Fiction: “Love”. Pod and Planet 2018 Entry

For many years, Telegram Sam of the Pod and Planet blog has run a EVE Fiction contest that has produced incredibly good stories set within the EVE Online / New Eden world. I was always tempted to take part but somehow never made it.  As my two loyal readers may remember, I did have a fiction project a few years ago and when my corp mate Seraph Essael told me of the upcoming deadline with Telegram Sam, I felt compelled to give it a shot.

So, with this, please enjoy the story below, sort of in the same style as my previous stories but certainly new content.  Just to explain, I am personally not interested in capsuleer stories, I find little drama to be had among the semi-god status of immortals.  I always focus on baseliners, normal human beings thrown into bad situations despite of their own good actions.  I want to tell stories about true courage, true love, true honor and character strength and I find that easier with mortals as subjects.  But either way, have fun, give me feedback and read the rest of the submissions that Pod and Planet has, some amazing stuff in there.

Fly safe

PS.  4900 ish words.  Close shave to the 5000 limit…. Longest story that I have ever written, I think

PPS.  Its pretty dark.  Sensitive eyes, avert yourselves (and get out of EVE)

PPPS.  Many thanks to Kalseth for proofreading, mny speling sugs

 


Tatua stared at the stars and the stars stared back, uncaring, eternal.

Her universe had shrunk to the size of her spacesuit, her breath stirred the air in her helmet and the only sound came from her hammering heart. Through her visor, she could make out the radioactive swirls of the planet beneath her, color without life, movement without purpose.  Beauty without spirit.

It was only a year ago that she lived in the command center on a planet just like this, her father running the planet-wide extraction of electrolytes.  The howling mass of charged, radioactive gasses raging around their quarters proving that they were where Dad wanted to be – at the end of the world, away from war, away from death, away from nightmares.  Dad had been on too many ships, escaped death too many times. He had taken Mum’s death stoically but snapped when his only son was lost in space. Dad had taken Tatua and brought her to this remote gas planet.  For a while, their tribe had sent white feathers but as time passed, even close relatives forgot they ever existed.

Tatua grew from a scared toddler into an impatient teenager and holoreals had been her only escape.  Those showed the men and women of the tribal liberation front pushing back the slaveholders, outnumbered, outgunned maybe but never without honor, pride and purpose. She had longed for this life, she imagined herself in uniform heroically and against all odds saving her imaginary crew and mission.

Her father had known that he couldn’t keep her forever hidden from the world but did not really have a plan. Dreams, sure.  A healer maybe, a good mother certainly. He tried to teach Tatua about the beauty of the worlds, the power of love, of friendship.  But how could he compete with the raw emotions of conflict? Slowly she became distant until one day, when she walked out with a bag full of clothes and a head full of dreams.

Her last view of the planet showed it in all its radioactive beauty but she couldn’t even make out her home.

Tatua’s dream to join the military hadn’t been unrealistic, the war was going badly and fleets were desperate for new recruits.  She enrolled in starship engineering, hoping it would be the foundation for employment on a Tempest Battleship. Occasionally one of these behemoths would dock in Ammold and she Tatua would be glued to a window admiring the wingy bits, their raw power, agility and deadly purpose kept her dream alive and not even her miserable dorm, cramped classroom or terrible food could tampen her fire. She wanted to be out there, relive all her childhood fantasies but this time for real.

The other students and even faculty were convinced that Tatua was dumb as a brick,  Dad really had tried to teach her but had missed too much. Even worse, she identified as Sebestior but had no real tribal affiliation which was unusual and made her suspect.  But times were tough, ships needed crews and she was undisputed class champion in “EVA” (extravehicular activities). Before she enrolled, she had no idea that humans were needed outside of spaceships but she took to the training like a Yetamo to sand.  She was perfectly fine enclosed in the armored space suit, hanging outside of the station assembling radar-dome components while being spun around and flashed with bright lights. She never threw up or felt claustrophobic, never missed a step or a handhold. She was the only one to _ever_ demand a second round, she enjoyed it so much.  She would pass the course with flying colors, Spacewalkers (as EVA Operators were called) were a highly sought after.

She never told anyone that EVA made her feel homesick. The tight fit of the suit reminded her of her mother’s embrace, the thick visor distorted the view just like the windows home and wearing the suit, she felt powerful and in control. She also relished the job itself, EVA was incredibly dangerous and heroic, she would be outside during battles, repairing weapon mounts, ammunition belts and be in a position to save ships, fleets and battles. All her childhood dreams would come true and Dad’s honor would be restored.

EVA teams consisted of two crew members, one in the suit, the other inside a glass dome to watch over the spacewalker and in emergencies haul her back to the safety.  Tatua paired up with Genevieve, or Gen as everyone called her. How a lithe, fair skinned Gallente girl washed up in a Minmatar war academy, nobody had figured out. One guy had tried the direct approach and paid for his courage with a broken nose.  Gen was known to be a loner, preferring to spend her time in the gym rather than bars but her situational awareness had become legendary among the students. She was openly accused of using capsuleer boosters or implants which was of course ridiculous, but Gen was a master EVA Controller with a seventh sense for timing, danger and logistics. Her Gallente singsong voice was pleasant but precise, and her patience for spacewalkers who screwed up or questioned her commands was exactly zero.

Tatua and Gen fell into each other’s orbit, became inseparable like two lost Corovids holding onto each other in a storm.

Graduation day came and with it the traditional party, basically, a slow and methodological project to get every student of the year blindingly drunk.  Faculty tended to take the day off and local bars restocked everything that was legal and many things that were not. Tatua was in mood to celebrate but Gen had vanished, crowds were not her thing. Tatua shrugged and dove in head first, determined to celebrate her first own achievement.  She danced, drank some moonshine and even took a hit of something illegal, allegedly straight from a Serpentis Narcotic warehouse. At the end of the night, she was a wreck, knew it and enjoyed it, it was a rebellion against her father and his cowardly ways, revenge on her mother of leaving her alone so early, living for her brother who had grown up so focused on the military that he never enjoyed life before he was dumb enough to gotten himself killed on his first mission. Tatua got drunk and drugged to celebrate life and freedom for all of them. But most of all, she celebrated herself. She was amazing.

The two guys that had hit her up with the Serpentis stuff came over.  Cute. The tall one at least. Without words, they picked her up like a sack of Katcha and dragged her through through the dance floor cheered on by die-hard dancers.  She knew it was wrong, tried to say something, move her legs but nothing worked. The dancers gyrated around her, oblivious to her struggle, laughing, pointing at at the girl they knew as slightly dumb, being rescued by two gallant boys before she could drink herself into a coma.  Their laughter was the soundtrack by which Tatua was half dragged, half carried out of the bar.

Ammold V had an ageing industrial core filled with a warren of corridors and Tatua lost orientation as soon as they left the bar.  The colder air woke her up but she had no control over her legs and was helplessly dragged into some storage room. Panic set in and although deep down she knew what would happen next, she tried to bargain, plead, escape, crawl, beg. Her tunnel vision was focused on the tall man’s face, a mask of euphoria, sweat pearling in anticipation. His hands reached for the belt when Tatua felt herself yanked back, arms pinned down by the short guy behind her.  She tried to scream but no sound came out, her feeble attempt made the assailant grin, revealing a row of perfect teeth. Her legs were suddenly warm and the smell of urine overpowered the stench of fear. Tall guy stepped forward, both hands on his crotch, half crazy with lust and oblivious to anything but the terror of his victim. She told herself to fight back, something, anything, call police, call militia, call Dad. Dad will come, dad will come, he will come, he will protect her.

She actually saw the steel bar as a blur, just before hit above his right ear.  She heard a dull cracking sound, saw his eye socket break, eye crushed into white gel even before the head violently snapped to the side.  The steel bar retreated back out her drugged vision and a now familiar crack sounded from behind her, where the second guy had held her hands. The scream that followed was not human in its terror and pain.  Teeth and bone fragments sprayed onto the wall and floor and a softer thud was followed by the hissing sound of a slowly crumpling body struck into the solar plexus. Tall guy had collapsed half on top her, soaking her with blood, short guy now fell forward, his ruined jaw spraying blood like a fountain.  She saw the steel bar come down again, with controlled speed hitting the head in the middle, carving a valley through skin, bone and brain tissue. Tatua only realized that she was throwing up when the vomit squelched out of her nose. Dad, she thought, Dad saved her. Then she blacked out.

She woke up, slowly crawling into the world.  Her hand touched rough fabric, a sack of some sort. She opened her eyes and the small industrial room came into dim focus.  Disoriented, she tried to sit up, her wrist was dull with pain and crusted with blood. Had she been bleeding? Memories emerged from the fog, getting clearer, like a dream in reverse.  In the far corner something stirred, a shadow stood, blocked out the single light and approached. “We need to get out of here, get up”. Gen bent over Tatua, close, way too close. Her bright green eyes like searchlights burning right through her soul: “Right now”.  Tatua stood without thinking, moved like a robot. It smelled. Urine. Gen fixed her eyes on her: “I secured jobs on a mining vessel, they don’t ask questions, we need to get there before anyone finds the bodies”. Bodies. All of Tatua’s memories flooded back, the stench, the sweaty face, the dull crushing sound.  The blood. “That was you?”, she asked. “Yes, it was me. No more questions, we need to go”. Gen turned toward the door and Tatual followed just as she was told to.

************

Life aboard a Retriever-class mining vessel was dull, dirty but paid. Hours and hours circling puny rocks of Veldspar followed by brief docking intervals which were entirely spent patching up the ship for the next belt.  They had ever seen the capsuleer or heard from him directly but as long as the lasers were running, there was money to be made, money they needed to buy new identities. One of the two men in Ammold had been a privileged son of some official in the Kaalakiota Corporation.  He had been earmarked for a high-level legal career, possibly Supreme Court and his reputation was unblemished. No court in New Eden would believe a drunk girl from nowhere, no, her name was burned. The bounty on their heads was bad enough but worse was the rumor mill, they were reported to be acolytes of Omir Sarikusa, lovers who  drained the blood of their victims in some orgy-like ritual.

At least in one thing these rumors were correct, Tatua and Gen they had become lovers, driven into each others arms by loneliness, terror of memory and the desire to hold onto something stable inside this emotional maelstrom. Their love was not sexual but it was deep, each seeking comfort and security in the arms of the other.  They also rarely spoke, as if words could break the spell. As if this all would go away some day. And so they held each other tight at night, breathed in each other’s rhythm and worked during the day as the only spacewalk team this pile-of-rust mining barge had. The mining crew was amused but left them alone, they worked hard and produced.  Nobody served on a Retriever to make friends.

Gen was operating out glass dome in the middle of the mining ship where she had line of sight over the full length of the ship, including the mining turrets, F1 and F2, on either end.  Tatua moved between the two and conducted maintenance as required. They were the only EVA team on board which made for long shifts but also decent money and they certainly did not complain. And mining ships – even the old ones – were considered safer than any combat ship. There was no honor, loot or salvage in an old basic mining barge, no reason to attack it.

Unfortunately, their capsuleer lacked skills for Tech II Strip Miners and had to make do with cheap Tech I systems.  This mean that Tatua had be outside of the turret, manually eject the burned crystal and ram the 6m3 cassette with the new one into place (awkward but no big deal in zero gravity).  And of course, if the capsuleer wanted to replace both crystals at the same time, she had to haul ass from F1 turret to F2. The proper procedure would be to use hand-holds to slowly and carefully maneuver but it would have taken hours. In reality, she had seconds or they would incur the wrath of the capsuleer and the crew.  After a couple of days, Gen had worked out some crazy stunt by rapidly reeling Tatua back by her tether but only for a few seconds to give her amazing speed. Then she would pay out line while Tatua whizzed past the glass bubble before she slowly decellerated her. After 3 or 4 dangerous practice runs, they had it down and Gen could land Tatua right on the other turret in some astounding maneuver that Gen called “fly fishing”.  Tatua had never seen a fish but didn’t care, she love the crazy speed and the admiration of the crew to pull something so dangerous off.

Months went past, their bank accounts grew while the memories and news about the events in Ammold faded.  They could breathe again, think of a future for themselves and together. Their love had become less desperate and it had also turned physical, surprising Tatua who had always thought of herself as straight. However, under Gen’s gentle but inquisitive direction, Tatua had reconsidered and where nights were passionate and intense, days were filled with dreams of making enough money to buy new identities or leave Minmatar space altogether, travel the stars and find a place to settle down and start a family.  They smiled a lot these days, at each other, at the world, even Gen did. Mostly at night when she held Tatua in her arms. Because Tatua mumbled prayers, prayers that her mum taught her when she was a toddler. Tatua also broke wind like a baby Fido.

****

Tatua floated near F1 turret, waiting for the cycle to end before she could replace the crystal.  This was now entirely routine and she had her mind on something different; last night Gen had explored her body in new and very exciting ways and she still grinned behind her thick visor.  She glanced below the ship and observed the gas planet’s swirls. She thought of Dad cursing at the awful interface of the Planetary Interaction system. Would he look out the window and cry, wife, son dead, daughter lost, never to contact him?  Tatua couldn’t risk yet sending him anything – it would be traced. Later, when things cooled down, she could find a some Epithal crew to smuggle a letter down. She had time but thinking of Dad hurt a lot. She prayed that he would feel how happy she was.

In her revery, she missed a small change in the light.  As if a ship had quickly passed between them and the sun, casting a very brief shadow.

Gen had not missed it. Their capsuleer may have been drugged out floating his his stupid egg, watching holoreels or shit-talking with his corp mates but Gen knew something was wrong.  Nothing to see, she didn’t expect to, really. The usual engagement distance for an attack still measured in kilometers and against the dark background of space, anything smaller than a Battlecruiser would hardly be visible.  Some Minmatar weapon systems had muzzle blasts that gave the ship’s position away but railguns and blasters did not and if you managed to see a laser beam, you probably had looked directly into it in which case the point was moot.  Still, something was “off”, a hunch that was confirmed when finally the alarms rang through the ship, Mr Capsuleer had finally remembered how to “dong” the D-scan or even seen something land on grid. On a Retriever, there were no different “alarm types” like on combat ships, “General Quarters” was the same as “Abandon Ship”.  Gen activated the communication link to Tatua but the automated emergency system blasted pre-recorded nonsense across the entire spectrum. Not getting trough, Gen punched the reel to haul Tatua back into the airlock but the spool wouldn’t activate.

The shipwide alarm rattled through Tatua’s headset but she had no context.  Explosion on board? It happened sometimes, the Covertor class mining barges had flames shooting out of their dorsal vents, fire was always an issue on board.  Micro-meteorite strike? Theoretically possible but anything that would penetrate the shield would be impact on the armor plating and be quite visible. That left the last option, they were under attack by something a few kilometers away and the next thing she would experience would be either massive acceleration while the heavy ship tried to align and warp off or the impact of ordinance, both scenarios equally lethal to someone tethered to the outside.  Tatua dropped her tools, turned to the midsection of the ship and started to leapfrog from handhold to handhold. Reaching her airlock, crawling out of the spacesuit, from there into a crew rescue pod was her only chance to get out of this alive. It wasn’t as hopeless as it sounded. Crew pods were ejected long after the ship was wrecked and unless she was directly caught by a shell or debris, snagged her tether, got fried by a jet of burning propellant or slammed into the hull by a violent movement of the ship she stood a reasonable chance.

The tranquility of the scene was deceiving but that ended when the first salvo hit the F2 turret. There was no sound, of course but Tatua saw the entire turret being lifted off its mounts and crushed as if by a giant’s fist. Globs of molten metal sprayed downrange and gas vented from the new hole like a Geysir. Tatua now knew that this had been an antimatter round, it would burrow deep into the core of the ship before blowing up. The second impact may have been two or three rounds together, hard to say.  They were also aimed at the aft section where the propulsion drive was located. Capsuleers didn’t bother targeting specific sections of ships, they left that to their crew gunnery sergeants. And whoever did the shooting here had a lot of practice. Tatua was now about midway to the glass turret and her airlock, she could see the navigation strobe. The big ship started to roll along its long axis, slowly of course but the gas planet and the big Veldspar rock were above her now. Hull lights started to flicker and the mining lasers faded out. Retrievers generally have limited emergency power and this specific ship was so old, it probably had already run out.

Gen watched the F2 turret getting crushed from her vantage point of her bubble midships and felt the impact in her feet.  Internal air pressure fluctuated briefly before the bulkheads segmented the ship, sealing everyone in wherever they were. Her station was connected to the airlock and had 2 rescue pods in tubes on the back wall.  Unless the next salvo landed on her head, she was going to be safe for a few more minutes. Tatua’s reel didn’t work but Gen knew that she could make it back in-time. She turned her attention to the airlock, the outer hatch was closed as it was supposed to and Gen triggered the opening sequence.  Normally, it would check if the inner hatch was indeed closed and slowly depressurize the small chamber before checking the seals again and then (and only then) open the outer hatch. Gen watched for the indicator lights and movement of the door. Nothing happened. She re-triggered the switch, again and again. Nothing.  The out hatch remained stubbornly closed. On a warship, loss of power was expected and manual overrides were available but not on mining barges. They were actually in the blueprints but one of the first things that were removed out when capsuleers researched material efficiency to keep cost and weight down. The airlock was closed and dead.

Tatua made her last couple of leaps to the airlock.  The tether trailed uselessly behind her, snagging, getting in the way and she had no way to cut it – by design.  It was near unbreakable and attached to her life support pack where she couldn’t reach it. The ship was now burning, she saw jets of flames emerging mostly from the stern.  They acted like rockets and gave the entire ship a nasty tumble along all axis which would have made anyone but Tatua puke. The glass bubble was now in plain sight, dark though, Normally she would see Gen monitoring her approach, she would make out her face by now which always gave her a warm feeling in her stomach.  Not today. Last leap and Tatua landed on the closed hatch to the airlock. Closed? She waited a few seconds, then grabbed the handle and pulled, knowing how useless it was. She broke into cold sweat. Either all the systems had failed or Gen had abandoned her, ejecting with her pod, giving up Tatua for dead, dangling on the outside of a doomed ship.

Doubt crept in, how long had she known Gen? How well did she really know her? How come she never told her really about her past? Where did she learn to kill? Full panic now set in. Tatua realized that she actually may die now. Her hands were shaking and she jumped up toward the glass bubble, maybe Gen had not seen her approach?

When Tatua landed on the glass bubble, the Retriever’s internal structure finally buckled.  The entire ship twisted around its long axis, torsion ripped out internal bulkheads and the plating started to tear.  Venting gasses added to the force on the hull and the ship started to disintegrate from the inside out. Tatua peeked into the dark bubble, looking for Gen and saw her crouched in a corner with a flashlight between her teeth.  Gen had ripped open control panels, followed the cables of the airlock switches and tried to hot wire them with a spare battery. The ridiculous and desperate nature of this project was obvious. Gen noticed Tatua floating outside and turned, her face a composed mask of pain and sorrow.  The only illumination came from the crew escape pods in their chutes – an amber blinking urging to enter, seal and eject. Tatua realized just how desperate Gen was and all doubts about her were gone.

Gen slowly got up.  She had tried everything she knew but failed.  The airlock stayed closed, Tatua was outside and the ship was disintegrating around them.  It was over. She approached the glass and locked eyes with Tatua.

Tatua saw the broken down console, Gen’s tools everywhere, the closed airlock hatch and suddenly understood that this was the end of the journey.  Without airlock, she couldn’t get to her rescue pod. Without that, she would remain tethered to the wreck until air ran out or a salvage beam indiscriminately crushed the wreck into a ball of steel and flesh.

She felt oddly calm about it, the decision had been made by a higher power in the universe. Soon, she would join her mother and brother in the spirit world and once a year they’d walk among the living where they would visit Dad.  But Gen didn’t have to die, Gen still had the rescue pod behind her, the amber light urging her in. Tatua’s raised her hand and pointed at the rescue pod behind Gen, repeatedly stabbing her gloved finger first at Gen, then at the pod: “Go there, you can save yourself”. The message was unmistakable but Gen didn’t move. She just looked at Tatua with a disconnected expression on her face. The calmer Gen was, the more agitated Tatua became.  Gen slowly drifted (the artificial gravity generators had finally died) to the window and placed her hand against the glass. Out of reflex, Tatua mirrored the motion and they rested their palms against each other, separated only by glass and glove. They locked eyes and Tatua could not hold back her tears, tears for herself, for Gen, for both of them. They remained motionless as the Retriever finally buckled underneath them and came apart. A sudden, violent motion nearly ripped Tatua off her handhold and she noticed a large tear in the outer hull, coming toward them like a deadly snake.  Gen’s face flickered fear just for one moment, then she composed herself and mouthed “I love you” just as the entire observation bubble cracked like an egg, ejecting everything inside it into the vacuum of space.

Tatua was flung backwards from the venting atmosphere.  She tumbled along her tether, bumped into things but finally regained control. She hauled herself back, desperately looking for Gen within the debris.  She found her floating in fetal position and grabbed her arm and pulled her towards her chest, cradling her like a baby. The pressure had driven the air out of Gen’s lungs but she was conscious. Her green eyes searched for Tatua’s. Her hands tried to hold on to her but her muscles had lost their strength.  She had cried and tears froze into a milky layer of ice over her eyes. Her spasms were slowing, without oxygen, the brain had about 15 seconds to live. With a last effort, Gen reached for Tatua and pulled her head to the helmet for one last kiss before she slowly relaxed into death.

Tatua’s mind had shut down, refusing to comprehend what happened and transported her to the safety of memories, her mum’s hug, her father’s stern voice, her brother’s toys.  It was a lucid dream she knew what happened to the Retriever and Gen but she could not figure out which side was reality, which was dream. Mum asked how much air she had. Dad walked into her room to say goodnight, rescue wouldn’t come. Sisters of Mercy were never on time, her brother said in his splendid uniform. He towered above her, broad shoulders, clean face, bright eyes. Gen pointed at a salvaging ship approaching – her comes your only chance my love.  Take it. Live for both of us.

Tatua finally decided which reality was hers and emerged from her dreams.  She was floating in space, tethered to the wreck, holding the lifeless body of her only love.  But Gen had said something in her dream about a rescue ship. The memory was fresh, where was it?  She cleaned her visor and saw a massive ship slowly gliding into the debris field, scanning for valuable modules or drops inside the Retriever’s wreck.  All spacesuits had short range radio beacons and the crew of that ship knew she was out there somewhere, they carefully made their way towards her. If they came in time, they would scoop her up and she would be saved.  Gen. Gen should have saved herself. We both could be safe now. We both could have lived. The ship came closer, blocking out the light of the planet but getting lit by the local sun. The golden stripe along its back, the sharp beak-like prow.  The illuminated portholes where warmth would wait for her. It was an Omen cruiser class, very popular in the Amarr Navies. Tatua saw the insignia of a stylized crosshair on the side and recognized it immediately as from the 24th Imperial Crusade, a hardcore Amarr ancillary that was rumored to kill or enslave all Minmatar where they would find them.  They would not rescue her. They would save her life, use her as free sex toy for the crew until she was submissive enough to be sold to a capsuleer as “exotic dancer”. She would be be hauled from system to system, eventually beaten or tortured to death in some booster-fuelled orgy. This was not a rescue, this was damnation.

She twisted around, didn’t want to face the ship now.  She wanted to be alone with her love, alone for the last time.  Her hand reached out to Gen’s hair and stroked it like she had always liked it.  Her heavy glove traced the sharp cheekbone, the elegant neck. Gen’s eyes were glazed over but in Tatua’s memory they were bright green, searching for hers.

Tatua stared at the stars and the stars stared back, uncaring, eternal.  She smiled at Gen, reached for the helmet seal and joined her love among the stars.

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