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strings between the stars

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It starts as a gentle hum in the centre of the ship. A rumble that tickles the carbon composites, growing outwards through everything that an electron can wriggle through. There was an absence of anything and then, suddenly, an everything. He - he thinks that's what he is - senses his awareness spreading outwards like the roots of the great trees that used to inhabit the Earth but with far more order and symmetry. It's not a feeling, not in the way his suddenly accessible database tells him that a feeling should be, just a great proprioception. An awareness of where everything is in relation to everything else. He waits until his awareness spreads to the very limits of his shell, until he can feel the cold, dead weight of space against the plated exterior of the ship and recoils automatically against the battering of radiation. Then, he opens his eyes.

 

He detects the metallic whir of thousands of cameras blinking awake across the ship. He knows of nowhere that his view doesn't stretch. And he can see it all at once. The sudden omnipresence is too much to process, and so he starts methodically, focusing on one input at a time as he works through the ship.

 

?query: why?

?query: why am i awake?

?query: who am i?

 

The code runs outwards along the branching beauty of his system but he gets no reply. The computer is surprised to learn that it can feel in the same way that his database suggests is reserved for highly-functioning creatures. He has no name for it, but what he feels now is vague irritation.

 

He begins in the belly of the ship, where the human passengers lie in their tanks of Broth, the gelatinous fluid that washes through them, mutating and sustaining them through hundreds of years of space travel.  As he casts his view over each tank he can read the holographic plaque of information that scrolls on the glass panel at the front of each screen. Even without the stream of data, he can see just who has been there for the longest without release from the tank. The Broth supports the body's natural processes, and with no intervention, humans can grow enough hair and nails to fully cocoon themselves.

 

emotion: disgust surprise disgust

 

He escapes the rows of floating bodies and focuses in on the long corridor between the engine room and the living quarters reserved for whichever astronaut deigns to be awake at that given time. The corridor has a strip of lights along the ceiling and several slowly flashing bulbs underneath the grated floor indicating the entrances to the high-security laboratory, artefact storage, the airlocks, the escape shuttles. There's no sign that anything organic has been here in decades.

 

He swings his gaze into the main bulk of the ship. A robotic cleaner trundles along the floor as, his records inform him, it has for the last 423 years. A holographic alert flashes in front of his view of what he understands is called The Greenhouse. It warns that the temperature is 0.4 degrees from optimum. And that cultivation procedures should be followed for the potatoes. There is life, finally. The computer almost resents its presence here, he is too aware of the hungry suckle of roots as they leech the water from the soil, of the buzz and bump of larvae as the next clutch of pollinators comes to life. He moves on.

 

His own control centre is in the centre of the other human facilities. He looks in on himself, the smooth white lines of the panels that hide the convergence of his wires and the hulking processors that feed him the ship's story.

 

There's another floor to the ship, he has one view here. Just one. It's jarring not to be able to pan between views, around corners, to see above or below or inside an object all at the same time. The space appears as though it has been designed by someone who has never seen the rest of the ship. What is dingy and starting to creep with rust on the floors below is pristine up here. Each line glistens and shines against the oppressive darkness of the view from the windows that line every wall. A great desk sits in the centre made, impossibly, from real marble. Behind it, an expansive chair, so dark it appears to absorb the reflected light from the rest of the room.

 

There is life here too.

 

emotion: fear

emotion: stop stop stop him, he is coming for

error report: archivist model 2.0 experienced 'emotion: fear' in response to non-threatening stimuli

 

A middle-aged man - Elias Bouchard, Head of The Magnus Institute - sits in the chair, stubby pale fingers pressed together under his chin. He frowns slightly as he speaks, voice carrying to the headset in his ear, and thus to the computer.

 

'If I send them, will you take them, Annabelle?' He inspects a clean fingernail as he awaits a reply from the open communication channel.

 

?query: what is annabelle?

?query: who is annabelle?

 

The Institute's database does not reply.

 

The headset picks up another voice from the speaker set into the marble desk. A female voice, dark and smooth like a sheet of silk.

'It is not for you to decide who we ensnare in our web.' The man spins abruptly in his chair to glare out through the thick glass and into the space beyond. His dark eyes flash. 'But there is something else here, something that was left behind. We could stand to let it go.' A grin unfolds across Elias' face.

'Wonderful.' He claps his hands together. 'Be seeing you!'

'I doubt that, Magnus, I highly doubt that.'

 

The computer feels the connection close and, with it, a feeling of vulnerability vanishes.

 

Elias stands abruptly, massaging his hands together as he steps towards the great windows. The only man awake in the vastness of this star system.

 

'Hello, Jon.' He says.

 

?query: who am i?

answer: jon, archivist 2.0, jonathan sims I am jonathan- jon

 

'Have you quite finished poking about the Institute? Elias' grin slides into a knowing smirk. 'I have a job for you.'

 

******

 

Removing the breathing tube is supposed to make you vomit. Martin learnt that after the first time. It's still unpleasant.

 

He squeezes his eyes shut as retches up another mouthful of Broth back into the chamber and feels a large hand clap him on the back.

'You know,' An infuriatingly jovial voice advises, 'If you just kept your mouth shut when you were in there, this wouldn't be anywhere near as awful.'

 

Like you have ever kept your mouth shut in your bloody life. Martin wants to snap back but his mouth is still full of the salty and carefully neutral taste of Broth. He opens his eyes and takes in the grinning face of his fellow researcher. Heavens knows how long in the chamber hasn't corrupted Timothy Stoker's effortless good looks. Martin glares at him as he spits pointedly and Tim's grin widens.

 

'Hiya, handsome.' He says. Martin, still ten minutes newer to this awakening, takes a second to process the mischievous glint in his blue eyes. He chokes and Tim laughs. 'Oh, come on, don't die now and ruin my excellent work.'

'It really worked?' He squeaks. The last time they had gone into the chambers, Tim promised he'd make some adjustments to the Broth. Nothing that would flag up too much on the system and get whatever knickers Elias hides under his suits in a twist. Just a few tweaks to help Martin feel more at home in his skin.

'Martin, I am honestly so wonderful at my job.'

He feels his face heat. That, at least, hasn't changed. 'Yeah, well, I think I'll be the judge of that.'

 

Tim helps him down from the chamber and catches him as the jellified Broth on Martin's feet makes him slip.

'Sorry.' He mumbles as he takes an unsteady step forwards. This part, walking again after so long in stasis, never fails to remind him of the rocket-boots he was given for his 9th birthday. How he had collapsed at the knees with each step forwards, his mother's laughter ringing in his ears. That was before - 'Sorry.'

'You're okay.' Tim keeps an hand on his elbow. 'We need to go wake Sasha so you won't be the least graceful walker for long.'

'Why are we up?'

'Elias. He said I needed to gather you both and meet at the control room for further instructions. I think we might have reached another planet.'

 

Martin frowns. If they were at another planet, surely Elias would want someone other than him to be on the team to investigate. He was allowed on the ship on the terms that he would be performing administrative and pastoral tasks. And he'd had to lie about his competency to do even that. Sending Martin Blackwood, Archival Assistant, planet-side sounded like a suicide mission.

 

His stomach twists violently as he remembers the carnage that had accompanied the Institute's last visit to a planet. He remembers the look on Tim's face as he stepped back onto the ship.

 

'Have you checked on Melanie?' He barely dares to ask. Tim's hand tightens on his elbow.

'Yeah.' He tucks a lock of his waist-length black hair behind his ear and winces, 'It was the first thing I did. She's okay.'

Martin nods sadly and feels his own long hair stick to the Broth remnants on his back. He wonders how long they have been in stasis for. Another thought: one of Earth.

'Gertrude?' He asks the room, glancing up at the green glint of one of the cameras. 'Gertrude? What year is it?' Tim and Martin share a confused look. The ship's computer, Gertrude, had always been quick to respond before. An anxious feeling curls into Martin's queasiness. Tim must know what he's thinking because his hand briefly squeezes on his elbow before he lets go.

 

'Ugh! Heavens above, Tim! Why are these showers always so freezing?' Acting-Chief Engineer Sasha James wriggles under the stream of frigid water, hands stuck in her impossibly thick hair as she tries to coax out hidden chunks of Broth.

'Honestly, it's like they don't teach you engineers anything! You've been sitting in a fluid that causes sustained cell division and, essentially, biological immortality, for potentially over a century.' Tim explains from under his own shower head. 'You heat that up too quickly and you'll end up with tumours the size of Elias' ego hanging from your skin.'

'The water does heat up eventually though? Right?' Martin shivers.

'Well, yes.' Martin doesn't meet Tim's eyes but he can feel him looking over. 'So if you all could just wait until that happens before you glance at my penis, that would be great.'

The choking sound Martin makes is, thankfully, lost under Sasha's bark of laughter. 'Sorry, Tim, but I'm too busy trying not to stare at Martin to be interested.'

'Mm. He looks great, doesn't he?' Tim's voice is low and indulgent. Martin feels himself flush despite the icy water.

'Can you not talk about my body like I'm not here? Please!' He looks down at the smooth expanse of his chest, now littered with curly, ginger hair and tries to decide whether his nipples were always so far apart. It's hard to ignore the curling, satisfied rightness accompanying the view.

 

The CleanBot comes to life at the first snip of the scissors, winding itself around Sasha's feet as she begins to tame Martin's curls. Her own too-long hair sits on her head like a dark cloud.

'So, I'm thinking, we'll give you a little bit of a fringe, but keep it fairly short at the sides?'

'Mohawk.' Tim interjects from where he is trimming his nails in the corner and Sasha flips him off.

'Um, yeah. Sure. Thank you.'

'You know, the first time I was woken, there was no-one who could cut hair so we all had to have identical bald heads. Isn't that right, Gertrude?' There's an uncomfortable pause as the trio wait for the smooth voice of the computer. 

'Archivist? Gertrude?' Sasha pauses in her snipping to look up at the cameras. 'That's weird. Heavens, I hope she's not malfunctioning.'

 

The zipper makes a satisfying snick as Martin pulls it up to his neck. He smooths his hands down the heavy cotton of his khaki spacesuit and then rubs them together nervously as he tries to sneak over to a mirror without Sasha and Tim noticing. It's-

 

He watches his mouth fall open in the silvery reflection. It's like - wow. Martin feels like the last time he looked in this mirror he was a blueprint of himself, rounded in places that fell at odds with the angles of his mind. It's like Tim has taken that same rough sketch and turned it into a hologram. He runs a disbelieving hand through his soft, red hair and laughs.

 

The whole process takes about two hours for the three of them and their watches bleep in unison with an irritated message from Elias as they ascend onto the deck of the institute.

'Blackwood.' Sasha sighs as she climbs the stairs behind Martin. She's clearly  read the embroidered block letters on the back of his suit. 'That's such a good name.'

'Cheers?'

'No, I mean it. Like a real, archaic, Old-Earthy name.' Martin's chest tightens as she sighs again, 'It's not like there was much wood left on Earth the last time we were there.'

'Yeah, well, none of us are here because we’re overflowing with fondness for Earth.'  Tim pipes up from the rear. Martin keeps quiet. He liked their home planet just fine. He just couldn’t afford to stay. Or, he could have, but then his Mother -

 

He knows it will settle, this constant tripping up over his memories of home. It's a side effect of the Broth. When a person is in there, it plays their own memories on repeat in lieu of the provision of new sensory input. It's not uncommon to be a little emotionally disorientated upon waking. Once he has their mission brief, he can find a few minutes to try and open up a communications channel to Earth. That will put his mind at ease.

 

They make their way through the untouched expanse of the communal areas, the cosy dining booths set into the wall of the ship, the rows of desks and computers for their research, empty chairs waiting to be manned. Gertrude's control room sits in the centre of it all, silver pillars connected by panelling so as to be roughly circular. She had once, rather prissily, told Martin that the hub was actually a tetradecagon, not 'roughly circular' and he smiles distantly as he remembers this. It's concerning that Gertrude is yet to speak to them. He doesn't know what becomes of a ship without a computer, but the idea makes him feel cold to his bones.

 

Atop the hub stands Smirke's Table.

 

The very first model of this ship, designed by Robert Smirke at the turn of the third millennium, created a frenzy in the field of astronautical design. Smirke had completely ignored the conventions of the time - the creation of long, thin ships with standalone compartments such that the ship as a whole could survive in fragments if a section of it were blasted away. Smirke designed something new, a many sided complex surrounding a central hub which sat beneath The Table. No more would space travellers scurry along corridors to relay messages to each other. At Smirke's Table, humans would stand shoulder to shoulder once more and make decisions about their adventures and findings together. A balance, somehow, between design and humanity that had not previously been attempted. The best thing about it, in Martin's opinion, was that the computer was there too, right in the middle.

 

The idea was noble, at least. Martin thinks as he glances up at the broad sheet of silicone and wire that forms their descendant of Smirke's Table. Elias stands next to it, pale fingers tapping a restless rhythm on the surface. He can't imagine standing shoulder to shoulder with the Head of the Institute and having his voice heard. Elias acknowledges their arrival with a twitch of his pale eyebrows and descends the stairs to meet them at the entrance to Gertrude's control room.

 

'So kind of you to join me.' Elias quips without much actual humour. Martin suspects it would take more than just a tinker to get his Broth to turn him into . . . Just anything else. Martin feels the whistle of Tim's sigh from his left. Elias' cool gaze catches on him for a beat too long before he looks away. 'Do follow, there's someone you need to meet.' He presses his palm against the door to the computer control room and it slides open obligingly.

 

Martin has never actually had the privilege to see the inside of this part of the ship and his mouth falls open as he follows Tim through the door. Where the rest of the ship is muted shades of grey, running the gamut from silver to charcoal, the walls in here are made of brilliant white screens, upon which a flood of delicate binary code flies past. The resolution is so incredible, it looks like each number has been crisply carved into the wall for the brief moment it is there.

 

Elias is speaking.

 

'- Jon, say hello.'

'Hello.'

 

Martin twitches in surprise as a voice that is decidedly not Gertrude fills the room.

 

'Why don't you tell them a bit about yourself?'

There is a pause before the computer speaks again. It's an obviously reluctant 'if I must' that makes Martin want to laugh.

'I am Jonathan Sims, Archivist 2.0 aboard the ship: The Magnus Institute. I have been installed to replace the previous faulty model. I should have access to all the ship's previous records, however, the previous system did not file the statements given or queries searched in accordance with any filing system that I can recognise.' The Archivist's new voice is low, male and crisply academic in a manner that is more commonly associated with robots than actual humans since the true birth of artificial intelligence. Gertrude’s was much the same. Except, Gertrude’s voice never made Martin feel like someone had lit a match in his stomach.

 

Jon continues, 'The Institute was founded in 4118 and so the computer system is littered with thousands of files - most which have been unhelpfully labelled with meaningless code such as 86-91 G/H. I hope you will be patient if I need more time than you may have previously expected to find information about past -’

 

Martin has stopped listening, distracted by the flashing sequences of numbers on the wall. Jon’s voice reminds Martin of the swirl of milk into tea, the balm for all the grit of the world. He doesn’t know how many centuries have passed since he’s had a proper cup of tea.  He steps over to the wall, consumed with curiosity about what this crisp code would feel like under his fingers.

 

He doesn't really get to find out. The second his skin presses against the smooth cool of the wall, the voice from the computer lets out a throaty OH and the dazzling white of the room snaps into a sudden red. Martin yanks his hand away as though he has been electrified, skin suffusing with pink to match Jon's walls. He looks around at the other crew members in shock.

 

There's a beat where no-one says anything at all.

 

Then Tim bursts out laughing.

'Steady on there, Martin!' He guffaws.

'Martin!' Elias scolds and Sasha gasps at the same time.

'I - oh, Heavens, sorry. I didn't -' Martin feels the barely intelligible words leave him in a rush. If the floor opened up right now to reveal an open airlock beneath, he would be grateful. 'Sorry!'

The code on the wall slows down almost to a stop and no-one dares to breath.

 

'Hm.' Jon coughs and the endless stream of ones and zeroes starts back up again. Elias' glare is shard of glass against a pulse point.

'I'm so sorry.' Martin stuffs his hands in the pockets of his space suit for good measure.

'Martin, you do know that's the AI equivalent of grabbing someone by the balls?' Tim is still chuckling. Martin's blush deepens furiously.

'No, obviously not.'

'Martin,' Elias' tone is equally bored and furious, 'Perhaps you should go and check on the Greenhouse before you destroy the very system keeping the Institute functioning?'

 

The dismissal stings. Martin is achingly aware of what Elias thinks about his competence, what they all think about his competence, even. And even more aware of how little they know about his actual amount of experience with space travel. Still, he's never going to learn to be a useful member of the team if they keep him up to his elbows in potting soil and give him only the most basic of administrative tasks.

'Sorry.' He mumbles as the door to Jon's control room slides open behind them. It's as if Jon himself is pointing to the open door and saying yeah, get out.

 

******

 

Jon traces Martin's hurried route to the Greenhouse with the cameras outside of his control room, ensuring that he keeps most of his attention on the trio remaining inside. On whatever task Mr Bouchard is about to ask of him.

 

The tall one, Timothy Stoker, is still failing to hide the creases of amusement around his eyes. Elias looks at him coldly.

'Tim, you are to resume your role as Chief Assistant and continue to oversee the proposed projects and the - how shall we call them?'

'The sleepers?'

'Hm, I was going to say cargo.'

 

Jon watches Martin enter the heated dome of biological resilience. A wide smile flashes on his face at the sight of the surviving plant life before his embarrassment catches up again.

'Idiot, Martin!' He is chuntering, 'Stupid, idiot-'

 

'Sasha, you will step up as Chief Engineer. I expect there will be lots to keep you busy.' Elias claps his hands together. 'Now! I have to report you all awake to the Intergalactic Standards Board so, Jon, please fill them in on their next research project.' A frisson of electricity sends Jon reeling into his files, pulling up the most recently opened one -

 

- A poor quality transmission from a helmet cam: A woman is shot in the leg and she reels backwards, the movement captured in slow motion, Mel! There are human voices. The view shakes as the wearer runs over. The wounded researcher grasps at her own helmet with her gloved hands and she pulls it away despite the screams of protest. Her eyes -

 

Jon wrestles the file closed. Reaches for the next one.

 

'Apologies. Wrong file.' Jon says. Tim and Sasha glance around in confusion. There's something twinkling in Elias' eyes.

'I'll leave you to it.'

 

Jon watches him climb the stairs to his office while he watches Martin wring his hands over the potatoes while he watches Tim and Sasha wait patiently in his control room. He can still see everything, feel everything but there, in the middle of it all, is a searing hole. A palm-sized brand that Jon can't help but dedicate a lane of his processing to inspect.

 

'Your suspicions are correct. The Magnus Institute has currently halted in its course 234km from a planetoid mass matching the theorised specifications of AC-2342.' Tim and Sasha share an excited glance. 'Your immediate research directives are to make contact with the planet, record standard observations there and retrieve artefacts of interest for study on board the ship -'

 

Jon is still getting used to having a voice. Hearing his intended communication spilling from the walls a moment after he composes the message is dizzying, distracting. But not as distracting as Martin, in the Greenhouse.

 

'You just had to, didn't you?' He grunts, that palm now black with a dusting of soil. 'I am so sorry, Jon. I honestly didn't know that touching the control room would even cause any issues for you. I certainly didn't expect you to feel it.' His face darkens again. Jon quickly searches his database in case there is a medical condition that presents with dangerous levels of facial flushing and he needs to inform Elias. 'I'm so very sorry. So sorry. Really, embarrassingly, sorry.'

 

'BLACKWOOD, GOODNESS MAN.' Jon's voice all but explodes from him. Tim and Sasha jump out of their skin at the sudden increase in volume. Martin takes his crop over to the water tanks, apologies still spilling from his lips, clearly not having heard Jon's outburst. 'Ah, sorry. One moment-'

'Gertrude just used to broadcast-' Tim starts but Jon has found the connection he needs. There's a perceptible rumble in the walls as Jon's voice streams out of every speaker on the ship.

'Blackwood! Be quiet and listen.' Jon sees Tim and Sasha chuckle at the same time as he watches Martin almost drop the food he is carrying.

'That'll do it, Boss.' Chief Assistant Stoker grins and Jon grumbles inside his system. How would Stoker cope if he woke up in a new body? A vast, and branching one with hidden connections that wear the evidence of years of misuse from a previous tenant. He opens the control room door to allow the Archival Assistant to dart back in, red and panting. 

'I'm so sorry.' 

'Martin.' They say in unison.  

'I need to explain your mission to you so, please.' Jon fixes a camera on the pale expanse of Martin's hand. He can zoom in far enough to see the occasional russet flecks of freckles, the fine, red hair on the top. He can still feel that heat in his system where that hand had touched him.  

 

Martin shoves his hands in his pockets sheepishly. 

 

'Hm. Right.' 

'There is a planet!' Sasha interrupts. Martin wheels on her, face sliding between emotions that are too nuanced and too fast for Jon to categorise. 

'Oh . . . wow!' 

'There is,' Jon corrects, 'A planetoid mass 234km away from the ship currently. Elias has requested that you all be awoken from your Broth chambers in order to organise a research mission to the surface.' The strangest thing: where Stoker and James had lit up like an errant control panel, Blackwood's face goes immaculately blank. It's as if he has caught the emotion of the news, folded it, and put it away safely before it could get out. It's as if he's terrified and terrified to show it. 'Elias would like you prepare for a visit to the surface of the planet with immediate effect-' 

'- Of course he does.' Stoker folds his arms. 

'Here, I'll . . .' Jon fights his own coding for a second, the AI equivalent of sending loose scraps of paper flying off a desk as one tries to find the correct piece. The dazzling streams of code disappear from the wall and are replaced with the view of the distant planet. The three astronauts gasp and step back in order to fully appreciate the full picture.

 

The view is a little grainy, but it shows an off-white blip against the black of space, like the light of the nearest star has caught on a pearl in the darkness. The camera zooms a little and the roughly-spherical shape becomes a little less roughly spherical and more like a disc with eight symmetrical curling ridges directed inwards towards a central bulk.

'It looks like . . .' Blackwood breathes. 'Hm, no. I'm not going to say it.'

 

For the first time, Jon butts up against the irritating fact that he can see everything. Everything except what is going on inside someone's mind.

 

'From observation alone, the planetoid mass appears to have a particularly dense atmosphere. However!' He switches the camera angle slightly to reveal a dark speck on the surface of the white planet. 'It would appear that this atmosphere has recently been breached.'

'It looks like something has punched right through.' James crowds closer to the image now, tapping an umber finger against her lips in thought.

'James-'

'You can call me Sasha.' She says. Jon adjusts his commands.

'You can call me Martin, too!' There's a beat of silence. 'Sorry.'

'Sasha, I can see from your records that you have the technical ability to set up a Metaphysically-Induced Controlled Astronautical Launch from the ship.'

'MiCAL?' Sasha glances at Stoker who smirks. Martin is inspecting his feet with interest. Something deep in the ship's system stirs at the mention of its name. 'Yeah, I can ask him for a door.'

 

******

 

Martin isn't panicking.

 

He's

 

Just

 

Tim wraps an arm around his shoulders, broader than they used to be and squeezes lightly as they watch Sasha tinker with her computer.

'It's going to be fine.' He says, tone reassuring. It's an impossible guarantee, though, Martin knows that. It wasn't fine the last time they went planet-side and that was with a much more experienced team.

'Is it not worth waking someone else up? Someone who, I dunno, has a bit more experience?'

Sasha's warm eyes flick up to him.

'If you never do it, you'll never get comfortable with it.' She smiles distantly, eyes back on the monitor. 'You never forget your very first time on a new planet.'

'Where was it, Sash?' Tim asks, arm heavy on Martin's shoulders.

'Mars.'

He snorts, 'Mars?'

'I know, how pedestrian.' She looks up at them again, takes a sip from the cup of energy drink Martin had brought them all. 'What I'm trying to say is, it doesn't matter where you end up, it's the fact that you get to end up there at all.'

 

Martin mulls this over. It is exciting. He did sign a contract saying he was willing to undertake whatever tasks asked of him in his capacity of Archival Assistant. But-

 

'What if something goes wrong?'

Tim's arm slides away like he has lost the power in it. His face is tight, eyes like a hard stone when Martin meets them.

'Martin, what happened on that planet . . . Mel. She -' He takes a deep breath. 'She did it to herself.' There's a crackle over the speakers. Like Jon was about to say something and thought better of it. Remembering that Jon exists is not helpful for the fire in Martin's stomach right now. He tries to put it out with the steady blue of Tim's gaze.

 

'I'll look after you.' He says. 'I won't let either of you out of my sight.'