Monday comes again, and brings with it episode three of Corbett-877. Rather than repeat the silly confusion I created with Lovelace 1/2, I’ll say that the ‘canonical’ pronunciation is Corbett Eight-Seventy-Seven, though if privately you want to pronounce it ‘Eight Seven Seven’ or ‘Eight Hundred and Seventy-Seven’ or something else… well, why would I mind? It’s your mind, man. Let it run free.
We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of Purgatory — the city and the ‘existence’ — as of this entry, but it fascinates me. While you don’t want to let world building run wild over your story, there’s a lot of little details that only begin to get covered here.
While we’re here, I should also mention that we have added some much requested functionality to Banter Latte. Over in the sidebar, you’ll notice a ‘series’ indicator now, with a list of running and completed series (not all the old stuff is there yet, but give it time). Now, when you click on a new entry, you’ll get a series box at the top of the post for easy navigation, and series specific ‘previous/next’ options at the bottom. When you click on the sidebar series link, you’ll also get a list of posts that read top to bottom instead of newest to oldest. It’s like it’s meant for fiction reading or something. You have Jim Zoetewey, author of the excellent Legion of Nothing stories, to thank for that kick in the behind.
Enjoy episode #3!
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Purgatory District ZGF11.19
Corbett stared at the man who claimed to be his predecessor. “Good Lord, what happened to you?”
“What happened to me?” Corbett-876 laughed. The laugh was a bit too loud, a bit too sloppy. “You should know. You were there. Well, you weren’t, but you’re the closest thing.”
“You’re drunk,” the ‘original’ Corbett said, an edge in his voice.
“Damn right, Prime. Be glad I didn’t take a pull off the bottle you set out for him. Figure I deserve it more than he does.”
Corbett looked at ‘Corbett-699,’ behind the counter. “Did he bring it in with him?”
“No, I gave it to him. He paid, but—”
“We’re not a bar, Six-Ninety Nine.”
Corbett watched 699 shrug. “Maybe not, but I understand how he feels. Especially give—”
“I get it. But never again.” The original looked at Corbett’s predecessor. “This is a hard enough moment for your successor. Be quiet and let us help him through it.”
The drunken Corbett laughed — a short, ugly laugh. “He’s not fragile. Even if he spent the last three months filing reports and drinking coffee, he’s not fragile. After all this time, you don’t know that?”
“Just simmer down, or I’ll throw you out. I don’t even know why you’re here.”
“Heh. And you claim to be the prime Lee Corbett.”
“Prime?” Corbett asked. “What does that mean?”
The original settled back down, looking at Corbett. “Since I was the first to arrive — the one naturally born, the first to transmit, the first to die — I’m the progenitor of the line. I’m Liam Corbett Prime.”
“And the rest of us get to be serialized,” 876 muttered.
“This is insane,” Corbett said. “I’m not going to accept that I’m just one in a long line of duplicates. I’m real. I have a life. I have friends, I have memories, I have experiences — and I have responsibilities. Including responsibilities to two other members of my ground team and to the three hundred and sixty two souls aboard the Vigilant. And everything you’ve been feeding me is just distracting me from them.”
Corbett-Prime took a breath. “Lee… they’re being taken care of by their Captain.” His expression turned pointed. “Their living captain. I’m sorry. I really am. But that’s not you. Not any more.”
“You…” Corbett rubbed his temples. “This must be some kind of trick.”
“So… what? I’m not Lee Corbett. I don’t accept that.”
“You are Lee Corbett. But you’re Liam Corbett-877. The latest Liam Corbett — but not the first and… well, I’m afraid you’re not the last.”
Corbett’s wristcomm chimed. Corbett stood, slapping the actuator and lifting it to his mouth. “Corbett — go!”
“Captain, this is Oliver — are you reading me?” The signal was attenuated, with metallic sounding tinges.
“I am. Oliver — where are you? I’m barely hearing you!”
“I could tie into this city’s transmission grid, but I don’t know if that’s prudent, sir.” Her voice, even distorted, sounded tighter than normal — clearly she wasn’t any happier with their circumstances than he was. “I managed to lock on your beacon with my trackulizer, which I’ve fed my comm signal through as well. We are approximately nine thousand, two hundred and seventy kilometers apart. I have appeared among a number of simulacra who claim to be matter-transmission duplicates. They claim that every time the matter transmitter converts one of us into pseudoplasma for transmission, it instantly kills them, creating a new life form at the destination point.”
“Claim? You don’t believe them?”
“They… have given me significant reason to accept what they’re saying, though that doesn’t make it true, Captain.”
Corbett frowned. “Nine thousand kilometers? What do you detect between us? Baseline scan?”
“Essentially? City landscape, varying in density but remaining essentially urban or suburban in nature.”
Corbett blinked. “A… nine thousand kilometer city?”
“No sir — there are just nine thousand kilometers of city between us. In doing broader scans, I detect six thousand more kilometers of city to my relative east, and in all other directions the city extends beyond the range of my trackulizer.”
“Beyond the— how many people are in this city — and have you made contact with Johnson or the ship?”
“”No sir. Further, the ship does not register on my trackulizer. Indeed, my trackulizer cannot detect anything at all above an apparent two hundred and fifty kilometer ceiling. There are grav cars and the like, but none go over that ceiling.”
“It’s a hard limit,” Corbett-Prime said. Corbett was annoyed his doppleganger was listening in, but there was little to be done about it right now. “Above that ceiling… well, aircraft just won’t go any higher. They don’t hit any kind of barrier — they just… won’t ascend. If one goes two hundred and fifty kilometers outside of the city in any direction, they have the same thing happen — though as the city expands so does that boundry.”
Corbett ignored Corbett-Prime. “All right. You said something about tying into the city’s transmission facilities. Do that, and see if you can use it to somehow get a message to the ship. We need to—”
A hand gripped Corbett’s shoulder. He pulled away, jerking aside and turning—
The sublieutenant version of himself he’d seen before was next to him. From his age, he looked like he did right after Corbett’s promotion from Ensign, just before his transfer. Maybe this was when he transmitted off the Gauntlet. His badge declared him as Liam Corbett-96. “Sorry — I was overhearing. I wanted to help if I could. Captain — wherever Purgatory is, it can’t reach Alliance vessels with subetheric signals. Trust me.”
“I don’t trust you, Sublieutenant.” He turned back to his wristcomm. “Oliver — can you give me some estimate of the population of this city? Some ballpark?”
“Not with the information I currently have, sir — I can’t detect three of the four borders of the city. However, I can detect over thirty five million square kilometers worth of this city, and given the population density, conservatively the population would be in the trillions. Or more.”
Corbett stared at the wristcomm’s actuator plate — not that Oliver could see that. “Trillions?” he said, half-whispering.
“Yes sir. At least.”
“How… how can that be?”
Corbett-96 cut in again. “Captain Corbett, stop and think about this. Every officer in the fleet has gone through the matter transmitter — sometimes thousands of times. Every human being who has ever served in the Interfleet is somewhere in this city, duplicated hundreds of times. Including almost nine hundred versions of yourself and–” he looked at one of the other Corbetts, one wearing civilian clothing Corbett recognized as coming from his vacation on Garrity IV some years back. That Corbett had the number 731 on his badge. “What? Six hundred versions of Faye?”
Corbett-731 nodded. “More than.. I know I’ve met Weiss-610. And didn’t one of our late six hundreds marry one of her late five hundreds?”
“Yes,” Corbett-Prime said. “They moved closer in to the city core — I want to say they’re working for the Remora Project now.”
Corbett blinked. “Oliver, stand by,” he said, and tapped the plate. “Marry?”
“Marry,” Corbett-Prime said. “Quite a few of your fellow Corbetts are married now. Sometimes to counterparts of people you’d know, and sometimes to entirely different people. Lee… life does go on, even in the afterlife.”
Corbett shook his head. “We’re still not accounting for the kind of population that’s showing on Oliver’s instrumentation. Even with the fleet—”
“Think about it,” Corbett-731 said. “Last we knew, there were about four hundred and seventy thousand officers and crew in the Confederated Fleet. Every one of them would average a couple hundred transmissions at least. That’s pushing ninety five million people in the City right there. And that’s just taking into account the current roster. It absolutely doesn’t take into account any civilians on Earth–”
“And transmission’s one of the more common methods of travel on Earth now. Hell, people commute by transmission. Depending on the day in question, there’s one and a half million to three million transmissions right there. A day.” Corbett-96 shrugged. “With a hundred year window? It adds up, and it adds up fast, Captain.”
“A hundred years — you were saying that before. What happens during those hundred years? And what happens after it’s over? Heaven? Hell?”
There was an ugly laugh from nearby. Corbett turned — it was Corbett-876. He was clearly still drunk, and just as clearly getting some kind of pleasure out of Corbett’s confusion. “They don’t know,” he spat. “You’re going to spend the next hundred years sitting here, wondering what comes next, and you’re going to have no idea what you’re waiting for!”
Corbett stared at his alleged predecessor. “What happened to you?” he asked. “If you’re supposed to be me, then what—”
Corbett-876 snorted, looking away. “You remember how you were feeling when you were born, the son of Matter Transmission Chamber Three?”
Corbett looked away. “After Corrigan VII? We had been fighting the death spores. Waves after waves of them. When we managed to get transmission lock and were pulled back to the ship… I was relieved. In a lot of pain. Staggering. The spores had torn open half my leg. Doc C’rsaa came in with floats — brought a bunch of us down to the medical bay–”
“Exactly.” Corbett-876 pointed to his bloodied pantleg decorated with field dressings. “That is what happened to me, Eight seventy-seven. That and more. But no floats for me. No Doc C’rsaa either — not for this or for anything. Dalrins don’t show up here, any more than the C’ditea, or the Jlibians, or the Horvash. No, it’s just me and my leg, and it hurts like Hell. It’s hurt like Hell for almost three months, and I have ninety-nine years of agony to look forward to! That’s what happened to me, Captain.”
Corbett stared for a long moment. “There must be something that can be done,” he said, softly. “I can’t believe that… there must be doctors here, even if Doctor C’rssa isn’t… Hell, I have a medkit with dermal sealant and regen compound. I can—”
“We’re dead, Captain Corbett,” Corbett-Prime said, quietly. “All of us. And apparently when you die without being acknowledged — when you end up here — your physical state is locked. Oh, there are a few changes — people who were sick arrive free of their actual illness, though their symptoms don’t ever change. People who are injured don’t bleed or get infected or get worse, but they also don’t get better, and regeneration or other corrective action is reverted back within twenty four hours. Aches and pains persist, even if we can mask them with analgesics. We can’t be injured further. Our bodies never age. We can’t starve to death or be cut or even disjuncted. But we never heal, and we can never be healed.”
Corbett starred at Corbett-Prime. “Then… you said that analgesics can help. Give him some!”
876 laughed again — a short, bitter laugh. “Pain shots cost money, and getting enough of a shot to do some real good costs a lot of money and leaves me barely able to work or think. Alcohol’s cheaper.”
“Costs… money?” Corbett was shocked. “Are you telling me basic medical assistance costs money?”
“He’s not listening,” Corbett-96 said to Corbett-731. He turned back to Corbett. “We’re telling you there’s no such thing as ‘basic medical assistance,’ 877. There’s—”
“My name is Liam Corbett!”
“And so is mine!” 96 shouted back. “Get that through your skull! Yes — I know! You’re not a number! You’re a thinking, feeling human being! Great and wonderful! But there are eight hundred and seventy eight of us counting Prime, and there’s going to be another one before the day is even out, and we need to keep ourselves clear somehow. Call yourself whatever you like, but the system will know you as Liam Corbett, ex-Captain, deceased! Number 877 in an ongoing series, alive for two months and nineteen days, now afterliving for one hundred years! This is what your existence is now!”
“I can’t accept that! I won’t accept that! Because I can prove it isn’t true!”
“Oh really?” 731 asked. “Oh, this should be rich. How can you prove it?”
“Because if you were all me — some earlier incarnations of Liam Corbett, and you knew that your ship, or your shipmates, were literally killing themselves with the matter transmitter, you wouldn’t rest until you found some way to warn them! You said that subetheric signals can’t reach the Vigilant? You’re not even trying! I won’t accept that any of you have any part of me in you!”
Corbett-871 — the Captain who had been reading when Corbett and Prime had come in — chuckled, not looking up from his datapad.
“Oh, you think this is funny?” Corbett demanded.
“Of course I do,” 871 said. “But only because I lived this not six months ago. Most of us did. Yes, we’re on fire to get word back to the Vigilant. I would do anything, give anything to warn my ship of the danger. But what exactly do I give? I was a navigator and line officer. I’m a decent engineer but hardly someone in Chief Mann’s league. I’m not a scientist like Oliver. What am I going to do, stand around and motivate? And for the record, Chief Mann is in Purgatory here as well. Dozens of him are. Hundreds of Olivers are here. Along with every other engineer and scientist in the Fleet. Of course they’re trying to break through whatever this is — trying to reach the Alliance Fleet and Interfleet and all the rest. And some Corbetts are working on those projects. But most of us? Would just be in the way. And in the meantime, we need to make a living too.”
“You keep saying that — how… given that there are clearly synthesizers, why do things cost money? What kind of barbaric—”
“It’s not barbaric,” Corbett-96 said. “We have synthesizers, but those need core components that can be synthesized into proper forms. Those are scarce — they pretty much come from what people are carrying when they’re transmitted. We’re lucky those ‘reset’ along with our bodies, too, or they’d be even scarcer than they are. Most effective medical treatments need precursors that are often in short supply—”
“And of course we render aid to those who need it,” Corbett-Prime said. “There are literally millions of people in the city who would be in constant agony if they didn’t have aid, and have no way to work for relief. We help them, free of charge. But they’re the exceptions, because they’re the only ones who actually need something — anything. When someone has a real need, we meet it without question… but for almost every person in this city, we have no needs at all.”
Corbett frowned. “What do you mean?”
Corbett-Prime shrugged. “We don’t need to eat. We like to eat, but the only people who are hungry are those who were hungry when they transmitted. We don’t need shelter — the temperature’s twenty two degrees Celsius outside as a constant, and it never ever rains. We don’t generally need clothes, because our clothing and gear regenerates back into their original form over the course of the same twenty four hours that our bodies do. If we want, we could climb up onto the roof, lie down staring into the sky, and wait for a hundred years. But we don’t want to — because we do need something to break through the boredom. Working for a wage, to afford anything from coffee to an Italian across the street to Basic City Services in your apartment to your apartment itself is a way to spent eternity without going insane.”
Corbett ran his hand through his hair, considering what Corbett-Prime was saying. “What about… 876, over there. Doesn’t he need medical help?”
Corbett-876 snorted. “Spend a hundred years as a pensioner in a pain management facility? No bloody thank you. I had three weeks in one before I came back here and found a bloody job. I can still produce. I can work for a living.”
“What… kind of job?”
“Lunch rush sandwich technician, third class.”
“Wait — what?”
“He works across the street,” Corbett-Prime said. “He makes Italians at that shop, just like we used to back in the day.”
Corbett felt almost dizzy. “You… you’re a captain in the Alliance Fleet,” he said. “And now you cut up bread, vegetables, meet and cheese for sandwiches?”
876 shook his head. “Stubborn idiot. I’m not a captain in the Alliance Fleet. I’m dead. And here, if there’s one thing they’ve got a lot of, it’s ex-captains. At least making Italian sandwiches I’m making a living. Right now, that’s more than I can say for you.”
“Shut up, eight seventy-six,” Corbett-Prime said. “He’s new. He doesn’t need a job today.”
“This is insane,” Corbett said, softly.
Corbett-96 smiled. It was sympathetic, and bittersweet. “Yeah,” he said. “But it’s what we’ve got. And like it or not, it’s what you’ve got too.”