Science Fiction, Serial

Corbett-877 #4

And we’re back with a whole new week, and with it a whole new episode of Corbett-877! So far, you guys seem to like the new story — which I suppose is now a month old, so maybe ‘new story’ isn’t quite accurate. Man, time goes quickly.

I’ve had a couple of folks ask if the Myths are coming back. Oh heavens yes — though they’re likely to be ‘open’ posts, done on Tuesdays or Thursdays when the spirit — or spirits — move me. I’ve got some other things that’ll likely be showing up on those days as well. Why? Because they can.

Beyond that… well, I hope everyone’s having a lovely day. Please enjoy!

*** *** *** ***

Purgatory District ZGF11.19
IST: 056.315-634.773
Corbett’s Coffee

 

Corbett continued to stare at his different ‘predecessors,’ trying to absorb everything they had said. It was insane — he knew it was insane — but the more they spoke, the harder it was to dismiss as either ramblings or put together as some kind of Jliebian plot.

His reverie was interrupted by two pulses on his wristcomm. Oliver was still holding. Whatever he was feeling, he couldn’t just leave her hanging — he was responsible for her. He lifted his wrist back to his mouth. The plate and ‘comm were on the underside. He tapped it. “Oliver — are you still there?”

“Yes, Captain,” he heard her respond, her voice still metallic with the signal attenuation. “It has been difficult solidifying the signal, however. My counterparts have suggested I complete the different paperwork they have provided, so I can tie my systems into the city’s network. When you do the same, the city will be able to route communications, which would resolve our difficulties.”

Corbett looked around. Corbett-Prime and Corbett-96 were still the two closest to him, and they both looked at him expectently.

Corbett took a deep breath. “Negative,” he said. “Do not tie into the systems here. Is there any way you can see that we can rendezvous?”

The two Corbetts both rolled their eyes, disturbingly similar in their expressions. Well, if they were based on the same person, that tracked. Behind them, Corbett-731 just smiled wryly. “Get here without using the City infrastructure? That might be a trick.”

“We are well over nine thousand kilometers apart,” Oliver replied. “That is nearly twice the distance between your birthplace in Maine on Earth and the southwesternmost tip of the North American continent. It would be something of a walk, even if my counterparts are correct and I would need neither food nor water for the trip.”

“She wouldn’t need them,” Corbett-731 said, smirking. “But we do sweat and our muscles will ache. Granted, waiting no more than 24 hours will ‘reset’ you, but don’t kid yourself. Walking from Gorham to San Diego and back wouldn’t be the most fun she ever had.”

“All right then,” Corbett said, ignoring his doppleganger. “For now, get all the information you can. And see if you can contact Johnson — find out his status.” Johnson was a wildcard in all this — if someone the designers of this place had gotten access to Corbett’s files, they might have found out most of what they’d need to know to put together a simulation like this… whatever their goals might be. Naturally, they’d get similar amounts of information about Lt. Commander Oliver — she was on almost all of Corbett’s missions, and they’d need to get as much data about her and their interaction as possible. But like Oliver had warned Corbett before transmission — Sublieutenant Johnson was a greenhorn. He’d only rarely been on missions of any kind, and none of those had been with Corbett directly. The chances whoever was behind of all this would have that level of detail about him….

“I will do my best, Captain. However….”

“Yes?”

“Sir… if my counterparts are telling the truth, then our original ‘arrival point’ in the city is set the first time we matter transmit, and those arrival points continually expand around the edges. If Johnson’s first transmission was sometime around his entry into the Academy, it would likely have taken place approximately seven klids after my own. Given the number of new human transmissions that would have taken place within those seven klids, evenly dispersed among the growing circumference….”

“She’s not kidding,” Corbett-731 said. “What are we at, currently? Seventy thousand klicks circumference?”

“Hang on, Oliver.” Corbett stepped a few feet away, shooting a look at 731 and his other dopplegangers. When it looked like he had some privacy, he turned back to the wristcomm. “Do what you can. Oliver… I need to know….”

“Sir?”

“…do you think this is real?”

“You mean… do I think we are dead, and in some kind of Limbo for thirty five kilds, sir?”

“Yes.”

There was a long pause. “Honestly?”

Corbett took a deep breath. “Always.”

“I… my working theory is to believe them, sir. The verisimilitude is simply too great. But it is far from proven at this time.”

Corbett considered. “I can’t do that,” he said. “Not yet. I can’t accept that we’re dead, that there’s no way out of this. And that means our first priority has to remain getting platinum for the Vigilant.”

“Getting platinum directly would be difficult. Preliminary traculizer scans show a scarcity within my range. However, I see significant quantities of neoplatinum in use in many standard Alliance-class technologies.”

“Wait — how’s that possible? We both know you can’t synthesize neo-platinum without platinum as a precursor.”

“Unknown, though salvage is always a possibility. Regardless, if we got sufficient quantities of neoplatinum to compensate for a possible failed synthesis—”

“Yes…” Corbett considered. “But if that were true, that would mean they were telling the truth, and we’d have no way to get that neoplatinum back to the ship. In which case—”

“In which case, we have to assume none of what our trackulizers are showing us is real.”

“Right. Are you certain your trackulizer wasn’t replaced?”

“Certainty is always difficult, but I’m very familiar with my own equipment, and this seems authentic.”

“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “Spend the next three hours trying to contact Sublieutenant Johnson without tying into the City’s systems, and gather as much evidence as you can about this place. If you can’t, contact me again for further instructions.”

“Aye, sir. One and a quarter decis.”

Corbett half-smiled. “Well, you seem real enough. Corbett out” He pinged off, then turned back to the others. “So.”

“Get all your orders in?” Corbett-Prime asked. “And if so, can we get back to… well….”

“Paperwork?”

“And acclimation. Remember… we don’t have very long before your successor shows up. At that point, I need to be prepared to help him along. He’s going to be as confused and concerned as you are. Maybe more so, depending on how his mission goes.”

“You mentioned that before — knowing he’s going to be arriving soon. How do you know he’s coming? How did you know I was coming?”

“We get reports from our local Temple,” Corbett-Prime said, walking back over to the table and sitting back down. He gestured to the other chair, and continued speaking after Corbett began walking over. “They give ETAs to the appointed shepherds for specific landing points. I’m the designated shepherd for District ZGF11.19 Landing point A-9 — ‘Liam Corbett.'” He half-smiled. “It’s volunteer work — it only seems right to me.”

“But how do the Temples get that information? Divine providence? Reading of entrails? Reports from the other side?”

“I told you about the different projects to communicate back to the other side. Those have been going on for decades — centuries in some cases. They’ve made some headway, including identifying some form of particle emissions that accompany a new arrival and departure. They’re called thanatons. There are sensor arrays worked throughout the basic city services grid, which detect particle buildups. There’s a predictable buildup when a new arrival is due. Multiple arrivals makes it more confused but—”

“But you still could be ready with gin, coffee and a badge.”

“That’s right. Speaking of which, the coffee’s getting cold and the gin could use some ice and tonic, don’t you think?”

“And the paperwork needs to get finished? And I need to connect my trackulizer and ‘comm to your city network? And I need to put my badge on and pretend like all of this is real? Is that what I’m also supposed to think?” He looked around. “I’ll admit you’ve pretty good at all this, but there’s no way—”

“Oh for God’s sake,” 876 said. “This is ridiculous. What would anyone gain by this elaborate charade?

“What else? Letting my guard down! Getting me to admit to operational details! Revealing secrets that—”

“Deep Station Nineteen is thirty four light years into Jlebeian space thanks to finding that superstring fragment permeable to shunt drive! The Vigilant’s defensive matrix encode is 899437 delta! The Emperor-Philosopher of the Dalrin is a clone encoded with a duplicate of Doc C’rsaa’s brainwave patterns to prevent a constitutional crisis! The A.F.S. Defiance destroyed Outpost 19 but made it look like pirates, and they had to be destroyed and the whole thing covered up! You gave your virginity to Elyssa Saunders during Youth Scouts winter camping! What secret could you possibly have from the last three months that would warrant this?! Huh?”

“I don’t know! But… this illusion can’t possibly be real! It can’t possibly—”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, here!” 876 drew his disjunctor pistol and fired a full burst, straight into Corbett.

The pain was unimaginably bad — it made the pain of transmitting seem almost mild in comparison. When a disjunctor was set to full it literally caused an uncontrolled energy state transition from matter to pseudoplasma, which would then almost instantly fall back into its matter state. However, without the encoding of the body’s pattern and the controlled reversion a matter transmitter provided, the component parts of the body would disperse and recombine into simple molecular patterns — water, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon… the effect was a burst of heat and light, followed by the apparent disintegration of the victim. God help him, Corbett could feel the effect — feel his cells bursting internally, his molecular structure disrupting. His body underwent a pain it was never equipped to feel as it tore itself apart from the very inside—

And then… the pain faded. His entire body seemed to just… settle. He was on his knees now, almost in the same position as when he first arrived in Purgatory. He put a hand to his chest — it was somewhat warm, but nothing else. His hair was standing on end now, and his entire body felt like it had been electrocuted by a thousand small wires, but otherwise it was like nothing had happened. Even his jacket was unmussed, comparatively. “…wh…what—”

There was noise nearby. Corbett looked over — 731, 871 and Corbett-Prime had piled on top of 876, wrestling the drunk man to the ground. He was still struggling though. “Get off me!” he shouted. “He’s fine! You know he’s fine!”

“I… that can’t have been a real disjunctor,” Corbett said, softly, looking at his hands. “If it were… I’d be dead now.”

“You are dead now!” Corbett-876 shouted, struggling as the others held him down. “You’re dead, Corbett! You’re dead! I’m dead! Weiss is dead! Talbot and Horton and Michaels are dead! They’re all dead!”

Corbett sat back on his knees, leaning against the chair behind him. All the strength seemed to leave his body. “Talbot, Horton and Michaels are all alive,” he said softly. “I got them back to the ship. They got medical attention.”

“No!” Corbett-876 wrestled. “Get off me!”

“Let him up,” Corbett said softly.

“He’s drunk,” Corbett-96 said, watching 871 jockey to lock a submission hold on Corbett-876.

“It’s okay, Sublieutenant. Let him up.”

The Corbetts waited a long moment. Corbett-731 looked at Corbett-Prime. The younger looking man nodded sharply, and the three let Corbett-876 go, standing up. “Get out of here,” Corbett Prime said to him. “Go sleep it off. I’ll decide tomorrow if you get to come back.”

“They’re still alive,” Corbett said softly, reaching over and taking 876 by the shoulders. “Do you hear me, Lee? They made it back to the ship.”

Corbett-876 stared at Corbett for a long moment, then began to cry. “Don’t you see?” he said, his voice broken up with sobs. “Don’t you see? They didn’t make it back to the ship. I gave an order and the chief locked on their beacons and hit the recall and it vaporized them. We fought those damn spores for two hours. We got clear. They trusted me, and I gave the order and I killed them, and no one even knows they’re dead!”

Corbett-Prime looked down. “Six-ninety-nine,” he said. “Call psych services. Put it on my account.”

Corbett-699 pinged his wrist comm. “System request, psych services, priority,” he said. Letting go of the call button, he muttered “I don’t see why you should pay. The rest of us managed to get used to death.”

Corbett-Prime looked sharply at Corbett-699. “Well, as long as I’m paying you instead of the other way around, you don’t need to understand. You just need to do what you’re told.”

Corbett watched his immediate predecessor while the others talked. He watched him wrap his arms around his knees, watched the torn and bloodied pantleg covering the mangled flesh underneath. He noticed that as raw as it looked, it wasn’t bleeding in any way. He watched the man who had been the Captain of the Vigilant until just three months before — a man with all the experiences and adventures and training Corbett himself had — sob like a child, caught by pain that had nothing to do with his leg. “You did everything you could, Lee,” Corbett said. “You didn’t know. You couldn’t know. And back on the ship those men recovered.”

“Two of them haven’t even woken up, here,” he said, his tears coming faster now. “And they never will. They’ll spend the next hundred years in a medical ward lying like meat, and they’ll never even wake up! They trusted me and I killed them…” his voice broke into uncontrollable sobs, unable to even breathe.

Corbett took a deep breath, and slipped his medkit out from his excursion jacket. He opened it up, selecting a powerful sedative and analgesic combination. Wordlessly, he pressed it to 876’s arm, letting the unit create a line and feed the chemicals into the man who had been Liam Corbett before him. He watched as the man’s sobbing calmed, then watched as the man slumped into an unconscious ball, his face twisted in pain even then.

Corbett felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, and saw Corbett-Prime looking down at him. “That won’t last that long,” he said. “They never do.”

“I figured,” Corbett answered. “But it’ll help for now, right? At least until….”

“At least until psych services arrives? Yes.”

Corbett nodded, then looked back at the man. Looked at his bloody wound, that wasn’t actually bleeding. Looked at the disjunctor on the floor next to him, still polarized from being fired on maximum. And he knew. He just knew. “It’s all real,” he said. “Everything you said. It’s real. I’m dead, and so are Oliver and Johnson.”

“Yes,” Corbett-Prime said. “It’s all real.”

“And we’re here because no one knows to mourn?”

“Yeah.”

Corbett… no. Not Liam Corbett. Not any more. He had to get used to that. Corbett-877 took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take that gin now.” He looked at 876, still on the floor. “But maybe not the whole bottle.”

2 thoughts on “Corbett-877 #4”

  1. I think this story has benefited a lot from having a bit more time to steep since your last attempt. Shows particularly with Corbett-876 — poor guy, and his leg isn’t the worst of it.

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    1. From my end, everything about the story has benefitted. The last time it was at best a shell or a practice run. This time it feels like… well, for lack of a better work, a story.

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