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Free to Choose [Pod & Planet YC115]: 8000 Suns 3rd Prize Winner

Author
#1 - 2013-11-10 08:22:18 UTC  |  Edited by: Kytayn
Free to Choose
by Kytayn

Bolen knew what was coming but was helpless against the brightening glare. It wasn’t actual light; it was the blinding flash of death. Any capsuleer of consequence experienced this from time to time. Even so, it still hurt. In moments it would be over, he’d set aside the scars, the mild laugh lines he’d developed… earned.

He woke up in the Center for Advanced Studies station at Cistuvaert V-12. He ought to have a splitting headache, and his head made little efforts to echo the pain he ought to feel, but couldn’t quite muster it. Then the pins and needles started. All of his nerves started to light up as though he’d somehow been sleeping wrong on every limb, all at once.

Bolen hated that. It was a bit unusual, but it happened to some capsuleers when their consciousness was transferred. For him, it was every time. He’d talked to the clone suppliers but they’d merely said their synthesis logs showed nothing. He also wasn’t supposed to be conscious this soon, but again the logs showed nothing.

As the pins and needles slowly subsided, Bolen was unceremoniously scooped from the cloning vat and sprayed off, then air dried by machine arm. “Now this is a bl…” Bolen couldn’t finish the quip as the servitor, its concentration unbroken, picked that moment to dry off the interior of his mouth. Bolen looked away and coughed. “Serves me right, bad joke.”

Just then an attendant rushed in. This one was young, and pretty, Bolen thought as he looked appraisingly at her. He enjoyed her eyes, the line of her neck, and… He grimaced slightly, wishing he wasn’t naked and damp, as the robot continued to work him over.

“Sorry sir, we missed the note in your file. We would’ve been here sooner.” She looked a little bit frightened, tightly gripping a towel in one hand and managing a thick robe over the other. As part of his payment, a bit more than the usual clone price, a person was to bring Bolen a towel to dry himself off. Most capsuleers were rinsed, dried, swaddled in whatever nano-assembled clothing they had last filed with the clone suppliers and bundled off to a resurrection chamber. They’d then awaken normally to find a message of sympathy from their insurance company, but no hint of the cloning process itself anywhere nearby.

Bolen always woke up early.

The begoggled arm had worked its way down to his stomach and was about to begin what might be an embarrassing bit of the drying process. He raised his eyebrows a bit at the technician.

“Oh, yes, sorry sir.” She blushed, swung the towel under her right arm and stepped up to a control panel near the crèche. As she touched a button the drying arm lost its urgency and slunk back to a recess in the side of the bed.

“Bolen…” he said looking significantly at the towel.

She hesitated before approaching him, holding a towel stretched out in front of her as if it were a ward. She could only stare at it.

Bolen sighed slid himself off the drying bed to stand and reach for the towel. “Call me Bolen, and you would be...?” She jumped a bit as he approached her. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for people to be nervous around him.

He had to reach for the towel a second time to take it from her. The feel of the cloth passing through her hand seemed to snap her out of it.

“My name is Alina.”

Bolen dried himself off with coarse swipes of the towel. “You’re Intaki,” he said, half as a question. Alina had short dark blue hair that fell down over her eyes. The color was an attempt to fit in to wild Gallente society. The even coloring and the slight restraint in the hairstyle hinted that her upbringing was not as freewheeling as she wanted to imply.

“I, um.” She was reaching for words and looked away. “We would have been here sooner.” She said more faintly.

That made Bolen look at her a bit more closely. She was attempting to return to something she had rehearsed. What was going on here? Then he placed her accent. “You didn’t cover the breather scar very well.”

Her eyes widened and her free hand flew to her left ear, “What?”

“You are from Terrefine.” Bolen was sure now. Her accent was nearly gone, but even what little she said spoke of home to his ears. Terrefine, the second planet in 2X-PQG, out of the way, buried in Syndicate space, had a thin atmosphere. “You don’t work for the clone supplier.”

Alina took a quick shaky breath, and let the robe fall from her right hand to reveal a small dart gun. “You’re Bolen. You’re him.” She was talking to herself.

Bolen stared at her, trying to catch her eyes. He took a step toward her, “now look…”

Alina fired.

Bolen grunted and brought his hand to his stomach. His hand met a small spot of blood where the microdart had penetrated. He felt a distant burning sensation in his abdomen as the dart dissolved to deliver its payload.

He staggered back to fall against the bed. Bolen slumped to the ground, his back against the pedestal of the bed. He had already stopped bleeding but the burning sensation was spreading. “How long?”

Alina stared at the weapon, “…it’s different; it’s not what I thought.”

Bolen thundered angrily, “How long!?”

She jumped again at his anger. She started to reply and only breath came out. She cleared her throat and tried again, softly, “a few minutes.”

Bolen managed a soft chuckle. “You idiot,” he said under his breath. It almost sounded to Alina as though he were talking to himself. He searched for her eyes. “You think I’m a monster, don’t you? That’s why you did this.”

She looked at him with mild defiance now, “All those people on your ships; slaves. You always make sure your crews are hired from Terrefine. You go out of your way just for that. You are a monster.”

Be careful in Pulsar systems, you might get Pod Flu.

(Bio for YouTube reading)

#2 - 2013-11-10 08:22:29 UTC  |  Edited by: Kytayn
Bolen winced, but not at her indictment. Whatever was in that microdart was working away on his implants. He had no access to the outside world the way he normally would through his implants. The little stabs of pain in his head told him the story. He was cut off from everything; truly naked.

He looked at her and smiled sadly, “You’re certified.”

Alina lifted her chin at that, “Of course, unlike any of your crews. None of them were certified. You always hire the untrained. The ones who aren't allowed to choose. You force them onto your ships, and they die. They die by the hundreds and the thousands.” She looked him in the eyes and pronounced once again to reaffirm her conclusion, “You are a monster.”

Terrafine was an Intaki Syndicate world. All Gallente were intimates with Freedom and Choice. But the Syndicate wouldn’t submit itself to the Federation. They were free, they said, to conduct their own experiments in freedom. And one such was 2X-PQG II. Terrafine… Thin Earth. Freedom to choose was something you graduated into. You had to earn it. Alina had, and so had Bolen, before becoming a capsuleer.

The government there went through the motions of pretending they had a great experiment in true freedom. One could only be free, the governors said, if one knew enough to appreciate choice. Therefore, certification programs were provided without charge to all inhabitants. You only got to vote, you only got to choose your occupation, you only got to choose where you could live if you proved your ability to choose wisely through certification. You couldn’t leave unless you were certified. But everyone was “free” to get certification.

In practice, like any other system of control, the specially favored were assured of certification and freedom. For the rest, the opportunity varied from province to province, city to city. The poor couldn't afford the time to go to classes, or their designated employers ensured their work schedule conflicted with classes. It was a story told too many times over the millennia.

Bolen shook his head, and wished he hadn't. The burning sensation was spreading to his chest and bowels. This was worse than the flash of death when a capsule cracked. “Everyone on my ship was being trained. The reason I make sure my crews are from Terrefine, the reason I make sure they come from the untrained poor, is so they can go through the certification program on my ships.”

“What? What are you talking about?” She couldn’t believe this was possible. He was a capsuleer, everyone knew… “I looked you up, I saw the news reports. They… every time you… We had to do something; I could do it, I knew how.”

Bolen had a fleeting craving for the dry Terrefine vintages he grew up with. “So you’re their avenging angel? You’re going to exchange your freedom for my death, a temporary one at that? Have you ever met one of my crew members?”

Alina had expected Bolen to be angry, to plead perhaps. After all, evil people were either ogres or cowards, weren't they? She didn't expect this, though. “Met them, no, I… How could I you...”

Bolen cut her off, “I have them all certified. Then I get a new crew. And I send them back to fight, to get elected, to train their neighbors.” Bolen’s arms fell to his side, palms open. He couldn't feel his legs or his hands any more.

“You…? No, I… I know… They all die.” Alina shook her head in disbelief.

Bolen's breathing was labored. “I fight, sometimes I lose. I actually give the crews a choice. It’s not required by their contract, but I let them decide to risk being aboard my ship. Their reward is freedom. Sometimes they receive it. When I fail, the insurance goes to their families. I pay for my ships from my own funds.”

Bolen’s sight was beginning to fade. He had to be sure she understood. “Of the thousands I certify, many go back. They make arrangements to funnel more people into the waiting lists for my crews. The more crew I can take on, the more I can certify. And the governors on Terrefine don’t know it’s happening yet. But you killed me.”

Alina couldn't stand any more. Her legs wouldn't hold her up. They accused her. She sagged against the console to sit opposite Bolen. “But… I…”

“You know I don’t have a sufficient clone arranged yet. It’s going to put me back in frigates.” Bolen stared with sightless eyes in Alina’s direction. “In four years, there would have been enough of us for a quiet revolution. Now… You’ve set us back decades. Because all capsuleers are evil and jaded, right? All capsuleers are just out for themselves, right?

“During the training, they teach you all about rhetoric. They teach you all about tolerance. They teach you the glories of earned citizenship. But they still can’t teach insight. They don’t teach patience. As much as they’d have you believe it, they can’t impart wisdom, can they?”

Be careful in Pulsar systems, you might get Pod Flu.

(Bio for YouTube reading)

#3 - 2013-11-10 08:23:21 UTC  |  Edited by: Kytayn
Bolen slumped a bit more. “Do you have a recorder?”

Alina brought her head back up to look at Bolen. It was difficult now, to see his suffering, to know she had done this, and not just to him. “A recorder?” She carried a com pad like a real technician would. She pulled the small device from her belt loop.

Bolen sighed with effort. “Verbal contract. I assume you have a way out of here, but it will be easy for them to catch you. I don’t want them to catch you. Start recording.”

Dazed, Alina simply began recording.

“What is your full name?”

“What?” Alina asked, a bit startled.

“Your name, what is it?”

“What good will that do you?” Puzzlement settled on Alina’s features, her anguish momentarily forgotten.

Bolen ground out the words, “Give. Me. Your. Full. Name.”

“Alina en Chasteaux.”

“I, Bolen Orvacel, require that 2 million ISK be transferred from my account to Alina en Chasteaux on this date. Stop recording.”

Alina obeyed.

Bolen coughed a bit. “I don’t want the authorities to get a hold of you. They’ll put you out of my reach. You understand?”

Alina clutched the com unit and looked into his clouded eyes saying nothing.

“You understand now what you’ve done?”

“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes unable to leave his.

“You know what you’ve earned from me, what you owe me.”

Alina seemed to shrink into herself a bit. “Yes.”

Bolen took a last ragged breath. “I won’t remember any of this, so you have a choice to make.”

“Yes.” The tears came.

Be careful in Pulsar systems, you might get Pod Flu.

(Bio for YouTube reading)

#4 - 2013-11-10 08:24:10 UTC  |  Edited by: Kytayn

2,137 words.
Never before published.


Thank you all for reading my entry into the "Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden" category of the Pod & Planet fiction contest.

I hope you enjoyed it. Feedback is welcome.

Regards,

Kytayn

Be careful in Pulsar systems, you might get Pod Flu.

(Bio for YouTube reading)

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