24 Sep

No such thing

[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.]

Ship's log, 16:44, 6 October 2214
Location: Standard orbit distance from the Cerces black hole horizon
Status: Orbiting


Why is there never an easy answer to the problems we face? Why does everything feel like a test?

I’ve had my shakedown voyage. I’ve done the scientific testing that was asked of me. I’ve made the hard choices. Can’t we get just one break, one time when it goes our way?

I know, there’s no such thing as a happy ending. No such thing as an ideal world. No such thing as an easy way out. No such thing as fair, or right, or just.

There’s just the situation you’re in, the choices before you. Sometimes there’s just the roll of the dice. And sometimes, you get no choice at all.


Location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: (sitting in his chair, his head is propped on his fist and he scowls at the hologram in the centre of the room.)

(The hologram shows the default projection: the ship’s position as it orbits around the black hole.)

STARRY: (resolving to his right, she clears her throat softly.)

CAPT: Not now, Starry.

STARRY: (bows her head, her jaw tensing) I know, but they’re here. They’re asking permission to come onto the Bridge.

CAPT: Already? I need a moment, Starry. Ask them to wait, please?

STARRY: Of course.


Our second ‘conversation’ with Cerces ended a couple of hours ago. It’s hard to say whether it went ‘well’ or not: it was successful in that we got the information we were looking for; it sucked because the answers we got weren’t anything like what we expected or hoped for.

It was rocky from the start. The doctor argued that he shouldn’t be included in the neural load sharing of the link; he was needed to monitor the crew.


Recording: 10:31, 6 October 2214
Location: Med Bay

DR SOCKS: (on his feet and coming around his desk to stand in front of the captain) …need to be on hand in case something goes wrong. You know what kind of damage this link causes.

CAPT: (calmly) The damage is why you should be a part of it. You said we suffered mild effects the last time. Correct?

DR SOCKS: (warily) Yes.

CAPT: And this time, I must stay outside to talk to Cerces. That means more load on those who are part of the link.

DR SOCKS: (opens his mouth to speak.)

CAPT: (without losing a beat) How much worse will it be if both of us stay out?

DR SOCKS: (frowning) It’s hard to quantify it; there isn’t enough data. Yet.

CAPT: There isn’t much that you can do while we’re in the link anyway. The shot you gave us after the last link, is it any use during?

DR SOCKS: It might help to heal the damage while it’s being created, but it probably wouldn’t be of much use, no. But if anything happens…

CAPT: Starry and I will be on-hand to terminate the link. She’s capable of monitoring everyone and alerting me if anything goes wrong.

DR SOCKS: (falls quiet, folding his arms over his chest) This is a bad idea.

CAPT: I don’t disagree. But it’s what we’ve got in front of us, and I need to reduce as much of the risk as possible.

DR SOCKS: You’re relying on a child.

CAPT: She hasn’t let us down yet. (He puts a hand on the doctor’s shoulder.) I’ll look after you as best I can, doctor. Same as the rest.

DR SOCKS: (scowls and sighs.)


They both had a point. It was hard to argue with either viewpoint and I’m glad the decision wasn’t mine to make.

There were more objections and complaints. The Strider‘s people were unhappy about the whole thing and were demanding to be left out of ‘whatever craziness we had in mind this time’. All of my people have a good reason to stay out of the link, too: the doctor for medical monitoring; Cameron and the SecOffs for security monitoring; Elliott for technical monitoring.

It was hard not to sympathise, but the captain was right: we couldn’t risk reducing the number of people in the link any further, for fear of what it might do to those left inside. The captain took the decision out of their hands and reduced the danger by spreading the load among as many minds as possible. I think the captain wanted to keep it simple: all or nothing.

With every objection he overruled, his expression got more grim and his shoulders seemed a little more weighted. It’s not the sort of captain he prefers to be.

I guess this thing is testing us all.


Location: Bridge

CAPT: (sighs and shakes his head, sitting up straighter. He rakes his hair back with one hand.) All right, let them in.

STARRY: (nods and the port door to the Bridge opens.)


I might be able to monitor everyone on board without trouble, but I only have so many drones and that means that it was still important for everyone to be close together. We opted for the crew quarters this time around, and asked everyone to lie down so they wouldn’t fall.

The link seemed to take hold faster this time around. I abstracted Cerces’s messages, gave him a fake male voice so that it sounded like one coherent communication, rather than words broken among many mouths. Sometimes, the longer words were split into two or even three pieces. My processors were working double-time to put everything in the right order and with the right inflection, but it still came out flat. For a creature who seems to understand emotion, he’s not very good at communicating it with his words.

The logs of my crew in their waking dream fugue, speaking individual words that only make sense if you can hear all of them at once, still give me chills. If ever we need evidence that we’re dealing with an alien consciousness, this is it. If I could, I’d scrub them from my filestores.


LANG LANG and CAMERON: (enter the Bridge and walk to stand in front of the captain. They say nothing.)

CAPT: (looks up at them with a terrible weight in his expression. He waves a hand towards the chairs around the edge of the Bridge, representing the various stations.) Take a seat, please.

CAMERON: (nods smartly and taps a command into the holographic interface above her left forearm. The Security Station chair slides closer. Once it has clicked into place beside her, she sits, neatly and precisely. Her attention remains fixed on the captain.)

LANG LANG: (is slower about summoning the Navigation Station chair, and she shuffles as she sits. She glances around as she settles.)

STARRY: (gives her an encouraging smile.)

LANG LANG: (echoes it faintly and turns her gaze back to the captain.)


As always when talking to Cerces, we were reliant on little Sara’s comprehension to pass the messages through. The captain was kind and patient with her. We had said that the link must not last longer than an hour, for fear of what prolonged damage might do to my people, so he was keen to push forward, but somehow the urgency didn’t spill out of him and onto the child. I don’t know how he did it, and I have the logs to examine.

Luckily, she was keen to talk about her friend the whale joining us on an adventure. She kept grinning and hugging her stuffed toy, as if she could squeeze him already.


Recording: 13:53, 6 October 2214
Location: Bridge

CAPT: (with Sara sitting in his lap, one arm around her back, he taps the whale’s head with a finger) So, think the big whale will come live in this little one? You’d like that, hmm?

SARA: (laughs and shakes her head) Issa toy, silly.

CAPT: Of course, silly me.

CERCES: (voice only) Need flesh. A body. A mind.

CAPT: I see. And what type of body will that be? Will he look like your whale there, Sara?

SARA: (beams and holds up her toy like it’s a trophy, but her head shakes.)

CERCES: No whale available.

CAPT: Available? What does he mean?

STARRY: (standing just behind the child, she shoots the captain a concerned look over the top of the bobbing ponytails.)

SARA: (shrugs.)

CERCES: Singularity. Cannot emit matter. Cannot create body. Require donation.

CAPT: (thoughtfully takes the whale toy out of Sara’s hands. She doesn’t fight him, letting him have it easily. He starts making dipping and whooshing motions with it.)

SARA: (laughs and reaches for the whale, little hands grabbing.)

CAPT: (keeping his tone light) A donation, huh? Like one of us?

CERCES: A conditioned mind can provide a form.

CAPT: (frowns and lets Sara catch the whale.)

SARA: (hugs the toy to her chest, oblivious to the captain’s expression.)

STARRY: (softly, to the captain) What does he mean ‘conditioned’?

CAPT: (meets her gaze briefly, then looks down at the child again) That sounds interesting. Can he tell us more about it, Sara?

SARA: (beams and nods up at the captain.)

CERCES: Must be a clean mind. Fresh. Young.

CAPT / STARRY: You cannot have Sara.

CAPT: She wants to grow up. She wants to meet you, don’t you, Sara?

SARA: (nods happily.)

CERCES: She would be lost. Unable to play any more.

CAPT: There must other options. Who else, little one? Who else can help him play with you?

CERCES: Other clean minds. Must be undamaged and un-leashed.


Those seemed like pretty broad options to us, but it wasn’t as easy as all that. The captain was curious about Cerces’s use of those particular words and pressed the black hole to explain. The more that Cerces said, the worse I felt.

And now, here we are. My captain sitting before two of my crew, explaining what happened in those logs I just included here.


Location: Bridge

CAPT: …and we narrowed it down to specific criteria. It has to be someone who already has a close connection with the black hole.

LANG LANG: (eyes wide) Like me, and Haitom, and little Sara?

CAPT: Yes. The five of you who were affected when we tried to leave the system.

CAMERON: (presses her lips together and folds her arms, watching the captain’s face.)

CAPT: (continues) The person must also be whole and sound of mind.

LANG LANG: (looks puzzled.)

CAMERON: So that rules out Haitom.

CAPT: (nods) And also Kinski.

CAMERON: (eyebrows lift) Neural fetters?

CAPT: Yes. How did you know?

CAMERON: I’ve been watching the feeds. I’ve seen it before.

CAPT: (nods grimly) So he’s off the list.


We had to go back to Kinski’s medical scans to figure out why Cerces kept talking about an ‘un-leashed’ mind. The Strider‘s SecOff has neural implants that basically override his free will, meaning that he’ll carry out any orders given to him by an authorised person, whether he wants to or not. Now I’m aware of it, I can spot the signs in the logs: the way he does anything Riede says without hesitation; the way he looks for permission before doing anything, even sitting down; the way he twitched when Riede ordered him to do something but he was too caught up in Cerces’s influence to obey. It hasn’t been obvious because Riede doesn’t abuse it, though I’m sure he knows it’s there.

I wonder what manner of infraction he committed to get implants like that put in his head. They’re supposed to have been outlawed, but maybe that was only back on Earth; maybe on Feras, this sort of thing is acceptable.

Either way, it makes Kinski useless to Cerces. Which means…


LANG LANG: (sits up straighter) So it must be one of us?

CAPT: (nods again) I’m sorry.


Neither of them are asking about Sara, the fifth candidate. None of my people would suggest using a child for such a thing.


CAMERON: (lifts her chin) Captain, I–

CAPT: (holds up a hand) Not yet, Chief. I know what you’re about to do.

CAMERON: (subsides.)

CAPT: We asked about how this would be possible, given the damage that mere communication with him causes, and Cerces assures us that it’s possible for him to exist in a human host without killing it. But he was clear that there would only be room for one mind in there.

CAMERON: (frowns.)

LANG LANG: What do you mean? Once he takes a host, we would be…gone?

CAPT: Yes. Erased.


Dead. He means dead. It wouldn’t even be the same person any more, just a black hole in a meat shell that looks like my friend.

There’s no such thing has having your host and devouring them, too.


LANG LANG: (blinks and gives Cameron a horrified look.)

CAMERON: (expression unmoving) Captain, I will still–

CAPT: I know, but not so fast. This is not a decision to make lightly.

LANG LANG: (quietly) You’ve made a decision?

CAPT: No. If we do this, it must be voluntarily.

CAMERON: (quietly) What do our other options look like, captain?

CAPT: Difficult, but no more difficult than this. This must be up to each of you. It is your life. Once we do this – if we do this – it is permanent. There will be no coming back. (He holds up a hand when Lang Lang draws in a sharp breath.) I am not asking this of you. I want both of you to go back to your quarters and think about it. I want you to take your time. When you’re ready, and no earlier than noon tomorrow, come back to me with your decision.

CAMERON: (nods and stands) Understood, captain.

CAPT: (inclines his head towards her) Dismissed, Chief.

CAMERON: (leaves.)

LANG LANG: (rises slowly) Thank you, captain. I’ll… I’ll give it some thought.

CAPT: Thank you, Lang Lang. And remember: no obligation. I am not asking you to do this. This option is in front of us and it is not my decision, do you understand?

LANG LANG: Yes, sir.

CAPT: (nods) Dismissed.

LANG LANG: (hurries off the Bridge.)


In times like these, there’s no such thing as an easy choice.

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13 Responses to “No such thing”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Awwwww…. πŸ™ :'(

    So you are either sacrificing Lang Lang or Chief Cameron – or not being able to leave system. Not nice…

    *sighs* I fear it will be Lang Lang…


    πŸ™ *sniffs* :'(

  2. Francisco Says:

    One question that occurs to me is: Will Cerces have access to the memories and knowledge of the person who is taken over?

  3. thomas Says:

    It seems like the Captain wants Lang Lang to accept the avatar responsibilities but I wonder if that is because they will not need a navigator on the SAR trip. If the Walker navigator is still alive, maybe that person could take over her duties but I don’t like losing her to the crew.

    It also seems like no one has thought about getting Cerces to resurrect one of the dead bodies on the station. Why not reanimate one of the children who died and implant himself. This sounds horrid but better than β€˜killing’ Lang Lang or Cameron.

    Thanks for a great chapter Melanie

    Mjkj, please tell me how to add smilies. Thanks

  4. Syphax Says:

    At first I was going to say “Just throw the Strider’s crew at that problem and let it work itself out.” Then you shot down that theory. Damn it, please don’t kill one of the people I actually care about.

  5. Francisco Says:

    thomas, that’s one of the reasons for my question. I think they are more in need of Lang Lang’s knowledge than Cameron’s. That knowledge is useful for the crew in itself. However, it’s also useful in establishing a common framework with Cerces.

    If the knowledge is retained then Lang Lang is the best choice. If it’s not then Cameron’s the best choice.

    I’ve just had a horrible thought: Is that how Kess was born?

  6. Targetdrone Says:

    “I’ve just had a horrible thought: Is that how Kess was born?”
    i dont think so as kess is not a black hole.. and it was stated that a black hole cannot emmit matter…

    and havent you killed enough of the crew? personally i am for them stepping through cerces into the past… let him try influence them there….

  7. thomas Says:

    Francisco, this contradicts my previous thoughts a little but Starry can survive without either of them. Starry can step without navigation and she survived without a Security Chief.

    The best argument for not using Lang Lang or Cameron is emotional turmoil. Everyone might initially object to using a dead child from the station but you cannot kill the already dead. The body is just a resource. Another argument for not using Lang Lang or Cameron is the Celestial Strider crew. This is weaker by miles but the other crew does not trust Starry and any of her crew. If the Captain can arbitrarily β€˜kill’ one of his own crew to satisfy an alien life form, then they have zero hope of surviving an encounter that requires another sacrificial lamb.

    I am sure Cerces knows where to find another body he can reanimate, so now, he needs to lead the Captain in that direction.

    I think Elliott might be the only indispensable person but her boys might be able to do everything he does for the ship. Btw, I hope Cerces cannot access memories afterwards. Been there done that with Starry.

  8. blah Says:

    I guess, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not much – a single sacrifice to free a creature bound immutably to itself by the laws of physics.

  9. Grey Dragon Says:

    There is clearly only one alternative that is young, with a clean mind and free will when Sara is off the table…

    a kitten.

  10. mjkj Says:

    @ thomas: Just use the smilie symbols – though not all work (as you can see) – it is a trial and error thing
    : ) = πŸ™‚
    ; ) = πŸ˜‰
    : D = πŸ˜€
    : ? = πŸ˜•
    : / = :/

    @ Francisco: As Targetdrone stated: Kess is an active star that is emitting matter – so she can build a body for herself – Cerces on the other hand is a black hole that does not emit anything (but gravity) so he cannot build a body for himself and needs someone/-thing to provide it for him.

  11. blah Says:

    I guess ressurection powers and psychic ghost projections don’t count? Also, given how stepping tears apart time and space, could a stepper inside the event horizon shoot enough mass out of Cerces that the singularity would die out?

  12. thomas Says:

    thanks mjkj. I tried a few times to get it to work but nothing came through. since I cut-n-paste from Word most of the time, that might have caused the problems.

    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ˜€ :o) :] :3 :c) :> =] 8) =) :} :^) :?)

  13. Marcus Says:

    This was much darker turn for the story than I was expecting to read this week. Granted the darker chapters do generate more conversation amid the stalkers/readers.