18 Sep

Brain ache

[Note: this is part of chapter 4.4 that was removed and rewritten. Alternate timeline only. Skip to No Cake Left to continue the real story.]

Captain's log, 08:24, 5 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting


This is Captain Warwick reporting after direct contact was achieved between the crew of the Starwalker and the star-born entity known as Cerces.

It sounds so clean when I put it that way. It was not a simple or clean process. It has taken me half the night to review the logs and be in a position to make a report.

I have to rely on the logs and the ship’s recounting of what happened, because I remember so little of it myself. I have only vague recollections of the hour I was part of the ‘conversation’. There was a sense of caution and a deep desire to communicate, and I can’t rightly say whether they were my emotions or Cerces’s. There was an undercurrent of loneliness and hunger that I’m sure were from the black hole, and a foreboding kind of emptiness. More worryingly, there was a thread of desperation. It felt barbed to me, as if it would not let itself be left unfulfilled.

Chief Cameron and Navigator Cartier were correct about the lack of hostility, however. I got no sense that Cerces meant us any true harm. Apart from our ability to leave, I don’t think he registers us as a danger to him at all. I suppose that, as life forms go, we’re very small compared to him. There was another sensation in the mix, one I can’t quite place. It felt connected to how he felt about us. It wasn’t a negative emotion, though it’s hard to say if it was truly positive or simply neutral.

I got no sense of him viewing us as invaders or intruders, and that’s something to be grateful for. He also doesn’t seem to be angry about the Step that the ship did a few weeks ago; I had no impression of blame or remembered pain. Perhaps black holes don’t feel the impact of the Steps as much as stars do.

There are not enough black holes in inhabited space to make Stepping a viable transportation method, though. We must focus on what’s in front of us: getting out of this system the mundane way. Sublight travel to the FTL corridor, and then FTL jumps to the next junction of corridors. And for us to be able to do that, we must deal with Cerces and his demands, one way or another.

Starry’s interpretation of his demands is that he wants to create an avatar and come with us, wherever we go. That seems to align with the impressions I had from the conversation, though I remember little actual detail. It was like being half-asleep, in the strange twilight between dreaming and waking, when reality echoes with the surreal and you’re never quite sure whether you’re rising or falling. Cerces may have used us to speak words for him but I remember none of the words themselves; just the tide of emotions as he struggled to translate his meaning into something we could understand.

Starry was upset when we all came around. I awoke floating midway between the Bridge floor and ceiling. Several of the other crewmembers were in the same position. Those who had been sitting or lying down were still on the floor, but according to Starry and the logs, those of us who had been standing all fell when Cerces released us. She turned the artificial gravity off so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves too badly, and many of us bounced off the floor. She waited until the drones had steadied us and we were starting to return to consciousness before she inched the gravity back on. By the time I was fully conscious, I was on the floor once more.

All of us woke with headaches. Dr Valdimir reviewed everyone’s scans and reports that we suffered no lasting damage, though there is evidence of some neural overloading. He gave us all a shot to ensure there would be no long-term scarring. I suspect that the effect of the neural link with Cerces is more damaging than he has told us, but I don’t think he would lie about the big picture. If I am reading him correctly, he is balancing what he tells me with what he believes I need to know to see us safely through this. Now that I’m a patient, too, that alters things.

I’m not happy to be this far on the inside of the issue. While a captain is involved in the ship’s business, we are supposed to stay outside of direct action as much as possible, so that we can make objective decisions and judgement calls, and properly direct action and reaction. I don’t like to admit it, but Starry’s assessment was correct: we rushed into this. As the captain, that was my fault; I didn’t stay objective enough. I should have slowed it all down, taken my time; then, I might have found a way to avoid all of us – including me – being swept up into the link with Cerces. We could have done this better. Cleaner.

Starry did an admirable job on her own, though I worry about the impact of some of what she communicated to Cerces through the child Sara. Starry is free with her words, which is not usually a problem but in this case, understanding is key. It is hard to know exactly what Sara passed through to the black hole’s consciousness, and how she interpreted what Starry was telling her.

For example, this notion of Cerces gaining an avatar may have been influenced by Starry herself. Not that it’s a terrible idea in and of itself; in truth, we don’t fully understand what this request might mean. Would he be content to just be a passenger? Would he expect to be in charge? He seems to be used to making demands and imposing himself on the minds and environments of humans; would he be any different in avatar form?

We’re not even sure what form an avatar of Cerces’s might take. Should Sara’s description of him as a whale be taken literally, or is it merely an extension of her love for her favourite toy? Or was it the other way around: we know from Starry’s Step data that the planet his people likely developed on was almost entirely water, so was Sara’s choice of favourite toy driven by the likeness of her friend? Starry might be able to flood one of her cargo bays to house a water creature, but I’m not sure how well that would work long-term. She’d need a more extensive retrofit for that kind of endeavour and we don’t want to spend that kind of time here.

Still, I can’t help but think that it’s an exciting endeavour. Cerces may be dangerous, in the way that the boot is dangerous to the ant, but he’s a new kind of life form. And if we can find his people, the race that evolved in this system when it was still a star system, that would be the first time humanity has come into contact with an intelligent alien life form. The possibilities of such a meeting, the things we could learn… I can’t begin to list them all. To be able to have a creature capable of communicating with such a life form with us means that we can hope for a positive outcome. Real contact, maybe even establish a relationship.

This ship was built to break the boundaries of known science. We were assembled to explore. We cannot do it in the way that was originally intended, we know that now, but maybe this is an alternative for us. A purpose, maybe even an adventure.

The doctor has been reserved in his reports on the mental health of the crew, but I think he knows better than I do that their spirits are flagging. Once the Strider‘s crew have been delivered to wherever they want to get off, and Haitom has been turned in to a hospital capable of caring for him, we have no path left. Once it’s just us, the possibilities for where we might go are endless, which means we have no true direction.

Perhaps Cerces can give us that. I have always promised him that we would look for his people, and that was lip service for the most part because it seemed like the answer that would release us from the hold he has on us. But now, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. It wouldn’t hurt for us to explore the less-trodden paths for a while, to let the dust settle behind us. So why not look for an alien race? Why not grant the wish of a lonely being?

This answer seems to come so easily that I must wonder why. Is it the spirits showing me my true path, or is there another reason? Cerces took over my mind and body for over an hour. Could this sentiment be an echo of his influence? But no matter how I examine it, I cannot find the downside to the idea.

Unless Cerces has something more insidious in mind, another motivation to his desires. It’s hard to rule either way: I got no hints of that in my contact with him and the reports of the rest of the crew back up my observations, but he’s probably powerful enough to hide his secrets if he wanted.

As unknowns go, we have some gaping ones. There’s no point asking outright; such a question would satisfy no-one, because he’d either avoid answering or be offended by it. Or both. There are plenty of other more useful questions for us to ask, and that’s what we need to do now: specifically, exactly how he means to get an avatar and what his expectations would be as a part of our crew. We should lay down some of our own ground rules, too, mostly to see how he reacts. We should ask him to stop projecting the ghosts, because we definitely don’t want to take those with us.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen any ghosts since yesterday, not since I woke up from the impromptu conversation. Has he finally stopped them? Is it because he now has another way to talk to us and doesn’t need them any more? Is that really what they were intended for?

All this is giving me another headache. I was going to call another ‘conversation’ with him today but perhaps I’ll consult the doctor first. I won’t rush into this again.

One step at a time. At least now I have some confidence that we are heading in the right direction, and soon we’ll be heading out of this system altogether.

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3 Responses to “Brain ache”

  1. Marcus Says:

    Giving it thought, would the avatar ‘have’ to be hugeish in size if he did turn out to be a whale/thing?
    The mental image of a fish type avatar floating in a fishbowl is an appealing one. Or perhaps, he could have the avatar as Sara’s plush whale.
    Imagine, if you will, a six year old cuddling with the spirit of a black hole.

  2. thomas Says:

    Confidence is important for a crew. I wonder if this implies that Cerces has usurped the leadership role. I doubt the crew can put very many rules on a former ‘star’.

    Traveling as a whale seems inconvenient but an avatar similar to at least one of the crew might help. Since Sara is his primary focal point for communication, I wonder if Sara would like a ‘playmate’. Might be strange but it would be better than a whale or even a sentient nanny-bot that connects directly to Starry like her boys. Of course, a ‘light-man’ to accompany the ‘light-lady’ might be interesting too.

    Great work Melanie. You given us lots of clues and you’re making me ask questions. Thanks but my Brain aches. I need more cake.

    @Marcus —
    With a gleeful cry, Sara jumps on top of the fish tank and grabs Cerces. Cerces struggles to get out of her grasp, but her little fingers have a death grip – holding him tight to her wet slimy chest.

    Rosie: Damnit Captain! Can I shoot her? I do not want no fuckin’ ghosts again!

    Captain: Relax Rosie. You know he can regenerate if Sara kills him again. Let her have her fun. He only gave us ghosts for two days while he regened last time.

    Cerces: (Gasping and blowing bubbles.)

    Sara: Whoopee! I loves whales.

    Rosie: Okay, but you get to clean her this time. It took Cameron, Elliott, and me three hours last time.

    Captain: Yes and she came out of the cleaner talking like an old drunken sailor too.

  3. mjkj Says:

    So, how does Kelly make her avatar anyway – and how will Cerces do it? 😕