn’t like this and she’s not confident of being able to pull it off. She’s like a new recruit before her first battle, except… I get the feeling that she’s had a battle like this before. On the inside, in a different realm, but a battle just the same. That mantra of hers – ‘for the stars’ – is not new to her tongue; I just hadn’t heard it before this endeavour of ours began.
It’s too late to ask. It’s too late for life stories. But it’s not too late to wonder about the people I have under my charge and be grateful for them.
And then there’s Cirilli. I wonder about her, too. The quiet, calm determination of hers looks like the professional demeanour she had when she was conducting the experiments with me. But now there’s a sheen of ice underneath it: there’s no glimmer of excitement within, no spark of hope. It’s just cold inevitability holding her up and I can’t tell what’s beyond that.
The captain senses it, too. He’s having a quiet word with her, trying to reach her. She looks at him but she doesn’t let him see her. Even his warmth doesn’t thaw her, though they matter to each other. He’s trying to ground her, to let out the thread of his affection in the hope that it gives her something to hold onto.
She’s kissing him on the cheek. For a moment, it seems that he has managed to touch her. There’s a glimmer of orange in her icy blue. That slender, glimmering thread between them shimmers on the air.
Then she steps back and lets him go. Suddenly, it feels like goodbye.
It shouldn’t be. That’s not the plan. They’re supposed to go in there, do what they need to do to destroy the project, and get out. There’s a plan to get them out again. No-one should even suspect them until they’re back and we’re gone.
I can’t tell if she’s protecting herself or my captain. But I guess… I guess there’s a chance that this really is goodbye. I just don’t want to admit it.
CIRILLI: (moving back to where Wide Load still holds the case.)
STARRY: (materialising beside the captain, quietly) Two minutes until we’re docked, captain.
CAPT: (lifts his head and takes a breath, gathering himself. He nods.) Thank you, Starry.
For a moment there, he was a man. Now he’s my captain again. He’s what we all need him to be. I wish I could touch his hand and let him know that it’s okay for him to be a man, too.
CIRILLI: (frowning at the heavy drone) I said, let it go.
WIDE LOAD: (hands clamped around the briefcase, he is unmoved by the scientist tugging on the handle. His head tilts and he rises on his leg-struts until he’s towering over the woman before him. His free arms reach out and around the case, hands spinning to reveal the new tasers built into them. Panels flick open on his neck and the muzzles of laser emitters snick out. His hands spark warningly.)
CIRILLI: (lets go of the case and takes a hurried step back) John!
CAPT: (striding over) Starry! What–
WIDE LOAD: (retracts his weapons and lowers his bulk down, looking like a regular maintenance drone again. He locks the briefcase’s lid, then holds it against his chest.)
CAPT: –the hell is he doing?
STARRY: (half a pace behind the captain, she’s gazing curious at her drone) I… I think he…
WIDE LOAD: (turns his head to look at the ship’s avatar. A panel in his lower storage section opens and he puts the case inside, locking it within his own body. He folds a pair of arms over the panel, adding another layer of protection.)
CIRILLI: We need that case.
WIDE LOAD: (nods at the scientist. He moves forward and his free hands reach out, one to Lang Lang’s shoulder and one to Cirilli’s. Both women stare at him, nonplussed, as he clamps metal fingers lightly onto them. Then he lets them go, turns his bulk around, and trundles to the airlock. He stops a centimetre away from the doors and settles there, staring at the panel.)
STARRY: (with a faint smile) He’s going with you.
CAPT: (to the avatar) That’s not the plan.
STARRY: (shrugging, still staring at the drone) He wants to help. He wants to protect you.
CIRILLI: He just threatened me!
STARRY: It was a demonstration, not a threat. He would never hurt you. He’s armed now; he was showing you that he can protect you and the package.
CAMERON: (calmly) Can he even do that, without his connection to you?
STARRY: (moving over to the drone’s side) I can lock in the protocols. And I can communicate with him over a limited distance; he’s built to be my hands on the ground, for loading and external repairs. He could be useful to stay in touch, in case local comms are compromised.
WIDE LOAD: (turns his head to look at the avatar and nods solemnly. He nudges a centimetre forward and his front tracks touch the airlock doors.)
STARRY: (glancing towards her crew) He really wants to do this.
CAPT: (frowns in thought.)
CIRILLI: But how would I explain him?
CAMERON: Security measure. For the project data.
LANG LANG: (walks up to the drone’s side, next to the ship’s avatar) And for us. With all the refugees around.
WIDE LOAD: (puts a hand on her shoulder again.)
CIRILLI: (looks unhappy) You couldn’t have mentioned this earlier? (It’s not clear who she’s addressing.)
STARRY: My drones aren’t supposed to leave me for extended periods of time. Or… as security measures.
CAMERON: We armed them for a reason.
(A tense silence falls.)
STARRY: Captain, we’re docking. Clamps are engaging. Thirty seconds until the seal is locked.
CAPT: You’re sure this will work?
No, I’m not sure. And I don’t want to let one of my boys off my decks. But I don’t want to let Cirilli and Lang Lang go, either. I wish I could go with them. I want to keep them safe.
I can’t tell if Wide Load is doing this on his own or for me. He’s my hands, my strongest arms. He’s my solid reliability. This is one way I can go with them. He doesn’t ask for much, but he’s asking for this. His calculations show that he can be an asset here and I can’t fault his maths.
My boy. My people.
Docking clamps engaged Sublight engines offline FTL drive offline Thrusters offline Weapons offline
I can’t protect them now. It’s up to them.
CAPT: All right, he goes. Starry, keep an eye on them.
STARRY: Yes, sir.
CIRILLI: (steps up on the other side of the drone, nodding coolly.)
WIDE LOAD: (releases Lang Lang again and faces the airlock doors.)
Docking seal engaged Artificial gravity equalising Pressure equalising Atmosphere balancing Docking seal locked
STARRY: (looking at all of them) Come back to us. (The avatar dissolves, light motes shattering in the air.)
(Both sets of airlock doors swish open.)
CIRILLI: (gives the captain one last look, then forges forward through the airlock and into the docking tube.)
LANG LANG: (follows hurriedly.)
WIDE LOAD: (brings up the rear with metal patience and a reliable trundling.)
Come back to me.