An Alternate View

An Alternate View

An EVE On-Line short story by Ian Shumsky

 

Cracked holo projectors running the latest Scope skin flick filled the bar with pink and neon, the images distorting every few minutes as the aging hardware struggled to keep up with the pirate feed’s rolling encryption. None of the cliental were paying any attention. The handful of customers were crouched over the bar or huddled around scattered tables, conducting earnest business away from interested eyes. He scanned the room, looking for a face but trace odours of counterfeit Drop mixed with thick cheap tobacco smoke blurred his vision.

He caught the attention of the barmaid and signalled for another round, idly playing with the collection of empty glasses in front of him. He’d been early, but his contact was late. He wasn’t particularly concerned, in fact he quite liked the time away from his corporation dorm. It gave him the space to think, to be his own person, to dream. It felt like time for a change, time to break his bindings, his so-called obligations.

Fresh glasses were slapped onto the table and he flicked a couple of ISK towards the girl, enough to cover the drinks and earn a flash of fake smile. He downed the shooter and added the shot glass to the small stack teetering on the table, then took a slow pull of beer to wash the bitter metallic taste of the cheap liquor away.

The proprietor was an old planetary weather controller from Villore who had quit after taking one too many bribes, but managed to maintain a number of military contacts who ensured a lack of official interest. Like many of the establishments in the lower levels of the station, the Iso Bar was a cash only business. Downbeat bars with no electronic trails give an air of pseudo anonymity difficult to attain in the more reputable districts.

He quickly finished the beer and turned round and caught the eye of the bar maid once more, signalling for another round.

“Make that two, love,” said a voice from behind him. “And don’t use that cheap Armarnien bootleg stuff you keep for the Chieves. Use Ketley’s special bottles he keeps out back.”

He turned back and saw a thick set man in regulation navy civvies sit heavily into the chair opposite him.

“Tvay? Mark Tvay?” asked the navy man.

He simply nodded his head in reply. This wasn’t what he had expected.

“Cute. Someone had a sense of humour.” There was no smile with that.

Tvay sighed. How could he know? He did everything he could to hide it. In a galaxy torn by ancient feuds and traditional battle lines, there were still prevalent prejudices that crossed all boundaries, all sides, especially in the elite of the cultures. The pod pilots could be more bigoted than anyone, especially to a non-person such as himself. Especially to an ALT. An Aborted Life Transfer. A corporal ghost, not meant to be able to exist, not officially recognised by any of the ruling factions, their scientists or the armies of bureaucrats keeping the government engines running.

Somehow, sometimes, the sub-ether carrier signals linking each pilot to their clone station were dropped or lost or scrambled causing the automated reanimation routines to kick in and start the delicate and irrevocable process of bringing a new body on line. Most of the time these anomalies were caught early and the immature clones euthanized before the neural grid was activated and the base knowledge consciousness and memories were implanted. Sometimes, however, the anomaly wasn’t noticed early enough and a new conscious was brought into being. Mostly these were full term clones, self-aware with full memories and crushing comprehension of the unnatural and paradoxical anomaly they represented. The knowledge could send them instantly insane, but those of a stronger mentality were quickly rushed off by the attending medical staff to an unknown fate. Covert ops as ghosts, or a quick AM round through the back of the head? Tvay thought he knew what happened, given his experience the workings of government.

Sometimes, just sometimes, there was a third kind of activation. The clone was delivered and the neural grid was booted, base higher brain functionality brought on-line. A conscious of sorts was forming, ready for the necessary obliteration required for the transplant of self, the preparatory chemicals and enzymes starting their slow crawl through the body’s veins and tributaries, when a technician would return from their ill-timed bio break or necrotic affair with the innate body clone of a desirable capsuler. A flick of a switch, a flush of retro agent, enzyme stabiliser, a pseudo-random conscious morph map and a crash education download and you had a new pod pilot ready for the meat grinder.

Why the factions didn’t just automate and safeguard the whole process, he didn’t know, but he suspected that the benefit of more pod pilots outweighed the moral difficulties and official denials. Clones were not cheap, but capsulers were scarce and their contributions to the galaxy beyond measure.

But how did this man sitting in front of him know? Tvay was eleven standard months old, a mere babbling crawling baby by rights, but a fully capable, highly trained pilot in reality. After his birth and enforced neural orientation and alignment he had been handed over to his original self, a welcomed embarrassment to the ruling government, a complete surprise and unknown responsibly to his other self. He took a name, something that seemed appropriate at the time, and his main self introduced him to the corp.

The corp treated him well, but always as a second class citizen. He made some money, enough to pay for some expensive hardwiring and cheap plastic surgery, enough to turn him into his own man, but he was still the corp’s dogs body, doing all the dull long haul trips, providing backup on the belt patrols, grinding the veld. That was why he was here today. To meet this man. To get some information. In secret.

“So how did you know? And I thought that this was meant to be a bit quiet, so why the public place, the clichéd bar?”

“It’s my job to know, but if you insist, your hardwiring is… unusual for a regular pilot and the fact that you are here suggests that your corp betters don’t really care much for you, yet still trust you.”

Tvay sighed. Yes, he knew he wasn’t liked in the corp, was subservient to his original self and he resented this, always the butt of the jokes, always last in line. He hated it but there was nothing he could do. He was trapped, but he could see no way out.

“Oh, and I accessed your file.”

Even though this personal invasion appalled him, it also impressed Tvay. He didn’t officially exist, but his details were still recorded somewhere deep within the Federation. If this guy could pull his file, it was likely he could get hold of all the info they were after.

Tvay sighed again. “Let’s get this done and over with before anyone notices.”

“What’s the hurry? We’ve some expensive drinks coming and you’re paying. And as for cloak and dagger stuff, forget it. This is my regular watering hole and something hidden in plain sight is often more difficult to see than when locked behind closed doors.”

There was a clink of glass and fresh drinks were placed on the table. “Hey, Doreen, thanks,” said the navy man. “I’d like you to meet an old service buddy of mine. Doreen, meet Mark. Mark, say ‘hi’ to Doreen.”

“Hi.”

“Hey there, Mark, good to see you. Any friend of Dutch is a friend of ours. Enjoy your dinks guys.” This time the smile was genuine as she walked away.

“See,” said Dutch, “all sorted. If anyone asks around, you’re an old friend of mine.”

“But what if they can check my records? I was never in the Navy.”

Dutch looked him over and shook his head. “Look, don’t sweat it. As I said, I accessed your file.”

Tvay took a drink and lent back in his chair, accessing the man opposite. He was big, around two meters tall and wide at the shoulders. A hero’s chin set off a square face with piercing eyes and crew cut hair. The pips of rank and record of service were present across his right eyebrow, marking him as a low level officer with twenty years service, highly decorated and ready for retirement. All navy, he thought. Cut him and he’ll bleed Federation.

“The money has been transferred to the accounts as requested,” said Tvay, suddenly wanting to get this over and done with.

“I know.” Dutch accompanied the statement by flicking a data chip on to the table. “It’s all there. And more than you bargained for, probably.”

Tvay looked at him with a worried frown and a raised eyebrow. Dutch returned the stare and laughed heartily. “Why is it such a worry being immortal? It’s only money you lose after all!” Tvay looked at him, not understanding.

“You’ve never been podded, have you?” asked the navy officer. Tvay just shook his head. “Ha!” laughed Dutch, “it’ll all make more sense later, or you’ll go mad and drop out. One of the two. You accept and adapt or you walk away from the pod pilot life. You, of all capsulers, must understand.”

Tvay thought that he did, but wasn’t really in the mood for lectures and philosophical debate. “What do you mean? More than we bargained for?”

Dutch laughed again. He finished the drinks and quickly caught Doreen’s eye, signalling for another round.

“They call themselves ‘The Syndicate’. Basically a bunch of moderately organised but independent thugs. They are predominately ex-Caldari military, though they have a few faction rejects in their ranks, are all highly trained, and, it seems, highly motivated. We can’t work out if they are Caldari sponsored or just running this as a racketeering op, but until we know either way there isn’t much we can do. Officially. Anyway, your XO was right. Your corp is being sounded out and it looks like you could be next in line.”

This was going a bit fast for Tvay. “Eh? What do you mean? Look, I was only asked to come here and pick up the chip and head back. No one told me any of the background stuff.”

“They really do treat you like shit, don’t they?” chuckled Dutch, “OK, Tvay, here it is so even you can understand. Your corporation’s executive officer suspected that this bunch of Caldari scum, this so-called Syndicate, was running a surveillance op on your corp. Your boss spoke to a few people, ISK changed hands and I was contacted, unofficially, to see if I could provide some info on these guys. For a fee, of course. I’ve done some digging around and found out that these boys like a little organised conflict in their lives and regularly pick some mid-sized soft corp to keep themselves occupied until they are paid a handsome ‘protection’ fee to go away. It looks like your corp is next in line. You’re going to war, boy.”

* * * * *

Tvay, suspended in hydrostatic fluid, protected from the void by the refined polycarbonate capsule shell, opened his mind and became one with the ship. Jacked up cortex flushed with proto enzymes fired his synthetic synapses and carried the ships soul into his mind. The armour and hull was skin and bone, the capacitor his beating heart, guns and points his teeth and nails, ready to strike out in controlled debilitating violence. A feeling like no other, no intimate encounter could compare to the becoming of oneness with the ship, no VR experience could convey the crushing power that lay only a thought away. He was the ship and the ship was him.

Through eyes that did not see he watched as the fleet gathered around him. The muster point an old deep space anchorage, stores long abandoned and ravaged by the solar winds, now only used for hiding from lazy D-scans. About twenty ships in total, tech 2 frigates, the latest battlecruisers, a fleet command ship. All aligned and ready.

The plan was simple, the briefing meticulous. The aim of the mission was to disrupt a mining operation, some sort of pre-emptive strike. A contracted troublemaker would fly a rookie ship to the other side of the system and cause a bit of commotion to occupy CONCORD. Once they were engaged the order would be given and the fleet would warp to the asteroid belt where the target ships were mining, tacklers first followed by the heavy hitters. Each pilot had their orders and targets allocated, individual spatial coordinates designated by the covert ops pilot 50 light years ahead, carefully positioned so the target lay between the c-ops and the fleet. If all went to plan the affiliated salvagers would follow up and clean up the mess before the authorities arrived with swift justice.

Through ears that could not hear, Tvay listened to the corp’s excited chatter routed through the local Virtual Entangled Network Transmission node, waiting for the order to engage. “Check, check, clear comms,” came the voice of the fleet commander, tinged with machine inflection from the interpreted thoughts rendered directly into Tvay’s mind. All conversation ceased immediately, background static of the signal carrier’s quantum entropy the only baseline.

“OK people,” the FC continued, “this is it. You know the plan. I want a fast, clean operation. In and out before CONCORD can lock us down. The idea is to hurt them, hurt them bad, and let them know what they are up against. Right, diversion engagement will commence in 3… 2… 1… Diversion is now active. CONCORD are inbound. Fleet, enable warp… now!”

Tvay selected his target coordinates and engaged his FTL engines. “Warp drive active,” he mouthed, silent in his cocoon.

“Good hunting people,” the FC added, “and remember, we are the Syndicate and we do as we please.”

Since his meeting with the old navy intelligence officer Tvay’s life had not gone quite as planned. He’d returned the data chip to his corp’s exec, happy he’d passed on the responsibility and annoyed he’d been asked to do this in the first place. The EC had spent the whole night reviewing the details and then called an emergency meeting the following morning.

“Hi team,” began the CEO, “a little bit of bad news, I’m afraid. It looks like we may be about to be the victims of a war declaration.” He waited a few moments as the news sunk in and Tvay noticed the corp member’s faces ashen slightly, concerned what war may mean. Dutch’s comments on immortality came back to him and he smiled quietly, thinking he may be starting to understand.

“We are a peaceful industrial cooperative,” continued the CEO, “and not at all ready for this. We all agreed to serve the high-sec manufacturing infrastructure, providing raw materials. That dangerously cavalier life in the low and null sec systems is not for us.”

Tvay recalled that company meeting. He’d been quite keen to go and explore and escape the safety of the policed systems, but the vast majority of the group had voted to remain in high sec and maintain the status quo. He hadn’t even been allowed a vote, he remembered, consigned to the margins, once again an unwanted embarrassment.

“Normally we’d try and hire some mercenaries to help defend us, but corp funds are a little low this month, so we have had to come up with a different plan, something more proactive.” This was from the corp’s treasurer, a thin man with limited ambition. “Tvay, can you please come and see the exec after the meeting?”

Tvay had been a bit surprised, but he was the kick-about after all, probably another errand to run. The main meeting didn’t last much longer, the few questions from the floor addressed by not quite as many answers from the corp leadership and after a while everyone drifted away.

“Thank you for getting the data chip, Tvay, it has been very useful”.

The CEO, treasurer, mining director and his original self were seated around the large polished graphite table, asymmetrically positioned in the corp’s ‘quiet’ room. Tvay watched as the anti-surveillance circuitry pulsed on the surface of the walls, compensating for each minute change in the rooms molecular state. The room was not cheap to run. Tvay wondered what warranted the extra security.

“We’ve come up with a plan that we think will give us a bit of an edge in this possible war,” the CEO continued, “but it is dependent on you agreeing to it.”

“Why?” asked Tvay, suddenly suspicious, the military grade security embedded in the room’s infrastructure now more of a trap than a safety net.

“We want you to join the Syndicate. Be our spy on the inside.” This was from his main self. “You can let us know their plans, warn us if they are going to attack, that sort of thing.”

“Why me?” Tvay knew the real answer. He was unwanted, an embarrassment. Expendable.

“You did such a great job in collecting the chip and given your unique, err, relationship to me we know that we can trust you. More so than anyone else, really.”

“How?”

“We’ll arrange for a very public falling out, something that may interest the Syndicate guys. You know, maybe you destroy a couple of our frigates, just for laughs. They would be empty of crew and fully insured, so there would be no loss to the corp, but may spike the interest of them.” This from the treasurer.

“When?”

“Tomorrow,” the CEO stated. “We’re worried that the declaration will be imminent and we need more details. The sooner we can do this the better.”

Tvay sat in silence, processing the request, trying to fathom the implications. Once again the navy officer’s comments on immortality and money paraded themselves. What was there really to lose? He had enough ISK to replace his cybernetic augmentations, ships could be insured. Clearer to him, however, was that this offered something different to the usual gofer jobs, this offered the chance to define himself.

“OK. I’ll do it.”

* * * * *

From that point events had moved surprisingly swiftly. The staged ship destruction actually quite enjoyable, finally being able to wield the power of a ship in outright aggression, even if it was all show. The public outing and fallout was far less fun, the necessary humiliation and belittling, broadcast around the system, uncomfortable. Tvay suspected that some of the corp members hadn’t had to try too hard in their mock outrage, knowing that many disliked him for what he was.

Kicked from the corp he moped around a few local stations, seemingly at random, before arriving at the offices of The Syndicate, asking if they were recruiting. He was both dismayed and excited that they were willing to speak to him, partly wanting to return to the safe invisibility of his corp, partly relishing the opportunity for something different. The interview had been relatively swift. There were obvious questions about the circumstances around his departure from his previous employment to which Tvay replied with the prepared story. No ambition, no desire to step outside of the safety of high-sec, no future, no adventure. These were followed by queries on his pilot ability, sharing his certificates of achievement, notes on his specialisations. The meeting had finished off with many queries about his old corp’s organisation, defences, habits. These Tvay had answered openly, lies likely to be spotted easily.

At the conclusion of the meeting Tvay was asked to wait while the recruitment team reviewed the details of the interview. Only a few minutes later he was given the news that his application had been accepted, along with a modest retainer and orders to blow it all that night before returning for introductions the following day.

Tvay followed the orders, as well as signalling his old corp of progress, and with a stubbornly sore head that his mental augmentations could not fully resolve arrived back at the Syndicate’s offices the next morning. He was quickly introduced to the rest of the corp members, about twenty five of them in total, mostly Caldari, but with a good mix of the other primary factions represented. Introductions were made, jokes exchanged, all at a bewildering speed.

With the formal introductions complete Tvay was walked to the corp’s hanger where an impressive array of ships were being worked on by an army of maintenance drones, swarming over the hulls in ant-like endeavour, darting between the massive frames as new orders were issued. The Syndicate CEO gave Tvay a brief tour, pointing out some of the highlights of the fleet, the navy battleships, pirate cruisers and tech 2 frigates and battlecruisers, before stopping in front of a Stiletto class interceptor.

“This will be your ship, Tvay. Fully T2 rigged and fitted. We assessed your skills and this baby will be yours for the time being.”

Tvay stood open mouthed, shocked he’d been given this, so different from his usual hauler hulls.

“Go on, get in her, give her a spin,” the CEO offered with a genuine smile.

Tvay did just that. He boarded the interceptor and headed to the command capsule at the heart of the ship. Following standard protocol pre-programmed into his subconscious he entered the pod and merged with the cybernetic infrastructure, allowing actual senses to become subservient to ship’s data flow relayed directly into his mind. As one with the ship he exited the station and took the interceptor on a tour of the local asteroid fields, exploring the capabilities of the nimble craft, gauging her responses to his mental instructions.

He had been in space a short while when a flurry of messages in corp comms grabbed his attention. “All pilots, this is your fleet commander speaking.” Tvay remembered the man from the introductions earlier that day, a softly spoken but intense Caldari, finely sculptured features a refinement likely gained through several clone rebirths. “Please check your corp bookmarks and proceed with all speed to location Alpha Two. We have a training mission for you. You will be briefed in transit.” That had been less than one hour ago.

The warp exit hypnic jerk coupled with the local grid load snapped Tvay back to the present. Contextual tactical information poured into his mind, adrenalin coursing through his system. No bio engineered reaction to combat, this was a human condition. The c-ops pilot had been perfect in his scouting and drop coordinates. Tvay was positioned between two Hulk class mining barges and just above an Iteron class hauler. The few light support frigates, intended as defence against the occasional belt rat, were several clicks away. There were another six barges in the belt, along with a second hauler and a swarm of mining drones.

Tvay watched as the other interceptors of the Syndicate fleet engaged their designated targets, pushing out fine stands of space time distortion to slow their prey and prevent escape. Selecting his own primary and secondary targets Tvay powered up his sub-light engines and accelerated to maximum velocity, keeping a tight orbit around his addigned mining ships and within range of a hauler. With his targets locked a passing thought engaged his warp scramblers and stasis webifier, ensnaring the ships in an invisible net.

As the first wave of Syndicate fleet engaged the mining operation, local public comms exploded with outrage and threats and pleas for mercy. Tvay blocked out the channel and concentrated on his task, keeping the targets in place while the second, slower, wave completed their warp jump, ready to bring destruction.

Through one of the interceptor’s subsystems, Tvay became aware of a private comms request, his old CEO asking for a chat, probably after an update on progress. Tvay opened the channel to be greeted by a furious outburst. “What the fuck do you think you are doing, Tvay? Disengage. I repeat disengage!”

Tvay, puzzled reassessed the tactical information pouring into his mind from the battlefield. Filtering out unnecessary elements, asteroids, stations, stargates and the like, he focused on the ships of the mining operation, absorbing the details, becoming aware of the identities pilots commanding the target ships. These were his former corporation members, his former masters. Events had moved so fast Tvay had not been able to provide a further update and he suspected now this was a deliberate plan on the Syndicate’s part.

Calculating a subtle path that would take him out of range of his targets, Tvay’s mind reached out to the interceptor’s control surfaces, preparing for the change in direction. Just then the second wave of Syndicate ships arrived. Ten Tornado class battlecruisers, defensive subsystems compromised to enable the fitting of battleship sized weapons. Before he could enact his planned manoeuvres, the battlecruiseres opened fire, each one focusing on a single ship. Within seconds the hulks and haulers had been disabled, fearsome firepower negating shield and armour and penetrating the hulls. Tvay slipped out of range from his targets, his space time destabilisations no longer affective, the ships, however, left with no ability to escape, damage already done.

A primary subsystem impatiently forced itself into his mind. He had been targeted by one of the small guardian frigates and was taking incoming fire. He carried no armour, no augmented shields. His only defence was speed. Without thinking, pre-programmed routines kicking in, he locked the small ship and plotted a firing solution.

Warning messages flashed before his slightless eyes as his shields were stripped by the incoming fire. He could actually feel the burning hot anti-matter rounds as they bit into his armour, needle pricks of burning light peppering his flesh.

“Fuck you Tvay,” came his old CEO’s voice in the private channel. “You’re going down.”

Tvay closed the comms and disengaged the overload safety on the interceptor’s systems, pushing his ship to its limits. With his overheated sub-light drives propelling him towards the attacking frigate he engaged his propulsion jamming systems, locking the target in space. He closed to within a few thousand meters, outside his optimal but still within damage range and gave the command to fire his autocannons. Rapidly closing on the target he veered off to broadside the frigate, his overheated ACs rapidly depleting its shields, its armour plates being blasted off. He looped around quickly, the frigate’s guns unable to track the nimble interceptor, and came round for a second pass. This time his guns completed the job, the shells penetrating the armour, compromising the hull and causing catastrophic system failure. The frigate exploded, debris bouncing off Tvay’s regenerating shields.

With the primary targets down, burning from within, and his own battle over, Tvay scanned the belt for further opportunities for destruction, no longer caring these were former colleagues, that he had dealt death with murderous disregard. Despite his speed the only thing in range was a capsule, aligning for warp and the safety of a nearby station. Tvay initiated target lock, instructing his web and disrupters to engage as soon as the pattern was confirmed in the tactical matrix, hoping to catch the escaping pod before it entered warp. Lock. Points. Optimal achieved. Tvay was about to fire when he stopped, the relayed tactical information causing pause, the details of the target confirmed.

“Tvay?” His main self had opened a private comms channel, the focused beam emanating from the locked pod.

From warp initiation to now, the whole combat had lasted perhaps 60, maybe 70, seconds. Devastating blows from the Tornado class battlecruisers compromising the mining barge hulls with a single volley, the smaller weapons from the tackling ships finishing the job in the following moments. The eight barges were floating tangled shells, the contents of their cargo holds spilling into the belt, shattering the frozen bodies of the crew as they collided. Tvay had helped in the murder. He hadn’t intended to and it wasn’t in the plan, but resentment from the past, the heat of the moment, the promise of the future all conspired in the present.

“Check, check,” came the constructed virtual voice of the FC. “Good job people, very efficient. CONCORD are now inbound. Take wing, fly safe and regroup at location Delta Three. Repeat Delta Three.”

They had seconds, maybe a minute, before CONCORD arrived. The battlefield was clearing, remnants of the mining operation scattered, the rest of the Syndicate fleet in warp to the pre-arranged rendezvous, the affiliated but neutral salvagers clearing the asteroid belt of wreckage, spoils for the victor. Of the combatants only himselves remained, his original self’s capsule was locked, pointed, webbed and going nowhere. Tvay’s guns were still burning from the encounter, superheated molecules from the charred weapon tips escaping into the void. The guns felt light and he was instantly aware only a couple of rounds remained in the magazines. He instructed the ship to reload, burning precious seconds before escape would be impossible, contemplating what fate had delivered.

“Why?” asked his original self.

Reload complete, Tvay’s mind reached out and caressed the phased plasma rounds resting in the breach of autocannons, the ship responded by pouring tactical data into his subconscious. Optimals, falloff, damage, ROF and a thousand other form factors stacked behind his eyes. Maybe 10 seconds now, maybe less. Tvay considered the possibilities, the implications, heightened senses and augmented cortex processing the data at speed. There were many forms of escape. Escape from the past. Escape from CONCORD. Escape from the future, his own path to choose. None of these were now as expected, no clear logical route for the perfect outcome, no absolutes. In the confusing disorientation there was only one axiom, one clear truth coalescing, that he was no longer tied, bound to his original form.

“Because I am not you,” Tvay mouthed in silence as he initiated the AC firing sequence and aligned for warp.

 

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