for the "POD AND PLANET FICTION CONTEST"
The bio-tech looked up from his console when he saw his patient open his eyes.
"Welcome to the Lai Dai corporation cloning facility here in the Oipo system, err... Liam is it?". With a rehearsed smile he continued: "You will be happy to know that the cloning procedure has been completed successfully.”
"Why does this universe hate me?" his patient asked.
“I do not have that information sir, but I can tell you that you are now cleared to proceed to exit room A-3 where your personal possessions are waiting for you. Thank you for using the Lai Dai corporation cloning services. We look forward to serving you again in future." With this, the tech returned his attention to his console.
Liam looked at the tech and understood that he had been dismissed. He gingerly climbed of the raised platform he was lying on, putting his bare feet on the cold metal floor. Looking around, he easily found the exit room doors and unsteadily made his way there.
"It's been a while... I forgot how terrible it feels to wake up in a new clone." he muttered when he entered the room and closed the door behind him.
Like the other room, the exit room was utterly boring: gray metal walls and only the most sober furnishings. The chair looked uncomfortable and the small table carried his personal possessions; a fresh set of clothes and a portable neocom. With a grunt Liam put on the garments that had cost him a small fortune when he bought them years ago. Expensive as they had been, at least he was assured that a fresh set would be waiting for him wherever he docked or, as today, woke up.
This time however, he could not appreciate the luxurious fabrics; for all practical purposes, he was dead broke. The ship he had been flying only an hour ago, or more exactly its cargo, had represented pretty much everything he owned. Now that the vessel and its precious cargo had been turned to star dust, he was in real trouble: he needed a new premium clone but did not have the means to pay for it.
"Right" Liam thought rubbing his face, "Let's go and find out exactly in how much trouble I really am." He exited the room through the second door and after querying his neocom for the route to take, started making his way to his assigned quarters.
The passageways were almost deserted and the few people he did see appeared rushed, even panicked. With a sense of trepidation, he activated his neocom and asked for the latest news from the local nets.
"Oh, shit!" he whispered under his breath, "I guess this universe really does hate me..." The neocom had connected to the Interstellar Correspondents news feed and the main story headline read "SANSHA INVADE OIPO, EVACUATION UNDERWAY."
Liam hurried through the station corridors and once in his quarters, accessed the embedded console. Years ago, he had earned his capsuleer wings as an intelligence officer in the Caldari Navy, so it took him only a few minutes to put together a coherent picture of the situation. The result did not please him; only a few hours ago the Sansha Nation had invaded the solar system. They had immediately blockaded all the warp gates and they were now systematically ransacking the space stations in the system.
Liam knew that once they had control of all the stations, they would start pillaging the planets. Unlike the pirates that had killed him earlier today, the Sansha were not after riches or even territory. What they hunted for were slaves and once they had you, you were theirs forever.
Trying to stay calm, Liam pulled up the status of the station. All those that had transportation had long fled the station. About five hundred people were still stranded in the station with him.
"Probably an exercise in futility, but let's see if there is anyone here that I know." Liam thought while he asked his neocom to interface with the console to do just that. To his surprise a name did pop up; "Salbert? You poor devil..." Liam muttered. He stabbed a finger at his neocom and after a few seconds, the image of Salbert appeared.
"Liam!" Salbert said urgently, "Tell me you're not stuck here with me?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, but yeah, I'm here.”, Liam replied, “Where are you? Can we meet and see if we can find a way out of this mess?"
"I see where you are." Salbert said quickly. " Stay there. I'll be with you in two minutes." He closed the connection.
“A neocom should not be able to tell you where I am” Liam thought smiling. He and Salbert had gone through the Navy Intelligence training together and apparently, neither had forgotten what they had learned there.
Liam woke from his reverie when a computer voice informed him Salbert was at the door. He opened the door and Salbert hurried in.
“Liam! You're the last one I thought I would find here. Please tell me you have a fast ship in the dock and we can get out of here!”
“It's good to see you too!” Liam smiled, “I would ask you how you've been, but you're right, we have more urgent matters to discuss. To answer your question: nope, all I have waiting for me at the docks, is a pod.”
“I was afraid of that.” Salbert sighed. “I looked up the docking bay manifests and there isn't a single capsuleer ships docked.” “However, assuming you still are a qualified pod pilot...” Salbert let his voice trail of expectantly...
“I can assure you I still am.” Liam confirmed.
“Well then,” Salbert continued, “we might have a way out of here yet. But we must hurry. Those Sansha will be on our doorstep within the hour. Grab your stuff and follow me.”
“I'm wearing everything I own”, Liam said sadly, “Let's go.”
Together the two men hurried through the deserted station corridors until they reached one of the large docking bays where a crowd was gathered. When Salbert and Liam arrived, the gathered people fell silent and looked at them. Worry and hope shining in their eyes.
“These are most of the people that are still here.” Salbert told Liam. “All of us need to get out of this station as soon as possible. And then we need to find a way out of the solar system.”
He pointed to one of the docking lanes where a large commercial cargo ship was docked.
“As you can see, we have a way out of the station. I never got that fancy capsuleer certification you have, but that there is my ship, the 'Mlaghai' and there is plenty of room in there for all of us. The problem is she's dead slow out of warp and there is no way we can outrun the Sansha at the gates. We'll be dead, or worse, long before we even get in jump range of the gate.”
“And that is where I come in.”, Liam said. “You need a scout to fly to the gates and tell you when it is safe.”
“Exactly!” Salbert agreed excitedly, “We need a capsuleer that is capable of maneuvering a cloaked vessel. None of us would be able to react fast enough.”
“You know I would love to help you out here.” Liam said. “But as you already know, I have no ship, no money...”
“But we do!” Salbert gestured at the assembled crowd around them. “There is a sales contract for a frigate with a fitted cloaking device available in this very station and all of us together have sufficient money. All we need is a pilot to fly it?”
“A frigate, eh?” Liam asked doubtfully, “That means a simple cloak that won't work during warp. Still, this just might work and honestly, it's the best offer I have had all day.”
A smile appeared on Salbert's face. “Good to have you with us again, captain.” He turned to the crowd and shouted “OK everybody, we already talked this over! If anybody has a better idea, let's hear it now! If not, go get your stuff and board the transport. We leave in exactly twenty minutes. If you're late, you get left behind!”
The crowd quickly dispersed, some heading towards the cargo ship, some going to their homes to get their families.
“It looks like you had this all planned out before you met me.” Liam remarked.
“Well, once I knew you were on board we started to set this up.” Salbert said carefully. “You should get a move on; the frigate is ready and waiting for your pod.”
Liam looked at Salbert and asked: “Aren't you afraid I'll take the frigate and leave all of you here to distract the Sansha for me?”
Salbert turned to look Liam straight in the eyes and answered: “I believe myself to be a good judge of character and I know you used to be a decent human being. Tell me now: am I wrong trusting you with the lives of these people, not to mention my own?”
Liam sighed, “No, you're not wrong. I would not have a way out of here without them. I am curious why you are taking on all those passengers though. You really need their money to buy the frigate?”
Salbert looked away uncomfortably, “No, I don't, but I could not leave them here for the Sansha.”
Liam could tell that Salbert was holding something back. “Well, we'll have a talk about that once we're safe.”
“We sure will.” Salbert grinned, looking relieved, “But right now you need get in your pod, get out there and start scouting. We need to get this show on the road!”
Fifteen minutes later the small frigate left the station. Inside the frigate, Liam was suspended in the ectoplasmic liquid that filled his pod. The pod systems fed electrical impulses directly into Liam's nervous system and allowed him to communicate with the outside world. Right now, Liam had a communications channel open with Salbert on board the still docked 'Mlaghai'.
“Salbert, I have undocked. The information I have indicates that the Sansha came through the Isinokka warp gate. Assuming they want to keep their way back safe, I expect that gate to be heavily guarded. I am going to take a quick look.”
“Roger Liam, be careful. By the time you have reached the Isinokka gate, we should have everybody on board and be ready to undock. How's the frigate handling?”
“She's holding up pretty well. She's exactly what we needed: small and fast. I've decided to call her 'Uaminifu'.”
Salbert gave a short laugh: “That is a nice name for it. 'Mlaghai' and 'Uaminifu'... Let's hope they brings us luck, right?”
“I'm coming out of warp in 10 seconds.” Liam interrupted sharply. He had plotted a course that would put him a thousand kilometers of the gate. He had to engage the cloaking device the moment he came out of warp. He would probably be spotted, but if he could cloak up fast enough, the hostiles would not have enough time to lock on to him. The pod systems silently counted down the distance: “Five... Four... Three... Two... One...”
As soon as the faster then light drive cut out, the alarms went off; seven Sansha ships were orbiting the warp gate. Liam quickly engaged the cloak and spooled up the conventional propulsion. If the enemy had seen his ship, they would hurry to the spot where it had appeared and Liam definitely did not want to be there when they arrived. However, it looked like he had executed the cloaking maneuver perfectly; they were not approaching his location.
“Or maybe I'm just lucky” Liam thought wryly.
“Salbert? I'm at the Isinokka gate. As expected, it's hot: six destroyers and a battle cruiser. Nothing huge but more than sufficient to stop you. It looks like they are flying in a defensive gate camp pattern. They are not moving out any time soon.”
“Roger that Liam.” Salbert came back with a sudden urgency in his voice. “I just monitored some comm traffic and it looks like the Sansha have finished ransacking the last military station in the system. There's a bloody good chance they will be appearing on out doorstep any minute.”
“Get out of the station!” Liam transmitted. “I bookmarked a safe spot on the way to the gate. It's not perfect but it will have to do. I'm heading to it right now. Stand by to warp the 'Mlaghai' to me!”
“Way ahead of you buddy! I'm undocking right now and aligning in your general direction” Salbert replied. “Please hurry Liam, I got a lot of very frightened people here.” he added in a whisper.
“Always knew my crazy bookmarking habit would come in handy one day” Liam muttered absently while he prepared his warp drive. “OK, disengaging the cloak in three... Two... One... Now!” Faster than any regular pilot would be able to execute the maneuver, the little frigate decloaked and entered the still forming warp tunnel. There was no way to know if the Sansha had seen him leave, but even if they had, it would be difficult to follow him.
“Liam!” Salbert called out with a touch of panic in his voice. “I got Sansha vessels on long range scan. They'll be here any second!”
“I'm away from the gate. Warp to me now!” Liam shouted.
“Aligning to your position now... Speeding up to warp threshold...” Liam could hear the strain building in Salbert's voice.
“Shit, the Shansha are landing on grid!”
Liam tried to keep the panic out of his own voice: “Salbert? Are you clear? Talk to me Salbert! Salbert?”
“We're OK Liam.” Salbert whispered relieved. “But that is about as close as I ever want to make it.”
“Great work Salbert” Liam said urgently, “but keep alive there buddy. I've moved myself to a better safe spot. When you come out of warp, immediately align and warp to me again.”
“Good thinking.” Salbert agreed, “We need to stay ahead of them!”
“That's not going to work for long though.” Liam said, “They probably saw me leave from the Isinokka gate and they definitely saw you warp away. You can bet they'll be launching scanner probes any second now. You need to make some bookmarks yourself so you can keep moving.”
“What do you think I've been doing?” Salbert grumbled, a hint of hurt pride in his voice. “You get going and get a look at the other warp gate! There are only two warp gates in this system. If the Isinokka gate is locked down, we have no choice but to try the Haajinen gate.”
“Roger that, sir!” Liam laughed, “On my way now. Try to stay aligned towards the warp gate, will you?” With that, Liam accelerated the 'Uaminifu' towards the Haajinen gate.
“Salbert? I'm at the Haajinen gate, I do not think I was detected. I can see three Shansha ships; fast interceptors. They appear to be flying away from the gate... Yes! I can see their warp drives spooling up, they are warping out!”
“Please confirm Liam, the Haajinen gate is safe?” Salbert asked eagerly.
“Confirmed! The Haajinen gate is safe and I cannot see them on scan. Get you heavy ass moving, it's check-out time!”
Acutely aware that the cargo ship with over five hundred souls on board was hurtling towards him, hoping for freedom, Liam nervously kept checking his directional scanner, repeating a steady rhythm of “Stay away, stay away you monsters, stay away...”
Suddenly, a single reading appeared on the scanner. “No, no, no you don't!” Liam thought, “Stay away I told you!” But the next scanner sweep revealed three targets incoming.
“Salbert! Abort! Stay where you are, they're coming back!”
“Too late!” There was genuine panic in Salbert's voice now, “We're already in warp. We'll arrive at the gate in twenty-five seconds!”
Liam could see the same three Sansha fast interceptors appearing at the gate and he suddenly knew exactly what to do. “Stay on course to the gate Salbert” he said calmly, “I'll clear the hostiles from the gate for you.”
“Liam, what are you talking about? You can't engage those ships. I can see them on scan now; those are fast interceptors! There's no way you can outrun them!”
“Never mind that Salbert. You should arrive at the gate in just over ten seconds. Just make sure you are ready to jump through the gate as soon as you land.” With that, Liam gave the ship the instruction to disengage the cloaking device. “Sorry about this my little Uaminifu.” he said silently while he disabled the ships defensive systems. “But there is no way I will let them capture me alive...”
As soon as the cloak dropped, the three Sansha vessels turned towards him and activated their warp drives. The gamble had worked: the fast attack ships left the gate and closed the distance in less than five seconds. The instant they landed next to Liam, they disabled his propulsion systems.
At the warp gate, Liam could see the 'Mlaghai' appear and set course to the jump gate. “Good luck Salbert, see you later I guess...”
If Salbert sent a reply, he would never know for as Liam had expected, the Sansha opened fire on his ship. It was only a single volley meant to disable his ship's defenses so they could board and capture him. However, with all her defenses offline, the 'Uaminifu' disintegrated with the first volley.
“Good morning sir, can I help you?” the woman behind the counter asked the man standing before her.
The man offered a data chip and replied “I am here to pick up one of your patients.”
The women accepted the chip and after examining the data said “Very well sir, everything seems to be in order. If you would like to go to recovery room seven, the patient is there waiting for you. I'll prepare the release documents. He will need to complete them before he leaves?”
The man acknowledged the request with a nod and slowly walked across the large atrium towards the recovery rooms. When he reached the seventh door, he hesitated and took a deep breath before opening the door.
“Salbert! They did not tell me you were coming to pick me up!” Liam got up from his chair and approached Salbert with a big smile on his face.
“Hi there Liam.” Salbert said in a hushed voice. “How are you doing?”
“Well, I'm OK I guess, all things considered...”
“How much do you remember about what happened?” Salbert asked softly.
Liam gestured Salbert towards a chair and sat back down himself: “Not much really. The therapists here have filled me in on most of what happened, but I can't say I remember much of it. They tell me that I should be happy I still remember my name... I could have lost a lot more when my consciousness was transferred to this unprepared standard clone after I died at the Haajinen gate.”
Liam looked at Salbert and asked “Even now I know that I should have had a premium clone prepared and waiting for me... Why didn't I?”
Salbert studied Liam face for a moment before answering. He could see that even though the bio-techs here had clearly tried, they had not been a hundred percent successful in giving Liam his original looks back.
“When you woke up in the Lai Dai station in Oipo, you had just lost everything you owned. You did not have the credits to buy the premium clone. And with the Sansha threat, you did not really have the opportunity to make other arrangements."
"The people you saved are very grateful." Salbert continued, changing the subject. "They want you to know they were very sorry about what happened to you and they have made sure you could get the best treatment here!"
"I appreciate what they did for me very much." Liam said, "But the therapists here have done everything they can and now it's time for me to start earning my own living again, somehow."
"You still have your capsuleer implants." Salbert said. "Your license may be reduced so you can only fly shuttles and frigates, but I've been told that with a bit of study, there should be no problem for you to get the higher certifications back."
"Look Liam, I can use a good pod pilot to watch my back and I trust you more than I trust anybody else. Come fly with me and in a year, we'll have you flying capital ships again!"
"That would be nice, working with you I mean." Liam said gratefully. "Flying capitals again will take a bit longer I'm afraid." he added bitterly...
Salbert got up from the chair. "It's settled then. Let's get out of here."
Liam grabbed the small pack containing the little he owned and followed Salbert to the reception area.
"You go and fill in your release papers." Salbert told Liam, "I'll wait here for you."
While Liam walked towards the reception desk, a man approached Salbert.
"Good morning sir. I am, or rather was, one of the therapists responsible for his recovery process here at the center."
"Thank you for taking such good care of my friend." Salbert said carefully.
"That's what we are here for." the man replied with obvious pride in his voice. "It does not happen often that a capsuleer wakes up in an inferior clone. Sadly, there really is not much we can do when it does happen; mostly we just try to help them make sense of the world again. Help them pick up their life again. Your friend lost a big chunk of memory and some of the memory he still has is unattached, unreachable until a random event connects it back to his active memory. He will require close supervision for a couple of years at least."
"I know," Salbert said, "I got the full lecture about his condition when I contacted the center about taking him of your hands."
"Yes, I'm sure you did." the therapist agreed, "Still, it quite an imposition on you, to say the least. I understand you and the patient were not close before the incident?"
"We had not seen each other for years." Salbert answered and added in an irritated voice: "What do you want from me?"
"Oh, nothing." the therapist said soothingly. "But it was an exceptional stroke of good luck for you that he was revived in the Oipo solar system when he did, wasn't it?"
When Salbert did not reply, the therapist continued: “When any kind of armed incursion occurs in a system, it is standard procedure to shut down the cloning facilities in the local stations. That way any request for a clone is automatically redirected to a station in a safer location. This may add a small delay to the cloning process, but this procedure is set up especially to avoid what happened here with your friend. The cloning facility in the Lai Dai station in Oipo should have been offline..."
Salbert looked the therapist straight in the eyes and said: "For some reason Liam still ended up in that station. We were lucky that one of the people stranded in the station was a certified bio-tech that could finish the cloning process when it started. Now if you want more information about why it happened, you should check with the Lai Dai station in Oipo."
"Actually, I did." the therapist said, studying Salbert's facial reaction. "But they cannot find any trace of the malfunction that must have been there. Apparently, the military grade, tamper proof systems have somehow been erased and reset."
"Well then I guess we'll never know what happened, will we?" Salbert replied coolly. "Now if you will excuse me, Liam and I are done here and need to be on our way."
"Of course," the therapist said disappointed, "Thank you for using the Lai Dai corporation services. We hope to serve you again soon." he added automatically.
- - - - - -