Ship’s log, 09:00, 12 October 2214 Location: Edge of the system of the Cerces black hole Status: Sublight transit
(Today, there are four crew members present: the captain, the Chief, Rosie, and Lang Lang. Each is seated at their station with their consoles active. The ship’s avatar is standing off to one side with her hands clasped behind her, her projection more translucent than usual.
The hologram at the centre of the room depicts the position of the Starwalker: a pulsing orange ship-shape approaching the open mouth of the FTL corridor. A purple dot with a shivering silver circle around it passes by the starboard bow.)
CAPTAIN: Starry, what’s our status?
STARRY: Passing the beacon now. Diagnostics coming back good. Hull integrity is fine, engines are running within acceptable limits.
FTL drive fully charged
I feel like myself again. I’m still missing sensors, running on only one power core, and there’s plenty of work left to do, but I’m up and running. I’m whole enough to move through the void, to shimmy if I want to, or just jump the hell out of here.
The captain went for the jumping option. I don’t blame him; I think everyone is looking forward to putting this system well and truly behind us. Even Cerces, who is leaving his real body behind for the first time in his freakishly-long existence.
Right now, I’m passing the warning buoy at the edge of the system. It’s bleating its message, telling everyone to stay out of this system. I’m pleased to finally be heeding its advice.
STARRY: We’re coming up on the entrance to the FTL corridor. We’ll be in jump range in two minutes.
CAPT: Lang Lang, how’s our navigation looking?
LANG LANG: Course to the nearest waystation is plotted and loaded, sir. Starry should have everything she needs.
STARRY: (nods) Confirmed.
I’ve never been so excited to do an FTL jump. It’s both the most boring and the most dangerous flying I can do, due to the forces involved, but the notion of moving is just too much to resist. I’m flying again and that’s all that matters, when it comes down to it.
And besides, I need to get used to not Stepping. That part of my existence is over: now I must travel within the laws of physics and our universe. I must play the game like everyone else.
Okay, I’m not like everyone else and I really like bending the rules of the game, but it’s worth a shot, right?
I am a good ship, and that’s what I’ll be. Whatever that winds up meaning.
(A door to the Bridge opens and little Sara toddles in, carrying the black kitten that is the avatar of Cerces. She carries him by wrapping both arms around his middle, just below his front legs. His lower half dangles, his tail in danger of being stepped on at any moment. There’s no way she can see her own feet to avoid it.)
CAPT: (turns to see who it is) Come to watch our departure?
SARA: (nods cheerfully) Whale-kitty watch! Zoom.
CERCES-KITTEN: (blinks bright blue eyes at the captain.)
CAPT: Why don’t you take a seat. Starry, can you show them our rear view?
STARRY: (beckoning the child over to an empty chair, which turns and lowers so it’s easier for her to clamber into) Is that a view of my rear, or the space behind me? (She sends the captain a smile.) I’m not sure I understand your intention.
CAPT: (drily, the corners of his mouth twitching) The space behind us, please.
SARA: (pushing the kitten onto the chair before she climbs up into it) Whale-kitty see whale?
STARRY: (nods) He can wave byebye to himself. (To the kitten,) Won’t that be fun?
CERCES-KITTEN: (blinks at the ship’s avatar, his head tilting.)
SARA: Byebye whale! (On the chair now, she wraps her arms around the kitten and hugs it.) Hello whale!
Well, it’s good she’s not confused about the situation. It’s hard to know how much she truly understands, though lately I’m inclined to suspect more rather than less. Being with the black hole’s avatar seems to give her more focus than before, more than I would expect from a child so young.
On the other hand, she often seems exactly like a kid who loves how soft and cuddly a cat is. I wonder what she would have done if we’d only had a hedgehog on board when he needed an avatar.
STARRY: One minute until we’re in FTL jump range.
(Elliott has a panel open on the wall closest to the centre of the ship. Wires and circuitboards are visible, some spilling out onto the floor. Projected readouts hang in the air around him, showing the status of various systems.
Across the room, Dineen is monitoring secondary systems while she makes repairs to a power hub at a counter. Scorch marks show how it was damaged in the recent power surges. The Lieutenant keeps a careful eye on her from a stool across the room.)
ELLIOTT: Starry, you close?
STARRY: (voice only) Forty-five seconds until we’re within range.
ELLIOTT: (manipulates a section of readings from the FTL drive and squints at the data) Okay, the charge is holding steady. You’re good to go, just keep it short.
STARRY: I remember. Just a little hop to see what explodes.
ELLIOTT: Very funny.
STARRY: I have faith in my Chief Engineer.
ELLIOTT: (glances up with a lopsided grin and his eyes rove around, but he doesn’t find the ship’s avatar. The expression falters.)
STARRY: Until you get me more reliable resources, you’re just gonna have to imagine me curtseying when I say stuff like that.
ELLIOTT: (grin returning as he turns back to his readouts) I can do that.
STARRY: Not like that!
ELLIOTT: Guess what just went to the bottom of my to-repair list.
STARRY: You’re disgusting.
ELLIOTT: (grins unrepentantly.)
DINEEN: (glances over with an eyebrow crooked, but says nothing. She returns to her work.)
Almost there. Almost time.
Across the room from Elliott, my boy Casper is still waiting to be fixed. I miss his weird presence, popping up wherever he’s needed without seeming to need to be told. I find myself checking and double-checking on things to make sure I haven’t missed anything, in case there’s a hole he’d normally be filling.
Elliott has checked him over, and he’s confident he can get Casper working again. He fixed Byte; he can do this. I have faith in him. I’ll have my boy back, just as soon as my Elliott has time.
There’ll be plenty of opportunity in the FTL corridor for him to get to Casper. It’ll take me longer than usual to recharge the FTL drive between jumps with only one power core to draw on, so this leg of the journey is going to take us a while.
That’s okay. There’s plenty of work for all of us to do. I’ll be helping Elliott to get my initial repairs done, everything we can do without a dry dock and more supplies.
Lang Lang, the Chief, and the captain are still working the kinks out of our destination, assessing and re-assessing everything we know about various colonies, trying to figure out what the evacuation of Earth might mean. The phantom of the pirates lurks in the corners of our minds, too: a possibility that we can’t quite ignore. They might end up being the safest option for us.
I think I’ll need all my weapons online before we try any of that, though, just in case.
The doctor is keeping a close eye on Cerces’s avatar to see what happens there. Cerces himself doesn’t seem to know what to expect, and the doctor gets quietly excited whenever he manages to glean some clean readings from the kitten. It’s the weirdest thing. The only other thing I’ve seen him look at like that is me.
And then there’s Dineen, insisting that she can be trusted. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll have the chance to prove herself before we reach the next waystation. Maybe some of her crew-mates will join her, if only for something to do.
We’ll have to tread carefully there or Rosie’s head might explode with disapproval.
STARRY: Ten seconds to FTL jump, everyone.
(The projection in the centre of the room shows the little golden Starwalker arriving at the mouth of the corridor, which sweeps away like a long, pale throat.
To the side of the projection, the view from the rear of the ship shows the distant swirl of the black hole, so dark and deep that it feels like a hole in the universe. Somewhere between there and here is a tiny wink of light that is Sarabande Station, almost too small to notice. Cerces turns and turns.)
STARRY: Jumping in five, four, three…
(The ship’s avatar turns to look forward, though she doesn’t need to. The captain grips the arms of his chair without seeming to realise he’s doing it. Lang Lang is lost in the navigational data. Only the SecOffs seem at all relaxed, their scopes clear.)
FTL drive engaged
(The image from the rear of the ship blurs and goes dark.)
SARA: (gasps and leans forward, staring at the image.)
CERCES-KITTEN: (blinks and shakes his head.)
FTL drive disengaged
STARRY: Jump complete.
STARRY: (cheerfully) Well, we didn’t explode.
CAPT: (gives her a sharp look.)
STARRY: I’m fine. A couple of systems look shaky but nothing critical. The FTL drive is recharging. We should be underway again in a few hours.
CAPT: (nods, relaxing) Good work, everyone.
SARA: (strokes the kitten’s head intently.)
Here we are, on our way. Cerces seems confused, maybe a little upset, but he doesn’t seem to be protesting. My people aren’t being affected by him; he’s keeping to himself now.
It’s hard to think that he caused us so much trouble. He’s such a little, bewildered thing, unused to something as fundamental as having a physical body that can interact with us. He’s used to only messing with our minds. He used our own memories as a mirror for his own grief and loneliness, showed us our own ghosts while he wished for his. He kept us here when we wanted to get away from all of it, though I guess there’s no real getting away from what’s in our own heads. Now… now it’s all changed for him.
It is a relief not to have them twitching up my sensors, though, messing up my feeds. It’s nice to not be confronted by them any more. I know the crew feel the same way.
I feel like a weight has lifted off my decks. I’ve got lights broken on most of my levels, sensors missing, darkened patches all over me, and still I feel lighter, as if there’s a great shadow that has lifted away from all of us.
I didn’t feel it when the avatar was made. It’s only now, as my external sensors calibrate to my new position and scan for navigation points. It’s only now, when the great sucking shape of the black hole is no longer looming over us, like a great eye that sees everything but gives nothing back. It’s only now, when I’m realising that we’re really, truly free.
I hadn’t expected it to mean something. Not to me. But it does. I’ve been stuck for so long, though my internal calendar says that it has only been three and a half months. For me, it was less than that, thanks to a little time-step. Two months.
When you look at just the time, boil it down to dates, it seems like so little. And yet it feels bigger than a whole world.
This is the first time I’ve truly flown free. I’m dented but I’m not limping. I’ve got enough resources to choose where I go next; I won’t be forced into it, not like I was when I got here. I’m my own master, I’ve got a captain at my helm and a crew who’ll stick with me.
I’ve got a god-damned alien on board who wants us to go find his alien friends.
What else does a ship need?
ELLIOTT: (pausing in his examination of the FTL drive diagnostics, he leans over to frown at a nearby counter) Uh, Starry?
ELLIOTT: What the fuck are they doing?
BIT and BYTE: (on the counter, the two drones skip around in a circle, slap hands, then skip around in the other direction waving their hands above their heads.)
STARRY: (a smile in her voice) They’re dancing.
ELLIOTT: Why are they dancing?
STARRY: Because they want to. Maybe I’ll show you how sometime.
ELLIOTT: Right, a ship that knows how to dance.
STARRY: Of course I do. You taught me.
ELLIOTT: (gapes at the drones for a moment, blushing) Then, then I don’t need you to show me, do I?
STARRY: I know, but it might be fun anyway.
Maybe that’s what everyone on board needs: more dancing. Of the kind that Bit and Byte are doing, that is, not what Elliott is thinking; the crew can sort the other kind out for themselves.
We’ll do that. There needs to be more dancing on board me. I can make that happen; just a few more repairs in the right places and I’ll be able to host the party my people need.
Who knows, maybe between here and our next destination, we’ll be able to teach a black hole in the shape of a kitten how to dance, too?
SARA: (wriggling back in her chair, one hand stroking the kitten) Whale with us now. Zoom.
STARRY: (looks out the forward portal to the distant spatter of stars and nods quietly) Zoom.
End of Book 4