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Beneath the Enormous Sky

Chapter Text

***

His first memory as a Pilot began with a distant voice made of clicks and buzzes. Beneath it a constant humming rose and fell in a steady cadence, like thousands of insect wings all working towards a common harmony. Somewhere within that rhythm, the voice resolved into language.

“Pilot engaged.”

With those two words, the knowledge of being formed around him and awareness snapped into place. He knew what he was and what he needed to do, and how to go about doing it.

The first thing on this considerable list was to introduce himself to the captain and crew. “This is the Fifth Pilot of the Dancer in the Void, online and ready for operations.”

Hearing his own voice piped out over the ship gave him a strange feeling he couldn’t account for. Even though his consciousness was minutes old, he thought it should feel different to hear himself speak for the first time.

“Well met, Fifth Pilot.” The captain’s voice was warm and pleasant. Through the bridge cameras he could see her standing at the center of a group of systems engineers, flanked by her assistant. “I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance. I apologize that you’ve been dropped into things like this, but your predecessor’s death was unexpected. As such, your maiden voyage won’t involve a fine send-off from one of the stations.”

He was still acclimating to the sensory input, and it took him until the captain had finished speaking to form a good, solid understanding of where they were: in the middle of a highly active stellar nursery.

These were young stars, blazing bright and hot, and their interactions with one another, the molecular cloud birthing them, and the rest of space promised to be violent. The stellar sensor array was maxed out collecting everything it could. (He made a note to optimize the distribution process over the computing clusters when he had a spare second.)

“No need to apologize, Captain. This is what I was made for.”

“To be sure. In that case, set a course for the Klikitakt System, maximum speed, and we’ll be on our way.”

The navigational computers laid out the options in elaborate detail. He chose one, tweaked the results to his liking, and prepped the warp drive. “Ready on your command, Captain.”

“Proceed, Pilot.”

He nudged the drive, and the ship shot to warp with an eagerness that left him giddy.

***

His first dozen cycles settled into a routine in short order. He picked up things faster than the systems engineers expected, and so the captain was forever making new, more challenging requests of him. He thought such a hefty responsibility should have weighed on him, yet it felt natural; in fact he could almost swear that he’d been under such pressure before. (That was nonsense, of course, because in terms of consciousness, he was brand new.)

One element outside of the routine, and which served as a source of constant distraction, were the various blank regions in his memory space. In the virtual subsystem they had the essence of empty rooms, with dented floor coverings and dirty basins and yawning cabinetry lingering like the shadows of former occupants. He asked the system engineers about them, and they indicated they might be left over from his training, when large amounts of information had been placed in holding patterns until he could assimilate it, though even they couldn’t be sure. Pilots were bred to have much more complex mindspaces than the rest of the race, and that had the unavoidable side effect of making them unpredictable.

He would spend much of his sleep cycle in these rooms, trying to sort out what they’d once held. On his eighteenth cycle in service he was no closer to an answer when he went into one of them, and discovered that it was no longer empty.

***

The previous waking phase had ended on a disconcerting note. As it drew to a close, he asked the captain (as he always did), “Anything else, Captain?”

Yzzorthil was older for her post, and it was widely whispered among the crew that she would never step down. This was considered improper, though the Pilot was glad his captain was bucking the trend, since he liked her. (She reminded him of--)

“Well, Pilot, it occurs to me, you’ve been running our Dancer for several cycles now, and you’ve yet to give us a face to relate to you. I am sure some of my crew would prefer to think of you as a fellow crew member, and not a disembodied voice.”

He hesitated. He’d never resolved himself in any fashion, so this was a new exercise for him, and a daunting one. Still, he already had a reputation as a Pilot who was game for anything, and found himself saying, “Yes, Captain. Should I use the viewscreen?”

“That would be fine.”

His training data indicated he should go with what was natural, at least at first. Manipulation of visualizations took time to master, and it was easy to make a mistake and display oneself as a blobby mishmash of parts and colors.

He rendered the first thing that came to mind, and the result defied expectations in the most horrible ways. If the captain herself hadn’t been waiting, he wouldn’t have displayed it, but she was, and so he did, then braced himself for the crew’s reactions.

Their nerve bundles twitched, betraying surprise or outright shock, and they fidgeted. The captain, always the essence of diplomacy, only tilted her head. “Quite interesting, Pilot.”

“Thank you Captain.” A bright chirp sounded on the bridge, and he was grateful for the distraction. “We’re a half-cycle from Korialthax Major, Captain.”

“Excellent. I see your alterations to the warp core have made it more efficient, as you indicated they would.”

“I can’t take all the credit for that, Captain. The engineers did the real work.” Through the lenses of the bridge cameras he could see the crew exchanging nervous looks with one another. He resolved to spend the next handful of sleep cycles drawing himself in a less horrible fashion.

“Well, then our thanks to you and the engineers both. The sooner we examine those stars, the better.”

“Of course, Captain. If that’s all, I’ll start my sleep cycle now.”

“Dismissed, Pilot.”

He had never been more relieved to disengage from the main grid and turn it over to the waiting AI. He couldn’t help but feel like he was fleeing into his rest phase, and to assuage his concerns, he pulled the virtual subsystem into the mix of modules which would occupy him while his mind rested from running the ship. More practice with his resolved display was certainly in order.

A glowing black room formed around him, containing only a simple reflective surface. He told himself he was still new (relatively speaking) and it was reasonable for him to make mistakes at something as esoteric as rendering a physical shape, and looked at the bizarre thing he’d created.

He had assumed his creation would look like the crew, but apart from standing on two legs and having two arms that ended in some number of fingers, what stared back at him was nothing of the sort. While they had exoskeletons blended seamlessly into cybernetic parts, he had formed himself entirely of flesh and nondescript clothing, with no metal or chitin evident. In places that his plain, trim, black outfit didn’t cover him, he had skin, freckled and pale and dusted with yellow hair. Praxidian eyes were solid colors and varied from reds to blues to blacks; his were white with color at the center, black set in blue. The crew had large nerve bundles that grew out from their heads, some long and lithe, others short and thick, in a variety of colors and patterns. He had more hair, close cropped and yellow fading to brown.

He clamped down on frustration at his lack of natural ability for this one small thing (it could disturb the sleep phase and then he’d be debugging inconsistencies for most of the next waking phase). There was nothing preventing him from drawing himself in the virtual space as one of the crew, so he’d just have to pull something together based on his observations of them. This was almost certainly a remnant from his training; some species on file that had particularly high resolution data available.

The empty rooms were a good location to do that sort of work, and he moved to one--only it wasn’t empty now. A being stood in it, and his surprise was such that an immediate security response triggered. He squelched the alarm and did a log overwrite, all while still staring at the individual and trying to process what he was seeing.

An initial scan showed the source signal was housed somewhere in the main communications grid, without an apparent origin. This was problematic and one of the hallmarks of a hacking attempt, and he would have started a diagnostic on the spot, except the being looked like him.

They didn’t in specific terms--their skin was dusky brown, their hair was black, long, and swept back, and their eyes were black-brown. They were also built quite differently, delicate and lean and graceful where the form he'd devised was much more solid and blocky. The plain black outfit was the same, though, and they were the same species, he was certain. His initial search produced a handful of records regarding similar races (but not an exact match, which he would have to look into later), and the Pilot decided he must look like a male and this one was presenting as a female, which could account for the difference in overall shape.

“Who are you, and what are you doing in here?” It came out more irritated and demanding than he intended.

Something about his questions seemed to bother her. Instead of answering him, she asked, “You’re the Pilot?”

He shouldn’t answer. He should be gearing up the security systems and asking the engineers to run a diagnostic. He couldn’t say why he didn’t do either of these things, though. “Yes.”

“How long have you been piloting the ship?”

“Eighteen cycles, give or take.” He paused. “Why do you look like I do?”

She arched an eyebrow at him, and though he shouldn’t have known it he was certain she was mocking him. “I mean--you’re not like the crew. They’re mechanical-biological hybrids and have exoskeletons and external nerve bundles.” He looked down at himself, then at her. “You don’t look anything like them. Why not?”

“Why don’t you?”

That he refused to answer, and tried to make it clear by crossing his arms over his chest.

Her features softened. “What did you do, before you were the Pilot?”

“I’m not answering another question until you answer one of mine.”

She glanced away, looking like she was listening to something he couldn’t hear. “I look like you because I am like you.”

“You’re a Pilot?”

Her expression changed. He knew it to be sadness. (He shouldn’t know that, he shouldn’t know anything about these weird bodies they were wearing or how they conveyed emotion.) “Before you were a pilot, what were you?”

“Before?”

“Yes, before.”

“I’ve always been the Pilot.” It bothered him that the answer didn’t ring with certainty.

“You’re sure?”

He couldn't tell if she was fishing or if he’d betrayed his inner concerns somehow, so he decided to evade the question. “It’s hard to be sure about anything that isn’t the ship. Controlling it takes up a lot of my attention.”

She looked around them. “And what’s this?”

“I work here sometimes.”

“Why is it empty?”

He didn’t want to tell her he didn’t know why. “Why are you here?”

She ignored the question, and moved through the room, kneeling down to look at the strange impressions on the floor. When she reached out to touch one, he felt something deep inside of him twinge in panic.

“Don’t.” The room shook with the force of his voice. She stood in a single swift motion and watched him with wide, wary eyes.

They stood like that for a long time (by his own estimation), and then she composed herself and asked, “What’s it like?”

That one he could answer without hesitation. “It’s amazing. I play tag with comets and hide in nebulae and race light itself. I walk between the stars. This is what I was made to do.”

“Maybe you weren’t made to do it like this.”

His concern level ratcheted up several notches. “What?”

The room shifted to night black. He blinked, surprised, as a report flooded over him; it was always difficult to manage input in the sleep cycle, with so much of the grid’s organizing power unavailable to him.

He studied it, growing angrier by the second, then dismissed it so he could focus on her. He gave her what he hoped was a dangerous look. “Someone’s hacking into one of the communication subsystems.”

“So you handle security too?”

“I have an AI that watches over things for me when I’m busy, and I check any elevated reports. Like this one.”

“Sounds like someone’s up to no good.”

“Yeah.” Access to the primary security system resolved next to him as a white, glowing rectangle crawling with red and blue lines. Using it would, unfortunately, reconnect him to the main grid and begin a new waking phase--but she didn’t necessarily know that. “Let’s see who.”

She gave him an icy smile and her resolved form vanished.

He pulled in as much information on the dissipating connection as he could, though that was precious little, so he dismissed the security interface. There was no point in alerting the engineers or the captain when he didn’t have much to go on. If she came back, he could do a proper examination of the signal. It might, of course, mean more ridiculous questions, though if he were being honest with himself, it wasn’t her questions so much as his reactions to them that bothered him.

Before you were a pilot, what were you?

He had always been the Pilot. Hadn’t he?