That cloning facility is surrounded by some of the most high-clearance people in the field – these invisible caretakers who oversee the rebirth of the universe’s elite. They have a job with an importance like no other in our world, and with it, surveillance and monitoring you won’t see anywhere else either. They are the real bodyguards. If a corporate CEO is waking up in one of these facilities, his contingent on the ground have already failed, and this, the most sacred of contingency plans, now depends on the people in the white suits. Obviously, not everyone is comfortable with that, least of all us capsuleers who won’t often admit how tenuous our grip on everything really is.
– Jita 4-4
Maybe it was some long-hidden instinct in the human mind that dictated it. As a child, you woke from a nightmare, and ran to the comfort of your mother’s reassuring, soothing voice. Then again, maybe it was simply that male capsuleers significantly outnumbered their female counterparts. Regardless, it was a statistical fact that, in the short history of capsuleers in New Eden, significantly higher customer satisfaction numbers were racked up by cloning facilities where the first person a newly-awakened clone saw was a pretty young woman.
One of those pretty young women, Stelia Norgaard, stood at the midsection of one of the seemingly endless rows of clone vats, looking occasionally from her monitoring neocom to the clones as she walked up and down the aisle.
The normally-dormant status screen built into the side of one of the clone vats suddenly activated and lit up. Across the screen was the statement: Alert, Hull Damage.
What wasn’t known by most capsuleers was exactly how well-monitored they were. This alert meant that the capsuleer’s biometric readouts were showing a level of stress that indicated they were under attack and their ship readout feed had indicated that the ship was taking damage beyond what the armor plating could sustain. In a station like this one, populated by student capsuleers and new graduates, and manned by first-year nurses the Hull Damage alerts were very common. Stelia looked up and took note but didn’t move.
Suddenly, the message shifted to Hull Failure, signalling that the initial ship had been destroyed. Stelia stepped over to the coffin-like enclosure and examined the clone within. It had a slightly grey cast compared to most humans, she thought, but that’s what you got when you were dealing with low-grade clones like these … all a student could afford.
A signal went off, and the panel changed again, switching to a live biometric readout and a large notice stating simply: Inbound. Her patient was on his way.
She unlocked and opened the vat cover, allowing some of the liquid to spill away down to the floor to begin draining out the clone’s head and allow for the first coughs of his rebirth to be productive. Not for the first time, she was grateful for the rubber boots the University provided.
There was a brief hum as the machinery engaged. The receiver outside the station had picked up the signal from the burner in the capsuleer’s brain. Atop the clone vat, a wire came out of the ceiling, and split into two channels – one going directly into the vat, and a ground wire leading into the floor.
The clone’s eyes flew open. His arms flailed out the open door wildly as he lurched forward, coughing the cloning fluid from his lungs. “Holy shit! I’m not going to make it! I need backup!”
Stelia gamely stepped forward, reaching out a gloved hand to steady one windmilling arm. “There now, Mr. Garssen, you’re back at Republic University in Hulm, not in your ship. Please step down onto the grating, we’ll get you dry and reoriented. Everything is going to be OK.”
She glanced up at the telemetry bio-readout as she wrapped the newly-birthed clone in a large, soft towel and led him, wobbly on his new legs, to a seat a few steps away. “Your readings look excellent.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s going to get crazy in here, lady. Pirates just ambushed an entire capsuleer class. You’re going to get a lot busier.” As if on cue, screens began to light up on vats all around the room. Ten switched almost immediately to Hull Failure. Then twenty. Then thirty. Alert bells began going off as they all began to shift to Inbound.
“What a perfect day to be shorthanded. Stay here and take it easy, sir – I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Stelia and her cohorts dashed off to extract the new clones.
An hour later, all of the pilots were dried, comforted, and headed to their reorientation. Stelia comforted herself that there had been no violent outbreaks in the process, as there sometimes were during a rush like this one.
She didn’t notice as she left for a well-deserved break that three clone vats had a small metal cube affixed to the junction between the transmission wire and the ground wire. A tiny red LED shone from the side of each cube. The clones in the vats below lay still and undisturbed.
When she returned, she noticed that the floor around those vats had been freshly washed, and was of course blissfully unaware that the cubes were gone.
Filbrofur Admur, President of Republic University, frowned as she reviewed the attrition statistics. One of the things that the new pod pilot training academies did not discuss, except with each other, was there were simply a huge number of capsuleers that washed out, usually between 14 and 21 days after their conversion to pod capability. Some flipped out and didn’t survive their first flight. Others never completed training and spent their time docked, unwilling to go anywhere, and died in their pods, having never set up even an initial clone. A few simply refused to get back in their pod and returned planetside.
What concerned her today, however, was not those groups. They washed out at a fairly predictable and constant level. In the last six months, something new had begun. Pilots who died in space were simply never reaching their clones. There was a quality problem somewhere in the process.
It didn’t help that Republic University had old, first-generation equipment and Grade B clones largely built from animal biomass. Nor that the nurses, doctors and engineers were all trainees – the corporation was, after all, a teaching institution first and foremost. The school’s budget was strained at the best of times. Even the security guards also doubled as the maintenance staff inside the clone bay. Still, with all the security even in a poorly-equipped and poorly-staffed clone bay, odds were that it was an inside job.
The losses had started quietly – one here, one there, a couple more here. Straggled out over days or weeks. But lately, it had become frighteningly common. Of the student group that had been destroyed in Uplingur today, 3 out of 50 pilots had simply never activated in their new clones. Six percent. Only their student status and massive throughput of re-cloned capsuleers had allowed her to keep the growing issue quiet – no one believed that anyone was disappearing … and she needed to keep it that way until she figured out what was wrong.
The only clue she had was that most of them were Amarrian. Unfortunately, at a Minmatar station, that didn’t rule out many suspects. It was time for a visit to Hulm.
Stelia sighed as she sat down. The rushes seemed more common recently. Occasionally she glanced up from her monitoring panel, surreptitiously watching as the Brutor security guard moved down the aisle, pushing clone vat goo into the floor grating with a mop. The breeze from the warm air fans in the room quickly dried the film that was left.
He had always been a strange sort of fellow. He was supposedly an electronic security wizard, and had a reputation for keeping the vats working incredibly well considering their age and condition. He kept to himself, at least here at work.
It was well known among the clone bay staff that, at home, he had some ridiculous number of pet Slaver hounds. Normally, this wouldn’t stand him well among Minmatar stationholders, but the hounds were all clearly amazingly well-behaved and non-aggressive, and many took that as a positive omen – a sign among the superstitious that the Amarr who bred the beasts could also themselves be tamed. The guard made the whole thing even odder by having fashioned strange little “hats,” for lack of a better word, for each hound.
What gave her the creeps, though, was the incredibly human looks the hounds would give her when she saw them. Every one of them had fear and panic, or sad despair, behind their eyes – a look as if begging onlookers to help them. It made no sense from a beast as large and reportedly vicious as a Slaver.
It was only then that she noticed the guard pause in mopping to reach up, disconnect a small cube from the wires above one clone vat, and drop the cube into a pouch in his belt.
She punched a small red button on her panel, watched as he disconnected another, dropping it in the pouch as well.
“Hey,” she called.
He looked toward her, face in shadow. “Yes?”
“What are those cube things?”
“Circuit breakers, basically. Some of these tanks have a tendency to overload and it can harm the client in the tank. If the surge is too strong, it redirects them to another one of their clones.”
She nodded. “Well, thanks for coming to fix it.”
He finished cleaning and disappeared down the long row of vats. For just a moment, she felt bad for activating the security camera bots on their erstwhile master, but it could as easily have been a test of her loyalty to make sure she reported it – and she needed this job.
“Greetings, brother,” said the man on the viewscreen in the security guard’s living room. It was a strange greeting given that the man on the screen was Gallente, and the guard himself was a Brutor tribesman of the Minmatar. Behind the Gallente was a conspicuous display of the Zainou Biotech logo, but aside from that he could have been anywhere in the cluster.
“Hi,” said the guard, “I have another pack of hounds trained. And if the staff here follows the procedures I wrote for them, my cover will be blown and I’ll be arrested by this time tomorrow. It’s only the delays I built in that are preventing them from being here already. We need a pickup – a fast and stealthy one.”
His “brother” nodded. “You managed to stay longer than I expected regardless. I’ll divert a ship we have in the area and come to get you immediately. You have additional supplies as well, I trust?”
The Brutor nodded, cut the transmission, and turned to walk into his bedroom. There he opened his closet, revealing an oversize safe within.
After going through the motions of various biometric and logical locks to open it, he swung the reinforced door wide. A sea of tiny red LED lights, all from small metal cubes, greeted him.
He reached in his pocket, put the new ones in on the bottom shelf, moved a few up to a middle shelf, and took one from the top. Locking the safe behind him, he walked back out of his room, and through another door into an area that could only be described as a kennel. Seven cages sat around the room, each with a Slaver hound in it.
“Well, my friends,” he said to the animals, “how are you all today? Are we ready for a walk?” The sinister look on the man’s face belied his friendly tone of voice. As he walked around the room of cages, each hound cast down its eyes, except for the last.
“No, Lasenir?” the man asked. The hound snarled and began barking angrily, saliva flying from its jaws.
Unaffected, the man pulled a small device from his pocket. “As you like it, then. Back in the box for you.” He pushed a button, and the dog collapsed to the floor.
He opened the cage, bent low and reached for the strange “hat” on the hound’s head. With a deft, practiced motion he opened a small hatch in the headgear, revealing one of the tiny metal boxes. He disconnected and removed that one, inserting the cube he had brought from the safe in its place. Then he closed the cage door, and again pressed a button.
The hound immediately began to shake and shiver, opening his eyes only a slit, as if they had not seen light in weeks.
“Good morning,” said the maintenance man. “I am your new master. I trust you are happy to be out of the darkness. You will do what I tell you, or you will go back there – in the box.”
The hound lowered its great head, subservient.
As Republic University President Admur disembarked at the Hulm campus station, the station manager rushed to her side.
The good news was that she now knew what had been happening to the capsuleers under her watch.
The bad news was that her chief maintenance engineer and backup security guard was her primary culprit.
Worst of all, the culprit had suddenly left station a few hours before her arrival – ostensibly to come and see her – aboard a Cheetah-class covert operations frigate, which was no longer to be found anywhere in Minmatar space. The Brutor tribe and Zainou Biotech claimed no knowledge of him, or his “brother”, much less their whereabouts – after all, he was no capsuleer to be watched – just a clone vat maintenance engineer and part-time security guard.
What she was sure of was that she would not be reporting the incident to CONCORD, nor to anyone else.
OOC NOTES: This story won 3rd Place in Silver Night’s 2nd Annual fiction contest. Part of the challenge of that contest is to not have the protagonist of the story be a capsuleer. As part of my ongoing investigation on wormholes and Sleepers, the Jita 4-4 Chronicle quoted above has struck me as ripe for storyline – and game design – goodness.