Macao Station, page 1
Thanks to Annie, without whom I would never have reached this point. I love you loads.
Thanks also to Kia and Lana. One day, I’ll write something that you’re allowed to read.
Thanks to everybody who has followed me, humoured me, retweeted me, amused me and encouraged me on twitter.
Thanks to the other authors who have supported me, specifically but not exclusively: Steven Montano; Scott Whitmore; Tyr Kieran; D.H.Nevins. When I am Lord, you will be spared.
And thanks most of all to you, for reading. Without you, I’d be talking to myself here.
Of course the corporations won, in the end. What other entity could have endured the formative generations of Old Earth, could have grown larger and stronger even as the individuals who had founded them perished and were forgotten?
In the early days there was some protest as the strongest nation-economies of Earth gradually fell under the spell of the Super Corps. But such dissent was badly organised and under-funded, being bankrolled almost always by the poor. Before long, nobody really tried to stop the corps at all. They had grown so all-encompassing that virtually everybody, at least everybody who mattered, depended upon them in some way. They owned the raw materials, funded the schools, provided the jobs, paid for security, ran the hospitals, distributed the food. When the overcrowded Earth began to provide scarcer and scarcer opportunity, these emergent mega-companies began to turn their eyes skywards.
Gone were the days when space exploration had been the province of governments. Gone were the days when leaders had been chosen at the ballot. Those times were soon relegated to the creaking databases that slumbered in the bowels of information corporations, those organisations that grew to trade in the once-ubiquitous right to knowledge, history, fact itself.
Economic power became the linchpin that held the whole sociological and societal model together, the bedrock on which the system was built — became, in short, politics itself: Corpocracy. Leaders were chosen at the checkout, the net-node, the stock exchange. Shareholders’ profits, not national interests, would drive the explosion into space.
The strongest corporations struggled to climb over the carcasses of their unworthy fellows, scrambling upwards as if time were not only finite, but distinctly limited. They planted flags in rocks, planets, stars. They claimed any celestial body their grasping tentacles could reach.
Naturally, there were armed disputes. The richest usually won. Those who died in the Corp Wars were considered to be economic frontiersmen, traders in danger whose stock had simply fallen. Or more often, they were not considered at all, outside of the theoretical columns of numerals in the blurring minds of the company director-machines. Such was life. Such was the march of progress.
This expansion, planned by computers, executed by the brave, the radical, the dispossessed — any and every extreme of the human spectrum — continued apace despite the increasing remoteness of the frontier from humanity’s poisoned cradle. The corps became adept at terraforming, using this technology to warp every possible planet and moon the cosmos provided to their own ends.
The new worlds were fortified, fought-over, sometimes obliterated. Armies were grown in vats, raised in the corporate security forces, wiped out in wars with other clones. These soldiers were men and women who never knew what it meant to even be human; humans-as-tools, whose war was a pointless and inexplicable necessity to their fleeting lives.
And as the battlefield expanded in this tumultuous, bloody manner, so the distances that must be traversed in order to make war became more and more vast. Some corporations, driven to the brink of extinction, were spared the final coup-de-grace simply because the logistical costs of bringing the war to their doorsteps became more expensive than any potential victory was worth. Once again, balance sheets dictated a change in strategy.
As the distances grew, empires were consolidated, cemented in their vastness. Their sprawling borders became their armour, the vast distances of interstellar space their castle walls. And as the deep-space corporations became increasingly isolated from each other they began to tolerate each other’s distant existences.
Gradually it became apparent that there was not only enough for everyone but there was in fact too much — an effective infinity of space and materiel — so much that the abundance obscured any notion of claim, any necessity for rights, any will to fight expensive wars over bites of an infinite pie. The corps eventually pared back their support structures, securing only a handful of liveable offworlds each. They let their armies dwindle, keeping careful check on their fellows’ relative forces in an uneasy lockstep disarmament.
And as relative peace became the normal way of life for the pioneers of the space-faring corps, so a sense of disappointment spread with it. What had all the hurry, all the violence and destruction been for?
The corps had grown to rule their home world, had eventually outgrown it, had battled across a thousand worlds and lost nine billion soldiers. . . and all for what? The cycle of expansion, consumption and exhaustion had become its own goal and its own propulsion. Some prominent thinkers suggested that this was the nature not just of humanity, but of the universe itself: it simply was; it simply continued; there was no point as such, and that it would be best to come to terms with that as soon as possible. Then, perhaps, the human race could settle down and work out what came next. Whatever divergent course could be contrived, humans themselves would have to choose it and engineer it into being. But for now they mined, they built, they gradually settled into a sort of stasis.
The great warp engines of the empire-building pioneer ships fell victim to disrepair or decommission. The director-machines had plotted the value of further growth against the projected upkeep costs and reached the inevitable answer. Soon the only interstellar ships in service were those sub-light vessels essential to the maintenance of the status quo — freighters, troop ships, civilian shuttles.
Clearly, another race had gone before. Deepseeker Mining probes first found evidence of their existence on the frozen world of DSH-3, moon of the gas giant Maxima Omega. Once, DSH-3 had borne an Earth-analogous atmosphere, but the relics seemed to pre-date even the long-ago existence of any such hospitable environment. They came from an age of much greater temperatures and thinner air, and who could have built such towering spires of diamond-hard carbon and then deserted them without trace remained a mystery.
People named these others the Predecessors. But the knowledge that they had been and gone, leaving nothing but empty shells, served only to heighten humanity’s feelings of loneliness and increase the numbers of people who questioned the point in any sort of advancement.
Other Predecessor settlements were found near to ancient gas giants. All were as empty and deserted as those of DSH-3. A rumour circulated that the new psychoactive drug fader, which swept through human space leaving a trail of social devastation behind it, had been found on one such world. This, however, was generally discounted as a simple public relations exercise by the drug’s real manufacturers.
The corps declared a non-exploitation pact, unthinkable a few hundred years earlier, to cover all Predecessor worlds. After all, the Predecessors had only left their habitat-shells of carbon, an element more easily extracted elsewhere. Doubtless, the director-machines had measured any value in the exploitation of these ruins against the chance, however slight, that one day the vanishing Predecessors would reappear and want them back, and decided not to risk it. Humanity was alone again. Still.
Soros: an unremarkable star, with a mass about one-point-three times that of Sol; older by a billion y
The Soros system was also a mostly unremarkable one, except that nobody had ever bothered to terraform any of its planets. Farsight Exploration, one of the original deep-space corps, owned the only habitable outpost there, which is to say that they effectively owned the system itself, for what it was worth.
Far from exploration, Farsight had long-since turned its hand to mineral extraction. Many believed that they maintained the station there, with all the expensive supply-chain issues this implied, merely as a launchpad for a second great rush for resources, should one ever occur. The mineral wealth sent back to the more occupied regions of Farsight space just about paid for the outpost’s existence.
Macao Station: a standard Farsight mining base, made from prefab pieces shipped from the neighbouring Platini system in the great echoing bellies of the original pioneer-ships, then bolted together more as cost than liveability dictated. An island at the extremity of human space. A singular, distant monument to the fallen drive for expansion. A sentinel at the trailing edge of infinity.
Alone. . .
Darkness, cold, an echoing icy tomb without air. The man moved slowly, suited and clumsy, floating down the tunnel. He didn’t know why he was there. But he had been drawn. . . compelled. It made no sense.
Onwards into an impenetrable world of shadow. His suit-light flowed over shiny rock, a hostile microcosm of frozen stone. The suit respired clouds of rolling vapour that streamed around him like ghosts. He dragged himself across the rock, drawn onwards into that midnight abscess. His mind was calm and empty. He knew no fear.
He emerged into a larger space where his light didn’t even touch the far wall. The darkness was so deep as to be almost deliberate — a velvety, living medium in which anything might grow. His own breathing filled the universe.
He floated there, suspended, a drifting angel alone in the whole of creation. Immense mass hung poised around him, waiting to crash down, a held breath of darkness. He looked around, seeing nothing. He floated in a tank of purest void — weightless, singular, at peace in isolation.
He was alone. Yet something else was in there with him.
He felt a living wave that oozed from the frozen matter around him, a radiation, a thing that lived inside the folds, woven into the fabric of space itself. It was there. He could feel it. His skin was tingling. His heart began to race. He knew now why he had come. He cast his light around, but the space in which he floated was like a sensory deprivation chamber. There was nothing.
But within that nothing, within that blackness, there was something. . . A pattern. . .
And then it spoke to him.
‘My emissary. You have come to me. . . Listen. . .’
Macao Station hung above the rotational plane of the Soros system like an overlooking god. Below, if such a direction could be said to have meaning in space, the asteroid belt sprawled vastly across an expanse of some four hundred million miles — an apparently endless sea of glittering shards. From their scarred surfaces, pockets of concentrated metallic ores caught the light of Soros and flung it back, tinted with the shades of iron, copper, nickel, even gold. These colourful lights winked on and off as the rocks rotated gently in their timeless ballet, the station keeping perfect step. Icebergs moved amongst the swarm like pale shades.
Occasionally, a rogue element would come crashing through this ordered procession — usually an incoming meteor from Platini-direction — and smash into one of the belt objects, either causing obliteration in a cloud of dust or setting off a chain of collisions. These legacies of disorder could continue for long, long periods, complicating navigation through the belt, but eventually the mostly-uniform motion of the great mass would correct any errant rocks, and the timeless discipline would be restored.
Lina McLough looked out over this vista from the window of the canteen, whose floor was on the middle level of the rotating wheel of Macao Station. She was swirling the unimpressively lumpy dregs of her coffee in its plastic mug.
Most of the denizens of the station found the real-view mode of the windows somewhat nauseating. After all, the whole thirteen-hundred-metre wheel of Macao spun one full revolution every fifty-one seconds, causing the field of asteroids to whirl past at a somewhat dizzying rate. The windows were usually set to display the feed from cameras mounted on tracks that encircled the station, whose steady movement in a counter-spin direction offset the rotation and created a merciful, much less sickening, impression of relative stillness. But Lina preferred the real-view.
The canteen was quiet at this time: a few other miners using up their last minutes of freedom before joining Lina’s shift on duty; a small group of admin staff; two off-duty members of the security team; and Lina, waiting for Eli to return from the toilet.
Si Davis, Niya Onh and Petra Kalistov, the other miners, were laughing and shoving each other over some mutually-insulting exchange of words, obviously completely at ease together. After all, most of the inhabitants of Macao had been here for many years. They were an odd and disparate bunch. Some of them had fled from Platini system due to personal or professional tragedy. Others had actively sought the quiet of the frontier life. Many had been drawn here by the salary, which easily outstripped what they might receive for similar work at Platini. Some of them had even been born on-board. These three, like Lina herself, were immigrants, but they’d all been here as long as she could remember. She knew these people like family. It was a strange family, admittedly, but one that was bound by undeniably strong ties despite its numerous sub-sects and inner cliques. After all, they daily depended on each other’s diligence to stay alive.
She absently cycled through the view-modes of the window, tapping it to change them. Three of the seven didn’t work at all, and one showed only an inward-looking close-up of the station’s own hull. She settled again on the real-view of the belt — a seemingly endless swathe of mineral wealth, an infinite job of work.
It was said that Macao could justify its expensive existence for many billions of years based on the volume of metals out there. She would have thought that the company would pay a little more attention to upkeep, bearing that in mind. It was believed, though, that Macao was kept alive mostly as an outpost, a launchpad, against the contingency that a second great interstellar land-grab should one day ensue. Its outlying position would give Farsight a natural advantage over most of its competitors in the unlikely event that this should happen.
Macao, as the expression went aboard, was just spinning itself — just about paying to keep itself turning. The investment required to increase production, and supply this produce first to Platini, and from there further into more densely-occupied space, would be so great as to be simply uneconomical. And for all their faults, Farsight could never be accused of poor economy.
So Macao just spun itself, ad infinitum, its failing systems replaced or repaired only as necessity dictated, sometimes not even then. The K6s, the in-system mining ships that supplied Macao with its lifeblood of raw materials, only ever flew due to the ingenuity of the maintenance team and ground crew, aided by Eli, a truly inventive scavenger and maker-do. It was not uncommon for a K6 to take off in a condition that would be considered un-flightworthy elsewhere.
Macao ran at a barely sustainable level of production at the best of times, and Halman, the Farsight company bigwig and station controller, feared that any loss of production could easily result in the closure and mothballing of the facility. So the usual policy on unsound or even unsafe K6s was to run them anyway. Eli did his best to stick up for his miners, but it was a constant balancing act between profit and safety. Even he knew that some concessions to operational danger must be tolerated.
And here he came, crumpled in his aged flight suit, heavyset and scarred, a friendly-
‘I wish you wouldn’t have the windows like that, Li,’ he said. ‘Makes me sick.’ He sipped his scalding coffee and winced.
‘No,’ replied Lina, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s the effect of the so-called coffee. What’s that, your third?’
He sipped again, pointedly. ‘Lifeblood of human civilisation, Li.’ He checked his watch and grimaced comically.
Lina cycled the window and the asteroid belt stopped moving. ‘Better?’
‘Any more news from the lifers’ wing, then?’
‘What — the last news wasn’t enough for you?’
‘Just looking forward to the next exciting instalment, is all. I wonder what it’ll be? Maybe a full-on prison break, take the station by storm and establish Macao as the leading frontier pirate base.’
‘Don’t even joke about it. Did you know that Murkhoff is being sent back to Platini on the next shuttle for reconstructive surgery? They say he’ll be blind in his right eye until they can grow a transplant organ. You know what that animal did to him?’
‘No. I didn’t realise it was that bad. Wow.’ They were silent for a moment in homage to the injured man. ‘At least the shuttle is due soon, right?’