Eye of the Serpent — Episode One “The Black Freighter”

(Originally posted on SweetLittleBadGirl on 2011.03.25. Second-place winner in a player-run fiction contest and published in E-ON magazine.)

First launched in YC93, Eye of the Serpent earned immediate notoriety for both its ambitious script and its simplistic production design. Now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its release, the cast and crew have been reunited to share their memories of the experience, offering a unique glimpse behind what has become one of the Federation’s most iconic holoserials.

JAIAL RHEINN (Writer)

Eye of the Serpent was… well, my first professional work, I’d have to say. I did other holoserial scripts before, but those were just one-off episodes; Eye was the first production I was fully in charge of, and I really, really pushed the limits. I created two main characters, one of whom wouldn’t even appear until the second year. There was Adrian Fray, who was this FIO agent working under deep-cover within the Serpentis, feeding intel back to his handlers and trying to-to keep the outlaws from getting too powerful. Then there was Gamma Reyvis, who was this really quite ambitious underling of Salvador Sarpati, who fancies herself a better leader for the Serpentis.It was complex, dark, very serious with… I tried to inject a very dry, gallows-type humour. (laughs) I like to think I succeeded.”

KEI LeMAR (“Adrian Fray”)

“When I was first approached by the producers to play Adrian, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was more ambitious and boundary-pushing than most holoserials at the time, and… I think the portrayal of people like Sarpati, people who are not only still alive but well-known… made it a bit risky (laughs).”

CORTINA HARRAN (Co-producer)

“It helped, I think, that we presented it to the studios as a comedy, rather than a serious drama. It was aimed at a younger audience, though it gained quite a following among adults as well.”

NARET LAISSATA (Director)

“It was a risk, a big risk. We almost didn’t get a studio to take it, but eventually Essence Syndication Network took us on, with the threat that, if it didn’t pay off in the first six months, we were going to be shut down. We mostly paid out of our pockets, and you can tell in those early episodes by the-the overabundance of product-placement that we were taking a lot of advertising money just to keep a roof over our heads.”

~*~

A dimness at first, in which dark shapes can only just be seen. Somewhere, sluggish water is dripping, an eerie counterpoint to the subsonic rumbling of a ship’s systems at rest. A beam of light cuts through the darkness, blinding momentarily before swinging back the other direction.

“Fray, are you sure about this?”

“Shh!”

“This ship is huge Adrian, there’s no way we’ll find–”

The light goes dim as the first voice, a quavering tenor, yelps and falls with a splash. White torchlight silhouettes the forms of two men as the taller of the two helps the other back to his feet. “It’s here, René, if you’d actually looked over the real manifest rather than the ‘official manifest’…”

“Ugh.” The smaller man makes a futile effort to wipe water from his sodden trousers. “You’d think they could maintain their ships better.”

“At least it means we’re not likely to run into anyone else down here.” Fray trains the beam of his FedMart-brand NightTorch up the racktower storage arrays, towering skeletal frames set in tracks on the floor and ceiling, hypertensile tritanium alloy shelves designed to house massive freight containers and make loading and unloading easier. “You don’t want to think where it might be coming from.”

~*~

LARU en KIMA (“Little René”)

“The water. That damnable water (laughs). I fell in there, tripped over one of the guiderails, and that was not scripted. They left it in anyway.”

NARET LAISSATA (Director)

“At the time, the popular thing was to have holoseries recorded entirely on sound-stages with the set added in later via computer simulation. We could no more afford that sort of technical setup than we could afford to shoot on-site, so what we did was find, well, junkyards, essentially, where there were a few hulls that were still airtight that hadn’t been stripped by scavengers. For the first episode, it was an Obelisk-class freighter. If we’d tried to film the series like that today, I’m not sure we’d have been permitted. I still don’t want to think what might have been in that water.”

L’SIATA ROUVENOR (Co-producer)

“I think the mere fact that we found those locations to film at — scrapyards we really should not have been in, station hallways with the general population as our unwitting extras, film crew-members’ redecorated quarters — made it ground-breaking in its simplicity and realism. It was allrecognisable and familiar to the audience.”

KEI LeMAR (“Adrian Fray”)

“Get in trouble? Sure we did. Get stared at, in those ridiculous outfits? (laughs) I had to work out daily, every single breakfast pastry showed in those tight jumpsuits. It was the fashion at the time for kids’ programming: you could have the darkest storyline in the world, as long as there was no swearing and the set was all vivid, happy colours. We got dark at times, we really wanted to use the first episode to let them know we weren’t just playing around.”

~*~

“Sst!” Fray skids to a stop on the slippery floor, an arm extended to hold René back. “You hear that?”

The smaller man is shaking his head adamantly. “I don’t want to hear anything except you saying it’s time to go, Fray, we shouldn’t even be here…”

“It came from over here…” The tall, dark-haired Gallentean sloshes through the muck down a side-passage between rusted-out containers.

“Fray! Sssss! Bring the light back!” Muttering under his breath, the shorter blond man picks his way carefully through the knee-deep water as Fray turns to wait for him. “You know what your problem is? You’re too eager.”

Fray’s finely chiselled features arrange themselves into a frown, underlit starkly by the white torchlight. “I don’t have a problem. Do I have a problem? I have a job to do, here.”

~*~

KEI LeMAR (“Adrian Fray”)

“The dialogue. Oh! That was great fun. Jaial is a really good writer, really good. It always amazes me when people criticise the dialogue and say it was bad. It was done that way on purpose.”

JAIAL RHEINN (Writer)

“It was part irony and part… part social commentary, really, to make the dialogue the way it was. We must have spent upwards of three weeks debating how to do it. The studio was on our case to make it funny, to make it child-friendly and accessible. We had a lot of fun bending the rules, and the actors… I think they took it and started hamming it up even more.”

~*~

Fray pauses near a freight container, leaning his ear close to the flaking metal, water sloshing around his boots. A soft tap on the side elicits a rustle of movement from within, and the lean Intaki reaches up to pull the security pin from the latch. A shriek of terror echoes through the hold as water begins to seep through the opening, and René flinches.

“Oh great! Close it up!”

Ignoring him, Fray casts the beam of the NightTorch through the hatch, the bright white spotlight passing across the frightened faces of a dozen filthy Minmatar children huddled as far back as they can. Murmuring reassurances, Fray crouches down on the floor of the container, propping the torch on the floor. He tries a couple different languages until the children react to his words; then he asks questions. One of the oldest, a Sebiestor girl with tangled dark hair, answers him hesitantly.

~*~

FEILLI FARRACHT (“Miryol”)

“I was the only one of the children with a name. None of the others really had to do anything except look terrified and go where we were told. They had a boy chosen originally to play Miryol, but he came down sick the day before filming and couldn’t get out of bed. They gave the script to me because I was the only other one who could speak a Sebiestor dialect.”

CORTINA HARRAN (Co-producer)

“The inclusion of the children’s sub-plot and introducing the character of Miryol was a last-minute thing. The studio came down and told us we couldn’t have a children’s show without a child of the target age being a recurring character. we almost had to bin the whole thing, but Jaial really came to the rescue, it was a stroke of genius.”

~*~

Sighing, Fray backs out of the container, then rises to face René. “Refugee kids. Their parents were promised they’d be educated and taken care of.”

The smaller Gallente man snorts. “Oh, yeah, they’ll be taken care of alright. Probably in the drug factories as test subjects or carriers.” He eyes Fray grimly. “Don’t think you can help them, Adrian, it’ll be noticed and so will you. And me. I don’t know about you but I like my thumbs where they are.”

Fray’s expression tightens, a dark fire in his blue eyes. “Well, I’m not leaving them here to be swamped. The access stair to the next level was over there, right?”

Fray–

“I mean it, René.” He leans back into the freight container, holding his hand out to the Sebiestor girl. She hesitates only a moment before seizing his fingers in hers, then turning to talk to the other children. Shortly, the two Gallentean spies are leading them between the stacked freight containers, René muttering under his breath and looking constantly over his shoulders.

Fray coaxes them up to the to the dry second tier and over to a dark space in the shadows. Speaking softly, he offers his name. The girl looks uncomfortable for a moment, then says, “Miryol.”

~*~

KEI LeMAR (“Adrian Fray”)

” A lot of what we did was very much by the seat of our pants, you know, we had things scripted but then things would get changed at the last second. Originally, I was supposed to close the kids back into the crate with a promise to return, but the water on the floor was a surprise. I felt Adrian wasn’t the sort of guy who’d just leave a bunch of kids in a dark crate anyway, but the water really sealed the deal.”

LARU en KIMA (“Little René”)

“René was… well, he was meant to be a very self-serving, calculating sort. Fray’s conscience and guide, if you will. But he always seemed to me to be a bit of a coward. He’s in a very dangerous occupation and would really rather not do anything at all to gain attention from the wrong people, and I sat down with both Jaial and Naret to see if we could develop that a bit more.”

~*~

“Adrian, that was way, way out of line. How are we going to cover this up?” René is fretting, one hand repeatedly readjusting his collar. Fray smiles mischievously, a grin that would become famous over the next three years.

“I’ve just thought of something. Follow me.”

The taller man leads the way out of the cargo hold. The crew lift is damaged, so he jimmies the lock on the access stairs while René groans in disbelief. “What are you doing?”

“Cargo manifest will be in the bridge computer. It’ll save us a lot of time.”

The shorter man looks as though he’d rather be anywhere else but follows, shaking his head. The beam from their NightTorch flares and arcs as they follow the winding, rusted stairs around the curve of the lift shaft.

“Ugh.” René leans on the wall as they reach the top. “Tell me the bridge is close.”

Fray points along the hallway, the lights set dim for station-side night. “Just up there.” He makes his way down the corridor, René trailing close behind, and quietly slides open the door at the far end.

Dimmed orange light illuminates the curved expanse of the bridge, consoles darkened and shut down. The Federal agent locates the main computer panel and begins to hack through the security. The whine of a blaster pistol powering up causes both men to turn suddenly.

“Who are you guys?”

~*~

LARU en KIMA (“Little René”)

“They did a fantastic job making that rusted-out shell of an Obelisk look active. Generators to power the lights and all, and we all chipped in to help clean up the upper levels. The places we filmed in the hold were the same three alleys between the freight containers; there were only about fifteen of them, and the crew rearranged them so that the place looked filled no matter the angle.”

L’SIATA ROUVENOR (Co-producer)

“Jaial originally wrote the character of Little René to be a sort of comic relief supporting role, but when we got down to the filming we realised that it would look better if he was on more of an equal standing with Adrian. They’re both agents for the FIO, they both have a lot of physical and academic training. The only real difference is that René is very cautious and has been in there for a long time, while Adrian is much younger, a new face among the Serpentis. Almost all of what he does horrifies René, who specialises more in cloak-and-dagger than in being a man of action. It was a different dynamic from most children’s shows back then.”

~*~

Fray raises his hands, showing them empty, but gives a confident smile. “Serpentis Corporate Security, captain. Can you tell me about your cargo? The manifest raised an alert and you must understand we want to make certain everything is in order.”

The freighter captain pales and swallows nervously. “Oh… oh. It’s about that, isn’t it? I never wanted to carry it, it wasn’t my idea but… it’s money, man. You know?”

Fray is nodding readily. “Of course, of course. I must ask to inspect it, however. I’m sure you understand the risks involved.”

The captain drops his arm, the pistol’s amber targeting beam sweeping to the floor. “Y-yeah. Yeah, sure. It’s in the secure cargo.” He leads the undercover agents back down to a separate cargo level with a heavy security door. Fumbling with the keypad, he babbles, “I-I never wanted to carry it, man, you know? It was just too much of a risk…” Behind his back, Fray and René exchange a puzzled glance.

~*~

KEI LeMAR (“Adrian Fray”)

“Adrian is… a very social animal, you know, he’s very charismatic and personable and he has an ability to read people and respond with what they expect to hear. It’s part innate ability and part expensive implants and training, and it’s how he reached his position within the FIO as an undercover agent.”

JAIAL RHEINN (Writer)

“I wanted to show very early on what the characters of Adrian and René were like, I didn’t want to have any horrible clichés involving secret identities or dark pasts… the sort of tropes that were popular at the time, there was an utter rash of those sorts of antiheroes at the time, and I thought it was about time that children had.. well, a real hero to look up to.”

KEI LeMAR (“Adrian Fray”)

“I didn’t want to be-be put on a pedestal, you know, I’m not comfortable with heights at all (laughs). But it was… I found it moving, really, when I learned that Adrian Fray was such a great role model.”

~*~

The centre of the floor is occupied by a solid crate, anchored by heavy bolts to the decking; the pale half-light of a security field hums around it. The freighter captain takes a step back, allowing the two agents access. “I don’t have the pass for the field, you understand–“

The shriek of an alarm cuts him off mid-sentence. Fray catches his arm before he can bolt away down the corridor. “What is that?!”

“Containment alarm from the main hold! We need to evacuate!”

The Intaki releases the captain’s arm, yelling over the sirens, “We’ll be right behind you!” He watches as the captain runs for the exit, then turns to see René popping the lock on the crate. The smaller man glances up at him, holding up a palm-sized electronic security breaker.

“We went to far too much trouble to get here just to be scared off. Give me a hand here.”

Together, they open the crate. Crystalline green light spills out across their faces, illuminating Fray’s broad grin and René’s puzzled frown.

“Is this… it?”

Adrian Fray reaches into the crate and lifts out a scintillating optical-crystal sculpture, fragile-looking tendrils curving and swirling around a core of light. “You bet it is. The Serpent’s Eye. Stolen from a museum in the Fed last month. This thing is priceless and older than dirt. I don’t know why they wanted it, but they’re not buying anybody with it now.” He gestures impatiently with one hand and René quickly pulls a collapsible box from a pouch at his waist and pops it into shape. The green light disappears as Fray secures the lid over the sculpture. “You take care of the package! I’ll see to the kids!”

“You aren’t seriously going back for them!”

“I sure am! Get going!”

Fray clatters down the stairs, arriving at the bottom with a splash. Looking around, he starts to head toward the second level when a slender pale hand grabs his. He spins, a slender pistol appearing in his hand, then relaxes as he sees Miryol. In her language, he asks, “Where are the others? There’s something leaking in here.”

The girl shakes her head. “They’re safe, near the exit. I pulled the alarm.”

Fray reacts with surprise. “You pulled it?”

The Sebiestor girl smiles. “I was in training to serve on a ship like this before we were brought from the Empire. I’m good with electronics.”

Laughing, the Gallente scoops the girl into his arms and hurries with her across the cargo bay. “I’ll have to keep that in mind. You’ve been a big help today.”

The God-Makers

(Originally posted on Sweet Little Bad Girl)

 

Lu Tien Hannarad fastened his coverall securely at the shoulder and paused to check in the mirror. Pale blue and spotless, it gave the young man a distinguished look, or so he felt. He hoped. He rubbed his hands together in an attempt to stop their trembling.

This was a big day.

At the door, he paused, taking a deep breath and allowing it to rattle his narrow frame on its way out. ‘Relax,’ he whispered. ‘You can do this. It’s just like the exams.’

He was shaking.

In the next room, a man and a woman were waiting, seated at a table and looking over holograms projected into the air above its surface. The man, Alric Takiri, looked up.

‘Ah, Lu Tien, we’re just reviewing the procedures for today’s subject. Take a seat.’

The woman, Vienne Miyental, keyed up another image. ‘I realise this is your first procedure outside of the exam holos, Lu Tien, so you’ll have both of us keeping an eye on your progress today. Alric will be assisting you, I’ll be back at the control desk watching on camera while I keep an eye on her vitals.’

Lu Tien nodded, not trusting his voice. Vienne rested her hand on his. ‘Relax. There isn’t much that can go wrong here which can’t be fixed quickly and easily with minimal impact. Our subject today is in good health. She’s prepared herself for this day for the last five years, and now it’s up to you to bring her dreams to life.’ Her fingers squeezed his momentarily and released.

The young man gave his superiors a wobbly smile. ‘So no pressure, huh?’

They reviewed the procedure step by step over the next hour, and Lu Tien began to relax. It waslike in the exams, except this time he would have living flesh and blood under his hands. Vienne and Alric would be there the whole time, he wouldn’t be alone, and despite the complexity of the procedure, it wouldn’t be life-threatening.

She was waiting in a comfortably-furnished room just outside of the surgery, looking neat and official in her Academy undress uniform. They shook her hand and Alric introduced Lu Tien as Doctor Hannarad, the cybernetics technician in charge of the procedure; Lu Tien bowed and expressed his pleasure at meeting her and the honour he felt at being the one to work on her. She smiled and said the honour was hers. An assistant came and led her away to the prep room while the three technicians returned to the surgery to make certain all was in order and ready.

Lu Tien’s shakes had returned. ‘I don’t know if I can do this…’ He surveyed the array of equipment laid out on tables and trolleys and platters before him: the tools of the trade he had so long hoped to excel in. Alric’s hand gripped Lu Tien’s shoulder.

‘You can. We’ll catch you if you stumble, but we’re not here to hold you up.’

Soon, too soon, the young woman was wheeled in on a surgical trolley, already sedated and laid facedown with her hands resting on shelves below the level of the table-top to prevent circulatory disfunction; she was naked but for the open-backed operatory gown and a paper-fabric sheet draped over her legs. Vienne plugged in and started the bank of computers monitoring the woman’s heart rate, brain function and neural network. Assistants swarmed around Lu Tien and Alric, faceless in surgical masks and caps, ever-present, never intrusive, prepping the technicians to work their craft in turning an ordinary pilot into a capsuleer.

Alric took up a position on the opposite side of the patient from Lu Tien. ‘While this procedure is not risky in the sense that it could potentially maim or kill the subject, there is a chance that minor damage may be done to the spinal structure. In that sense, we must be cautious. She already has the initial training jacks and wiring; what we’re doing is merely upgrading the system. Lu Tien: begin.’

He’d feared the nervous trembling would cause him to falter, but as he prepared to work, the shakes eased. By the time the first incision was made, a sense of peace had stolen over him, his mind and body settling into the familiar rhythm of a procedure he had performed a hundred times before in simulated scenarios. As he worked, Alric kept a steady, low-voiced monologue, as if weaving a story into the movements of the young technician’s hands.

‘There was a time when the single contact point in the skull was not considered enough for a capsuleer to have contact with even the training setups. The jacks were crude, heavy, plainly visible to anyone and had to be located at multiple points throughout the body for total nervous systems interface.’

‘First socket is in place and anchored,’ Lu Tien murmured into his microphone to Vienne at the control desk. ‘Connection is secured. Begin interface sequence.’

The third technician tapped a command into a terminal; signals pulsed through the wires slotted into the new and old jacks. Suddenly awakened nanofilaments stirred within the hardware and began travelling along preexisting neural pathways, interlinking and spreading throughout the pilot’s systems.

‘Eventually, advances in the technology were made,’ Alric continued. ‘The hardware became smaller, finer, more capable of managing the demands of capsule command. Corporate competition drove the design to further refinement until the standard became what is in use today.’

‘Second socket in place and anchored. Connection secured.’

Each implant was carefully mounted on the vertebrae of the woman’s spine, nanofilament connections binding them into her nervous system and to each other. The flesh was sealed around the implants with a protective, flexible medical foam which would deteriorate as the healing process progressed.

‘It’s the initial ordeal of receiving capsuleer implants that can make or break a pilot.’ The implants ran the length of the woman’s spine, now, and the final stages of the surgery were in process. It was mostly Vienne’s scene as she monitored progress and status, making adjustments as necessary.

Lu Tien looked at Alric. ‘How so?’

The older man gestured to the sleeping pilot. ‘When a capsuleer’s clone is grown, the implants are developed with it. There’s no invasive surgical procedures, and everything is meshed perfectly. It’s this first step, where the pilot becomes more than human, that’s the biggest and hardest. Imagine being in her place, waking up after this. Even with all the testing, all the training, nothing quite prepares you for the feeling of something alien inside you.’

Vienne gave the thumbs-up as the final test completed. ‘Green. Get her to the recovery ward. Good job, people.’

‘It’s the reason we don’t leave them alone from the moment they awaken. A small percentage can’t handle it. They lose it entirely and all that can be done for them is care homes and lots of therapy; some kill themselves within the year.’

Lu Tien stared at his mentor, shocked at the notion, then at the pilot as she was carried away. ‘I never… I never thought of that.’

The omnipresent assistants removed the technicians’ masks and gloves; Alric rubbed the end of his nose with the back of one hand. ‘Finally!

‘Look at it this way. Nearly everyone has some minor cybernetics, these days. Optical repairs, audio implants, maybe a replaced or repaired internal organ or bone. Those are minimal things. Capsuleer implants hug the nerves so tightly, a pilot can feel it at first. Sort of a tightness, maybe a burning sensation, like a vague, sourceless pressure in every limb. That’s how one described it for me, once. The feeling of it can be devastating if they’re given time to think about it.’ He glanced at Lu Tien. ‘Becoming a god is neither easy nor painless. It’s up to us to ease that transition as much as possible even as we initiate it. You did well today.’

Lu Tien looked around the operating theatre; assistants were bustling around cleaning up and shutting down various pieces of equipment. ‘Becoming… a god?’ he murmured. He thought about the pilot as she’d been when he’d met her. ‘She’s beautiful.’

Someone clapped him on the shoulder; he turned to see Vienne, looking tired but happy. ‘Wait til you see what she becomes.’

Dust

(Originally posted on Sweet Little Bad Girl, after DUST514 was announced in 2009. Obviously, the released game bears little resemblance to this footslogger’s story, but very little was known about it at the time.)

 

What sort of person do you have to be, to turn your back on everything you ever knew?

The tip of her knife drags through the thin layer of dirt, blade grating harshly against the stone beneath.

When your life is ruled by the almighty ISK, what do you cling to?

The lines she draws form a map. She doesn’t notice; the map is etched more permanently in her mind than it is in the dust: we are here, they are there, and soon, we shall be there, too. And they won’t be.

She could be Intaki, Civire, Ni-Kunni, Sebiestor… with her hair shaved back to stubble, dressed in a sleeveless shirt and fatigues, distinguishing marks erased when she gave up her name for a number, it no longer matters.

The toe of her boot, scuffed and weathered, broken straps replaced slapdash with a strip of elastic splint wrapped around her ankle, rubs the map from the ground.

Her detail only arrived here this morning, but already she’s been here forever.

When she first started, every place was new to her; she had never before left her homeworld.

Staring too much lost her an arm. But that was alright, because she died later that day, victim of an enemy groundsweeper run.

After too many iterations, the field shrinks. It becomes little more than a game on paper: your location, your target, your obstacles, your support. Circles and crosses; everything else becomes circumstantial.

She stares with grey eyes across a field littered with the detritus of human civilisation, canyon walls of chrome and crystal rising away to form a deadly labyrinth, mined and riddled with traps. She sees through these, only focussed on the target three miles away.

It will be gone tomorrow, or she will be.

The pay is good; it would have to be, for all the risk they take. She used to save it, hoarding against the day when she could buy that little apartment in the city; now, she spends it on better armour, better weapons. New iterative clones of herself, her memories preserved and injected into each new body as the old one is killed.

She remembers every death.

It no longer traumatises her as it did in the beginning. Too many iterations have inured her to that flash of light, that moment of red agony as parts of herself move in directions they were never meant to, mingling on the ground with parts of her comrades before her last memory ends.

Her comrades used to be people, once. And still there are nights when she and another will take comfort in each other, reassuring themselves that they still live. But like thousands of others, she and they have become faceless ghosts, pieces of meat directed to live and die by iron-clad gods who stride the night skies, whose only concerns are their personal loss and gain, heedless of the souls who scrabble for their will in the dust.

Basters at Twenty Paces

This article was first published on EVE-Mag.com – an independent EVE magazine (www.EVE-Mag.com). Reprinted with permission.

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‘Hello and welcome back to Cuisine of New Eden. I’m Lairen Comrey–’

‘And I’m Terric Jaimsen. Tonight’s programme is a bit different from the usual; you viewers at home are in for a special treat tonight!’

‘And what a treat it is.’ The camera shifts to focus on the presenter in her neat violet suit as she composes herself. ‘Last week, someone wrote in to our own Chef Marçeau asking if he was aware of a new cookery volume which has recently been published by Capsule Pilot Vaas Milgren via GalNet EMedia.’

‘Yes, indeed.’ The view flips back to Terric as he picks up the narrative. ‘The volume, titled I Jumped, I Docked, I Dined, has received astonishing reviews throughout the capsuleer community and is being called the premiere recipe-book for the interstellar traveller. It contains literally thousands of recipes from around New Eden, including a section dedicated to alternative and fusion dishes, and extensive descriptions of the cultural backgrounds.’

‘I Jumped, I Docked, I Dined is truly a marvel and Pilot Milgren has clearly dedicated a lot of his time and energy to it.’

The image changes to show a wiry Sebiestor man grinning broadly into the camera; the footage is from an interview which was recorded at his book’s launch. He speaks into the microphone which has been thrust into his face:

‘Well, y’know, I’ve been all over the galaxy– What? No, I can’t say I’ve been to every system, but I’ve certainly seen every region. I don’t look it, but I love food– Yeah, I go to the gym daily, you can’t slack off when you spend your days in a pod, y’know? So everywhere I dock or land, I ask the locals what their favorite foods are. I go to restaurants a lot, y’know, try tons of different dishes. Sometimes the places give me the recipes when I ask, someti– Yeah, they’re all credited. Sometimes they’d rather not share, which is fair enough if it’s someone’s signature dish, so I developed my own variations which are near as damnit.’

He runs a hand back through his short mohawk, pondering a barely-audible question from the interviewer. ‘Well, y’know, part of it has to do with understanding the culture. Did you know there’s an Amarrian sect which forbids the use of cinnamon in dishes containing jaii-fruit? I know, I can’t imagine jaii without cinnamon, but there ya go: that isn’t the craziest food taboo I’ve heard of, either.

‘But I thought, I can’t be the only pilot who loves food, so I decided to publish the stuff.’

The video clip continues, silenced, but Lairen’s voice-over declares, ‘Obviously, Chef Marçeau couldn’t let this challenge to his expertise go unanswered.’

The feed now shows a somewhat portly Gallente man making a poor show of concealing his annoyance; this is also from an earlier interview. ‘–I thought, this is ludicrous! The man floats in a ball of goo with a bunch of tubes up his orifices every day. He’s a pilot, not a trained chef! I paid hundreds of thousands to attend the most prestigious cooking school in the Federation, and this guy claims he’s qualified to produce a book like this? I think this calls for a little test!’

The camera returns to the two presenters; Terric straightens his natty silver jacket and states, ‘The oven-mitt has been thrown down tonight, and Capsuleer Milgren has agreed to join us for a cook-off: a competition between himself and Chef Marçeau.’

‘The rules are to create a full four-course meal in which each course represents one of the four great nations of New Eden. Especially for this event, we have invited ten of our most well-known food critics to determine who knows food better: Marçeau or Milgren.’

‘Milgren caused quite a stir when he arrived last night in an interceptor packed full of ingredients, but station security has not been forthcoming on exactly what the problem was. We’re assuming it was a Customs issue regarding some of his imports, but there appears to be a higher level of security around the studio tonight.’ Terric flashes a too-white smile at the camera. ‘I suppose if one of the eggs hatches there may be a flutter, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen! Let’s go to the kitchens, shall we?’

The camera follows him as he gets up, brushes imaginary wrinkles from his trousers and walks out the door into the neat, industrial hallway. He glances over his shoulder occasionally, narrating to the camera as he makes his way to the studio kitchens. ‘Chef Marçeau has pulled out all the stops tonight. He’s told us he’s using recipes he has never before produced for the show. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with!

‘Chef Marçeau has requested, unusually, to be judged first in this competition.’ The view switches to an interview held earlier that day, showing Milgren in neat chef’s whites. Lairen’s voice asks, ‘Does it bother you that Chef Marçeau insisted on first presentation?’

The pilot grins. ‘Absolutely not. I have no idea how serious he’s taking it, but I’m just here to have fun, y’know?’ He winks cheekily at the camera.

‘So it’s time to see what Chef Marçeau is up to.’ The camera has switched back to following Terric through a set of elabourate double doors and in amongst the chaos within. Cuisiniers bustle about, and the camera pans across, pausing as it finds sights which meet its programmed AI standards of ‘interesting’. It zips back on topic as the presenter locates the master of the mayhem.

‘Well, as you can see, everyone in here is very busy indeed, but, Chef Marçeau, we were hoping you could give the viewers at home a hint of what you have in store for our panel of judges.’

Marçeau’s features arrange into his patented ‘camera attitude’: part jovial fat man, part superior professional. ‘Very well, Terric, since you asked so nicely.

‘What we have right here is the sauce which will eventually go into the main dish, which is going to be a classic Gallente savoury mille-foile. As you can see, we have Jirata here slicing the sausage which will form some of the layers between the pastry Hira is rolling out at the far end of the worktable.’

The camera pans and focusses as the chef indicates different members of the staff, zooming in on Hira’s delicate hands wielding a roller over a flake-thin sheet of dough.

‘We’ll be alternating the sausage layers with this fresh dark broadleaf–’ the chef hefts a wildly leafy bundle of greens ‘–and a regional goat’s cheese we had imported this morning. Over here…’ Marçeau slips amongst the workers, nimble despite his bulk. He leads the way to a workspace along one wall where a commis is toasting flatbread sliced into strips in a pan over an open gas flame. ‘This is in preparation for our starter, which is to be crisped Caldari flatbread served with a selection of patés created using a base of Caldari protein paste… I can see by your expression you’re not convinced. Give this a try.’ The chef breaks off a section of flatbread which looks slightly over-done and scrapes a rime of greyish paste from one of the bowls, passing it to the presenter who looks a bit anxious. Terric hedges a moment, then nibbles cautiously; his expression quickly turns to surprise.

‘Oh my word. What’s in this?’

Marçeau chuckles. ‘Trade secret! We have three varieties we’ll be offering today like so…’ He swiftly arranges spoonfuls of the patés on a blue glass dish and surrounds them decoratively with sections of flatbread raying outward like a solar corona. ‘There’s just enough there to clear the palate without destroying the appetite. Next, over here we have our salad course.’ He leads the presenter and tagalong camera drone over to another worktable near a rank of ovens set into one wall. A cuisinier and commis are working with the care of sculptors over the items before them.

The chef picks up a spongy cup-shaped white fungus. ‘These are Amarrian grail mushrooms, so called because their rims turn up rather than down. As we all know, Amarrian cuisine is humble yet elegant, so what we’re doing is filling the mushroom caps with a lightly-seasoned mixture of saffron finegrains and chopped capsicum. Then these will be baked until the mushrooms just begin to curl over the contents, and because of the structure of this fungus, they’ll stand upright all on their own.’

Terric looks impressed. ‘That is elegant. And as you showed us earlier, the mille-foile is the main course, and I can smell it baking already. What, sir, have you planned for your finale?’

Marçeau’s broad face looks crafty. ‘A Matari tradition, my friend.’ They move over to another table where one cuisinier is stirring something white and glutinous in a heated pot whilst another finely grates cinnamon sticks into a small glass dish. ‘This is a boiled grain pudding, and I can tell you don’t think it looks like much of a dessert. Once the grains have reached a sort of mushy consistency, we’ll be adding honey and spices and setting the lot aside to chill until it’s needed.’

‘And this, you think, is better than anything Milgren could possibly come up with,’ Terric jibes. Marçeau draws himself up, smiling but with a hint of proud assurance lurking underneath.

‘My dear sir, I’m certain Milgren doesn’t have the cooking talents to match his ability to find a crooked publisher.’

The camera returns to the presenters’ studio to show an amused Lairen. ‘Well, there’s some competitive drive there! Let’s see what Pilot Milgren is working on.’

The introduction is the same, following Terric through another set of double doors. The sight on the other side is vastly different, however. Loud music is blasting from a portable audio system propped on one of the unused countertops, and the only soul in the room is Milgren, the Sebiestor bobbing his head in time to the music and practically dancing as he works.

The presenter has to clear his throat and call, ‘Pilot Milgren? Excuse me!’ over the music. The capsuleer notices immediately and turns the volume down.

‘Hey there.’

‘Good evening, sir. We’ve already seen what Marçeau is up to; would you mind showing the viewers at home what you have up your sleeve?’

Straight-faced, the pilot rolls up the cuffs of his white chef’s uniform, revealing heavily-tattooed arms; then he laughs. ‘Just messing with ya! C’mon over here.’

The pilot leads the way to where two pots of thick reddish liquid are setting at just below a simmer; one pot is significantly smaller than the other. ‘This is the starter. I decided to go with a signature Gallente seafood bisque, since it’s not very filling.’ He runs a ladle through the larger of the two pots and displays the lumps of vegetables and various types of shellfish floating just beneath the surface. ‘There’s two pots here because someone told me one of the judges is allergic to seafood. The smaller pot is the vegetarian variant of the same recipe; I can’t use a different sort of meat because this sort of bisque isn’t meant for anything other than seafood and vegetables.’ Milgren glances at the presenter and shrugs. ‘I know it’s breaking form a little, but I’d rather not have someone sitting with an empty plate while everyone else is digging in, y’know?’

Terric’s eyebrows peak but he says nothing against the decision other than, ‘Well, that makes some sense, I suppose. What’s all this over here that you were working on when I walked in?’

‘That’s the salad course.’ The pilot has laid out on another worktable several small squares of dough; a liberal scattering of flour and unwashed tools gives evidence that the dough was made by hand. ‘These are what the Caldari call “garden wraps” — don’t ask me to pronounce the original name. What it is is this very thin pastry, it’s just flour, water and egg. Once it’s rolled out, you cut it into squares the length of your hand. Then you julienne a bunch of vegetables really fine — I’ve used daikon, cabbage and a few root vegetables that are common on Caldari Prime.’ Milgren demonstrates: ‘First you arrange the vegetables on the pastry in a sort of fan shape and drizzle a little of this lemon and ginger sauce over it. Then you fold up the wrap, bottom point first, then the sides, so it looks a little like those weird flower-pots they have, y’know? Then we bake the wraps for maybe a minute at a very high temperature. The dressing keeps the vegetables from drying out or wilting in the heat, and the wrap turns crispy.’

The presenter is looking fascinated. ‘I thought Caldari dishes were traditionally quite bland… this is authentic cuisine?’

‘It is entirely authentic,’ Milgren nods. ‘And it’s in keeping with the Achura belief that you should have five colours in every dish to maintain a balance in the body’s energies.’

‘How… um, fascinating. What are you working on for a main course?’

The Minmatar tilts his head towards another wall-mounted flame unit. ‘Over there.’

On a low flame, a large clay crock is rattling away cheerfully. Milgren lifts the lid and a great puff of steam fogs the camera momentarily. ‘This is a traditional Matari thing, braised rock-hen. It’s common enough among planetary slave colonies; free Minmatar have added a little sophistication by adding wine and cream to the sauce along with the usual tomatoes and green onions.’

Terric’s eyes are watering a bit. ‘That’s quite a potent wine.’

‘It only smells it; the alcohol content is actually really low.’

‘Well, you say that, but we all know the formidable capacity Minmatar possess when it comes to liquor.’ The two men laugh, Milgren broadly, the presenter more reserved.

‘It really is low, the bottle’s over here.’ He passes it over and Terric inspects the label.

‘So it is. I do notice, however, that you have used the entire bottle.’

‘Waste not, want not, right?’

The Gallente presenter looks at the pilot speculatively as he hands the wine bottle back. ‘Were you ever a slave, Pilot?’

‘I was never a slave. Would it matter if I was?’ He shrugs and replaces the lid on the crock.

‘I… suppose not.’ Terric seems a bit off-balance and covers his falter by asking, ‘I notice you have nobody to help you in here. Does it bother you that Marçeau has that extra edge in his preparation?’

‘Nah. I’m used to setting up for dinner parties and stuff on my own, y’know? I think if you’d tried to give me staff to do the work, they’d all be out in the nearest bar right now ’cause I’d’ve sent them off!’ The pilot chuckles. ‘You don’t have as much control over what you’re making of you tell someone to do it for you, y’know?’

‘Hehe, I see. There is one thing I don’t see out here; this is meant to be a four-course meal. What are you plotting as a dessert?’

Milgren’s face takes on a delighted glow. Excitedly, he leads Terric and the camera over to the large refrigeration units and opens one. The two covered glass bowls he brings out are frosted from the chill; one contains small, pale orange fruits floating in amber liquid, the other is filled with a pale violet cream. ‘I won’t be assembling this till I’ve served the main course. These,’ he announces, holding up the fruit dish, ‘are jaii-fruit. I’ve taken the spiny skins off and removed the massive pits, so they’re really just hollow spheres chopped in quarters. The stuff they’re sitting in is an Amarrian brandy native to the area where the sect which doesn’t like cinnamon is located.’

‘This is one of their recipes?’

‘Yep. When it’s time to make the dessert, I’ll reserve the brandy as an aperitif and put the fruit in serving dishes. Then comes the fun part: lighting the fruit!’ There’s a gleeful look on his face that’s just the slightest bit worrying. ‘You set them on fire, and it burns off the alcohol and crystallises the sugars. Then you put it out with this,’ the pilot holds up the other bowl, ‘which is a cream made using almond milk and Amarrian chillies which have gone purple.’

‘Is the purple part significant?’ the presenter asks. The pilot nods.

‘It’s the stage when the peppers take on a sweeter flavour while retaining their heat. It’s what makes the cream turn blueish like that. Then you dust it with a little cacao powder.’ He looks pleased with himself. ‘It was a real bitch to get the brandy in time, but it’s definitely worth it.’

Terric chuckles. ‘Is that what had security at the docking-bay so concerned last night?’

‘Among other things, yeah,’ the pilot admits with a nonchalant air as he returns the bowls to the refrigerator.

‘Out of curiosity… It’s my understanding that there are some bad relations between yourself and The Scope network, which is why they’ve refused to broadcast this particular show. Is there any particular reason for this?’

Terric has the blandly curious expression of an interviewer. Milgren eyes him, then glances at the camera floating above and behind the presenter’s right shoulder. He smiles faintly and says, ‘I have nothing to say about that, thank you.’

‘Well, we’ll let you get back to your work and return to the studio. Lairen?’

The view returns to the other presenter, now in the studio’s faux-wood-panelled dining-room, standing ostentatiously before a neatly-set table bearing a full array of genuine silverware, crystal glasses and spherical oil lamps which have already been lit.

‘Well, it’s time to bring our judges in and start the tasting with Chef Marçeau’s painstaking dinner.’ She gestures off to her right and a group of ten people of different races and bloodlines enter the room, either smiling and relaxed or solemn and straight-backed as each one’s custom dictates. They move to stand behind the chairs placed around the table and Lairen starts at one end and works her way around clockwise with introductions, her pronunciation of each foreign name flawless. Some of the critics have been on the show before; there’s a general exchange of pleasantries, and then the presenter leaves so that there won’t be any potential pressure for bias.

Unobtrusive camera drones stir and flit about as somewhere a chime sounds and the doors to Marçeau’s kitchen swing open. The rotund chef stands impressively just inside the door as his assistants enter bearing trays of the decorative starters.

‘Mesdames et Messires, I present Caldari paté with toasted flatbread,’ Marçeau pronounces grandly. A server circles the table filling the judges’ glasses with sparkling water from a carafe, then the chef and staff make their exit.

The judges murmur amongst themselves about the presentation and the visual quality of the offering, but most seem reluctant to indulge in the delicacy. Eventually, Eria Karamora from Jita takes the first plunge, perhaps encouraged by her familiarity with Caldari cuisine. The others watch with bated breath, as if fearing the blond woman might fall ill, and there’s a general sigh as she nods and pronounces the starter edible.

As is the custom in such competitions, the judges only consume enough to obtain opinions. When everyone has sipped from their water to clear the flavours, another chime sounds and the salad course is introduced.

And so it continues. The cameras get close-up views of the artistic arrangements of mushrooms on broadleafs, of the small, perfectly pyramidal towers of mille-foile garnished with a scattering of chopped green herbs, and the crystal dishes of sweet pudding decorated with sprigs of fresh mint. Some of the judges don’t approve of all the dishes, but they keep their opinions neutral and merely comment on what they appreciate. The presenters are silent, allowing the tableau to play out for the viewers.

When Marçeau’s meal has been tested, the judges adjourn to another room and the table is cleared. The camera view returns to the studio, where the presenters have been joined by the chef.

‘So, how do you think that went, Marçeau?’ Lairen asks.

The portly chef smiles graciously. ‘I think Milgren may be wasting his time, but I have no idea what he’s prepared.’

‘It looked a bit like Safit JiDan from Khanid wasn’t particularly impressed with the salad course; does his reaction worry you a bit?’ Terric asks. Marçeau shrugs.

‘The others seemed to like them well enough. We shall see.’

A chime sounds, and the camera returns to the dining-room. This time, the settings are plain, with what appear to be hand-thrown clay cups, delicately-carved wooden utensils and raw wax candles. The critics seem mildly taken aback as they enter, though Lito-ndar Okapo from the Vherokior tribe seems delighted; she picks up a three-tined fork to examine the floral vine carved around the grip more closely, then replaces it with a sheepish smile.

The starter course is served personally by Milgren. He enters with a large tray of clay cups containing the soup balanced impeccably on one arm, and not one drop is spilt as he places each serving before a judge; the vegetarian version, clearly marked by a different-coloured saucer beneath the cup, is placed before the appropriate critic last, and the pilot explains the difference to the Achura who only barely contains his expression of deep relief.

The Gallente critics look impressed with the starter, while an Amarrian critic eyes the large lumps of shellfish with some doubt. The salad course pleases the two Achuran critics, and one comments on the precision of the presentation. When Milgren presents the main course, it’s easy to imagine the aroma of the artistically-arranged slices of poultry simply from the expressions on the critics’ faces.

The jaii-fruit and brandy dessert is the crowning moment, however. The pilot enters bearing the same large tray, the hand-blown glass dishes still steaming from having been recently extinguished, the pale violet cream contrasting interestingly with the rich gold of the crystallised fruit. The Ni-Kunni Tali’a Vaskal openly exclaims with pleasure, then looks embarrassed for his outburst. Milgren finishes serving, pours the brandy and exits with a flourished bow.

The camera returns again to the presenters and Terric says, ‘Pilot Milgren has informed us that he will be late in joining us here in the studio, as he must, quote, repair the mess he made in the kitchen, unquote. While we await his presence, Chef Marçeau, what did you think of the pilot’s presentation?’

The studio’s master chef looks somewhat put-out. ‘I’ll admit I was surprised when I saw he’d brought his own table-settings, and creating a substitute option for the allergy-sufferer was a bit off-form. Personally, I can see little of Milgren’s dinner which is exceptional, though he has demonstrated more cooking ability than I gave him credit for. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see what the professionals make of his efforts.’

‘Our judges have adjourned to their debating chambers to confer,’ Lairen states. ‘Chef Marçeau, did you spend a lot of time considering your choices for this evening?’

The small-talk continues for a few minutes, then the chime rolls through the studio. The critics have reached a consensus. Chef Marçeau and the presenters make their way to the dining-room, where the table has been cleared and now displays a chilled magnum of champagne and several fluted glasses.

Syddaryn Trynn of Intaki steps forward, accepting the role of the food critics’ unified voice.

‘It’s been a very difficult choice we had to make this evening. Chef Marçeau, we recognise that you have had extensive training and the dishes you prepared were exquisite. Pilot Milgren’s skills are purely self-taught, and the meal he prepared was impressive for one man working alone. But this light-hearted competition is not about which chef is the most skilled; it is about which knows galactic cuisine the best. Chef Marçeau, you undoubtably have spent years studying food from around New Eden; Pilot Milgren has spent years experiencing the same.’

The camera focusses on Marçeau’s face, and his confident smile is seen to slip just a little as the lanky food critic moves to the table and picks up the champagne bottle. Turning back to the camera, he says with a hint of regret, ‘Chef Marçeau, your work tonight was extraordinary, but a bit too inventive and at times digressed wildly from the native qualities which were part of our judging criteria. Pilot Milgren not only produced traditional recipes with skill, he did so with an innate knowledge of the local customs from the areas where the recipes originated.’ Syddaryn hefts the bottle before him. ‘The man of the hour, this hour, is Capsule Pilot Vaas Milgren.’

There is a delicate smattering of polite applause from the assembled critics and presenters. Chef Marçeau looks a bit chapfallen but puts a smile on anyway. The cameras focus on the doors to Milgren’s kitchen.

After a moment, Terric jokes, ‘He must have that music on loud again.’ The presenter pushes the doors open, and music blasts forth as he disappears inside, going quiet again as the doors swing back.

He emerges a second later, holding the flour-spattered, silenced audio system and looking dumbfounded. ‘He’s not there. Wherever could he have got to?’

There is a flurry of activity from off-screen, and the camera drones, sensing ‘interesting’, turn to survey the commotion. Uniformed security officers are running for the door out to the rest of the station whilst one who appears to be in charge steps forward to speak quietly to the presenters. Both polished professionals look stunned at whatever it is the man tells them, then struggle to retrieve their composure.

After a moment, a report comes through and the presenters of Cuisine of New Eden step forward.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we were not wholly informed of Pilot Milgren’s activities,’ Lairen begins. ‘According to our station’s chief of security, Pilot Milgren is an outlaw, and the terms of his appearance on the show tonight were that he was to turn himself in afterwards.’ Her expression is one of disbelief.

‘It seems,’ Terric adds, ‘that whilst the final course and judgment were being held, he managed to evade security and made his way to the clone bay, where he utilised a jump-clone to leave the system. As our security has no right to seize the empty clone he left behind, all that is left for us here at the studio is to wish Pilot Milgren congratulations on our critics’ final call, and bid all you viewers at home a good night.’ He smiles urbanely into the camera as Lairen stares at her co-host, slightly agape.

And the credits roll.

Command and Control

(Originally posted on SweetLilBadGirl on 2010.09.06)

I feel as if I’ve been here forever, down in the dirt with the rest of the dogs. That’s what it feels like; day after day of the same damn shit, the same routine. Maybe it happens in the middle of the night, or maybe it’s full daylight. Maybe it’s raining, maybe it’s been drought conditions for weeks. It doesn’t matter. We defend our installation with our lives. That’s what we’re being paid for.

I’ve not been home in months. Maybe it’s been a year, I don’t know. The days blur together. I get shot, sometimes I think I’ve died, but the latest softscan gear installed in our helmets brings us right back in a new, whole body, the memory of our own blood still fresh on our lips. They spent a lot of money on us. I guess maybe it’s because there’s a shortage of people crazy enough to fight for a capsuleer.

Things started getting strange a couple months ago. I capture a guy trying to sneak into the radio room, the cheeky bugger probably thinks the stolen uniform would work, but he doesn’t have the implant to let him through the door without fussing with the keypad. I strip his helmet off while he’s recovering consciousness and stare.

“Didn’t I kill you last week?”

The enemy soldier blinks at me groggily. “What?”

“I said–”

“Why are you talking to me?”

I fold my arms across my chest, his helmet dangling by its chinstrap from my hand. “Well, I dunno. Maybe because I recognise your face from what was left of it after that attack last week?”

“No, no, this isn’t right.”

And then he’s gone. Not dead or run away, simply gone and I’m staring at an empty spot on the floor like a complete moron, my hands empty. I rub the back of my neck under the collar of my jacket, wondering what the hell has just happened. Then one of my squadmates yells at me and I’m pulled back to the front lines.

After that, I start looking — really looking — at the faces of the men and women we fight, seeking that flash of recognition, a hint of familiarity. Days go by where there aren’t any. Then suddenly an entire week where I’m seeing nothing but people I know I’ve killed before. I know they probably have the same softscan hardware installed in their helmets, plugged into the jacks behind their ears underneath. But it’s disturbing.

Any attempts to communicate with them are met with the same surprise and disbelief. It strikes me as odd. One time, I lie bleeding out, gutted and missing my right arm from the shoulder, while the enemy who’s so easily sliced me up like a roast is sat nearby, reloading. Beneath his visor, I can swear it’s the same guy; the one I’d caught sneaking. I try to read the name stitched to the front of his jacket, but my vision is blurring at the edges.

“Hey. You.” I choke on the agony of talking, but it’s important — it feels important. He twitches and looks up at me with a sharp jerk of his head.

“I… I know you… don’t I?”

The soldier jumps up and staggers backwards, fumbling for his communicator, and the next thing I know I’m sitting up in the medbay back on the base, feeling beyond weirded-out.

After that, I stop trying to talk to them.

That stomach-clenching sense of deja-vu returns maybe a week later. We’re going over our battle-plan and looking at the enemy positions when a chill runs down my spine. It looks just like the time when…. “I want Gamma over here, covering that valley.”

The guy standing opposite me scratches his head. “Sarge, why? There’s no encampments back there, and they can’t get in through the pass.”

“You remember two weeks ago, they nearly took out the comms relay because they air-dropped a HALO team in the night before?”

He looks at me funny. “Nothing like that happened two weeks ago. Nothing like that’s ever happened.”

“I’m telling you, they’re going to HALO a team in while we’re facing front. Stick Gamma back there to cover our asses.”

Our commander drums his fingers on the table. “That’s quite a deviation from your original plan Sergeant, but let’s do it.”

My original…? I lean back from the table feeling feverish, somehow confused. The map had been subarctic tundra yesterday; why in blazes are we in the middle of a tropical cloud forest now? I could have sworn… Squinting, I eye up the guy standing opposite me. What was his name again?

For that matter, what was our commander’s name? I peer at the stitching on their jackets, but the light is too low to make it out. Feeling dizzy, I take a step back, debating going outside for some air. A moment later, I feel a light touch on my shoulder; my commander standing there, gesturing for me to follow him out to the rampart. The sweltering jungle heat is like a slap in the face after the climate-controlled command centre.

“Son, there something you wanna tell me?”

I shake my head. “No, sir, I’m fine.”

The commander removes his helmet and runs his fingers back through sweat-spiked gray hair as he leans back against the outer wall. “Off the record, I mean. You won’t be penalised for anything.”

A frown pinches my face in the middle, and I sigh. “I– Sir, what if I told you I was getting recurring memories. Deja-vu? Or that… I could swear we were somewhere else yesterday. And I recognise some of the guys we’re fighting.”

“You try to communicate with them?” He’s looking at me carefully; not like I’m a freak or anything, more like he understands. With some relief, I nod.

“Yes, sir. There’s something strange going on. At first I thought maybe it was glitches from repeated recloning, but now I’m not so sure. Would… they wouldn’t dump us in coldsleep and truck us off to another planet without telling us, would they?”

The commander rests his helmet under his arm against his hip, looking out into the trees beyond the wall. “No, Sergeant, they wouldn’t. Not normally. But this is a different situation.”

“Sir?” There it is again, that feverish dizziness, like memories clawing toward the surface before they can drown.

The commander smiles tiredly, the expression creasing lines in his face. “Do you know the name of the world we’re on?”

“Well, yes, sir. It’s… oh.” I rub my forehead. “I don’t know sir.”

He nods. “She doesn’t have a name. Technically she doesn’t exist.”

I stare at him. “I– Sir, I don’t understand.”

“Soldier, do you remember who I am?”

There’s an intensity in the look he gives me, something that sparks in me a desperate need to understand. “I can’t… no. Wait.” Something finally surfaces; the bubble pops with an audible snapand I reel back against the wall. “I.. no. I know you! You were that doctor, at that hospital. The one that…” Falteringly, I press my hands to my head. “I was captured. Wounded, I think I was dying. You were there, you talked to me, but I can’t remember–”

“That’s right, Allin.” He sighs again. “You were dying. You were the one who cost us billions in assets to deal with that little group of Legion footsoldiers you were commanding. Do you remember?”

I slump back against the wall, then let myself slide down to the rooftop, my fingers raking back through my short-cropped hair. “I… yes. What have you done to me, why am I fighting for you?

“You’re not. Not really. This is a training simulation for our soldiers. You’re, uh,” he smiles again, apologetically. “You’re not really you. Just a memory, a cerebral imprint we built a semi-AI strategic designer around.”

My eyes close tightly as I find my hands gripping my head. “Are you shitting me? But… I’m here! I remember things!”

When I look up again, he’s nodding his head emphatically. “Yes… it seems we took too thorough a scan, but we wanted the system to be as humanlike as possible. Computers lack originality and intuition. They can’t adapt and improvise the way a human does, for all the advances we’ve made. You were so troublesome an opponent, when your fading body ended up in our possession we realised you’d make a better training strategist than the existing system.”

I snort with disgust. “So I’m just a semi-intelligent computer programme, then. One that’s edged a little too far out of bounds. The glitches from earlier make sense, now. But if that’s the case, why are you bothering talking to me? Now that you know what’s wrong, you could just, I dunno, re- reprogram… me.” My voice fails as a I realise the extent of everything. Allin Emarchanne, Mordu’s Legion ground-control operations commander, is now little more than a string of data in a VR simulation. What’s the point of it all?

A shadow falls over me, and I glance up from under my brows to see him standing over me with his hand held out invitingly. “The boys started reporting errors, but because it’s you, I thought to handle this differently. Your expertise makes our boys and girls better fighters, you challenge them and as a result they work better once we deploy them. It’d be a crying shame if we had to infect you with forced amnesia after every run. I want to know if you’d continue working like this, despite knowing what you know. I want you to do your damnedest to kill every single one of them every time.”

I raise my head and rub the back of my neck, glaring up at the doctor, or whatever he is. “You’re shitting me. You want me to continue like this? Making your kids better so they’re better at killing my boys?”

His hand still extended to me, he shakes his head. “It’s more than just the Legion we’re fighting, these days. And we ran tests on copies of your scan; injecting programming only reduced your resiliency.”

“Fuck you,” I spit. “You might as well fucking erase me, you son of a bitch. I’m not going to be your goddamn puppet–“

the earthbound

Published short fiction from EVE Online:

A Federation Security officer hits the mean streets of a backwater world hoping to bust a smuggling ring.

Permission to reprint courtesy of  EON Magazine.
Art by John Augar.

 

earthbound_01Boot heels clipped on the flagstones, crimson reflections of the setting sun casting the two men’s shadows onto the rain-slicked pavement. They passed through concrete canyons, coats flapping in the post-storm humidity; one was stocky and possessed the carefully-cultivated blank expression of hired muscle, the other tall and wiry with the disjointed movements of a junkie too far past his last fix. They looked an odd pair as they made their way up a narrow side-street which wound between buildings.

“Where are… we going?” the taller man asked breathlessly. He was Intaki; his shoulder-length blond hair was greasy and unkempt, his clothes fashionable and expensive but with the look of being lived in for several days in a row. Blood-shot green eyes stared hollowly from sockets bruised by innumerable sleepless nights, set in a face which had once been handsome but now bore the hollow-cheeked, haunted look of a man with a monkey on his back. His name didn’t matter.

It wasn’t the first time he’d asked this. His shorter companion merely grunted and led the way up the hill. He was Jin-Mei, dressed well but casually in dark shades of blue and brown and moved with an understated confidence, seeming for all the world to be an integral part of the city, as old as the stones.

He had never been there before in his life, but that meant little. He made his living by blending in.

+++++++++

e’Finn ra Sik waited patiently in the shabby little bar, slowly smoking a cigarette, an untouched glass of thin, filmy beer embedding a water-ring in the rough surface of the table before him. Dressed in a worn leather jacket and frayed jeans, his middle-aged face half-masked by a scruffy beard, he might have been any other low-wage worker just in for a drink or three after a long day. He worked absently with an aging pocket-sized computer, to all appearances reading the news.

The door of the dimly-lit establishment opened; the newcomer glanced around without much apparent interest, a big Mannar with too much flesh hanging on a thinner man’s frame. He headed straight for the bar, ordered a drink and carried it over to Finn’s table, where he dropped bonelessly and without preamble into the opposite chair. “They got it,” the newcomer grunted. He took a swig of beer and grimaced as the liquid hit his throat, forcing himself to swallow.

Finn barely glanced up as he tapped ash from the end of his cig. “Solid confirmation?”

“Yup,” the other man said. He spoke without looking at Finn, his eyes focused on a random spot on the surface of the table. “It’s the archaeology site on the south side. You know, I’m amazed they have the balls to charge that much for this watered-down piss.”

“It’s the best you’ll get down here. Enjoy going native,” Finn responded mildly. The Intaki’s long fingers deftly entered commands which shouldn’t have been possible on such an old piece of equipment.

“My hairy ass. I’m just glad this’ll be over soon.”

“Don’t jinx this, Kyn. Remember last time.”

Kynnan Vatrieux pulled a face and stopped attempting to drink his beer. “I’d rather not.”

+++++++++

Unerringly, the shorter man led his lanky charge through the shadowed, rotting heart of the city to where the buildings” cornerstones had faded from memory, towers built upon towers, true ground-level buried a mile or more beneath the slow crush of human development. Far above them, evening sky cast wan light which never reached the depths; walkways crisscrossed at various levels, forming a multilayered cobweb draped across the forgotten refuse of civilization.

Eventually they reached a gap in the mesh, a place where the city bulwarks fell away to expose the bleached bones of a ruined stone structure to the darkening sky, a relic of a more primitive age. Vine-wrapped arches curved like picked ribs above the rubble of collapsed walls and broken tiles, tropical plants slowly encroaching to reclaim the land.

The Intaki stopped at the edge, his hand pressed against the cold metal mesh of the three-metre fence containing the site. “What is this place?” he asked, staring at the ruined building.

His guide turned and gestured irritably for him to hurry up. “Keep it quiet, this place echoes.” The voice was a gruff but surprising tenor, the bane of his existence. He rarely spoke if he didn’t have to.

“They’re in there?” The taller man’s face took on a hungry look, his eyes gleaming in the gathering twilight as his gaze sharpened, probing the fallen stone as if seeing it anew. He hurried to catch up, renewed spirit putting a spring in his step, his movements suddenly more certain.

The Jin-Mei eyed him and muttered under his breath.

+++++++++

Finn moved confidently through the lower levels, subterranean caverns lit with a lichen of seedy neon signs advertising the best pleasures a worker’s wage could buy (for one night only, no refunds). Only those beggars with nothing left to lose dared approach him, to be brushed aside without a glance.  He had other concerns to focus upon.

For months, his team had been tasked with tracing the roots of one of the more cancerous Syndicate black market rings operating out of this scumhole on Reynire VI; the ring dealt almost exclusively in capsuleer-grade tech which was fenced by unscrupulous individuals in the Federal Navy. The military was conducting its own investigations; Finn’s only concern lay in cutting the business off at the knees.

As he walked, Kynnan drifting like a shadow at his shoulder, Finn coordinated with the rest of his agents through a subvocal comms unit. “Rosso, do we have confirmation on which package they’ve picked up?”

“Two-three-delta. I got a good view of the location, but I’m only seeing people…”

“Wait, you said two-three-delta?”

“Yessir.”

Finn had paused on the street, appearing to ponder a faded menu pasted inside the window of a nearby dive. “Two-three-delta is the biggest of the tags. Get ready to move, follow the marks, they won’t be staying there. You, too, Turik. Stay on them close. I want everyone else to rendezvous at Point Eight, repeat Point Eight, keep a low profile. Confirm,” he ordered.

Responses came in as Finn straightened and started moving quickly along a more westerly route.

“Point Eight,” Kyn muttered. “This could get interesting.”

“Contact security there, inform them we’ll be onsite in fifteen. No more holes in the net. I don’t want another incident like at Point Three.”

+++++++++

Tripping over loose rubble in his excitement, the Intaki didn’t seem capable of holding his tongue, babbling his gratitude. His guide finally had enough and stopped, planting a heavy hand on his chest.

“If you can’t shut it and save it, there are others whose money is just as good as yours.”

The taller man made an attempt at indignance, but his guide had already turned away. Glancing around nervously, he shivered in the damp chill which had begun to settle over the city as night came on, then followed his guide through a crumbling doorway into the heart of the ruin.

Five people were waiting for them in the long, narrow space open to the darkening sky, three men and two women. All five had the same blank, unimpressed look as the man who had led him to this place. As the Jin-Mei moved to join them, the taller man halted, staring wide-eyed at the reception, and nervously ran a hand back through his hair. “I… um…”

One of the women, a pretty brunette perhaps ten years his junior, stepped forward. “Etrin Linleu, yes?” Her eyes met his unwaveringly, and he muttered an affirmative. “We have what you requested. Did you bring the rest of the payment?”

Inhaling sharply, the worn-out man pulled himself to his full height; once, this might have made him look impressive, but now the effect was of a scarecrow flapping in a breeze. “Don’t think I’ll just give it to you! I don’t see your end being upheld,” he gritted in a sudden display of backbone.

A smile played about the woman’s mouth. “Does this look like the sort of place to store something like that? This is just a meeting-point to ensure you weren’t followed. There have been… security issues… in the last few months. I’m sure you understand.”

“Y-yes. Of course.” Etrin looked flustered. “I have the rest of the money.”

“Shall we, then?” The woman made a gesture towards the door, then led him out, preceded by one of her bodyguards.

+++++++++

“They’re moving,” Rosso reported. The lanky Brutor flipped open a small tracking-device linked to the bead she’d tucked into the undercarriage of the dealers” vehicle, slotting it into the waiting holder between the handlebars of her street-bike. “I think you called it right, boss, looks like they’re headed for Point Eight.” On the far side of the ruins, the beam from Turik’s bike headlights splashed across the shattered concrete as he prepared to follow her through the narrow streets.

+++++++++

Sliding in amongst the shadows, Finn eyed the entrance, willing himself to ignore the glare of security floodlights from the nearby service docks. Gantries arced away into the darkness far overhead, their mechanisms silenced and shut down for the night. Point Eight was the designation they used for the city spaceport, once a busy gateway to the stars, now little more than a repair facility and haven for local traders and asteroid miners since the new central port had opened near the capital. It hadn’t taken long for the city to fall on hard times, leaving fertile ground for less-than-legal business to take root.

Point Three, the local university campus, had been the site of an utter fiasco two weeks earlier involving several of the instructors. Underpaid and overworked, they had attempted a step into restricted technology dealing as an alternative to begging the educational council for more funds. Finn’s group had arrived too late to catch their source; with only a handful of inept middlemen to show for the effort, neither Finn’s superiors nor the university’s president had been exceptionally pleased. It was imperative that they not fail again.

The rest of Finn’s team and a detail of spaceport security had concealed themselves around the entry in the musty darkness below the overhanging roof. Rosso’s husky voice murmured through comms, “They’ve reached the bridge over. Get ready.”

+++++++++

earthbound_02Pressed like a wilted flower between two of the armoured heaves in the back of the vehicle, his one small piece of self-assurance digging into his spine beneath his jacket, Etrin focussed on stilling the nervous twitching of his fingers and carefully avoiding the gaze of the younger woman in the facing seat. The vehicle crested the rise onto the spaceport platform and came around to a halt in the courtyard, where everyone but the driver climbed out.

The Syndicate agent stepped up to him as he straightened his coat, and held up a laser-engraved card between her immaculately manicured fingers.

“Hangar 14. The payment?”

He started to reach into his pocket, then paused. “How do I know there’s anything in the hangar?” Etrin asked, looking suspicious. The deal had already cost him quite a lot of ISK, and he wasn’t about to risk what he had left.

The woman closed her eyes and smiled patiently. “Fine, we’ll go with you.” She started to walk towards the arched entry to the hangars. “You can see for yourself–”

Lights flared, along with the sound of many small arms being prepped to fire, pinning the group in the courtyard in the open. The Intaki half-ducked reflexively, looking for cover. A clear voice called, “Federation Internal Security! You are all under arrest! Drop your weapons, get out of the vehicle!”

Time seemed to stand still for one long, quivering heartbeat. Then the dealer and her entourage drew weapons and the firing started. Etrin flattened himself to the dirty, grease-stained floor in the vehicle’s shadow, wrapping his arms over his head.

The noise, in that cavernous, echoing space, was unbelievable. Most of it was from the Syndicate agents, however. The F.I.S. were judicious with their shots; the spaceport security force was armed with less lethal weaponry. Two new arrivals on street-bikes skidded into half-turn stops at the top of the bridge; one snapped off a lucky shot which punched through the vehicle’s window, taking half the driver’s hand off and melting part of the steering controls as he screamed.

In the midst of the chaos, Etrin was peering cautiously from below his arms, seeking a way out, when he spotted it. The woman had her back to him.

He glanced around. Nobody was paying him any attention.

+++++++++

“Sir, the collateral is starting to escalate.”

Finn looked up from under his eyebrows at the security chief. “Why can’t people just bloody cooperate,” he grunted, finishing what he was doing. “You have…” he checked the digital readout on the object in his hands “…ten seconds.” Swinging out from his cover, Finn tossed the object so that it skittered underneath the dealer’s vehicle. Security agents pulled back and tugged filter masks over their faces as a gout of mist rolled across the centre of the courtyard.

As the Syndicate agents scattered, two falling unconscious in the gas, Finn thought he saw one run down the passage towards the hangars. He slapped Kynnān on the shoulder.

“Take over here, clean the mess up. I’ll be right back.”

+++++++++

Hangar 14 was further back than he’d thought it might be, but since the spaceport had been designed to contain up to cruiser-class vessels, it wasn’t as far as it could have been: the individual hangar access tubes connected via a single main corridor wide enough for three of the massive loading trucks to pass abreast. The sounds of the fight behind faded as he ran into the emergency-lit gloom.

Etrin had been waiting for this day for the last five years. It had cost him nearly everything he’d had left, and to come this close now was an acute, incurable ache in his heart which threatened to consume him.

The hangar door was sealed, and looking at the intricate security terminal sent a jolt of fear through his core. It offered several different levels of security access; what if the dealer had set it to require genetic scans or a code number in addition to the basic-level card? Hands shaking, he dropped the card into the waiting slot.

For a long moment, nothing happened; then the light on the terminal changed from orange to green and the door opened, sinking into the floor. Almost sobbing with relief, Etrin dashed through the door and down the short tube to the hangar.

There she was.

He sank to his knees on the balcony overlooking the hangar, tears running unnoticed down his worn, weary face. The size of a mass-transport airlift, a Federal-issue, capsuleer-grade planetary shuttle sat gleaming under the blue-green hangar lamps. She wasn’t much, less than what he’d started with seven years before, but to the man he’d become since then, she was everything. She was hope.

Pulling himself to his feet, legs shaky from the rush of the last few minutes, Etrin staggered down the ramp and across the hangar floor. Reaching up, he ran his hand over the smooth, brushed-metal hide of her underbelly, marvelling at the tingling sensation of the protective shielding.

The clatter of boots on metal decking brought him around. An older Intaki burst from the access tube onto the balcony, barely out of breath. Despite his unremarkable appearance, something about him told Etrin this was what he should fear most. He backed towards the ship, arms outstretched as the F.I.S. agent brought his sidearm to bear, diodes near the grip changing colour ominously.

“Step away from the ship, sir.”

Eyes wide, Etrin shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand. This… it’s all I have left.”

The agent stared at him, then lowered his weapon and made his way down the ramp. He looked up at the shuttle, then turned his gaze on the other man. “This is a sting operation, sir. That’s tainted goods you’ve got there. Tagged. We’re here to repossess it.”

Etrin’s throat tightened with despair; he squeezed his eyes shut at the bitter irony.

The older man sighed and shook his head. “C’mon, man, let’s get you some coffee or something, have a sit-down. You look like you’ve had a rough time–”

“Hah.” Etrin snorted and rubbed his face with both hands. He felt so tired now. “I lost everything five years ago when I was grounded by the Navy. They said… I was told… after all they tried to do for me, that they couldn’t justify maintaining me as a captain.” He looked at the agent in desperation. “They don’t know anything! So what if I spent more days in my pod than in the station? I was a good pilot, not useless like the others! I loved what I did for the Navy! And to have that torn away… was almost more than I could bear.” He sagged, one hand blindly, unconsciously reaching out to touch the ship again as if seeking comfort. “It took everything I had… to find this. Please. It’s all I have left.”

Shaking his head, the older man stepped forward, his left hand held out. “Sir, I know why you feel that way, believe me. My brother was in the same situation, but he improved and got his license back. You don’t need a ship, you need help–”

“What the hell do you think you know!” Etrin reeled back, fumbling the small hold-out pistol from where it had been concealed beneath his jacket, all but two charges spent. “I’m not gonna let you take my life from me! Not again!”

+++++++++

Hustling up the accessway, Kynnān flinched as the reports of gunfire echoed down from the open hangar door. Cursing under his breath, the heavyset man hurried up the access ramp and stopped dead at the top, in time to see the younger man crumple to the floor, a small pistol skidding from his limp hand across the corrugated decking. His heavy features settled into a frown as he stalked down the ramp towards Finn, who was picking himself up off the floor where he’d rolled. “Well bugger me. What the bloody hell, Finn?”

The other agent held up his sidearm for Kyn to see the diodes indicating stun settings. “He’ll be fine. Or he should be. Put a call in, just in case; he doesn’t look too healthy.”

“Didn’t get you, did he?” Kyn retrieved a comm unit from his pocket, pressing a button to help their small medical team locate them.

Shaking his head, Finn tucked the gun away and moved to roll the capsuleer over, long fingers pressing gently to where a heartbeat fluttered at the younger man’s throat. “Panicked, fired wildly. We need to get an ID on this guy and get him in for questioning, find out what he knows.”

Snorting, the Mannar stooped to pick up the discharged hold-out, turning it over in his hand. “He’d better know something, or we’ve got ourselves another sodding dead end. Bugger shot the fixer in the back, point-blank.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Finn rested back on his heels and ran a hand over his short hair, holding up a tattered ID he’d found in the unconscious man’s pocket. “Yeah, we’re going to need Navy permission to question this guy.”

Official holographic seals shifted in the light as Kyn turned the voided pilot’s license over in his hand and cursed again. “Just what we needed, egger trouble.”

The older Intaki leaned over to roll the capsuleer over again and secure his bony wrists behind his back. “Podder or not, get a warrant to search wherever he’s staying. He may still be able to help us.”

“How’re we going to explain this one?”

With a sigh, Finn pushed himself upright. “Infighting among the targets. We still have the tag, this time, and the access logs backup should still be intact.” A smile creased his worn features. “I think we came out on top this time, in spite of this idiot. I’ll call it in.”