One Night at Kedasi (8)
8. Insignificance and the Task at Hand
Tom wheeled the loading skiff around, sliding its tongs delicately beneath the final unloaded cargo crate. The loader, like most things on The Hog had been designed for a specific type of being: One with two hands, and an abundance of fingers. While Tom technically had three highly sensitive appendages near his mouth, they were too far from the controls to be of any use. In practice, it meant he was driving the loader with eight of his ten feet. While initially an inconvenience, after a year of practice loading and unloading The Hog’s cargo bay, Tom was proficient. So much so, that it only took him and Lars an hour to completely reload the ship for takeoff.
“You’re pretty good on that thing,” remarked Lars. He stepped on a switch that slid metal clamps into place beneath the last cargo container. On the off chance that the artificial gravity malfunctioned, they’d be happy to not have cargo bouncing around like pinballs, tearing holes in the hull.
“Many hands make short work.” Tom knew it wasn’t technically true but wasn’t in the mood to explain his anatomy to a near stranger.
“That might be an understatement. I’ve never seen a cargo bay loaded that fast.”
Tom contracted at the compliment, both pleased and embarrassed. It was difficult to tell if Lars was being genuine, but the response was involuntary. “Thank you.” He backed the loader up to its storage position on the wall where magnets engaged, locking it into place.
“What does she need with all this anyways?” Lars gestured to The Hog’s packed cargo bay. It looked like a museum with an attention deficit curator. Weapons were set in biometric locks at odd angles along every wall, towers of crates with hazardous labeling were shifted toward the center of the room, and bizarre artifacts of past battles littered the empty space between. Even the underwater mech Zip had used on Crustacea lay in shambles in a far corner next to a work bench. Ultimately, it had joined the long list of items on The Hog that needed to be fixed and likely never would be.
Tom didn’t enjoy talking about Zip when she wasn’t present, but Lars was his new shipmate, and they would need to have trust. “In some ways, I don’t think Zip ever left war.” He didn’t have to tell Lars about the nightmares that woke her shouting in a cold sweat almost every night, or the addiction to highly illegal puffin rum. The substance had been banned long ago for animal cruelty in its production process, but somehow, whenever they came back to Prota, Zip had a fresh bottle sitting in the cockpit.
Lars picked at his fingers with a dull knife. “I’ve known a few people like that, but usually they don’t hide behind stacks of boxes. Kedasi isn’t more than a few days at warp. This looks like enough to create her own personal military state.”
Tom bobbed his head. “It can be a bit excessive, yes, but Zip operates on the principle of: better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. I used to think it was too much, but she does have a solution for every situation.”
Lars walked over to the underwater mech and whistled. “And this? What’s this a solution for?”
Tom walked over and looked down at the mech. There was a low probability it would ever remain airtight again. “This is a past solution. More of a memento now than anything else.” Why Zip wanted any memories of tangling with the behemoth on Crustacea was beyond Tom’s comprehension. “Zip is many things, but mechanic is not one of them.” Her few attempts at something so simple as metal patching made Tom think it was a miracle she survived any small amount of space travel.
Lars nodded and then turned a hard gaze on Tom. “You really trust her, don’t you?”
Tom gazed back in what he hoped was sincerity. Humans put so much pressure on various forms and lengths of eye contact. “Yes. She saved my life, more than once, and despite her exterior is a very good person.” Zip tried to act like she didn’t care, but no matter what, she always ended up doing the right thing, even if it took convincing.
Lars’s eyes were unmoving. “Trusting my life to the words of a six-foot-tall shrimp.” He laughed. “Life is unpredictable, eh?”
“I never thought I’d be shipping with a bunch of humanoid mercenaries to a deadly theme park planet. Ha. Ha.”
Lars grinned. “That laugh is unsettling, I like it. You want to help me finish patching the hull?”
Tom looked out at the docking bay. The three bodies still remained decomposing in the middle of the floor, and a whisp of smoke curled up from where the elevator had once been. Then, he turned his attention back to The Hog. The initial repairs from the incident on Crustacea were starting to show scorch marks from repeated re-entry. Tom couldn’t be sure how long they would last, but he was sure it wasn’t much longer. “Are you sure we have time?”
Lars pulled out a small tablet. “Take a look at this.”
Tom shuffled over and looked down. A complex web of security systems spread out as green and red lines across a honeycombed framework. More than half of the lines were blinking red with flashing alert systems to match. In the top right corner of the screen was an ever-rolling dispatch chat of problems in the loading bay. The inefficiency was staggering.
“Like I said, we have time. They’ll be cleaning this mess up for at least a day. So long as they don’t impound the ships while we wait, we should be alright.”
As if in answer, Zip’s voice came over the cargo hold comms system. “I’ve got us in queue to leave. Air traffic control isn’t taking any chances with the docking tunnels, so they’re re-routing everyone to the few they’ve already checked. Going to take a few hours to clear that many ships.”
Lars put the tablet away and spread out his hands. “And there it is. Which means we’ve got time to patch the holes.”
Tom bobbed his head and went over to the makeshift repair bench he had set up in the hold’s far corner. Passing beneath each weld, he could almost hear the hiss of welding torches and the roar of gunfire from Zip’s battle against the lobsters. She had told it enough times that the image was burned into his brain. Yes, with each recounting, the story grew more bombastic, but the key details were the same. If he focused, he thought he could still smell the dried fish flakes hanging on the air.
“It’s amazing these held through your last flight.” Lars looked up at the scarred patches on the inside of The Hog’s belly.
“Crustacean welding is crude, but strong. They are used to making things that survive at high pressure under the sea.”
“That would explain the design. It works, but ends up being cumbersome for planetary re-entry. Come to think of it, the extra vibration might make you a little more attractive at warp too.”
Tom’s understanding of warp speed was limited. The only manual pertaining to the subject on the ship was a single, bright red, laminated sheet that read: Warp speed, it just works. Apparently, science directorates had spent many years trying to explain their discoveries, and eventually tired of questions from the rabble. Space captains used warp because it was fast and the only way to make a living. The fact that ships occasionally never returned from warp was considered a risk of the job.
“Don’t question warp for too long, it will make your head go all funny.”
Tom snapped back to attention. “Sorry. I am not used to technologies I can’t understand.”
Lars laughed. “That’s why you’re a good tinkerer like me, but there are too many things that ‘just work’ in this civilization of ours. People keep getting dumber and dumber, and the smart ones stopped wanting to explain themselves a long time ago.”
Tom bobbed his head. “I see.”
“So long as we don’t get eaten by a leviathan at warp, it’s a happy day.”
Tom pictured the behemoth from Crustacea, but gliding out of the interstellar spaghetti mess that was warp speed. It was enough to nearly induce a waking nightmare. To distract himself, he pulled out his hand terminal and brought up The Hog’s schematics. Despite Zip’s aversion to repairs, Tom had careful catalogued everything in the hopes that they would one day have money. “There are ten patches that will need to be redone, and according to the launch queue, we have around three hours to fix them.”
Lars whistled. “A little over three patches an hour. This should be relaxing.”
Tom did not see how such a pace could be either efficient or relaxing. “I am confused.”
“Where I came from, if you weren’t doing five in an hour, you weren’t eating.” There was a sober melancholy to the statement. Lars walked over to a supply bin and started pulling out pieces of scrap metal that Tom had squirreled away and put on a pair of welding goggles. “Where do you come from anyway?”
Tom fumbled with a pair of oversized welding goggles he had specially rigged to fit over his eyeballs. They hooked into his hydration suit, making sure the surfaces would never get too dry. Sometimes, he really wished he had eyelids, or the ability to clean his eyeballs with something that wasn’t his hands. City streets were far less clean than the sea floor. “How familiar are you with the old solar system?”
“That’s where I come from.”
“You’re not from Prota?”
Lars shook his head. “No. Well, maybe I was at one point, but my first memories are of Mars.”
Tom put down his tools for a second. “But Mars is—”
“A penal colony?” Lars ignited a welding torch, checking the flame. “Yeah, that’s the side most people know about. Thing about penal colonies, they’re kept in the back of people’s minds. No one spares a thought so long as the inmates stay on planet. Mix that with a lot of valuable resources just beneath the surface and you get a recipe for strip mining and illegal child labor.” Somehow, there was still a ghost of humor in his voice, but not enough to make his statement untrue.
Tom paused. “I’m sorry.”
Lars waved a hand. “Don’t be. We’ve all got our pasts, they’re what brought us to the present. Now, what about you? Are the rumors true?”
“A shrimp working for the UCP raises a lot of questions. I heard a rumor that there was a whole planet of you, risen up from the depths of Old Earth’s oceans to conquer new worlds.”
“Ha. Ha.” Tom swayed back and forth in his approximation of shaking his head.
“I knew it was too good to be true.” Lars picked up a piece of metal and started toward the side of the hull.
Tom followed. “Well, we’re not conquerors is what I meant. An eclectic citizen of Old Earth put us in a ship and dropped us on a new planet. Not just shrimps, crabs, and lobsters too. All manner of crustaceans live in the waters of Crustacea.”
Lars raised an eyebrow. “Not very clever with names, are they?”
“Why does everyone always say that.” Unprompted, Tom grabbed a small cutting drone and placed it along the edge of the old weld. He pressed a green button on its back and the robot whirred to life. Hot plasma shot out its front and sparks flew as it cut away the fading metal like an expired bandage.
“Everyone always says that because it’s not very creative.”
Tom thought that over.
“Creativity is important to most people. It makes them feel like they are something other than fleshy meat sacks walking around doing basic tasks for survival. Creativity makes them feel like they matter beyond their own little microcosm of the universe.”
“I see.” Tom had always felt that the little tasks in front of him were life’s meaning, and that larger impact was merely a random coincidence of factors beyond his control. In general, his philosophy left him happy, despite the odd circumstances he often found himself in.
“You see, but I don’t think you understand. In that way, I think you’re like me.” He stepped back as the old patch fell to the cargo bay floor with a loud clang. He pulled a spider-like web from a pouch on his hip and lay it over the still cooling metal. It tightened and compressed, drawing the scrap into a neat cube that could be recycled for later use. “I live to live, because it’s all I’ve got. If I think too long about the lasting impacts of my life, I end up feeling like nothing more than a small speck in an ever-expanding universe. It’s both humbling and demoralizing.”
Tom paused, trying to understand the complexity in the counterintuitive nature of Lars’s statement. “But we are all specks in the universe, nothing more. As you say, there is no other life, only the task before us.”
“Exactly,” grunted Lars. “If that doesn’t make you want to put a bullet in your brain, I don’t know what will.”
The thought of anything putting a bullet in his brain, much less a self-inflicted bullet, was enough to make Tom queasy. “No thank you.” He picked up the drone again and switched its setting to construction. The technology on Prota was awe inspiring. They had developed enough to where grunt work was no longer necessary.
Lars rested a hand on the drone. “Let’s do this one the old way. As you say, there is nothing but the task at hand, and as we have the time, I’d rather do it ourselves.”
“Keep ourselves busy so we don’t dwell too long on insignificance?”
Lars nodded. “Grim, but accurate. You’re starting to get it.”