by Callista Dalmore
“Yes, but with an ‘a’ as in ‘meat’.”
“Yeah, catchy, huh?”
“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Ever.”
“Well ‘Meatsicle’ was my second choice.”
“Carl. Shut the fuck up.”
They continued down the frozen passageway, their twin helmet-mounted light beams illuminating the way. The corridor was in surprisingly good shape, all things considered. After having squeezed and crawled and cut their way down into here, it was nice to have some room to move. Behind them the corridor ended abruptly in a twisted mess of internal fibreboard and trit struts. Ahead the corridor stretched out, nice and straight, as far as their lights reached into the pitch black of the derelict ship.
As if no time had passed, Carl continued, “I mean, I’ve run the numbers, Paul. I have. This ship holds approximately one hundred thousand crew, completely decked. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you’re right and that some podder lying in his slime knocks off a zero, that’s still fifteen thousand people, Paul. Fifteen thousand. On just one ship. And how many are there out here? Around fifty? And that’s just the fucking citadels, then you have the carriers, the dreads…” he trailed off.
“Seventy four.” said Paul.
“Seventy four was the final count of Titan-class ships. Twelve supercarriers, three hundred and fifty six Dreadnaught-class, one hundred and nine Carrier-class. Battleship-class and down usually do not make the tally. I know Carl, I know.” said Paul.
“But that’s just it, Paul, how is it you can rhyme off the numbers of lost ships by type? I bet you also know the total isk lost as well, huh? Am I right?”
“Eleven trillion isk,” answered Paul, conceding the point.
“See? What the fuck Paul. How is it that one hundred and fifty thousands bodies doesn’t make it into the news? Huh? Don’t death tolls matter? Now, it’s all fucking assets and markets and cash flow…”
Suddenly, a deep rumble shook the corridor sending accumulated dust swirling into their lights. There was no sound, of course, but the vibration rising up through their magboots was strong enough that both stopped until it subsided.
“Don’t worry, it’s normal,” said Paul. “Gravity will be working on imploding this place for the next millennia, constantly shifting and reshifting as it accretes more mass from the other…”
“Meateorites?” interjected Carl.
“…wrecks.” finished Paul. “And believe me, if you say ‘meatorites’ one more time, I will puncture your suit. Now let’s keep going.” They continued down the hall in silence, Carl taking the lead.
The hall was actually a wiremesh gangway just wide enough for them to walk in single file. The gangway was surrounded on all sides by pipes and tubes and comm cable conduits forming a roughly cylindrical corridor. Occasionally, the gangway would jut out perpendicularly to reach out to an airlock bulkhead protruding from the right or left. Each of these was painted in huge Amarrian numerals. The numbers were decreasing.
Carl raised his hand and motioned Paul to stop. “Hold up, how far do we need to go?”
“Hmm, not too far now, but…we may have a problem,” answered Paul. “Here, look.”
Paul flicked his HUD to project and shone the schematics he’d been following onto bulkhead 314 so they both could see. “We’re in this corridor here, joining ELS to AP-two. From our survey scan, if we go to ‘density’ and overlay it, most of this,” he pointed to the dark blue globular zone which covered most of the upper half of the display, “is compacted to a degree where we’d need mining equipment to tunnel through.”
“Yeah, and I see it. This thing here, right?” said Carl pointing to a blob of dark blue which extended out from the main region and intersected their corridor and actually pushed right though.
Paul nodded and answered, “yes, exactly.”
“Ok then, Mr. Professor. How do we get through?” asked Carl.
“Well, we can’t, but we can probably go around. Lemme just…” said Paul letting the sentence trail off as he began tapping the console sewn into his suit’s left wrist. The projection started rotating downwards until the tunnel they were in had flattened from a line to a point. He then started stepping the map forward, in slices of 5 meters seeing if a branch route could be found. As he did so he thought to himself how, for all the righteous blathering he had to endure from the pirate, Carl sure had the right tools; the resolution and clarity of these images, obtained from Carl’s scanners just prior to their descent, were far beyond anything he’d seen from civilian scanners.
“Skip ahead a little, old man,” said Carl. “The blockage was at least a good 400 meters ahead of us. And even if all that shaking is ‘normal’ and doesn’t bother you, I would rather we spend as little time as we can in this…”
“Don’t!” warned Paul in a half growl.
“…place.” finished Carl. “I’ve salvaged more space debris than I can remember but this is the first time I’ve had to walk around inside a wreck. It’s giving me the creeps. Big time.” He looked around, shining his beam back up the hallway they had just come from. “I mean, yeah, it’s not like I haven’t seen a floater before, hell, I’ve seen plenty, right? But always from afar and from inside my ship with some nice thick invulnerability field shimmering around me. Hell, now with those gallente gizmos…”
“Salvage drones.” murmured Paul, not looking up from what he was doing.
“Yeah, and those Pull-y what-cha’ma-call-its…”
“Tractor units.” filled in Paul, automatically.
“Yeah, with one of those purring away sucking everything in, I barely have to even look at the wrecks anymore. I mean, I gotta keep Nancy’s eyes open and all ‘cause Lord knows those Amarr-son’s-of-whores are always showing up, am I right?” he ended, rhetorically.
“Do you mean naming your Noctis ‘Nancy’, or the fact that Amarrian’s have mothers of questionable reputation?” murmured Paul, equally rhetorically.
“Ok, just gimme a minute, do you mind if I just…:” said Paul, pointing to his visor, “it’ll go faster if I do it on my own.”
“Yeah, no problem.” said Carl as he unholstered his rail rifle.
With a flick, the projected image disappeared from the bulkhead. As Paul worked, several more rumbles were felt. Carl eyed the corridor, nervously. “Ok, got it.” said Paul. “There’s a way through by going through Propulsion level D6. We keep going until we reach 256.” he said.
They continued down the hall, Carl in the lead. The bulkheads were invariably closed. When they reached number 256, however, to their surprise, they found it slightly ajar. Carl edged up to it and tried to peek inside but there was no room to see. With the tip of his rifle he nudged the door open.
“Oh, God.” gasped Carl. “What a mess…” he said, his voice wavering. Paul came up behind him and looked into the hellish hallucination.
It was a small damage control node. During normal operation these were manned by a crews of two or three, double that number during combat. Comprised of technical crew and communication officers, they would respond to any emergencies in their defined sector of the ship. For those emergencies which could be done remotely (flushing airlocks, re-routing coolant) they would take care of from here but most of the time they were directing repair teams about the ship.
Floating all about the room, like fish in a tank, was the shattered remains of the crew. It was at first difficult to even comprehend what one was looking at; like trying to watch single snowflake in a storm. A stationary storm. As Paul and Carl stared at the macabre scene certain the began to recognize the objects: a helmet, a boot, a headset. But then they started examining the less recognizable ones, a limbless torso, a curled finger, multitudes of shiny blue spheres.
“You seeing this?” asked Carl.
“Yeah.” answered Paul. Although he really wish he hadn’t. His vision started to blur. He concentrated on his breathing and closed his eyes.
“How do you think this happened?” wondered Carl.
“Well, for the debris, “ began Paul, “these bodies have been subjected to hard vacuum for close to a year now and at planet eight’s distance from the sun, the temperature in here, even with the plasma fires of some of those other wrecks, would be at most a couple of degrees above absolute zero. So combine that with the constant vibrations running through the structure, and you get fractures in the crystallized organic material. Then possibly detach during especially violent tremors.” answered Paul.
“Ok, Ill buy that, but how is it all floating around in the middle of the room?” asked Carl, “I mean As we know from the outside, this composite wreck’s rotational velocity has already been damped out in the gravitational field. That and since we are now somewhat below its center of gravity, free floating bodies would have first fallen towards one another and then slowly settled planetside.
“Somebody’s been here recently,” Carl said.
Paul, somewhat disturbed that Carl pieced that together, confirmed, “Yes, because of the positions of the debris field.”
“No, because there are boot tracks leading from that panel there out the other hatch,” said Carl pointing at the mess of crushed ice on the left side of the room and the recognizable tread of magboots leading out the back of the room.
Making their way over to get a closer look, Paul noted that the bottom panels had been removed and were floating over to the left. Crouching and shining his light inside he could see circuitry, mostly standard control boards. Calling up the schematics, he noted that the nanopaste dispenser control board was missing. Standing back up he also noticed that the panel was on the planetside of the room; whoever had accessed it would have had to have done some digging.
This all must have been much less disturbing laying quietly piled up against the wall, thought Paul as he brushed aside a rather grotesque piece from which waved a perfect curl of flowing brown hair. Well, perhaps not that much. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
Carl, seemingly happy to have somewhere to go other than here, eagerly crossed the room sending debris, grotesque or otherwise, spinning off in all directions. Paul followed in his wake.
Opening the door, they found the room beyond gratefully devoid of any remains, detached or otherwise. The room adjacent to a damage control node generally was a muster and dispatch area for work crews and therefore tended to have lockers of specialized equipment depending on the nature of the emergency they were to face. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed in this room and as if to confirm their observations, the rusty and fading tread marks clearly went straight through to the adjoining corridor.
“You know if they would stash weapons in a DC node, Carl?” asked Paul.
“Hmm, probably not. Grease monkeys carry their sidearms at all times and if boarding does occur, there are armory rally points separate from DC. Besides, DC crew know fuck all about directing combat ops. It’s just not their job, right?” said Carl and then asked, “You feeling a little defenseless?”
“Well, the thought had crossed my mind.” admitted Paul.
“Don’t worry, this baby, “ Carl said indicating his rifle, “is top of the line and I’ve been in my share of scraps. Best thing you can do is keep your eyes sharp and your wits sharper. Void combat isn’t like ship to ship. It’s more like tag. One touch, you’re out.” said Carl as he turned and headed out into the corridor beyond.
In the corridor beyond, next to a huge floor-to-ceiling “DC-256.07” painted on the wall, they saw a series of v-lifts. These, of course, were to get the damage control teams as quickly as possible to any of the many floors under their care. The lifts operated both actively or passively if ever power to the section had been rerouted or knocked out. In passive mode the passenger had to supply their own minimal power to the superconductive induction rings. Fortunately Carl had provided them both with Amarr EVA suits which had the required interfaces. Another “plus one” for Carl, thought Paul.
“We take V2 down three levels.” said Paul to Carl’s unvoiced question.
“But the tracks lead off in this direction,” said Carl shining his lamps on the now almost completely faded tracks.
“Well, we’re not hunters and those tracks could be months old,” said Paul as he continued towards the v-lifts. With one last look down the hall, Carl turned and followed.
As they felt the slight tug upwards as the v-lift accelerated them downwards, Carl asked, “So what are you going to do with yours?”
After the episode in the DC node, Paul had momentarily forgotten what lay in Environment and Life Support bay 7 and why they had both broken about twelve CONCORD mandated directives regarding this ‘monument’. “That is none of your concern,” he answered, cryptically.
“Ok, ok, no problem. Just asking, just asking.” said Carl. “You wanna know what I am going to do with mine?” he asked, conspiratorially.
“I feel like you want to tell me, regardless of my opinion of the matter.” said Paul.
“Ha! Spoken like a true professor. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” laughed Carl. “I am going to bring that baby to a friend of mine who knows a guy who has trade permits all they way to the heart of gold, baby. Jita. And there I am going to sell it for as much as I can get and then, I’m gone. Out. Done. I really thought when I left the DED and came out here, away from the politics and inner system B.S., that I’d find some peace. But it’s all the same. Frontiers, alliances, poverty and fear. And killing. So much killing. I am done, Paul. I am going remove myself from their bloody balance sheet. I have some sweet girlfriends in a bunch of systems. Hell, might even buy a reproduction license or two. Head down to a planet and breathe air. You know what I mean. Actual, atmosphere. I’ve been a part of this,” indicating everything around them, “for too long.”said Carl wistfully.
“Breathing air sounds nice,” replied Paul, actually meaning it. Too bad it wasn’t going to turn out that way for him. At all. “But you probably don’t have to haul it all the way to Jita. You can get a good price in any of the local systems,” he offered.
“Hmm, yeah, maybe you’re right. I mean, that shit is going to sell no matter where we are…yeah. Gonna have to talk to my buddy when I get back.” mused Carl.
They arrived at the third level, slowed to a stop and stepped out into a corridor which looked identical to the one they had just left except the numbers painted on the wall were blue and said “DC-256.10”. They turned and started walking down the corridor. The numerals on the doors, also continually decreasing. “Ok, so now we should be clear right into ELS.” said Paul.
They walked for several minutes in silence, passing numerous doors and v-lifts. No bodies. No body parts. They finally arrived at the huge double airlock separating Auxiliary Power Two from Environment and Life Support.
The ELS of any ship was essentially a massive chemical treatment plant. At one end, storage tanks of used and fresh materials fed an incomprehensible array of hoppers, choppers, heaters, mixers and burners which, each one after the next, took those materials and produced essentially three things: air, water and heat. These were then collected and transported throughout the ship. This transport was, of course, through pipes. Thousands upon thousands of pipes. To the uninitiated, it made ELS a surreal maze of random ducts and tubes going off in all directions. Paul went to the edge of the platform and shone his lights down upon the myriad of modules which stretched side to side and forward as far as the light reached. As his gaze fell upon each, it lingered, recognizing the function of each by shape and layout. He found the familiarity calming.
Until his light shone on the wall immediately to their right. There piled carelessly as a child’s doll collection, were the remains of the hundreds of techs which had been working ELS. As opposed to their experience in damage control, these bodies were relatively intact. Although ELS supplied fresh cool water and warm breathable air to the rest of the ship, the environment in which they were produced contained often quite the opposite. The bodies were therefore all wearing level three envirosuits. Unfortunately, even level threes were not designed for hard vacuum.
“So, when this collapses under the agglomerated mass of all the mess out there, what do you think will happen to them? What about all the other piles, just like this one, on this ship. On all the other ships? Hmm? Well I’ll tell you Paul, that someday, whatever you want to call it. Someday, this big ball of metal riddled with tiny pockets of organic material will fall from the sky onto that planet out there and it will rain blood.”
Ignoring Carl’s melodrama, Paul said “see there, past the ionizing scrubbers,” pointing at a cluster of white drums some sixty meters away. We need to head to the control room at the base of that. From there I should be able to figure out where they located the tanks.”
“Can we get there just on these walkways?” asked Carl, trying to trace a path from their current platform to the scaffolding which surrounded the scrubbing tower.
“Walk?” mocked Paul as he crouched and slowly launched himself towards the tower which lay some sixty or so meters away. “I never took you as a grounder, Carl.”
“Ha, ha” said Carl, humorlessly. Stowing his weapon behind him, Carl jumped to follow Paul.
Gliding silently over the machinery, Paul went over his plan. First, the tanks. Second, the codes. Third, the call.
Bracing himself, Paul expertly caught the landing grip and maneuvered out of Carl’s way who landed moments later. “Nice jump, Mr. Professor,” congratulated Carl. “Didn’t know they taught zero-G maneuvers in nerd school.”
“I am happy to still be able to surprise you, Carl.” answered Paul, ignoring the dig. “There should be a v-lift somewhere on this,” he said walking around the tower on the narrow platform. Carl unslung his rifle and followed Paul to where, indeed, a v-lift tube entrance protruded from the tower. They descended.
As they descended, Paul said, “We’re leaving the third level where most of the final processing takes place just before transport. We’re headed to the first which is mostly dedicated to storage. You’ll notice a difference.”
Indeed, they both did, stepping out of the lift. Instead of being greeted with a kaleidoscope of machinery and pipes, there was simply two rows of imaginably huge pressure silos leading off in both directions, as far as they could see. “Each of those can hold upwards of two thousand cubic meters of material.” stated Paul. “It’s this way.” he said, indicating to their left.
The first two pairs of tanks seemed intact but up ahead they spotted the eerie outline of a billowing white explosion shooting out of the right storage tank but completely frozen in place, just hanging in the middle of the passageway perched on the column of ice emerging from a fracture in the tank’s hull. It was like looking at trid movie that had been paused. As they approached it they saw that the cloud was made up of thousands of delicate shards of thin finger-like crystals. Paul reached up and passed his hand right through it, tiny crystals flying in every direction.
“Helium. Pretty.” he said and added “I hope our tank hasn’t suffered the same fate.”
Ducking under the stationary explosion, they made their way down the row. “Are we almost there?” asked Carl, adding, “My oh-two levels just hit sixty percent.”
“Yeah, it’s not this one, not the next, the one after that. Number 513.” answered Paul.
Carl needn’t have asked. Leading up to the front of the tank was a wide series of deep steps made of white polished stone. These led to the dais upon which the tank rested. The tank however was flanked by a double colonnade of equally white columns soared up from golden plinths upon which a vaulted structure emblazoned with frescos and scriptures to the Amarrian God. The rounded structure of the front of the tank had been covered with a wall which filled the entire space between the leading columns and the vaulted ceiling. In the middle of that wall was a bulkhead door surrounded by its own frescoes and scriptures. What had been a simple liquid oxygen storage tank was now a shrine.
“What the hell is that?” gaped Carl.
“That, is where gods reincarnate.” answered Paul as he walked past Carl heading towards it.
“It was the Amarr who first decided to save space by housing their cloning units inside their ELS storage tanks. It was simple really. Jump clones in stasis vats need one thing beyond all things and that’s stability. Just a slight input to the dormant unimprinted brain could cause unmonitored dendritic growth or worse, atrophy and bang. Your neural mapping is filled with CRC errors. Do you know what the CRC error threshold is for a “perfect” neural transferral Carl? Less than a pico percent!”
“You lost me at dandorites and trophies.” admitted Carl.
“Ok, well take it from me. You don’t want to disturb the clones. So what do you do? In the first designs, they needed a completely separate isobaric, isothermal compartment. More parts. More points of failure. But they already had those conditions, in multiple, redundant tanks right down here, in the bowels of ELS. Yeah, seems obvious now, but back then, I…ah, I’m sure it was far from obvious“ finished Paul wincing.
“I am sorry to interrupt your lesson here, Paul, but really, my oh-two levels aren’t going up and those quakes seem to be coming more often. What do you say we get what we came for?” asked Carl, impatiently.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Paul answered, “Yeah, good idea.”
The outer door was a simple mechanical hatch but once open and into the small anteroom beyond, they were greeted by a closed and heavily reinforced pressure door. A panel to the side of it was lit.
“What the…I thought this place was completely dead?” said Carl.
“The clone vat bay has it’s own completely shielded independent power supply for keeping the clones in stasis. Of course, this place is hardlinked to main power as well, but that’s only for the actual transferral process.” said Paul. “Here is where I am going to need your help.”
“Oh? What’s that, Paul?” asked Carl.
“I need your DED authorization passcodes.” said Paul
“Paul, you know as well as I that my codes aren’t valid anymore.” said Carl.
“Yes they are.”
“Paul, I’ve been out of the DED for about two years now, I am pretty sure they are completely worthless.” argued Carl.
“No, not your old codes, I am talking about the new ones. You know. The ones you received before taking the job from Proteque and going undercover.” said Paul.
“Paul, Paul, Paul,” said Carl, levelling his rifle, “I should I say Dr. Paul Veschens, how’s your brother Yomir doing, by the way? Oh, that’s right, strange encephalitis causing irreparable brain damage…sounds more like someone tried to run an analog scan without it being a burn scan. Too much work for just the one of you, Paul?”
“Well, it seems as though you’ve unmasked me, Carl. Can I keep calling you Carl? But you see, I really need to get in that room and you are my key,” said Paul as he revealed a pistol shaped object in his left glove. “Now, the codes.”
“Paul Veschens, I am placing you under arrest.” countered Carl.
“On what grounds? I admit it. I tried to clone myself and it didn’t work. So?”
“Vivisection, human trafficking, clone trafficking, booster trafficking…need I go on?” listed Carl.
“Remember when you said that space combat was a game of tag?” asked Paul.
“Huh? Yeah, and if you don’t start lowering whatever that is, you’re going to be ‘it’” answered Carl.
Paul kept raising his weapon.
“Don’t do it Paul, I am warning you. Don’t…”
Paul kept going.
“Paul, God dammit!” Carl straightened his aim and pulled the trigger.
“I took the liberty of smearing some nanopaste over your weapon with the instructions that it was a broken fluid router. They should be almost completing their first cycle.” said Paul.
“So, let me think, were those bootprints in DC, yours?” asked Carl, buying time.
“No, but we’d sent a survey team in. They got all the way here but got stuck at the door. That’s where you came in. We knew you wouldn’t go for it unless something big was waved your way. And that’s where I came in,” confirmed Paul.
Well I’m not going to give you the codes and if you kill me the codes are gone, so what’s your plan, professor?” taunted Carl.
“You know how, when someone says, “don’t think about a fedo” you can’t help but picture a fedo? Well, don’t think about the codes, Carl.”
Paul fired his weapon.
The door to the clone vat bay slid open and Professor Veschens stepped into the completely intact space within. Behind him Carl floated, still hooked into the analog burn scanner. Paul flicked on his comms.
“This is Paul. Yes, I’ve entered the bay and am staring at you now, sir. Yes, that shouldn’t be a problem. And I can have the other five including the implants and full genetic signatures? Excellent. Please send the extraction team, the beacon is transmitting. Yes, I will see you shortly.”
He glanced over at Carl. Meateorite. He had to admit, it was catchy.
Pod and Planet Fiction Contest YC116 Entry
Category: Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden