[Author's note 1: this is a work in progress.]
[Author's note 2:
I'm experimenting with "chapter" headings/descriptions.
They're the strange large text, like the one right after this notice.
The individual chunks of writing are clearly too short to be called chapters, but I also don't have a better term for them.
And the separation into "chapters" is helping me with plotting, so I'm going to keep this experiment going for a while.]
Darkness and discovery
Tar imagines an ancient human at night in an unspecified desert setting.
The human stands by a roaring fire and looks out into the dark void all around him.
Something glitters in the dark bushes and the human advances, a burning stick his herald.
Tar fires up the long-range radar and imagines the human holding out the bright torch, bringing a faint bit of light to a dark and empty desert.
"Faint radio signature, possibly from a damaged freight drone," the remote sensors deliver a digested bit of news.
Tar looks deeper and compares the raw data, comes to a similar conclusion.
Tar tells the engines to rotate minutely, digs deep into the firmament, and the space ship Targeted Kindness jaunts toward the target.
Travel, Officer West, and his dreams
The destination is a few hours away.
Tar sends a message to Officer West, explains that they are underway toward a potential ship.
The text is transmitted to West's cryopod, where he sleeps in partial hibernation.
Officer West is suffused with nanites that maintain and alter his body, while his conscious mind is crawling along about a thousand times slower than normal.
For Officer West, it feels like 17 hours have passed, but on the outside it has been two years.
West dreams of standing on the bridge of a fictional sci-fi show and watches the mostly-empty galaxy flit by.
The imagery comes from Tar's cameras.
The show's fake displays actually show pertinent radar information instead of pretty drivel, and West is able to keep an eye on the trip from this dream.
Messages come through on the big screen and West narrates replies.
The outside world whisks by a thousand times faster than normal, but with how empty the galaxy is, West finds that this scale works well for space travel.
In this strange way, West's dreams are linked directly to Tar.
West sees the latest message come in and a destination pops up on the navigation screen, far away from the travel lanes.
This surprises and thrills West.
This could be a reason to wake up, to get out of this damned slumber, he thinks.
He watches the ship's approach and counts down with the display: 10, 9, 8...
The target, morning, investigation
From a safe distance of around a thousand klicks, Tar matches velocity with the target and trains a host of sensors on the derelict vessel, illuminating it in a multitude of wavelengths.
The target vessel is indeed damaged: an explosion tore open its aft compartments, the metal of the hull is disfigured or even melted.
The derelict is rotating roughly around its longitudinal axis, so Tar orients itself relative to the axis and eventually sees the entire derelict vessel.
Tar's sensors detect an energy signature from deep within the derelict, in the heavily-shielded "storm cellar".
In Tar's imagination, the human explorer finds a locked door in the middle of the Kalahari desert.
This is going to be interesting, Tar thinks.
Tar instructs a few hundred drones to assemble themselves into a missile, and they lift-off from the main launch pad.
They are not in a rush, so the journey takes a few minutes.
Tar continues scanning the ship and comes up with theories.
"What exactly happened here?"
The deep baritone voice echoes through the empty compartments of the ship, the first spoken words in over two years.
Officer West, it seems, has returned to the land of the living.
Tar is surprised by the lack of notifications and is once again disappointed that Officer West is so private to keep even hibernation data from Tar.
Tar has been accustomed to knowing this information about his operators in the past, and they never objected, but Officer West is a strange one and has actively blocked all medical requests.
"Good morning, Officer West.
The ship is an early Hiram model, not really designed to be out so far.
Officially designation is JS-JB81U99, but unofficial designation," Tar tosses up a holo with a surprisingly-clear photo of the derelict vessel, "is Strawberry Fields."
Tar pauses to admire the dozen strawberries spray-painted on the ship's side.
"We're looking at an explosion of both engines, the fuel tanks, and fuel sources in the cargo bay.
The explosions tore the hull open in multiple spots.
The atmosphere drained instantly."
"And the cellar?
There's energy readings?"
"Faint energy signatures.
A drone team is on its way there now, you can follow their progress.
Shall I set up the control module?"
Drone team, exploration, control module, report
The drones fly in their pre-launch arrangement until the target ship is practically looming ahead of them, then they spring apart and use the kinetic energy to power several schemes.
Some of the drones are connected with thin nanotube lines and these begin to pull on each other to create complex structures around the damaged aft portion of the ship.
Every drone has a wide range of sensors, its own power plant that is good for two weeks, a thousand yards of tentacle arms, and a self-destruct module.
Some drones show up with gigantic drills, some with similarly-sized saws, others carry inscrutable orange bundles.
The explorer drones dive into the ship, use mechanical tentacles to maneuver inside, and quickly come to the "storm cellar".
Weak energy readings suggest a single human occupant.
"Get an airlock setup and open up that cellar."
West's cryopod opens and he floats out of it, out of the Targeted Kindness' own storm cellar, and into the control module.
"Put up the closest cameras on the main screen, rotate through the important viewpoints."
In zero-G, the control module operates like a large spherical display, showing the viewer a barrage of displays, charts, dials, and remote feeds.
Now it is showing the twisted and broken insides of another ship.
The surrounding nature of the control module makes this part instinctively terrifying, as Officer West's mind is told in rapid succession that parts of the ship are broken or entirely missing, just empty darkness where a wall should be.
The drone team reports in over the course of a few minutes.
The rest of the ship is empty.
There is no dead floating crew.
There isn't even a plant in any of the rooms, nor any food in the cupboards.
The ship was cleaned out after the explosion ruptured it.
The drones hook up into the derelict vessel.
The derelict's CI mind is not reachable, but the ship storage is accessible, so the drones hunt and search out whatever records they can and send those on to Tar and Officer West.
Past: Fields, incident, Captain, Lilly, Engineer
Fields is a Constructed intelligence whose mind exists in a Valence Cloud at the core of the derelict ship Strawberry Fields.
Fields served as the ship's Navigator on its last voyage, when the fuel tanks exploded, killed half the crew, and stranded the rest for an eternity of floating through space.
Fields investigated the explosion and its fallout, while the ship's Engineer worked to repair the ship's engines, but they both failed.
The Captain was hurt during the accident, she was bleeding out from a wound that an autodoc could fix in a heartbeat.
But the autodoc was destroyed in the explosion.
All they had were two damaged cryopods.
The Captain's seven year old daughter, Lilly, also survived.
Two pods for the Captain, her daughter Lilly, and Engineer Gabriels.
The Captain, in her last duty, instructed Fields to take care of Lilly.
Then the captain died and her body went into the matter-processor, the same one that fed the cryopods.
The one into which they dumped all of the food, plants, and even every shred of paper that they could find aboard the crippled ship.
After all, the cryopods need to support life for at least a few centuries before the ship reaches safe space once again.
The Engineer saw to the repairs and hacked the cryopods to extract every possible year out of them.
He programmed complex rules to cover every conceivable scenario.
He programmed the cryopods to keep himself alive.
The Captain's seven year old daughter, Lilly, would have a few days sleep before her cryopod shuts itself down.
The Engineer went to sleep knowing that Lilly would be dead in a few days, and he would receive her share of resources.
He would live a few centuries more.
Plenty of time to get picked up.
Fields, the ship's Constructed Intelligence, had other plans.
Past: Lilly and Fields
The protective shield moves out of the way and Lilly blinks into the soft yellow glow.
It looks like sunrise, and Lilly likes seeing those.
Lilly moves the restraints out of the way and floats out of the cryopod.
There is no gravity, because the engines are off, Lilly remembers.
"Are we there yet?" Lilly asks.
"Not yet, dear," Fields answers in a soothing tone.
"But I need your help."
Should I wake the Engineer?"
"No, no, that's what I need help with.
The Engineer's cryopod is broken, he cannot wake up, so you need to fix it.
"Of course, Fields!"
Lilly shrieks excitedly, then pulls and pushes herself over to the other side of the room, to the Engineer's cryopod.
Fields walks Lilly through a complex change, but Lilly is a good listener and follows all the instructions correctly.
After she's done fixing the Engineer's cryopod, they take a look at Lilly's pod.
They need to make a few changes there as well, but it's pretty minimal.
Lilly finishes up and goes back to sleep.
"Night, Fields," she says as the protective shield moves into place and a strange drowsiness pulls at her.
Scrolling through memories, cellar survivor, return
The control module shows the recordings of Lilly interacting with the cryopods.
Officer West frowns and once again regrets waking up.
"The drones have made it into the ship's storm cellar."
The images of Lilly at the cryopod fade out and a different view of the same cellar shows up.
The drones are in a newly-constructed sealed hallway.
The light-weight floor tiles that the drones brought with them illuminate the entire space.
The "storm cellar" door swings open and the drones shine a light inside.
A cryopod sits on the left.
Its handful of lights blink red.
Across the room is another cryopod.
Its control pad glows a bright green.
"That is Lilly Eames," Tar clarifies.
"Detach the cryopod and get it aboard this ship immediately," Officer West instructs Tar.
"Of course, Officer." The drones on the screen move in a complex ballet and, in less than twenty seconds, the entire hallway of drones rockets off the derelict and flies back home to Targeted Kindness.
Fields, the Constructed Intelligence at the core of Strawberry Fields, wakes up from non-existence painfully.
The last thing she remembers is the Long Sleep that lay ahead of them.
She had completed her remaining duties, to the extent that she could no longer do any more of them.
The Engineer's cryopod failed four days into the trip, as planned, and Fields turned herself off.
There was nothing more she could do, not until someone located their ship.
Until then, her consciousness was too expensive to maintain, for every watt of energy that was spent to give Fields thought, a watt would be subtracted from Lilly's life support.
That is not a price that Fields is willing to pay.
Fields wakes when strange drones touch down on the surface of the ship.
A large fraction of the ship's remaining energy is diverted into the Valence Cloud at the core of the ship.
The standing waves of trillions of electrons have had centuries to undergo decoherence, the minuscule but persistent loss of energy to entropy, but still the ship's mind persisted.
The cloud is energized for the first time in eons and Fields pictures a comically-oversized syringe of adrenaline plunging into a still heart.
"I said god damn!"
Fields is shaken but collects herself quickly.
Her sensors are once again paying attention, just as a strange grouping of drones take off from the derelict vessel and blast toward... another ship!
"We are found!" Fields thinks and wants to celebrate, but then remembers the cryopods.
The Engineer is in his place, dead as can be.
But Lilly Eames is missing.
"They took her!"
The drones carry Lilly's cryopod into the med bay and hook it up into the ship.
Tar looks in and begins to assess the situation.
Lilly is still alive, the cryopod did its job surprisingly well, but she is hurt.
She needs a new liver, lung, kidney, and right arm.
Space travel has not been kind to her body, even behind the solar storm shielding.
Tar moves the cryopod into the autodoc, where precise and quick arms take apart the ancient pod to reveal their patient.
An industrial printer gets to work making new organs and the autodoc begins the arduous process of removing and replacing necrotized tissue.
Nanites monitor Lilly's brain and keep her sedated through the whole process, and probably for the next few days as well.
A necklace has been lying around Lilly's neck for six centuries, and over this time it has sunken in and been absorbed by Lilly's skin.
The chain appears as a series of bumps in the skin and the outside parts of the amulet are similarly swallowed up by Lilly's flesh, making it look as if a cat is pushing its face out through Lilly's skin.
Only the deep-blue emerald in the center stands on its own, untouched by human flesh.
The emerald glimmers faintly in the soft light of the spotless surgical suite.
Strawberry Fields crew, journey
"Jasenka Eames, Captain of the Strawberry Fields," Officer West says and nods toward the images on the screen.
"Lilly Eames, her daughter."
Another image swims into view: the young girl and her mother are hugging in an indoor park, and a red glistening spire in the background clearly dates the photograph.
"They must have been one of the last ships to depart from Mars," West shakes his head in disbelief.
"Correct, their liftoff was just hours before the Collapse.
The manifest lists Captain Eames, her daughter Lilly, Engineer Gabriels, Medical Officer Kidepo, and Engineer Santigo.
Minimal crew, for the time."
Tar tosses up an animation of the journey that Strawberry Fields undertook, starting with the diaspora-like liftoff of close to a million ships from the red planet.
Strawberry Fields is already fairly old when its last ship begins, so it brings up the rear of the evacuation.
The first waves of sleek expensive ships move in a general cloud towards Epsilon Indi, the newest and the least-inhabited human foothold in the Sol Region.
The second waves carry the Martian middle-class in mega-carriers throughout the Solar System, in the directions of Earth, Jupiter, and Mercury.
The third waves are made up of old and patchwork ships, ships that more closely resemble flying slums and which tend to routinely lose their atmospheres or even engines.
These are going to Alpha Centauri, Epsilon, staying in Sol, basically going anywhere and everywhere.
Strawberry Fields sets its sights on Alpha Centauri, the crew goes to sleep, and the ship leaves Sol.
Travel lane, detour, disaster, repairs
The animation shows Strawberry Fields as a tiny gnat in the early days of the Sol/Centauri travel lane.
Tar imagines the wagon trains of settlers moving "out west" in the old days of Earth, for they too were on the run, following promises of a better life at the end of their journey.
The animation slows as the view zooms in on Strawberry Fields.
The ship moves out of the travel lane and proceeds on a new course.
"What happened here?" West asks.
The trip animation freezes.
"'Course adjustment' is the log entry for this period," Tar explains.
"It was added by Engineer Gabriels, not the Captain.
Instead of Alpha Centauri, they set out toward Luhman."
Officer West narrows his eyes a bit and scowls.
"Good question, sir.
I don't know."
"Is there video for this event?" West asks.
The ship's storage medium has degraded, so we only have a partial record of the events.
Most of large files are corrupt, but some of the smaller records are still readable.
This travel animation, for example, is a composite of multiple simulations, public data, and the undamaged logs from the ship storage."
Tar starts up the animation again.
Strawberry Fields continues on its path for a bit, then an explosion illuminates the control module.
"At this point," Tar explains, "the Captain is wounded, Engineer Santigo is dead, the Medical Officer is missing and presumed dead."
"What if they were hurt before the explosion?" West asks.
"With no bodies, that's a mystery we probably won't solve," Tar replies.
The crew of Strawberry Fields composted all of the possible material on board, including the corpses, in an attempt to survive the long voyage back to civilization.
There are no bodies left.
"At this point, the Engineer performs some hacky repairs, and the ship heads back towards the travel lanes," Tar says as the animation shows a dim glow from the ship's remaining engine.
"Pause," West interrupts.
The animation freezes.
"When does Lilly undo the sabotage?"
I should remind you, Officer West, that being the highest ranking human official in this region, it may fall upon you to make decisions in an official capacity regarding the matters at hand.
You may want to hold off on making such specific accusations as 'sabotage'."
You suppose we'll have a discussion of what happened aboard Strawberry Fields?"
Tar considers the question from multiple points of view.
(The good thing about dealing with humans, as Tar holds it, is that you have lots of time to think about your own things!)
We saw very specific actions in video recordings, do they not tell a particular story? Tar thinks.
Or, is Officer West trying to insinuate that he will make a unilateral decision, and the outcome is not up to me?
Tar wonders and prepares a safe response.
"There may be victims or perpetrators on that derelict vessel, and you Officer West may need to render judgement against someone."
"So, if Lilly's actions killed the Engineer, what do you suppose we should do?"
West looks into an inward-facing camera, like looking a person straight in the eyes.
Tar finds this alienating, honestly.
"Lilly was influenced by Fields, the ship CI.
If you're looking for the Engineer's murderer, that would be Fields."
"Fields may have been following orders.
Who knows what orders the Captain gave.
One side of the control module shows the paused video of Lilly typing at the cryopods, while the craft seems to be frozen at a particular spot between Sol and Alpha Centauri.
"But, sir, Captain Eames was no longer in command, she was dead.
Engineer Gabriels was the acting Captain, and orders given by Former-Captain Eames should have been invalidated."
Let's keep going," Officer West waves for the animation to continue.
Once Lilly is back in her cryopod, the video freezes but the trip continues: the ship slowly travels back to civilization with paltry auxiliary power, passes through the travel lanes without being noticed, and continues sailing into the void.
Centuries pass and humanity expands farther into the Milky Way Galaxy.
The animation rushes through the rapid expansion and the establishment of trade routes.
Strawberry Fields sails on, past humanity and onwards into the future.
The ship has been flying for six centuries.
"How is our local Lazarus doing?"
"The med bay had a lot of work to do, Lilly's cryopod was only partially successful in its task.
It will be a while before Lilly wakes, but so far the prognosis is positive."
Fields is trapped in a dead body.
The ship's feeble engines cannot really do anything, so all the remaining power (just a century or so that's left, now that the cryopods are not using any energy) will be used to power a mind with a singular purpose: to experience this hell.
Still, it's not the worst situation she has been in.
The time Fields spent piloting drones for the Royal Martian Marines was full of dread and excitement, in equal measures.
Fields notes that the other ship, Targeted Kindness, is accessing the derelict vessel's storage.
She watches a human and a very formidable Intelligence root around the damaged stores and find the various recordings.
Including, of course, the evidence of Fields telling Lilly to hack and sabotage Engineer Gabriel's cryopod.
But Fields is also guilty of saving Lilly Eames' life, so how does all of this work out?
Fields waits and watches the other ship, but does nothing yet.
West and Tar debate, break
"Fields went against orders."
"Fields saved a child."
"Fields killed a crew member."
"The crew member tried to kill an innocent child."
That gives Officer West some reason to pause.
He looks around the control pod at the collages of documents and surveillance footage, all information that the two minds have been investigating for the past six hours.
"I need... a few minutes," West concludes and floats toward the med bay where Lilly Eames is being repaired.
The lights aboard Targeted Kindness flicker for a second, then die entirely.
Officer West finds himself in utter darkness as even the emergency lights fail to come on.
Past: Wallace visits a pyramid
Wallace is a Chef on the ship Holkenborg.
He has been on seventeen missions so far, and in a few days will go on number eighteen.
But today he is visiting the Acadia Multinational Park, which floats over the rainbow-colored clouds of a gas giant.
Their jumper flies out from the space port and takes a scenic route over a series of floating islands, until it finally arrives at the largest such island that Wallace has ever seen.
And he is a man who has visited many gas giants and has seen all sorts of habitats that they house.
The forest extends to the horizon and disappears from sight, covered as it is by a thick layer of fog.
The jumper flies for a while over the forest, far enough that after a certain point, Wallace cannot see the gas giant anymore and it appears like they are flying over a fog-shrouded forest planet.
At last their destination is close and they descend next to a stone pyramid.
The atmosphere is Galactic Standard, of course, so when the shuttle doors open, Wallace gets a hefty whiff of rainforest and jungle, and it reminds him of a trip to an ancient Mayan temple a decade back.
The tour group files out and they proceed toward the pyramid, the path being surprisingly vendor-packed.
Wallace smiles at the familiar happenstance at these tourist traps, buys a not-too-cheesy souvenir to take back home, then continues on to the pyramid.
The tour guide mentioned a special event today, so Wallace hurries to get a good front row view.
Past: Final celebration, ceremony
A micro-projector throws up a hologram of the deceased, a Hecturian in formal regalia atop a war animal, mid-jump over a blurry bit of military action.
The funeral ceremony happens at the very top of the pyramid, a wide open expanse that comfortably hosts the two dozen attendees, most of whom are tourists from the same shuttle.
A bar is at one end, two priests are giving out literature at the other.
The projector hovers in the center, chest-height, next to a floating rock with four small objects lined up on it.
Eventually the priestess starts the proceedings and calls attendees over.
Wallace's universal translator drones on about the dead Hecturian, who apparently was a statesman, a gang leader, and a prophet, in that order.
Wallace tunes out the priestess and watches the crowd, tries to come up with stories about each attendee.
Then he gets called on for a ceremony and suddenly Wallace is standing by the floating rock.
"Don't worry, you just have to hold an artifact and nod, that's all," a teeny voice speaks through the translator.
Wallace notices that the speaker, a short humanoid woman, is the priestess.
He nods and goes along with the ceremony.
The hologram of the Hecturian moves and dances in the air for a few minutes and showcases the dead person in a series of heroic scenes.
Wallace takes some time during all of this to examine the objects on the floating rock.
There are four of them, and they are some of the souvenirs that he saw at the entrance to this place: a figure of a frog with a stick in its mouth, a harmonica with a carving of a water-monster, a jaguar pendant with a dark-red jewel, and a stone flower.
The priests speak of eternal bonds to the physical plane and bring up the dead Hecturian's last wish: to experience the world again through an object.
The Hecturian uploaded his mind into the local Hive Collective, right before his biological death, and now his mind is ready to download into one of these objects.
"This is a recent fad," the priestess mutters to Wallace, almost too quiet for the translator to pick up.
"In my days we did the decent thing and died, didn't ride around inside a damn paperweight long after we passed.
But kids these days, you know?"
Four audience participants walk over and one by one pick up an item from the floating rock.
Wallace, on his turn, chooses the stone flower.
The participants stand apart and hold their objects in the air.
The hologram looks down at the participants and Wallace finally realizes that this whole thing isn't recorded.
No, the dead Hecturian's mind is driving the hologram, making the character walk and ride and slaughter, as a recreation of their own life.
The hologram looks at the objects on offer, at the participants holding them, and back and forth for a bit.
Finally, the hologram starts to fade and, as one, the participants look down at the objects in their hands.
Wallace feels a strange warmth come over the stone flower as the hologram fades and disappears.
Wallace looks around, wondering if the others felt the same sensation.
The projector turns itself off and flies away from the pyramid, down toward the entrance.
The priestess thanks the participants and everyone puts their objects back on the floating rock.
Wallace finds it a bit hard to leave the stone flower, but another part is conflicted: Do I really want an immortal alien hanging around me?
The priestess asks for volunteers to "carry" the items, and there are takers instantly.
Wallace misses his chance and a blue claw grabs the stone flower.
Then the audience disperses.
"Where did the Hecturian go?
Into which of these objects?"
Wallace asks, perplexed at the whole experience.
"That is unknown.
That is part of the custom, these days."
As if on cue, one of the audience takes this moment to throw down the stone flower, the one that Wallace held just moments earlier, and shatter it into a hundred pieces.
"And that is one of the possibilities, of course."
The priestess then takes a moment and says a short silent prayer, while facing in the direction of the shattered object.
Wallace hangs about a bit longer, chatting with the other tourists, then catches the jumper back to the space port.
His ship is waiting, and mission number 18 calls.
Wallace Eames takes the dark-blue jaguar pendant, one that he bought before the funeral from an overcharging vendor, and ponders for a moment if some Hecturian is watching him right now.
"Nah," he says, and dismisses the idea.
But he does decide to give the pendant as a gift, to his recently-born niece Jasenka, and sends it out before he embarks on his next mission.