Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Sun and the Void

I am submitting this story for the "Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden" fiction contest. 

Word count: 5000         :)

The Sun and the Void

by Ghost Brother

the edge of the sea
with itself
sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax
off the coast
there was
a splash quite unnoticed
                                                                                                -WC Williams

            Hanso was once again enthralled by the mesmerizing sight of station traffic, just where the vessels come in and get ready to leave, or arrive to be towed off into the bowels of Rens 8 - Brutor Tribe Treasury. The multitude of vessels was overwhelming, from frigates to freighter, coming and going endlessly. Three massive portals let ships in and out of the central transit area, a vast chamber taking up roughly 20% of the station interior. The ships flowed upwards to the top of the chamber where the out- and in-bound vessels filed themselves efficiently.
            The walls of this chasm were covered in an anatomy of shops and walkways, elevators and doors leading to who-knew-where. If he blurred his vision, the collage of lights and movement was exhilarating.
            Hanso knew, however, this was just the tip of the economy thriving inside of the Brutor Tribe Treasury. He had seen the massive interior of the station from more than one angle: the endless storage units filled with ship equipment, colossal refineries eating raw asteroids hauled in from the far reaches of space and spewing out purified minerals, and the vast hangers housing empty ships crammed into every possible space waiting to be purchased.
            From his view at the window of the cafe, The Caffeine Vat Bay, a pockmark of calm windows on the wall of the traffic chamber, he felt like a spirit overlooking a delta of living rivers, a massive collage of machine and enclosed biology, as if he were present to some kind of knowledge or perspective few others were. They were assuming time, all these ships- the space wherein they moved was so huge that one, in most cases, could not really notice their movement from so high a vantage point. Only after looking away and back again could he see that things were moving, everything was moving, in an overwhelming symmetry, thousands of meters away.
            'Which ones are capsuleers?' he thought. His sense of omnipresence grew at the thought that some of the ships he was looking at were completely empty, save one soul in a mechanical carapace buried away deep somewhere inside, connected directly to the ship as its brain. Some had skeleton crews, their numbers representing a mere fraction  of what would really be needed to run a ship, one without a living brain.
            The idea seemed so alien to him... a person submerged in oxidized fluid, prone and immobile to all appearances, but the living mind of a spacecraft. He wondered if they felt their ships like bodies, radiation tingling upon the armor, micro-particles dimpling the shields, the ore hold filling up and if they were woozy afterwards, in need of a nap, their stomach full of rock. The impact of missiles, the shredding lasers and hail of bullets- the ripping sting of drones. Did they feel their ships die?
            He wondered, after the first death of a capsuleer, if they were actually ever alive again, or if those cloned bodies were simply automatons parroting programmed personalities, and the souls long disappeared. Or did their souls shred away, piece by piece, after every download? Did their essence become less and less familiar with its home? Goosebumps sprouted across his skin at the idea. He shifted around, suddenly uncomfortable, and felt a subtle fog of grief filling his core.
            'No, no... they were alive. They are alive. Still.'
            He had picked one of the tables next to the glass walls overseeing the bay in order to stay away from the doors and more condensed areas. The white noise in the cafe was enough, yet not overwhelming; places like this seemed to naturally balance themselves in that way. One empty chair was on the other side of his table and a neglected coffee in his hand. He was waiting.

            Unassuming in appearance, Hanso was once known by most of his friends as a guy whom they had met and not thought much of, until his smile appeared and good nature flooded the room. Never the center of attention for long, he was frugal with publicity. He gravitated to the center of attention by nature; his charisma was in flux between beaming and holding a natural glow, then to something of a humble demeanor- a quiet shining person one had to seek to find.
            Now, those who he still allowed in his life spoke of him with a dark sadness, melancholia brought upon by an old picture of someone once, in a different way, alive.
            "It was her fault," they would say.
            Hanso could still see her, smiling. He remembered the starry sky high above them and the rich green of the park. It was in a Gallente station where they'd first met, in one of the eco-city domes.

            Hanso looked down at his coffee cup, at the table (he heard the voices of the people around him become muffled, as if now through a wall that was thickening) then to the floor, which was covered in grass. He looked up at the sun shining down from him, and the blackness of space beyond, and stars. His coffee was now a book, the chair a bench, and the windows were gone.
            Hanso always found the idea of a synthetic sun atop these great Gallente glass domes amusing. Did they run out of power? If so, did they go supernova, taking out the station? C'est la vie? He chuckled at the thought.
            He had been in the Gallente station for a week now on a repair job, fixing old wiring harnesses throughout the station which were so out of date it bothered him. How they hadn't shorted out was beyond him, possibly shutting off this little sun, then a supernova, and taking out the whole station- no survivors.
            With a novel in his hands, a finished lunch in his belly and a container of hot coffee at his side, he felt good. The book was the latest in a series he'd been cracking away at for the better part of 2 months. It was a strange collection of novels, each one starting a new story in the same universe, one filled with mythical creatures and damsels in distress... you know, the good stuff. Immortal shamans and vicious, horrific beasts that came from graveyards. And so on. It passed the time and thrilled Hanso's imagination.
            He noticed after a few moments of reading that his mind had stopped taking in the words and his eyes had just been moving down the page, like a car with a stalled engine still rolling down the road to slowly come to a stop. He knew this was a sign he needed to hold it for a second, take a mental breather. He smiled at himself accusingly; he did this so often, backtracking a page or two before he started recognizing the text, that he could have been onto a new series by now.
            From the corner of his eye he saw the shape of someone walk up next to him and stop. A moment passed and he turned his head, still smiling, to behold a girl who would change his world. His breath faltered a bit and his smile increased to near absurd proportions. Hanso knew his Matari nano-tattoos must have shown themselves then. He caught himself and leaned back casually, clearing his throat, lowering his smile to a less revealing level, and was just about to speak before she beat him to it, "Is anyone sitting here?"
            He shrugged. "You are."
            She gave a warm smile and quickly sat down next to him. Hanso quickly wondered when ever, in his life, had a pretty woman ever been this straight-forward with him. He casually glanced around him to the other benches in the park, only two nearby, and both empty.
            He recognized her dark skin and black hair as the kind found within the Matari race. He was happy about that. For as much as he enjoyed the idea of a foreign woman- possibly a hard-working Caldari who would hold down her end of the financial bargain and be a beast in bed, or perhaps an Amarrian guilty of her ancestors' treatment of his race, producing a tempo of submissive guilt, or maybe a free-spirited Gallente girl, fun loving and open minded- he preferred the women of his blood. Maybe it was still his sense of belonging, an undertone of the Matari people he knew he had felt before. Keep it pure, we are still young.
            She pulled her lunch out and smiled at him. He smiled back and sarcastically mentioned the weather, and she laughed.

            Then memories, scattered fragments: making love for the first time, her standing by a window with a pensive stare to the outside, her asleep next to him as he read a book, an argument about politics. Her anger and restlessness grew over the years. And finally it broke, and she left.
            "It's time," she said, sitting on the couch next to him all those years ago, her body tense. "I just can't sit around here anymore while people are becoming gods." Her expression begged, 'You understand me, don't you?' He did to a degree, but something else inside of him told him down that road was only peril.      
            "Do you know what we could do? How we could change things?" she asked, desperation filling her voice. She had the soul of a bird, and it finally knew how to find wings to take it to the sun. She held out her hands as if she was pleading for understanding, her fingers going rigid and moisture glazing her eyes. "Why can't you see this chance we have?"
            "Because," he said, his throat constricting, "I just think it's, well... there's something wrong. Something about that... it's just not natural." His eyes weren't watching hers.

            He couldn't remember how much longer later, but it didn't matter. She was gone. The idea of marriage he been decimated. 'A stupid idea,' he justified. Shock and grief produce absolute and desperate thoughts like that.
            Intuition ebbed at his emotions, just enough so that he didn't make a final decision. Yet he was left in limbo for a long time and it broke down his demeanor from the once jovial Hanso to what he is now. Those close to him saw it, and those close to her were already beginning to disappear. She was becoming possessed by a radical notion, one of immortality and infinite possibility.
            As the faint smell of grass and the heat of a false sun ebbed away from him, he took a small sip of his drink in the cafe, a cafe on the wall of a space station in Rens, where he had been for a long time now.

            He had moved on as best he could. But he couldn't just let her go all at once; he had to know what was happening. Communication at first was sparse, and what he did get from her came across as it would from someone who was bipolar, or perhaps becoming many people. She would be ecstatic, and then extremely depressed, talking about the deaths she had seen. And the last he had heard from her, her thoughts and feelings seemed to have moved further off. The only concrete image he remembered her sharing was during a battle, "my autocannons shooting the side of a cargo hauler open" and watching hundreds of Amarrian colonists spilling out into space. That froze him.
            She was being very vague, seeming to be in question with reality and who she was. And then nothing.
            Hanso's nano-tattoos had not gone away after that; uncontrollable emotions were causing them to emerge and stay. For all he knew they were even there in his sleep. He lost a lot of weight and had to quit from his job, explaining to his boss that he had some serious medical issues that needed to be addressed. Little did he know that he was right- a week later he developed an ulcer, and a week after that he had a panic attack on a public transit.
            And finally, one night while drunk and high, puking blood into his toilet, he had a moment of clarity. He knew he either had to completely forget her and move on, or go and seek her out, wherever, and wherever, she might be now. And he couldn't forget her.

            A shuttle ride to Rens 8 and three months of in-house medical attention (as well as more than half of his ISK) later, he found himself trolling the multitude of establishments that filled every possible crevice of the Brutor Tribe Treasury. From the darkest bars underneath the asset storage units to the space side restaurants made for the wealthiest, he asked. He looked.
            He lived out of the cheapest housing unit and worked every job he could possibly find, from carrying invoices between station divisions to things more close to his own professional prowess, such as repairing faulty hangar machinery and improving hardwiring throughout the station. He even helped clear out furriers of the more neglected crevasses of the station. Throughout all of this, he kept his ear to the ground and let no one close.
            After a month of searching and inquiring, he was almost out of ISK but becoming known in a variety of circles.  Near the end of his first month of investigation, more or less, he realized he was running into unexpected resistance and suspicion. This was especially thick in the circles containing people from the Republic Fleet and Tribal Liberation Force. It seemed he was making himself a target for the more suspicious types.
            However, he had no lies to keep track of and no faces to switch between, so it became apparent in the mysterious and clandestine realm in which Hanso was entering that he was genuine. Thus, after some time, facts began to emerge, none of which helped his increasing fear of his lover's whereabouts and condition.
            Apparently she had changed her name to more of an alias: Vela San Mataria. Hanso laughed at first when he heard this, but then the image of her clad in warrior attire, tattoos covering her skin, animal pelts covering her head and arms, and a Matari scimitar at her waist made his gut turn into strands of hot iron. As far as he knew, she might not even recognize him.
            And of course, his imagination continued to not help things. One day she would be that warrior, the next, a damsel in distress, awaiting for Hansos speech of reason to break her free from this great delusion. Some days she was indifferent to all things, violence having taken away her humanity. And other days she was nothing at all because Hanso had found himself in an emotional, financial and mental survival situation, being able to only be concerned about himself.

            He recalled sitting one day down in a dive, deep within the lower bowels of the station. There were no windows, but instead old movie posters and corny propaganda of the Republic. He sat there in the corner of the room (a tendency which was becoming more common) sipping down his fourth beer of the night. Staring down at the floor in front of him, contemplating the stains and bits of grime in an attempt to discover a meaningful pattern, he couldn't help but miss the massive shape of Jack Lienka attempting to slip in through the doorway of the bar and towards him.
            At that time, Jack was Hanso's boss, and an expatriate of the Caldari State. He'd been imprisoned for falling asleep on his security job in a remote, sparsely populated station which yielded less than 500 docks a year. After his two-year sentence was up- after his record had been permanently scorched- he felt he was in a position to either struggle on in a system that was now rigged against him, where he'd grow old and alone, or leave.
            "I couldn't go to the Amarr, with them slaves 'n all. And the damn Gallente got greedy with my people leaving, so 'dey tried to kill 'em, so I can't go there neither. Now here I am, in th' dead center of the rebel economy," and he'd lean back and smile his half-cocked smile, eyes narrowed like he had some sort of wonderful secret stored away in his head, arms upraised as to encompass the entire station, "annit' smells so good."
            He was an overweight and happy man, although his cheer came with some reluctance, like he were afraid a punishment were waiting to be exacted upon the rising of anything other than a stern, hard-working expression. Maybe that is what brought him and Hanso together.
            A rigid smile spread across Hanso's face as Jack crept up, obviously trying to be cunning. Without looking up, Hanso pushed the chair next to him with his foot across the floor towards Jack, who slowed and straightened his back, realizing he hadn't been so sneaky. Even out of the corner of his eye, Hanso saw that half-smile slide up the side of Jacks face.
            "Hanny, m'boy," Jack said, spreading his arms slowly outward, possibly suggesting a hug. For as warm and friendly as Jack was, Hanso knew that was below him.
            "Jack," he looked up at him, sitting up and leaning back in his chair. "What brings you to this shithole?"
            Still smiling, Jack moved into the tiny bar chair, far too small to hold the entirety of his ass, and it groaned sadly under his weight. "Whu'd you got there, Hanny? It's making you smile, so it must be good then."
            Hanso looked down at his beer quizzically, squinting.
            "Not sure, actually," he said slowly, with a tone of revelation in his voice. "I just asked Mindy over there for something strong."
            "I guess it's good, then," Jack said while peering over at the bar, waiting to make eye contact with the attractive young bar tender.
            Hanso stared at Jack for a moment. The music chimed in continuously from the small speakers hidden around the room, mixing with the subdued conversation. Jack glanced back at him, sensing the question which still hung in the air.
            "Eh, screw it, she'll be o'er eventually," Jack said, leaning back, pushing the chair underneath him to its structural threshold.
            "Find some more furriers?"
            Jack laughed. "Yeah, actually. They're industrious lil' assholes," he said, scratching the back his head with one hand as the other rested on his belly. "But I 'eard something on th' grapevine I think you might wanna know 'bout, and it's nothin' to do with rodents."
            Hanso took another sip of his beer and gestured for Jack to continue.
            "Well, some guy I know, who knows a guy, said there 'as going to be a shift in th' Matari faction at the front. Ya know, a few weeks o' leave 'n all that. Well, a name came up on th' manifest for those comin' back... comin' here." His expression became stern, almost grave.
            Hanso felt a cold chill pass through him, which he responded to with a large gulp of his beer. And then another. The clank of the empty glass on the table was so loud Hanso figured he'd slammed it down without thinking to.
            They sat for a few moments in silence, which was broken by the sweet voice of the waitress behind him.
            "Some more, hon?" Hanso heard over his shoulder.
            Jack peered up and smiled, "One fer' both've us, babe." After the waitress walked off, Jack peered at Hanso with a devious look. "Matari women're so hot."
            "So she's going to be here?" Hanso finally said. His fists were clenched, which he relaxed with a deep breath.
            "Yeah, man. Two weeks." Jack said.
            Hanso nodded. He tried to smile. He felt he should, but he didn't.
            "She must be some girl, man. You've told me 'nuff for me to figger' that this is a big deal. You work well enough for muh' taste and haven't e'er tried to pull any bullshit, so I like you. I just hope you know what to do now, seeing as you lookin' like you're about to have a heart attack 'n all." Jack was leaning with one elbow on the table now, concerned. Jack chuckled a bit, and two beers were placed on the table.
            "Let's hope," Hanso stated, raising his glass slightly to take a sip. Except it wasn't beer, but lukewarm coffee, and he wasn't looking at the chubby face of Jack Lienka, but out at the constant symmetric motion of the station traffic.

            A few correspondences with friends over the last few months made him realize that he was changing. His humor and lightheartedness were fading into a hard gaze and defensiveness. He was driven by the notion of retribution and, maybe, a resurrection of old times, the past driving him into the future. She, his Matari woman, was being driven by the future into, what? Nothing? Unwritten time, a land of raw and pure possibility?
            He looked at himself in the mirror and saw the poverty around him creeping into his essence. The homeless men down in the polluted recesses of the station, drug addicts and whores filling lower passages next to cheap hostels and "pharmacies." It was that same skin whereupon the warrior tattoos he had gotten, as a novelty when he was younger, were making a permanent residence instead of being roused by the emotions of a Matari patriot, like they were supposed to. Maybe the Matari were supposed to feel fear and anger? And that was all?
            He made sure to distract himself with recreation by going out into the up-scale bars and dance clubs with co-workers and others whom he knew were unaware of his ongoing search.
            And finally, she was returning to high security space.
            Hanso had passed a note off to Jack, with a fair amount of ISK for men who knew other men, to ensure its delivery. He wanted this over. He was fed up with the life he was living now and swore he'd never come to this station again after he had done what he needed to do. Prosperity for some, he found, also brings poverty to others. He was living in it, surrounded by it, and maybe she would see the change in him and change herself, some more, just a little, so that he...
            "You're upset."
            A flat voice spoke to him from the other side of the table and broke him from his reverie.
            He beheld a woman, skin and hair perfect, eyes as empty as if they were made of glass. She sat stiff and formal, looking through him, unmoving.
            He let out a low cry, and his body quaked. Water came to his eyes; they beheld his nightmare. He muttered her name.
            "No, it's Vela now. Your tattoos are showing, very dark. They look good. You're upset. Why are you upset."
            There was no intonation of a question in her voice, and inflection barely shifted out of the area of monotone. He felt like he was going to puke. He felt like his legs were filling with hot air, weakening. He couldn't feel his hands.
            "I was... thinking. Of you." he said carefully.
            A vague spark flashed through her eyes and they looked down and to the side slightly, as if she were trying to remember something. Her fingers suddenly interlaced with a quick breath.
            He noticed her attire for the first time. It was brown and leathery, strips of fur going over her shoulders and the medallion of a Matari warrior above her left breast. Her skin was shiny and pastel, hair silky and radiant... all of which seemed to have the quality of an enhanced picture one would see on the beauty holo-ads stuck everywhere in the station. The body he was looking at was not natural, not real. It had been made in a vat of gelatinous fluid in the bowels of some factory. It had been grown.
            Her eyes were looking at him again. They were vacant, glazed, and apathetic. He felt panic spread up his spine. It seemed, at any moment, he was going to explode.
            "Are you, alive?" he muttered, barely audible to himself.
            She smiled. It was just another mechanical movement, quick and taken in stages from blank to completion, and froze there.
            "I have never been so alive, Hanso."
            He felt tears going down his face. He saw her eyes tracking them, her expression returning to the default Nothing, as if that were appropriate. Her body didn't move at all as her eyes followed the drop down his face to his chin, and then off and away. Once it had left her field of vision, the eyes returned forward. Hanso had a whole speech planned, and he'd forgotten it. He felt embarrassed and frustrated. Gritting his teeth, he glared across at her and wanted to punch her in her face, kiss her, grab her by that goddamn furry vest and drag her to a shuttle so they could leave and go back to the life they had together. But instead he quickly sipped his coffee and cleared his throat.
            "Come back. Go home? Please? I have been here for months looking for you, it's been..."
            "I can't. We have a big offensive push in a few days. The Amarr are creeping into the unsecured systems of Metropolis, even attempting to destroy stations. They did, once, but we had evacuated it. I fly a Stabber, the Fleet Issue. It is a worthy vessel."
            He had rested his elbows on the table and was covering his mouth, eyes wide. He had heard a recording, at least to his ear. A certain horror had overtaken him, something that comes when nightmare becomes reality, when a worst fear materializes in the immediate vicinity. It was a mixture of primal panic and sentient shock. He didn't know what to do.
            "Where is your body? Your original, I mean. Are you, is this a clone?"
            "It's being held. This is my twelfth clone. A perfect body, don't you think..." she faded off. Hanso watched her stare off at nothing for a moment and thought she was going to shoot sparks, slump over and short-circuit. It was certainly a possibility at this point, at least in his mind.
            Suddenly her face contorted into an expression of distress and she slumped forward. Her hands went rigid, tears forming around her eyes. She began to breathe quickly, almost to the point of panting. Her eyes darted down to her hands, and to Hanso. Her mouth quivered, and sound began to rise, a low moaning.
            "Hanso... what, am I?"
            He cried out. His hands shot out and grabbed hers and brought them quickly to his lips. Her expression shifted like continental plates from confusion into longing. A fire had exploded in her eyes, and yet was already fading. He said something, but didn't know what. He registered no sound or smell. The emotions were a typhoon inside of him. Images of them sitting down in that Gallentean station flashed before him: the smile on her face, a manufactured gust of wind blowing her hair, the funny way she held her lunch in her lap, her deep eyes...
            He wanted to escape back to small existence. He wanted her to go back to her original body and recapture her soul.
            She leaned back and her hands weakened. Her expression faded back down into nothing. Life disappeared back into the space of her synthetic body and the eyes were glass again. Her body was rigid, her face nothing.
            "I have to leave. Goodbye Hanso. Maybe I'll see you around here again," she said flatly, stood up and walked out of the cafe.
            His hands where hovering over the table, clasping the empty shape of two others. His eyes had not moved from where they were looking into hers. He took a snapshot in his mind of that longing expression, and held it close. He did not want to move or breathe, but just stay right where he was with that moment in his mind. The drop of her back into nothing and then leaving... he didn't want to remember it. But it was impossible. So he closed his eyes for a time and thought of the city and the park, the way she sat down quickly next to him, her hair gliding around her head, her eyes rising to meet his and the strength of the life in them...
* * *
            He leaned back in his chair and wiped his eyes. Sniffing hard, he reached down with a quivering hand and picked up his coffee. He took a long sip, feeling the lukewarm, bitter fluid filling his mouth, and then down his throat to the inside. He placed the cup down again and gazed out the great window next to him into the great symmetry of the station traffic.  His anger, passion, and fear rolled away inside him like a hurricane running off towards the horizon. In its wake was a desolate land of dirt dry as bone, dead trees wilting over and ossified and deep riverbeds, scars left by what once was a raging torrent of passion.
            An hour or so later, the eyes of Hanso spotted a Stabber Fleet Issue emerging from a small crevice in the skin of the station dock. It was led by a small towing ship down to the main flow of traffic and released, the auto-pilot taking over. It followed the flow up to the exit of the station, idled down the thin exit corridor, emerged into a bustling crowd or ships, aligned towards a distant mark, and fired off into the stars, the glowing engines disappearing into nothing.