Part of the New Eden Chronicles Collection: Interstitial Space
1. A task given
“Consciousness download complete. Standby for clone bay hatch open.”
Noude swallowed down the bile that threatened to rise up. In the semi-darkness of the clone pod, she still felt the nonexistent burns and lacerations on her new body. She unconsciously extended her right hand to grip her left arm where, no more than a few minutes ago, there had been nothing but a stump left. She pressed her eyelids shut as her world spun.
The soft hiss of the hatch opening thundered in the soundproofed confines of her cocoon. The cold recycled air that hit her skin raised goosebumps. A warm hand touched the inside of her wrist, checking her vitals.
“I see you still haven’t fully adjusted to the clone transfer process.”
She looked up at the wiry technician. Her dark green eyes read the ID card hanging from a corporate-issue lanyard. Shimon Pahmer. His eyes were glued to his hand-held medical terminal. He frowned every now and then as he read through her file.
“No,” she said. But it wasn’t just the usual post-transfer disorientation that assaulted her.
Her chest felt heavy as she released the pod’s umbilical, lifted herself up, and placed a bare foot on the linoleum floor. The white-walled room she was in held no mirrors, its walls filled instead with a wide array of medical equipment and monitors. The most prominent feature of the room however wasn’t the state of the art computers but rather the 15 clone bays and their supporting growth tanks. The human-sized pods occupied two thirds of the floor space, their silvery translucent surface doing little to hide the prone figures lying inside. Noude’s old body lay in the bay beside hers. Despite the life sign readings scrolling across the pod’s surface in two second intervals, without her consciousness inside, it was no better than a lifeless doll. A red blinking warning light indicated it was set for recycling. In a little over a few days a new body would lie there, another five and a half foot meat sack that bore the same shoulder-length black hair, the same olive skin, the same pointed chin and was a perfect biological copy of what she was wearing now.
She slipped on a pair of black leggings, a clean black shirt, and the soft-soled boots Shimon handed her. He gave her the release form with a sad smile.
“I’m sorry,” he said. There was no need to elaborate on what he was sorry for. She was well aware that the news would have reached here even if her nearly half-dead self hadn’t.
Noude pushed open the clone room doors. Her nose stung from the acrid scent of antiseptic, biopaste, and, most overpoweringly, blood. Despite the clone room being tucked into the farthest corner of the med bay, the coppery smell filled the large hall with ease. Every sick bed was occupied, the men and women who lay there in various states of injury from the moderate to the life-threatening. Doctors performed surgery on patients who couldn’t be brought into the operating room fast enough. Nurses sutured what they could. The rest patched themselves up with whatever they could lay their hands on. Black bags piled in a corner of the room held those who could no longer be saved. A still larger number hadn’t even made it to the station, their bodies left in the cold vacuum of space and incinerated in the ensuing explosion.
Just like him, she thought.
“Noude.” Heads turned at the sound of her name being called from the opposite end. Eyes sunken with pain sharpened at the sight of her unblemished body. They had seen her only a few minutes back barely walking, a blood-soaked jacket hastily fashioned into a tourniquet across her upper arm. The barely audible whispers were harsh with spite. A man, his left leg burnt to the bone, stared at her as he spat on the floor.
Her captain called out to her. He paid no mind to the scene and beckoned her to follow. Noude fixed her eyes on the corporation insignia emblazoned on his bomber jacket and walked forward. It was only after she’d passed the last sick bed that she let her eyes look away.
“Captain Cortu, you asked for me, sir?”
Cortu led her to an unused office and gestured for her to sit down. He walked to the window and looked out into the reds and blues of a nebula painted across the breadth of visible space. The cracks on his leathery face deepened. When he spoke, his voice was heavy.
“As you well know, we’re rather short handed because of this recent fiasco with the athanor destruction and with most of our fleet still in cleanup operations.” He raked a hand through his ragged and graying hair. “We need someone to go inform the families of those who died.”
He didn’t need to spell out any further what he wanted Noude to do. She felt her stomach drop. Does he not know what I’ve done? How could I face any of them? Perhaps this was her punishment. A throbbing pain seared the base of her skull. Her eyes pressed into their sockets as a high-pitched ringing assaulted her ears.
Noude grasped the armrest of the sofa she sat on. Her fingernails dug into the brown leather as she tried to steady her breathing. When she was certain her voice would not waver she replied. “I understand.”
Cortu nodded his head. He tapped his mobile terminal with his left hand. A discreet ping alerted Noude to the incoming message on hers. Bringing it up on the corneal HUD of her current clone she read the data he’d forwarded.
“It’s not a complete list as we’re still tallying the full count of the deceased but it should cover a large portion of it.”
There were over a hundred names. The detailed records of each were appended. In the box marked next of kin they had put down fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. One of them had even marked a nun from the Sovereign Hospitaller Order of Saint Katherine. Their addresses spanned the breadth of Empire space and beyond. It only made sense for someone like her who could very quickly transfer consciousness to clones located in different stations to undertake the task. Although she understood Captain Cortu’s logic it didn’t make the job any easier.
It was partway down the list that she found his name. Faradus Nauvat. Her dry throat constricted. Her gut twisted as she looked at the photo of his smiling face, dimples on either cheek under crinkled periwinkle eyes and a head of dark brown hair. It was the same smile he’d given her when he’d told her many months ago that he’d be joining her in Zirsem. “It’ll be fun,” he’d said.
It was also the same smile he’d given her as she watched his blue lips soundlessly mouth her name from beyond the blast doors as his section of the athanor was vented into space.
In the box marked next of kin he’d put down his mother’s name and hers.
“As you can expect we’ll need you to head out as soon as possible. I’ve also granted you access to the corporation lockers of those on the list. While we can courier their personal effects it would be better for you to personally return them to their families wherever possible.”
Noude pressed her lips into a thin line. It would do no good to break down in front of her superior. “Okay. If there’s nothing else, I’ll be taking my leave sir.”
She stood up and prepared to walk out. Just as she placed her hand on the knob, Captain Cortu called out.
“It’s not your fault.”
Turning around to look at the captain, she gave him a nod. “I know.” Of course, I know it is.
His gray eyes said he didn’t believe her lie but he didn’t call her out on it. The last sight she had was of him sighing into the now empty room.
2. The mementos of the dead
The corporation lockers were located beside the ship hangar. Rows of gray steel lockers filled the industrial warehouse, each locker holding half a dozen smaller personal cubicles locked with passcodes. Approaching the first locker, she entered the override Captain Cortu had granted her.
“Jeraj Elecan.” She read the name on the manifest. The twelve inch by twelve inch space was filled with space rocks and bric-a-brac from various planets across Nohshayess, Sib, and Mayonhen. A small doll, its golden hair pinned up into a bun, was carefully wrapped in a corner, no doubt a present for his daughter for when he next went planet-side. She smoothed its soft locks as she carefully laid it above the rest of the items she’d moved to a mobile lock box.
One by one, Noude emptied the contents of each deceased’s locker. In the one owned by Genia Eledian, a young astrogeologist, she found an engagement ring beside a holo photo of the woman and her fiancée smiling side by side at a beach. The locker of a mechanic named Utate Havenai had an acceptance letter to the Royal Amarr Institute dated just one month back. An assortment of rare hardbound books tumbled out of yet another.
It was only after she’d cleared all the cubicles that she went to the one owned by Faradus. Pausing in front of his locker, she pressed her forehead against the cold metal as she finally let her tears fall.
“I’m so sorry.” The sound of the ventilation fan whirring overhead drowned out the sound of her words but it did not matter. The recipient was long beyond the reach of any voice.
After several minutes, she wiped her tears on her sleeve. She opened his cubicle. There wasn’t much inside. Most of the space was taken up by an old tin box, a repurposed chocolate box, its fading label still visible on one side. She carefully opened it. Inside was a large bundle of handwritten letters, the stationery slightly yellowed with age but otherwise well preserved. Opening one, she recognized the handwriting as her own.
You wouldn’t believe it but they told me I’m qualified to be a capsuleer. Barely qualified but qualified nonetheless. Remember when we talked about exploring the stars? And galaxies? Wormholes? Apparently as a capsuleer I can do all that and more! It’s no longer just a pipe dream. It will take several years of training and hard work but they said I could do it. Am going to try applying to one of the scholarship programs. If not, I’ll just need to tighten my belt and save up money until I can afford the training.
Wish me luck!
Nidar told me someone confessed to you at school today but you turned her down. He also said you told her “I’m interested in someone else.” I think he knows who it is. No fair! How come he knows but I don’t?
And another one.
I heard from Sister Zalissa that you will be moving to Khanid Prime now that you have a new mother. She said your new mother is a beauty! I wish I could have seen her. She’s probably kind too since Sister gave her approval. I’m only sad that you’re moving away. Promise to stay in touch? I’ll keep writing, of course. I don’t care that Sister says I should save on paper by just sending you a network message. This way is better, I think. It’s special.
At the bottom of the box was a small photo of her. It had been taken a few months after she’d formally joined the corporation and they had yet to ship out. She had reluctantly agreed to let Faradus take a photo of her in her full capsuleer jumpsuit. She’d stuck her tongue out at him just as he snapped the shot. He’d refused to reshoot no matter how hard she begged him to.
Noude choked back her sobs. She put the tin box into a separate container together with the well-worn leather jacket she’d found in his locker. Just as she was leaving she was accosted by Geudes Cocyon.
“I hope they don’t let you off the hook.”
He sneered as he leaned against the entry. His burly build and tangled mop of hair were a common sight in the bars and brothels in the sector. From her vantage point, Noude clearly saw below the rolled up arms of his jumpsuit the tattoo of a bleeding death rabbit. Rumor was it had been granted to him by his previous corporation for wiping out numerous Guristas pirate cells before he was ultimately ousted due to bad behavior.
She repeated the words of Captain Cortu in response. “It wasn’t my fault.”
“Ha. You keep telling yourself that, honey.” Geudes scoffed. “The way I see it, the whole mess could have been avoided if you hadn’t accidentally allowed an incorrect fuel delivery to screw up the power to the shielding.”
“Are you implying that I had intentionally done it?”
Geudes shrugged. His large shoulders rolled up and down in an exaggerated manner. “I’m not saying anything, honey. But try telling that to the families of the dead.” He pointed at the mobile lock box she had in tow. “I sure as hell don’t wanna come over to them and tell them their poor boy, or girl, died because of some tiny mistake I made that could have been totally avoided.”
Noude bit the inside of her cheek. There was no point trying to argue with Geudes. Everyone knew he was a bully.
But I know he’s right. How many times have I told myself the same thing.
Geudes glared at her in silence. He wouldn’t budge, she knew, and there was no way to get out without passing by him. With his strength he could easily crush her windpipe. If she hadn’t just transferred to a new clone and there was no downtime in changing, she’d have no concern. Now if he decided to inflict bodily harm she’d land in the med bay in a cast or worse.
In the hangar, the klaxon for a sortie blew.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Noude watched Geudes straighten up. Despite everything no one could fault him as a pilot. Before leaving, he shot her one last scathing look.
“Piece of advice from me to you. Don’t show your face here anymore. Quit. Die in a ditch. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter that you’ve got a capsuleering license. You ain’t got what it takes out here. So save us and everybody else from any more of your stupidity.”
Noude shivered. She tugged the mobile lock box forward, her hands cold and bloodless. In the distance she heard the sounds of pilots clambering into their ships as others prepared flight logistics. It had been less than half a day since the athanor had blown up. Their rivals, sensing weakness, had come like vultures descending on rotting meat.
Returning to the temporary room she had been assigned to, Noude clutched the knapsack where she’d put Faradus’s things. The sparsely furnished room held nothing except a bed, a work table and a desktop terminal. With nothing personal to pack, all she could do was wait until the shuttle she was allocated was cleared to depart.
Geudes’s words repeated in the empty space like a bad recording. Opening the terminal on the desk, she began writing a resignation letter.
I would like to resign from the corporation. This recent incident has taught me that I’m not fit to be here. My mistake is not something that can be forgiven, that I know. Thank you for taking the chance with me, for believing in me. I’m sorry that I’ve repaid that trust in this way.
Her fingers hovered over the button to send the mail. Once. Twice. Thrice. Her hand inched closer to the screen before she let it fall back to her side every time.
And every time she came close to sending it, she seemed to hear Faradus, his baritone suppressing barely disguised disappointment say, “You’re better than that. You’re not someone who will quit over something like this, right?”
After an hour of fitful starts and stops, she left it on draft, curled up in bed, and forced herself to sleep. No matter how she felt, no matter how much she wished things had been different, she still had a job that had to be done.
3. The ones left behind
Day 5, Bashyam XII
Lightning crackled through the purple clouds in sporadic bursts. The ionized air, saturated with moisture, created washes of electricity on the hull of the shuttle Noude rode. The rocky descent was slow. Utilizing only thrusters to avoid setting off unwanted chain reactions, the ship’s AI charted a path towards the obscured landing pad of the mining settlement below.
On the ship’s secondary monitor the official management report on the incident, issued just three hours ago, was displayed.
“The destruction of the Zirsem athanor, hereafter referred to as ‘the Incident’, was brought about by four concurrent events that resulted in a catastrophic failure of core systems supporting the safety and security of the structure:
Insufficient fuel blocks resulting in the inoperability of the structure shields and the reduction in the structure’s overall power grid output;
Failure of early alert systems to detect the incoming Blood Raider elite squadron resulting in the enemy decloaking in optimal range and position to target and exploit structural vulnerabilities;
Delayed diversion of critical power to shields due to faulty wiring and switchboard controls when imminent attack was clear;
Insufficient staff available to engage in sortie to rout invaders before structural hull breach.
An assessment on the culpability of the individuals involved in the Incident will be performed at a later date. Meanwhile, it is the recommendation of this committee that management take into account the findings enclosed herein and reinforce relevant protocols to avoid a similar incident from happening in the future.”
Noude turned away from the monitor. The brightly lit interiors of the shuttle were a stark contrast to the emergency lighting in the corridors of the athanor before its destruction.
“You need to go. Now.” Noude grabbed Faradus’s hand and dragged him in the direction of the hangar where the last remaining shuttles were preparing to escape.
Faradus shook his head. “I’m not going without you.”
The ground beneath them trembled as the last remaining tethers crumbled into space dust. It was only a matter of time before either enemy fire breached the reactor core or the force of vacuum caused the structure to implode.
“I can’t. I need to make things right. I can still fight. I’m a capsuleer. I can…”
“You have nothing to atone for.” Faradus squeezed her hand tightly. His eyes blazed. “Remember …”
“No!” Noude screamed as the corridor walls behind them gave way to the black and the automatic blast doors slammed shut. Her entire arm and the hand holding his was shorn off by the force of the door’s impact. Heedless of the blood pouring down her side, she banged on the thick armored door. From the recessed window, she watched as his body was flash frozen in space, his left hand still resolutely holding hers.
She was jolted back by a proximity notification, alerting her that she was nearing the mining settlement. She wiped the cold sweat off her forehead and rubbed her eyes. She adjusted the black suit she wore as the shuttle landed. She picked up the small steel box on the seat beside her. The deceased’s name printed on its cover was Coragh Salomens.
The settlement on Bashyam XII wasn’t large. The mining operations here had slowed down considerably over the last decade. Not many would choose to make a life on a planet where deadly lightning storms were a daily occurrence. Those that did, like Coragh Salomens’s family, formed a tight-knit community.
His widow met Noude in the command center’s assembly hall. In the middle of the cavernous room, she sat on a steel chair in a white dress, hands clutching her very pregnant belly. Beside her stood three men dressed in rubberized mining coveralls. Their mismatched features, ages, and ethnicities made it clear that they were not directly related to her. Rather, they were there to guard her and to show that the community was behind her.
“Who ya be to come here,” the eldest man asked. His salt and pepper hair was cropped short. With his left eye he stared Noude down while the artificial one on his right scanned her, likely for the presence of any concealed weapons.
Noude cleared her throat. The sweat she’d wiped away returned and made her skin clammy.
“I came to bear the news that Coragh Salomens has passed away in the service of the corporation and to return his effects to his next of kin.”
Noude gestured to the box she carried beneath an arm. The man who spoke to her stomped his feet in impatience.
“We know him is dead. We no hear from him for some days now and we hear ya’s athanor destroyed. We can put two and two together.”
The youngest male spat on the ground. His dark skin was flushed red as his narrowed black eyes twitched in anger. He leveled a finger at Noude as he advanced towards her. “Me elder here asked what balls ya have to come here and tell me people Coragh be gone. He ask what more ya people come to take away from us. Coragh be the best of us. Now he no come back no more. What be tell ya to his wife and unborn child, eh?”
Noude watched as Coragh’s wife staggered out of her seat. The silent tears she cried stained her gaunt cheeks. The thin hand that held her belly trembled. The corners of her chapped lips bled where she had bitten them. Slowly she walked forward, the third and last man supporting her by the elbow lest she fall.
In that windowless hall no one stopped her as she wordlessly took the box from Noude. Inside was a picture of the same woman, face rosy, her dark hair whipping about her face in an unseen wind. Next to it was a pair of new baby shoes, blue as the sky on a cloudless day. She sank to her knees and hugged the woolen shoes to her chest as she wept. This close, her swollen eyes and the dark rings beneath it told of sleeplessness and exhaustion. Her voice, ragged and broken, was soft in its despair.
“Me husband. Give me husband back to me.”
In another world it would have been Noude on the floor begging instead. Man. God. Devil. It didn’t matter to which. The cry would have been the same. Faradus. Give Faradus back to me.
Noude hung her head. Her heart bled a little more as guilt gnawed at her. Her voice cracked.
“I’m sorry.” I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It seemed to be the only thing she said these days. But there was no comfort she could give. The monies that the corporation paid out in insurance would never make up for the loss of the man who should have become a father.
The young man helped the woman up and back to her seat. Without turning around, he addressed Noude one last time.
“Now ya be done. Now ya leave. Leave and never come back. Ya and ya’s corporation. Never come back.”
Noude pressed her hand to her chest as a sign of respect. As she turned around, she heard wailing. Like a dam breaking, the sound of Coragh’s wife’s keening cries chased her all the way back to her ship.
4. A mirror of the past
Day 7, Lansez II
The dry cracked earth extended as far as the eye could see. Dust flew up in little whirlwinds that pelted the skin. Noude adjusted the goggles she wore and pressed the scarf covering her nose and mouth closer.
The woman beside her was similarly attired. However, unlike Noude, she showed no signs of discomfort. Her white habit flapped in the hot wind as she pointed up at the small rise ahead where a cluster of mausoleums were built.
“It’s just over there.”
Noude nodded in thanks. The usual box she carried was left in the vehicle behind them. In exchange, she held a small package, no larger than a fist, in one hand.
“Sister Stallia, did you know the family well?”
The nun shook her head. “Not as much as I would have wished. The father was a devout believer of the Scripture but I did not know the wife or children.”
In the distance black banners flapped in the wind from the central mausoleum. Two children stood in front of the structure, a girl and a much younger boy both dressed in mourning black. Hand in hand, their heads bowed, they silently gazed at the plaque with the names of their parents etched in stone. The girl looked up and greeted them as the crunch of rock and sand announced their arrival.
“Welcome. We thank you for visiting with us,” she said.
Her petite face had already lost its baby fat and had begun to form the sharper features of a young woman making her no older than twelve or thirteen. Her golden hair was braided and tied in black ribbons. The boy beside her looked to be seven. Their parents, Iluha and Naniya Kovian, had both been on the athanor that day. Iluha had been a member of the corporation but Naniya was not. It was pure happenstance that she, a trader, had visited her husband.
Sister Stallia bent at the knee and placed a hand on each of the children’s shoulders.
“Do you know why we’re here,” she asked them.
The boy nodded. His sister gripped her brother’s hand tightly as if afraid they would be separated. “You’re here to take us away, are you not?” She didn’t say what they all knew was the truth. Without any other relatives, the two children had no choice except to be taken in by the church.
Noude looked at the girl’s pale but resolute face, tears long dried as she calmly accepted their new reality. The world may see her as only a child but the person before Noude now was no longer one.
Was it so long ago that I was where she is now? A ten year old with black hair instead of blond, a worn out teddy bear in hand instead of a brother…
Sister Stallia patted the boy’s head. “Yes. The lady over there is also going to give you your father’s and mother’s things they left behind.”
Coming closer, Noude likewise bent at the knee to face the siblings. Unwrapping the package in her hand, she presented them with a small medal. In the afternoon light the metal took on the color of the earth. The name etched at the bottom of its elliptical shape was the same as the one written on the stone plaque beside them.
The girl took the medal with one hand and, turning to her brother, placed it in his small palm. He scrunched his face as though trying to understand why it was a piece of metal and not their father that was returned to them. He swayed on his feet as if about to fall. His sister pulled him close to her. With his face buried in the black ruffles of her dress, he sobbed.
“Will you give us some time before we depart, Sister,” the girl asked.
Sister Stallia nodded. As the two of them gave the children space to say their final goodbyes, she turned to Noude. The blue eyes above her scarf were kind.
“You look like you could do with some mourning yourself.”
“Why do you say that, Sister?”
Noude felt rather than saw the nun offer a wry smile. “I sensed a heavy burden when we first met. Now seeing how you looked at those kids I became certain.” She looked at the two forlorn figures by their parents’ graves, graves that held no bodies because none could be recovered that could be returned to them.
“When you’ve lived for as long as I have and seen what I’ve seen you know when another soul is struggling.”
She placed a weathered palm on Noude’s chest. “You need to make peace with yourself.”
Noude shook her head. How can I make peace with the fact that I’ve caused someone else to face the same pain, the same past, that I did. How can I make peace with the fact that he wouldn’t have died if it hadn’t been for me. Her voice was thick when she replied.
“What if the weight of my sins is too heavy?”
“Even then, you must. Is it so bad to let go of the pain and move forward?”
As the silence stretched between them, Noude saw a different boy and a different girl standing side by side next to a makeshift telescope.
“One day I’ll explore those stars. You wait and see.”
Faradus laughed at her while nodding. “Of course you will.” He turned towards her. His boyish features, normally quick to smile, was uncharacteristically serious. “And I’ll be right there beside you when you do.”
Noude watched the Kovian siblings kiss the stone funeral plaque one last time before turning around to approach them. The young boy had wiped his tears and wore a face not unlike his sister’s. His mouth was set in a hard line as he lifted his chest up. The hand that held his father’s medal was steady.
“Ready,” he said.
Noude wished she could say the same herself. Soon enough the corporation would call her for the inquest. Standing before the Board tribunal she wondered if she could confidently say the same thing. Was it possible to let go of the pain and regret?
As the four of them made their way down the rise, Noude looked back at the black banners flying in the wind and offered a small wish and a prayer. I hope you find peace. Whether she directed it to the souls interred in the mausoleum or to herself she did not quite know.