This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on June 12th 2013.
by Richard Holliday
A cloud of stale steam enveloped the underbelly of the Engineering module, taking everyone by surprise. Presently a hunched figure emerged backward as the vapour dissipated, wiping his brow of sweat as he stood and turned about.
“Have you repaired it, Mr. Mundy?” a tall, slender woman in a creased business suit with hair in a tight bun sighed at the sweaty, greasy man before her. His dejected demeanour gave her the answer before his vocal cords could.
“Aleka,” Mundy started tiredly toward the sation manager whose name was indeed Aleka Harle. “I’ve told you a hundred times that we can’t keep patching these things up. Especially when you’re dealing with a Mark 4 cloning vat you won’t switch off!”
Kris Mundy had been the engineer aboard the Refinerum for longer than Harle had been manager. Likely he’d been here since before she wore nappies, too, it seemed sometimes. The maintenance schedule had been lost to the winds of time long ago, and it was a backlog that was proving impossible to make progress with. Harle nodded her head knowingly.
“And I’ve told you the same number of times that my hands are tied. Admin just won’t authorise the repairs I know you want to affect. Remember,” she sighed, “our operating grant is deemed sufficient.”
“Sticky tape would be a ‘sufficient’ means for fixing the vats, but it wouldn’t last,” Mundy sniped half-jokingly. With a thud of a gloved palm, the familiar rumble of the vat was restored, as if by magic.
Mundy and Harle both knew that the next visit here would be sooner rather than later. She looked about the maintenance access at the gormless, swaying figures that surrounded her, awaiting an order. Clones. “Back to your duties, all of you.”
The clones filed out and Harle’s shoulders dropped and she could relax. “Come on, Kris. I think you deserve a coffee at the very least.”
The cafeteria was dark and dank as much of the rest of the Refinerum was. Age hadn’t treated the station well, and it clanked and groaned, exulting in tones of immense fatigue from its very being.
Mundy’s coffee was tepid and gritty. Throwing the cup of brown sludge away, he sighed to himself. Another repair for the list. Picking up the schedule of repairs, his feet dragged back toward the Vat room where he’d have another crack at shoring up the flue circuits for the cloning plant that dominated the starboard wing of the station. He found his team of three mechanics looking up at the roof of the maintenance chamber, where bright blue liquid dripped from a crack in the pipe above. Each drop shone an unearthly, eerie glow about it as it descended to a spatter on the floor. Instinctively the crew avoided these drops even though they were completely harmless.
Suddenly, the lights fizzled out. The junction breakers had tripped, and not for the first time.
“Reconnect!” Mundy barked hoarsely. His engineers did so, but the breaker wouldn’t stick. “Hurry up, or we’ll lose compression!”
The lights flickered and fizzled for a long eight minutes; the ancient equipment was merciless and stubborn in its refusal to work. Mundy could do nothing but watch a digital clock on the wall count down from six thousand seconds to nil, which it duly did so. As the numeral flashed in cracked red digits around the chamber, the dripping sound from the pipe overhead was replaced by a rumbling and then a sloshing. The pipe leaked profusely as the stasis liquid drained away. Compression had been lost.
The alert buzzer sounded almost simultaneously, but Mundy had already left. He’d have to explain this to Harle, and was dreading the now-inevitable.
A circular chamber formed the upper part of the Vat room, and built into the metal walls were three cabinets of rounded perspex that glimmered a bright aquamarine; the same as the stasis liquid the pipe had gushed downstairs. Inside each cabinet was a wiry metal construct that cradled the slouching figure of a human, and leading away from the back of the neck were translucent tubes that threaded away to the back of the cabinet and into the mechanism deep below. Mundy walked through the door to see the Station Manager looking inquisitively into one of the cabinets. The liquid was drained to nothing more than a puddle at the bottom and the figure inside was shrivelling by the second and rapidly turning as black as coal. Necrosis had set in.
“We lost compression, Aleka…” Mundy wheezed as he fell through the door after his rapid ascent up the stairwell. Harle turned on her heels.
“Just great. Your timing couldn’t have been worse.”
“Why’s that?” Mundy asked, intrigued. “We maintained compression on the other two…”
Harle was not interested in his comment, and strode across to meet her engineer. A slabscreen that had been perched in her hands now found itself jabbed into Mundy’s ribcage. The discomfort lasted only a second, and Mundy looked down.
“Oh, you’re quite right.”
The slabscreen displayed the details of the next shipment headed for the Refinerum: twenty-thousand cubic metres of assorted ‘weapons effluent’. “Does the description embellish any more on what that is?” Mundy asked.
Harle tapped the screen, but the description was blank. “One can only presume it’s all classified.”
“We can’t process it,” Mundy said shortly. “How can we process stuff we have no idea the composition of?”
Harle looked sharply across and nodded at the now-empty Vat. “You know how and why,” she scowled, aware of Mundy’s position. “Just get to it.”
Mundy hummed and paced the room, handing the slabscreen back to Harle. “I don’t like it. We don’t deal in weapons runoff. Historically the need’s never been there, and presently our capacity and means with which to deal with it would be inadequate to say the least.”
A moment passed. “But we have the disposable workforce to do it,” Harle breathed. “If we don’t accept it, they’ll just find people who will.”
That wasn’t an option, with famine and disease plaguing the Rulan empire that the Refinerum was funded by and expected to serve. Any conscious, sane Rulan citizen in the present situation wouldn’t make themselves unemployed and, by extension, cast both themselves and family back into the squalor of the Dorm Moons Even someone with a lousy, stinking job such as that on the Refinerum would not make that choice willingly. Harle knew this, and so did Mundy.
“I suppose you’d better approve the order,” the engineer grunted. “I’ll see what I can make of this mess, and hopefully we’ll get away with it.”
Harle left to return to her office to communicate assent with Rulan control. “Thanks, Kris. Just… just do what you can.”
Aleka’s office was once a great seat of power on the Refinerum when it was new, but this room was no exception to two centuries of decay and neglect. Bare metal walls formed her domain; they were once opulent wood panels but those had long since disintegrated. Each surface was ancient and dilapidated and covered in grimy, dusty papers. Peering out from her desk was a computer terminal into which the bun-haired station manager dialled into control. The static gave way in a flash to a withered, grey-haired man who stared icily almost into Aleka Harle’s very being. His office was a contrast, ordered and presentable. With a suitable disdain he looked upon his underling. “What now, Aleka?”
“Sir,” she said nervously. This was her superior, Vasek Haiden, and he held the balance of power when it came to her employment, which was more vital than it sounded. “We’ve just recieved a manifest from the Lightwave…”
“Yes? I approved it personally,” Haiden groaned. Leaning in, his voice took a low, menacing tone. “Are you… questioning my decision?”
“No! No!” Harle backpedaled. “I’m just curious, this station hasn’t dealt with… product of this vein before. I’m not sure…”
“Stop there,” Haiden growled, leaning back. “Consider this your chance to impress me. Those that impress me, Aleka, as you should well know, are handsomely rewarded.”
“All due respect…” she tried to counter, but Haiden flicked away her rebuttal.
“Those that fail to impress me find themselves reassigned or repurposed. I think you are aware of the implications here. Now I believe you’ve work to do.”
The communicator went dead, and so did Harle’s concerns. They’d just have to soldier on, or face the wrath of Control; and Harle knew which she preferred.
For two solar cycles the engineering squad cleaned and adjusted whatever accessible machinery they could, but decades of grime and poor maintenance made the task slow and dangerous. Conduits burst and showered groups of clone-slaves with caustic gel and acidic powder; they were sent in in lieu of the handful of trained engineers and were, as Harle had stated, disposable. The carcasses were taken away by other clone-slaves and tipped into a recycling chute where the organic matter was mulched down into its constituent parts and made ready to be shaped into another clone-slave. The workforce was less disposable, more recycled. Grisly as it was, there was no alternative, and the cloning plant never shut down for those two cycles.
At the end of the second, the klaxon sounded throughout the station – the freighter was imminent. Hoping his preparations had been enough, Mundy took a deep breath and waited for the next stage to begin.
“Come in Waste-processing station Refinerum…” the radio crackled, interrupting the trance-like pace that had pervaded the control room. It was the freighter making its final approach.
“This is Aleka Harle, station manager. Acknowledged.”
“First officer Dulch aboard Rulan freighter Lightwave. Contracts are signed and transmitted?”
Harle double-checked her terminal and confirmed this was the case. “Affirmative. Care to…”
“We’ll take it from here. Automatic docking routines are in effect. Thank you.”
The radio fell silent with a last gurgle of static. Harle was surprised; freighter crews were never usually that brisk.
“They’re not usually military,” Mundy quipped, eyeing the docking metadata coming in from the freighter. The Lightwave was not one of their regulars.
Moving to the edge of the observation deck at the top of the tower, Harle observed the docking of the bulk freighter in stony silence, her mind pondering. Was her team ready? It was too late now and all that was left was to hope for the best, and hope that she still had a job at the end of this. Computer terminals cheeped and twittered with shrill beeps and flickering status indicators as the Refinerum‘s elderly systems groaned into activity. The unloading boom swung out and met the freighter which remained a cautious distance from the physical bulk of the station and seconds later the transference process wheezed into life. Great magnetic pumps deep in the core of the station resonated through the frames and floors; this carried on for hours – the storage tanks at the very base of the station would take a while to fill. Quickly tiring of relying on the resonance of the floor and dust-caked monitor screens to tell her what was going on, Harle picked up a communicator and spoke briskly into it.
“Progress report, Mr. Mundy?”
Static frazzled from the earpiece for a brief moment as Mundy located the communicator about his head. Finally his voice crackled above the interference. “Magnetopumps are bogged down. It’s all fine coming off the freighter but there’s solidified crap blocking the inlet. I dunno what’s in this stuff, but I don’t like it already.”
“Can you effect a manual override?”
Silence ensued for a moment. “You mean throw a couple dozen C-Ses in there with pointy sticks.”
Harle hummed. “Would it help?”
“I’ll arrange it,” Mundy sighed with resignation.
Upstairs, Harle’s ear-com was barely hung up from speaking to Mundy when First Officer Dulch on the Lightwave demanded a reason for the slowing of pumping operations. “You’d better have a good explanation, Ms Harle!”
“Technical difficulties, should be sorted out…”
“Get them sorted. You’ve a job to do, so do it. Knew this wouldn’t be a great idea…” the first officer sighed incredulously. Harle decided to poke further. “Really?”
“Cheapest contract on offer. It seemed a bad idea at the time but orders are orders.”
Feeling good about getting at least something resembling a human response of the first officer, Harle decided to see if lightning struck twice. “So what sort-of stuff are we dealing with?”
“Nothing you need worry about. Just get on with it,” came a fed-up sigh, and the ear-com ceased receiving.
Indeed, lightning didn’t strike twice.
Steam filled the biological control room at the heart of the cloning complex, and the humidity was not conducive to good working conditions for the specialist team who maintained the supply of ‘disposable’ workers.
“Vat 1’s steaming up,” a technician called sullenly across to her superior, Dr. Tesia Goralski who sighed heavily. The doctor’s hair, at one point neatly presented was matted with moisture and clung to her forehead.
“Great, another thing for Mundy to look at.”
The communicator ran. Goralski answered it with a grunt, knowing who it was without looking. “What do you want, Harle?”
“Good evening to you too,” Harle harked back sarcastically, but didn’t give Goralski time to respond. “I’m authorising the moulding order Mundy is about to send through.”
Sure enough, the monitor whinnied and the order flashed onto the panel. Goralski flicked over it. “Two-dozen units for septic removal services. Huh, suppose they won’t know what’s hit ’em until their skin melts off.”
“Warm your moulding units up, Goralski. It’s going to be a long night,” Harle said icily and cut the communicator off. Looking over at her two plant assistants she nodded, and with another tired sigh looked about the room as the plant croaked into life.
“Another long night…”
Three dull grey doors that opened into a circular hallway at the top of the cloning complex marked the end of the production line where new C-Ses made their first tentative steps into semi-consciousness. As the rumbling from downstairs (for the cloning plant was at the bottom of the Refinerum‘s round bulk, and the exit for clones at the top of this portion) rattled the loose fittings on its approach to the apex here, steam and condensation from the cloning process billowed from the gaps in the doors. Only two remained in operation; one was strangely dormant, steam not leaking about its frame like the others. With a crunch of machinery, the two active doors flung open vertically and, hardly visible in the dark and damp chamber, a fleshy figure wobbled out, its wet feet slapping on the floor that was formed of a metal grate. Confused and disoriented by the total blackness, the two figures looked about for guidance.
On the curved wall facing the chamber doors, a shutter snapped open, bathing the two clones with harsh white light which reflected off their damp bodies and triggered a natural urge to cover their eyes with their hands. The first test was passed; the shutter closed and another adjacent one banged open a second later. This time the chamber was bathed in orange light whose luminance was less biting than the one before. The text that flashed across the lightbox was another difference to the previous one, and another these two clones passed – they followed the instructions and retrieved their clothing and, shaking a little from nervous twitches, put it on their now-dry bodies.
The second lightbox snapped shut and, like before, a third opened with a clatter. The light this time was green and directed the two fresh clones out and where they were needed. They needed no direction; a layout of the Refinerum having been printed right into their consciousnesses during their moulding. These clones were ready, and as soon as the exit door closed behind them, another two clones were ready for testing. After that another pair emerged, and another as the process continued to fill up the lobby of fresh worker-slaves ready for their grisly task.
But as the workers assembled, some seemed vacant in expression and intrigued by their surroundings, more-so than their programming should have allowed for. Some had droopy flesh and elastic limbs, and the final few before the batch was considered cooked and done left malformed digits languishing like rubbery sausages on the grated floor.
The hatchway into the great storage tanks was barely accessible through a maze of smaller pipes that fed up and around to the rest of the facility. Like metallic spaghetti these thin pipes intertwined and tangled into what seemed at casual glance to be an impossible mass leading to anywhere. However, the clone-slaves knew the layout of these hazardous parts of the Refinerum innately, calling up the knowledge imprinted into their minds. They knew how to get where they were needed. Without speaking each of the twenty-four shuffled up lightless passageways and eventually down a rung ladder that led toward a glistening, glowing light.
The shaft containing the ladder soon opened out to what any normal person would deem a hellish nightmare – rusted metal walls all a deep orange and brown colour with decay, lit in haunting blue iridescence from below, where a huge pile of semi-solid effluent lay steaming with noxious gases. Above was the inlet pipe, clogged with more of this stuff that had congealed and hardened into something resembling a great clot. The smell would’ve been overpowering had the clone-slaves retained that sense; the beauty of cloning in this regard being the ability to pick and choose the natural abilities conducive for the environment the clones would be expected to work in.
Without question the twenty-four clones took primitive picks and heaved at the solidified mass. It was rapidly petrifying, and would be immovable unless they worked quickly. Each wore a basic helmet and nylon hazmat suit – neither of which would provide any protection against waste of this toxicity. However, each helmet had a radio receiver into which the static-laden voice of Mundy barked instructions.
“Come on, move it! You’ve eight minutes until the viscosity hits critical levels. If that tank gets blocked, you’re staying in there forever.”
Not that it mattered; the slaves here would be too contaminated to be able to work in other parts of the station and would never leave the tank. They didn’t know this, and even if they realised this fact it would be irrelevant; one slave, badly malformed, lost their balance and fell head-first into the pool of waste below and, shrieking, melted into goo that was just subsumed by the rest of the waste.
Saved the crew a job, at least. Plus it spared the rest of the work crew from the substandard work the malformed slaves were providing; the ones able to keep their balance were hardly able to swing the pickaxe – barely chipping the blockage with the hits that did land in the proper place and denting the walls of the tank with the hits that didn’t.
Mundy watched, unimpressed. Most of the slaves were fatiguing quickly, as if they had been born tired and stressed. A few held their picks slack and made totally ineffectual blows on the solidifying waste. He picked up his communicator and dialed into the cloning plant.
“Any problems your end?”
Goralski hummed indistinctly. “Not to my knowledge.”
“Getting dud slaves,” Mundy relayed, watching one slave tumble off the precipice to its death in the vat of goo. “Are you sure the plant’s working correctly?”
Goraksi consulted one of her two research assistants who flagged up an increasing amount of yellow alerts on the cloning computer. Some were turning to red: ‘genetic mismatch’. “We’ve a tiny hiccup.”
“Well get it sorted,” Mundy sighed and rang off. It was another complication he could do without. He resumed monitoring the dysfunctional clone-slaves as they haphazardly whacked the blocking material with the handles of their picks. “Idiots.”
Mundy’s brow furrowed as an unexpected, ominous rumble came from the direction of the pit and resonated through his observation platform. He reached for his communicator and dialed into the freighter. “Lightwave, report pump status.”
Nothing. The rumble was turning into a crashing shear. “Lightwave, report!”
More silence. “Lightwave!”
Nothing, but it was too late as a great clump of solidified waste hurled out of the intake tube and knocked the group of cloneslaves clear off their feet and toward the bottom of the tank. Following that was a torrent of semi-solid waste that formed a grisly waterfall seven stories tall that showered the clones in effluent.
Mundy was more surprised to see the clone-slaves clawing their way out of the well of military runoff and scrambling up the walls. Clones shouldn’t do that, their survival instinct subtracted from the mental imprint! But most of these clones were malformed, both physically and evidently mentally., and it awoke in their minds a will to survive. “Goralski, you’ve a serious issue,” the engineer mouthed, but in his awe had forgotten to engage the communicator. He watched as the clone-slaves absent-mindedly used their picks to climb up the curved tank wall, the metal denting and stretching until with one blow…
The pressurised tank ruptured like a balloon, ripping itself apart and sending giant shards of metal hurtling into the void it was suspended in at the bottom of the station. The contents that had been pumped in so far were turned to globules that sprayed every surface of every other module they touched. Support members were either cut clean away by the flying tank shards or burned through by super-corrosive sludge.
In the waste control room, chaos ensued. The lights had fizzled out in a blaze of sparks as electrical cables were severed by flying debris with wanton abandon. Sluggishly the backup systems engaged and some light was restored.
On the far wall of the room a communicator’s shrill ring reverberated about the place. Munro picked himself up and begrudgingly answered it, knowing again what it would be.
“What the hell happened?!” blurted Harle’s incensed voice so loudly the speaker needn’t be anywhere near Mundy’s ear for the words to be understood. “We’ve lost power to half the station, freighter captain’s going apeshit… what the hell?!”
Mundy sighed, composing the answer for his own benefit in a flash before he relayed it along the communicator to his superior. “The C-Ses… just pounded through the wall. Loss of pressure was explosive, must’ve damaged the electrical matrix down there. I can reroute…”
“Do it. We’ve still got a job to do.”
“I dunno…” Mundy hummed reticently. “These aren’t repairs I can just paint over…”
“You’re going to have to. Get on with it,” Harle sniped, and cut the transmission. Backing away, Mundy took stock of the situation. Yellow alerts flooded his computer panel with warnings and failures, and the list seemed ever-growing. The obliterated electrical matrix and loss of containment in that waste tank were the most dire, Mundy assessed, with other ancillary failures linked in adding themselves to the list. His throat dry, Mundy walked down the corridor to the bathroom cup in hand. His reflection in the dirty mirror beguiled a man beset with a million problems that he couldn’t possibly solve; however, thirst was one. With a turn, the faucet opened with a squeal.
“Jesus Christ!” Mundy said, jumping back and letting the cup fall into the basin of the sink. The smell was overpowering. Managing to shut the faucet off before it got too much, another failure added itself to Mundy’s list: the drinking water of the station was horribly contaminated. Grey sludge spat out of the faucet where clear water should’ve and Mundy came to the instant, obvious realisation that things were considerably worse than first thought. If waste was in the general plumbing system of the station then like a plague it would spread to drinking water supplies or worse. Dropping his cup onto the hard floor, Mundy ran up toward the cloning plant to warn Dr Goralski.
As Mundy ran into the room he saw Goralski feverishly fussing over the master tanks. “You know, then,” he gasped breathlessly.
Finding the energy to turn, Goralski faced Mundy. “The solution’s contaminated. We’re in deep shit now.”
Indeed, the previously-aquamarine that swirled and bathed the masters from which the clone-workers were moulded had turned a muddy orange. Bits of detritus and semi-solid waste flittered about the tank in the current created by the pressurised system.
The masters themselves looked distressed, their skins wrinkled and dirty. They were slowly thawing out of stasis and thrashing at the lines that fed them the nutrients they needed to survive and gleaned genetic base material from their brainstems. One, the female master, in a flurry of thrashing limbs, ripped the data cord from the base of her neck and tried to swim up to the top of the tank. It was a natural route to attempt escape along, but it was pointless. Blood gushed freely from the wound at the base of her neck and stained the water with clouds of hemoglobin-rich fluid. Seconds later the breathing tubes parted and in a flurry of bubbles, the female master drowned; her body floating awkwardly at the top of the tank.
And all Goralski could do was watch. Once the grim spectacle died down, she looked across. “Shut it down.”
One of her aids tapped the command into the console in the middle of the room. Furrows appeared on the brow of the assistant as the command was entered again and again. Goralski noticed and moved over to observe.
“Shutdown routine isn’t responding.”
Mundy coughed. “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
Goralski and the assistant both looked stonily across. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“It’s not working at all by the sounds of it.”
Goralski turned her attention back to her assistant. “Production’s running away. How many clones in the lobby?”
The assistant hesitated for a moment. “Er, fourteen.”
“That’s not so bad,” Mundy sighed with some relief. The cloning plant was pressing clones at a rate that seemed manageable to him.”
“Thirty seven. Fourty two,” the assistant counted down, the rate increasing. Goralski grimaced.
“Cut power! Now!”
Mundy scampered off to perform her command, but soon returned, his hands dripping with contaminated water. “Power couplings are inaccessible.”
Goralski took another breath. This was getting too much to deal with. “So you can’t shut the cloning plant off?”
“No,” Mundy said lowly. “And you can’t shut it off from up here?”
“No,” the professor said glumly. She raised her head to meet the gaze of the people in the room. “There’s no way to shut it down.”
Thuds resonated through the bottom of the station, as if to punctuate the professor’s desperate remark. Subsidiary systems were failing in quick succession, and Mundy knew it. “We should go,” he urged.
The answer came before Mundy could even make a proposition: the general alarm sounded and the station was inundated with blaring sirens and deep red pulsating lights. The drill had been done so many times the reaction was almost robotic: the surviving crew of the station were to assemble in the Station Manager’s Office and await further instructions. Mundy led the team, knowing in the dank, confused darkness the layout. Many maintenance runs in increasingly-inaccessible areas of the Refinerum had given him a sixth sense of the position of every passageway and stairwell, and the group of scientists and engineers followed the superiors of each respective field behind a lone torchlight that shone into a foggy, black expanse.
Harle heard the alarm louder than anyone else, as it was her panel that originated it. How could something that had seemed so minor caused this calamity? Systems were going offline and into failure state faster than her computer screen could report… nothing like this had ever happened. The system simply wasn’t designed to deal with a loss of containment so sudden, and of such nasty effluent.
No longer bound by the tank walls, waves of sludge lashed around the intermediary structures between the Refinerum‘s breach hull and the modules inside, all suspended by a web of struts and supports, crumpling them and leeching their strength away in mere minutes. The lights flickered for a few seconds before extinguishing. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked longingly in the direction of the fixtures, wishing them on…
The wish was enough; however the blue alert in Harle’s office was of even greater importance. A blue alert meant only one thing: a failure so serious the station had taken it upon itself to contact Control in distress, assuming the failure had been so serious as to completely kill or incapacitate the crew.
“I’m not dead yet!” Harle said loudly as she walked over to the console. There was breathing on the other end that Aleka Harle knew only too well. “Hello?”
“Aleka, you’re alive,” the voice murmured. “Somewhat surprising given the blue alert your station is flagging up. Disappointing.”
“Yes, er,” Harle stuttered. This was her supervisor, Vasek Haiden, and he’d warned her to turn around the Refinerum‘s fortunes quick, lest he ‘reassign’ her. It was an impossible task she made the most of. “Loss of containment.”
“Shame,” Haiden growled. “I gave you a simple task, and this assignment was your chance to show real leadership.”
“We had problems with the clones, I never knew…”
“You were inattentive,” Haiden growled menacingly, his voice filling the room. It was baseless; no-one had had time to lodge reports about the clones; Harle had relied on the communication logs she just happened to skim over, and the open communicator channels that blurted through to her.
“Not true… sir,” Harle said defiantly, but then backpedaled. Before she could continue, Haiden dismissed her protests.
“It’s unfortunate that this incident has occurred, but by the very nature of your final assignment this situation must be contained. The sterilisation team will be with you shortly. I can only apologise that your terms of employment had to end this way.”
The buzzer went dead. Harle knew precisely what Haiden had meant. The clean-up crew would sort out the mess the Refinerum now possessed to the Home Galaxy, but with a deadly cost to her crew. Immediately she realised time would be against them and the observation deck would be the place to assemble for evacuation, and a station-wide announcement made this plan clear to all.
The station had never been terribly hospitable in optimal conditions; under emergency lighting and creaking with strain it felt almost haunted. Each step higher toward the top of the station meant another step away from the mass of degenerate clones gathering down in the lower levels. Everyone tried to put off imagining the conditions there; Mundy trying not to imagine the damage to many vital life-support systems that could be possible with just one wrong move, and Goralski feeling sick in her stomach for being at least partly responsible. It was her cloning plant under her watch that not only endangered the regular crew but was literally wasting life. Creating clones that by virtue of contamination were doomed to extermination. Sentient beings that had done no wrong were condemned merely by existing in the wrong time and the wrong place.
Goralski, of course, didn’t know the half of it. Genetic presses in the bowels of the cloning plant were churning out sloppier and sloppier clones that bore less and less resemblance to the pained female figure stuck in the tank. With each successive imprint of the programmed personality the copy was becoming dirtier and dirtier as artifacts from the contaminated cloning tank mutated the chromosomes that the machinery took without question as proper. Not only were the clones emerging deformed, some with limbs missing whole bone structures or collapsed faces whose brief existences were an entirety of agony, their mental state was degrading too. The lobby was now full with hundreds of clones who were awaiting orders while their polluted brethren crammed ever tighter into the dark, dank space, slipping over the vomit and droolings of those that had been birthed before.
Something had to give sooner or later, and sooner was winning the day in that argument. Eventually the lobby floor collapsed and sent scores of clone-slaves descending into the maintenance areas below. From there the uninjured could roam freely into certain oblivion; torrents of sludge were spraying everywhere. The entire bottom half of the station had ceased to have any meaningful containment structure and months of hazardous, stored, unprocessed waste now intermingled with this foreign matter from the freighter. Structures that were once strong were eaten away by the corrosive soup that sloshed about, taking out groups of clones on one corner or the floor from beneath others, while more piled out of the broken cloning plant lobby and joined in the mayhem, walking (or stumbling, and soon crawling) into death.
The stairwell under the remaining crew’s feet shuddered with the shocks of the catastrophic failures downstairs; thudding machinery resonated through the very bones of the station and jarring, sheering metal scraping pierced through the nearly-organic wailing of bending steel. Goralski hesitated, looking back down the stairwel at a faint orange glow that throbbed and wavered, but also grew brighter.
“Come on, Doctor!” Mundy said hurriedly, and reached for her arm. “Control’s just a few feet away. Then up to Observation”
“I… I can’t leave them,” she moaned quietly. “I just can’t.”
“Them? What are you talking about you stupid woman?” Harle turned and impatiently breathed down.
“The clones… my creations…” Goralski responded breathlessly before slumping onto the stairs. It had been an arduous, intense climb up the main stairwell in these conditions, and her mind had run away from her. A sudden, almost maternal feeling had enveloped her. As cloning engineer, the clone-slaves that were wreaking havoc downstairs felt like her children in a strange way. Not biologically, but ethically. They’d been born on her authority and her watch.
Harle had no time for this sudden bout of dejection and assumption of responsibility. “Ugh Christ. There was nothing you could’ve done. None of us foresaw this.”
“It’s true,” Mundy said somewhat more reassuringly and delicately. “It wasn’t your intention. It’s just… how it is.”
Goralski turned and her weathered, wistful eyes looked at Mundy for a moment. “You’re right. It’s just such a waste of life. Being a cloning engineer sometimes makes you forget that life really is precious.”
“Come on, we’re wasting time!” Harle urged impatiently as she stepped off the seemingly-never ending stairwell and entered creaking metal door in a dark landing near her office. The others followed though another maze of narrow, dark passageways that did nothing but echo the stress and pain the station was feeling. The Refinerum was over three kilometres in diameter and the passageways totalled a length of many more kilometres. Reaching the escape pods before the cruisers arrived was going to be tight for time as it is and impossible if every escapee felt the need to do a considerable bit of soul-searching at every apex.
The stairway terminated at a landing ten decks from the Observation Deck and the escape pods, and branched out into three passageways that looked equally unappealing.
“Which do we take?” Goralski asked. Harle looked over to Mundy.
“It’s up to our engineer to decide.”
Mundy looked through narrowed eyes for a few seconds. Each passageway was dimly lit and the clang of failing metal resonated through them all. Recalling the plan of the labyrinth-like structure of the Refinerum station, Mundy made an executive decision. “Middle one is the quickest, but dips under a series of pressurised storage tanks, and I don’t trust ’em. Other two are round and about the same, but would take about half as long. Harle,” he said, looking to the weary and sweat-dripping station manager, “it’s up to you.”
She thought for a second also. “Take the middle. We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Affirmative. Come on, guys.”
The passageway dipped down and around a few tight corners before narrowing. In the dim emergency lighting, amidst the rumbling of the station’s death throes, the metal walls on both sides bowed and buckled as the group edges nervously past. The dark metal was turning light in places, as the fatigue forced the very atoms apart from one another.
“Keep moving…” Harle whispered, subconsciously hushing herself in case the resonance of her voice triggered a reaction from the weakened metal. A low, long growl, like the wail of some mighty animal, filled the passageway. The group headed up the incline on the other side, ducking under a sagging pipe that had fallen from the roof before they’d come through here. Goralksi was next past, with her two assistant researchers. The wall groaned again, and the fatigued metal shifted. As Mundy brought up the rear, the very pregnant-looking wall finally seemed to settle. Casually looking back, Mundy saw the wall had done anything but.
“Move! Just move!” he cried as the bulge in the wall grew to obscure the passageway the group had traversed moments before the metal burst like a sheet of plastic with a deafening pop that sent a surge of pressure up the passageway, knocking the group from their feet. A few moments later a surge of grey, semi-liquid corrosive waste splashed through the hole, burning anything in its path. In the mix were several deformed and now-dissolved clone-slave bodies and body parts.
A stench unmistakable from death filled the passageway as Harle, Goralski, Mundy and the researchers gagged on the miasma, desperately clawing their way back to their feet and running literally for their lives. As soon as it had arrived the puddle of waste burned through the floor and took the decayed clone bodies into the very depths of the rapidly-deconstructing station and the pipe that the group had just climbed under fell through entirely.
After leaving the passage, Harle took stock of the situation. Her and the other four survivors were exhausted and scared, and more than anything just wanted off of this cursed space station. The observation deck was close, as belied by the curvature of the grey metal hull of the station at this point. The shakes from the lower floors now tearing themselves apart were somewhat softened by the sheer distance between them and Harle’s group.
Through a porthole was the vast, black emptiness of space, and even its cold nothingness seemed more inviting than continued occupancy of the Refinerum. Looking out on the almost unfathomable space compared to the cramped, damp and cold landing the people found themselves on was a contrast easy to lose oneself in.
“Nearly there…” Harle breathed, brushing her matted and filthy hair to one side. Everyone at this point was covered in flakes of metal rubble, waste material and dirt from the frenzied escape attempt. All were thinking of a well-earned drink on some spacious cruiser, putting this entire experience behind them; at least, that was Harle’s most prominent thoughts.
Goralski noticed something and looked past her manager, who turned out of curiosity at the breach of the trance-like state of semi-relaxation her body had brought about. “What’s that?”
In the dim, star-studded space outside, two blue flashes erupted seemingly out of nowhere, turned steady and began advancing on the station. After a few seconds, the two flashes soon became ships. These were not rescue ships, however; they were the military cruisers summoned to summarily neutralise the ecological and industrial threat the Refinerum posed to the galaxy. One station so toxic and dirty that complete cauterisation of the wound was the only outcome in the event of a catastrophic failure of system.
Aleka Harle knew precisely what this was. She hadn’t been expecting them quite so soon. “It’s the cruisers.”
“Christ! Already?!” Mundy coughed. His neurons processed this information and the reasoning became quite clear. “Oh. Military runoff.”
The contents of the freighter had been flagged up and brought about the Refinerum‘s ‘cauterisation’ more rapidly than it might have been for more conventional filth. A logical reaction indeed, but one leaving the surviving crew with precious little time.
“We gotta get out of here!” Harle screeched, her voice laden with panic. An understandable reaction. Standard Rulan cruisers were armed with banks of high-powered femtolasers that would make short work of the unshielded ball of metal that she was standing inside, roasting the metal and its contents to ashes to be left to flutter harmlessly through space. The panic brought about an almost inhuman level of strength that was brought about on the round hatch that led from this place, a maintenance room, to the lobby upstairs and certainly higher chances of salvation. Ripping her blouse, the manager scrambled to release the hatch by means of the round wheel that unscrewed it. Her hands were sweaty and she couldn’t do it, not in this state.
“Here, let me,” Mundy said quietly, pulling Harle away. “Get yourself together. We’re nearly there.” Mundy gave the hatch a sharp heave and the handle moved with a squeal. It hadn’t been open in quite some time. Nevertheless it fell away with a clang; the hinge rusted through from decades of decay and the handle the only thing keeping it in place. Tossing it aside, Mundy scrambled up the ladder, which was fortunately of sturdier construction.
The engineer gasped as he looked about the observation deck. The curvature of the station’s hull was prevalent even more so here and each curved, domed wall was dominated by panoramic windows that gave a beautiful vista of the space around the station. Usually very empty, the presence of the three Rulan cruisers was especially conspicuous and unwelcome.
“Where’re the escape pods from here?” Goralski whispered. The emptiness of this long-disused room created quite an echo, and the whisper was not voluntary. “I suppose we should get going.”
“Mundy,” Harle hissed, “you know where they are? Guide said just observation deck.”
Mundy paced the floor, examining it. To one side was the access panel from which the group had just emerged and on the opposite side was a doorway that led to the regular entrance. Looking up, there was no hatch in the ceiling and this was the highest accessible room on the Refinerum. Looking down he noticed the floor of the Observation deck was formed of two concentric metal circles: a darker, matt one that skirted the periphery of the room and encircled a mesh-like, light grey deis that was ever so slightly raised. “Gotcha. They’re in the floor.”
Moving over to a control panel mounted on the single piece of wall that wasn’t occupied by a window, Mundy grunted. The lever was not electronically-aided and decay had kept it shut, but the rust was easily overcome. With a hiss of releasing gas the light metal floor gave way to reveal the escape pods: a set of three small, squat canisters at the bottom of a shallow spiral staircase, built into the cylindrical walls of the structure below the observation deck.
Thumping came from all around. The clone-slaves had reached the top of the station and the group of survivor’s timing was impeccable. If they’d taken one of the other passages they’d be sure to find their escape blocked, and themselves either blown apart or torn to shreds at the hands of Goralski’s creations, drooling and baying at the door across the room from the survivors.
“Quick, get in!” Harle ordered, scampering down the escape passageway. The others did so gladly, and took a seat in the nearest escape pod. It was cramped and like being in a small metal barrel but it would distinctly increase their chances of survival. Flashes lit up the windows, indicating that the cruisers had dispensed with their missile payloads. Time remaining was measurable in minutes, maybe even moments.
And Goralski stood resolute, stony on the top of the staircase, her wizened eyes staring through the translucent material into the brightness. If there was a wind, it would ruffle her straw-like hair as she stood there, waiting for something.
“Come on!” Harle barked to her crewmate. “We’re ready to go!”
“I… I can’t come with you. I have to be here.”
“Are you stupid?!” Harle shouted incredulously. “You’re gonna die if you stay there!”
The banging on the door was getting louder and the metal weaker. Soon the clones would storm the Observation deck, and maybe sooner the missiles would rupture the station’s hull and blow it to pieces. Between two grisly deaths for Goralski stood some chance of salvation. She turned and looked directly down the stairwell into Aleka Harle’s eyes.
“You go. I must stay with the lifeforms I am responsible for.”
“No-one could have predicted…” Harle tried to argue, but knew from the look she recieved back that it was pointless.
“Indeed, but we must deal with what we are presented with.”
With a crash, the door bent out of shape and clone-slaves clambered over in a slow lumber; some tripping over and the rest fumbling across the fallen bodies of their brethren. Goralski turned sharply back to her manager. “Go now. It is time.”
Without speaking, Harle’s head retreated into the body of the escape pod and the door sealed behind her. She turned to Mundy and nodded.
An explosive force sent the escape pod tumbling from the Refinerum‘s belly just in time to see the Observation deck windows turn red with blood. The pod drifted for a moment before a thruster flung it away and toward empty space, just as the missiles impacted and in a great plume of flame, the Refinerum and it’s deadly contents was ‘sanitised’ in a firey inferno and left as a trillion pieces of microscopic ash floating in the emptiness of space.
Aleka looked pensively from the pod window as it turned from the ashen debris of her former workplace – a hellish nightmare, yes, but her workplace – and faced the oncoming cruisers. With a long sigh she let her hair flow down around her shoulders, releasing it from the tight bun in which it had been curtailed for seemingly forever.
With that act, a wave of relief swept her body. Sure, the Refinerum had been a job, but at what cost? After her term there, the bitter unhappiness and terrible pressures now over, unemployment wouldn’t be so bad after all.
© Richard Holliday, 2013