Edition 26: Risk Analysis by Tom Dullemond
Tom Dullemond brings us all the dangers of a mission of salvage with the additional dangers of a ship cannibalising itself and its crew. Helping another organism to achieve its ends is symbiosis; but sometimes this seemingly commensal relationship can be coopted. SY
Mission log: Today’s salvage target, The Great Bluefin, is a registered Mitsuyama Corp long-range supply transport. It was unofficially flagged as a conversion-risk vessel after impact with a dormant node in proscribed space. Please note: I will commence this salvage operation by entering through the primary outer loading hatch. This was also the entry point of the failed recovery mission launched by Mitsuyama Corporate Security three hours ago.
Supplementary: This recording is supplementary to the mandatory safety and operational mission log, reference number Q-B7054. It’s the only safe way to record these operations. I don’t know when you’re reviewing this so please indulge me.
The mission log is recorded simultaneously as per protocol, and it always comes home with me afterwards. It’s the official operational record. In the interest of keeping an accurate account for you, I’ll be muting voice recording on the official mission log whenever necessary, such as now.
I can see patches of blackened blood seared on wall plates throughout the inner hull, and walls of cargo containers nicked by random rifle fire. Three CorpSec agents lie crumpled near an access hatch in the distance. They look like casualties from panicked fire in zero-atmosphere, and it doesn’t seem as though any have been dragged off for conversion, which is unusual.
I’m scared. I know that during these operations I’m free to do what I like, which is why I’m making this extra recording, but…but there’s usually a feeling of watchfulness, a lingering paranoia, a peripheral mental itch. This time there’s nothing. It’s like falling out of a wheelchair only to discover you can fly.
This looks like a standard salvage and recovery mission: a transport ship hauling cargo through proscribed space to save on jump fuel hits a conversion node; a squad or two of Corporate Security are thrown at the problem and inevitably cut down; a very expensive salvaging expert is hired to make it look like an accident, or to make the ship disappear entirely.
I’ve kept track. This is my seventy-eighth infested ship out of about two hundred salvage operations. None of them are expected to be salvageable, of course: by the time a conversion-risk ship comes out of emergency warp into safe space it invariably has no drives left, or drives that have been turned into makeshift fuel processors oozing what’s left of the crew. They’re highly contagious.
The Great Bluefin is floating off a registered emergency beacon in sterile deep space. There’s no sign of the Mitsuyama suppression cruiser sent to rescue it. For what it’s worth, I hear two of the squad survived, and the ship is in private quarantine somewhere. That means they’re parked in a stable orbit and have to eat emergency space-paste for two months while they wait to see if the hull bubbles away, or if their legs mesh into the bulkhead, or whatever. It’s no accident emergency rations come with suicide pills and you’re urged to keep them in your pocket at all times. While you still have pockets, anyway.
Mission log: I’m advancing slowly through the cargo hold now, past looming containers and towards the rear access hatch and the only visible bodies. The post-assault debris floats safely around me here. There’s no indication on the HUD that there is any non-linear motion in this area, only a thin haze of metal splinters and lazily spinning ammunition.
Supplementary: Every object on the HUD tracks in nice straight green trajectories. It’s somewhat reassuring, because infected ships convert fast and my tracking system is configured for that. The corners and edges of this expansive hold should be trembling, etching dangerously red organic curves into my display. I’ve seen hull plates thin into translucence around support beams co-opted as fibrous veins, I’ve scrambled through access hatches cracking into irised sphincters, looked away as human remains were pumped into incubation sacs salvaged from radiation-shielded maintenance suits.
It’s disconcerting the first few times, and in comparison this silent aftermath is horribly wrong.
There shouldn’t be any downed marines here anymore; they should have been dragged off and converted by now. There shouldn’t be that disconcerting silence on the edge of my awareness; I should be feeling vicarious elation, or at least a strategic yearning. I’m wrong.
Which means maybe it’s going to be all right this time, and I don’t need this log at all. I doubt anyone is listening anyway. This whole process is the result of real-world probability smashing headfirst into a flawed human understanding of extreme numbers. I record it for the same reason that people buy lottery tickets every week of their lives. We like to gild our inability to grasp the reality of once-in-a-trillion odds by calling it ‘hope’.
Space is big. Odds are no one will ever find this memory card floating in all that emptiness. But hope is irrationally bigger. Without hope we give up, sit down, and die.
I’m scared that the very existence of this recording hints at an analytical understanding of the human spirit. This log is the most efficient way to keep me motivated, a kind of fucked up backwards job satisfaction. I’m on a chokered leash, free to do as I please as long as I’m here disposing of yet another mess, and this ship is here because whoever sent it didn’t understand probability either. ‘Oh, the odds of hitting a weaponised node in proscribed space are negligible.’
Or maybe they are like me, and we’re blindly dancing a synchronous waltz on opposite sides of a solid wall.
Mission log: I’m approaching the deceased CorpSec agents near the cargo transport corridor. The cloud of combat debris is reduced here. This is not physical evidence of confirmed infection, but indicative of resource harvesting. Standing by for evasive action if necessary.
Supplementary: Why is there anything left here if the Bluefin hit an armed payload? The ship should be sucking itself inwards in melting ropes by now; it should be reconfiguring according to whatever abandoned blueprint was injected into it. The security squad should be scooped-out biofuel in warp core-laminated vats.
Mission log: As this is a reported conversion-risk incident, but there is no solid evidence of conversion, I will first investigate the Corporate Security soldiers before proceeding. Systems will reco—
Supp…supplementary. I…I’m sorry about that, I didn’t expect that to happen so suddenly.
The supplementary log is about ninety seconds out of sync with the mission log now and I am inside the access corridor. I had to wait while I watched myself erase the official analysis of the dead security agents before coming back on schedule. I’m back now though; it was just protocol, I suppose. A reminder. A little yank on the choker. I kind of forgot about it because it’s so unnaturally quiet.
You’re allowed to hear though. It doesn’t matter if you hear, because space is big, right? And this is only the seventy-eighth supplementary log. And if I didn’t have a tiny chance of telling you, then what’s the point of going on?
They’re dead from clean stab wounds to the torso, probably some kind of improvised close combat construct. Inefficient, which says something in and of itself.
The rare times I’ve found a body in the past the wounds are precise and deadly; neck, head. These are lethal but safely in the torso. Their pressure helmets were cut through with clean lines, the temples cracked open, brains converted right out.
I can appreciate why that’s not something that can go on the official log, the one that comes back with me once I prime the untouched power core, throw this supplementary log memory card out the airlock, and let the explosion seed local space with whatever dormant nodes are fruiting in here.
The official logs are rarely helpful when it comes to information that might help prevent the slow, unpredictable spread of proscribed space. Funny that.
Mission log: The technical difficulties have been corrected. I am proceeding along the access corridor and following HUD schematics towards the central power core. The starboard corridor at the first junction is impassable due to infection. I cannot determine the apparent category of the collision node from the converted corridor, but my initial estimate is that it was not weaponised.
Supplementary: That’s a matter of perspective. Even the most innocuous infrastructure nodes deploy freshly converted security constructs, coughed together from aluminum, poly-fibre and bone. They form lethal perimeters around core conversion sites and march slowly outward as the reconfiguration expands.
On my right, where the corridor is supposed to lead to crew quarters, the walls, floors and ceilings are warped inwards, twisted and pinched off in a spiral around a multi-jointed arm of tightly bound polymer, in turn wrapped with electrically convulsive fibers. I can see a dull copper glint inside the end of the retracted limb, the tip of a needle fashioned from scavenged console electronics and still stained with a smear of blood boiled black and dry in the vacuum.
We’re just staring blindly at each other now, unmoving. We’re like abandoned enemy chess pieces in mid-strategy and full of imposed antagonism.
Mission log: I am avoiding the conversion site and proceeding directly towards the power core for decommissioning and timed detonation.
Supplementary: I’m pretty sure The Great Bluefin didn’t hit another random weapon blueprint, or an infrastructure seed that turns an illegally jaunting hauler into a half-baked transmitter pointing blindly into the void. That’s why it was so quiet in my head when I stepped onboard, the deathly silence of a shocked but excited intake of breath. That’s why I wasn’t rushing through constricting chambers this time, ushered by limping haphazard sentry constructs that sacrifice their limited consciousness for the greater good, hurling secondhand bone and plastic and steel against mindless conversion tendrils that might accidentally sweep me into the reconfiguration.
This ship hit something smarter and rarer; a dormant CPU cluster, a strategy node.
It means that somewhere in a privately quarantined rescue cruiser there’s a clutch of repurposed neurons threaded into the spine of at least one of those surviving CorpSec agents. He’ll come out fine after two months, and although HR might think it strange that his new calling is salvaging corporate haulers stuck on the edge of proscribed space, eventually his success rate will convince them that it’s a great career move. You’d think I’d complain about the competition but I actually crave the companionship, even though we’ll never meet and our co-opted nervous systems would never let us communicate if we did.
He’ll see that sparkle of excitement at the edge of his vision whenever he starts one of these operations. He’ll feel the pins and needles of sensation seep back into his arms and legs. He’ll probably be allowed to eject supplementary logs like a desperate lottery for the survival of the human race, a seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight in a trillion shot at salvation. It’s more efficient that way, keeps him motivated. It’ll keep him driven job after job, hoping that someday someone will find one and break him free, that someone will discover the plan unfolding around us all.
But no one ever will. Whatever distributed intelligence is orchestrating this waltz has performed a strategic risk analysis on humanity, and although the odds that this recording will be found and break me free are infinitesimal, the hope that it will is what keeps me alive.
I’m reaching the power core now, and I know there’s probably no one listening to this recording, and if you are it’s probably too late. But…but I still hope we win the lottery.
And if we did, and if you still can, please…help? I…I don’t want to be like this.
Mission log: The core has been primed for self-destruct. I am exiting the ship. There is no further sign of infection, and my professional analysis is that this site was not dangerously converted. Everything is clear. The salvage operation is another success.
Th-thank you for hiring us.
Tom Dullemond is a Dutch, soon-to-be-Australian, author of short speculative fiction. He spends his daylight hours closing esoteric circles in the Information Technology spheres. At night, when he is not contemplating fiction, his time is spent appreciating beer, exploring language, lusting after tech gadgets, expleting over parenting, hiking landscapes, and chaining present participles.