Episode 76: The Catalyst

          Olivia, for what it was worth, found herself having a rather good time.

          Despite being drugged by an old man the night before, she woke feeling more rested than she had felt in a long time, and Anton had left a change of clothes that fit her poorly, but got the job done. Once she was dressed, her growling stomach was echoing through the room, so Anton decided it would be best to get some food.

          They walked freely in the streets, and while Olivia was incredibly nervous that someone might jump out and grab her, the elderly Anton seemed quite relaxed.

          He purchased them some kind of chicken on a skewer, and it was, of course, incredibly delicious. Olivia wasn’t sure if that was just her ravenous hunger overriding her sense of taste and smell, but she didn’t care.

          Not far from Anton’s dwelling, the two ended up in a large garden area. The scene was incredibly tranquil. There were a few vendors outside the garden walls but only visitors within. The grounds were well maintained, and it even included a pond full of large colorful fish. Nearby, Olivia heard the sound of a few children laughing. She spotted them playing on a bridge, throwing what looked like brown pellets into the clear water while dozens of fish gathered to gobble up the snacks.

          Despite being surrounded by the massive towers of the city, the garden felt open and welcoming, so much so that Olivia felt particularly exposed here. She considered airing that concern, but before she could, Anton found a bench and took a seat. He pulled out his remaining skewers of chicken and began to eat.

          “So,” he said between bites. “Where to begin…”

          “Wait. You’re going to talk here?” she asked. “We’re in the open!”

          “No one that is hunting you will come here,” Anton said with a smile.

          “What? How can you be sure?”

          Anton continued chewing, speaking with his mouth full. “This area is controlled by a group known as the Dragons of Sentret. They’re a gang, which has its ups and downs, obviously, but they respect order. If anyone came here to attack us, it would not end well for them.”

          “What if this gang… the Dragons of whatever… what if they decide to kidnap us?”

          “The Dragons have no interest in you or me,” he assured her.

          “Fine. Okay,” she said, still feeling anxious. “Alright. We’re just two normal folks, having a chat in a garden. Nothing suspicious, right?”

          “Have a seat, Olivia.”

          She looked around, then nodded, carefully and slowly lowering herself onto the bench next to Anton. He was still eating, looking out at the pond and the laughing children, and he seemed to smile ever so slightly.

          “I suppose I have to start at the very beginning,” he said at last.

          “You do?”

          “The story of this World Ship is unique, but it begins in a sea of normalcy. The path we ended up on was not what was intended. Everything you see around you, this magnificent city… luck. The chance for me to see it all? Utterly impossible. Yet, here I sit on this very bench. A monument to the true potential of astronomically improbable opportunities, all coming together at the right time.”

          “I’m afraid you’re getting a little too out there for me,” Olivia said.

          “Right,” Anton replied. “So, the beginning…”

          “For World Ship Three-Six-Zero-Nine, it all begins with Anton Mertens. He is me, of course, or… perhaps I am him… you see, I am not the first. The original Anton, the experienced and wise engineer that my own body’s template copied, had long ago been lost to time and space. A single person, reused throughout history to create something bigger than themselves.”

          “I understand,” Olivia said. “A friend of mine in the Lower Level experienced this. He arrived from the Core, but after an accident, he died. A few days later, he came out of the Core again. A new copy of the same person.”

          “That’s right,” Anton explained. “As I once explained to David Nash, the Core creates bodies, implants their minds with limited data, and sends them along to join the general population aboard the World Ship. When a citizen dies, a new copy is made, just as fresh and pristine as the first, and sends it along as well.”

          “So, what makes Anton Mertens different?” Olivia asked.

          “The perfect question,” Anton replied. “The citizens, like your friend, are considered ‘population seed’ templates. For genetic diversity and other carefully calculated planning, each World Ship has a wide variety of diverse genetic material that is stored in the Core. They’re purposely placed in the Core for the mission. They are meant to be here, meant to live as you live now.”

          “Anton Mertens, however, was a member of the World Ship Deployment Team. He was just one of fifty individuals that were copied and placed on every single World Ship that was created. The same fifty people on every vessel. The job this team undertook was immense. They were charged with the task of helping their assigned World Ship reach its destination, configuring it for population seeding, deploying all equipment, and after initial turnup, helping to shepherd the first generation of citizens. If things had gone according to plan, I wouldn’t be here now.”

          This World Ship was one of the first to use a new kind of technology for traversing the deep void of the cosmos. We called it a Space Manipulation Device. You could travel halfway across the galaxy in a fraction of the time required with conventional methods, but it required careful planning to execute. This very World Ship was the culmination of decades of testing. Alas, no method is error-proof, and as this World Ship travelled to its destination, it emerged into the fury of a deep space debris field.”

          “The World Ship is a massive vehicle, on a planetary scale, that demands careful navigation. We were bombarded with tons of materials moving incredibly fast. Some of the pieces were smaller than you or me, and others were larger than this entire city. The World Ship was built with this concern in mind. Most of the outer hull is made of an incredibly dense material called dark metal. It’s incredibly strong, difficult to work with, and absolutely critical for exploration of the cosmos in vessels as big as our home.”

          “I’ve seen schematics of the World Ship,” Olivia said, contemplating the story. “There’s a large rectangular structure at the front of the craft. It doesn’t seem to draw power or anything. We wondered what it was meant to do. Does it deflect space debris?”

          “It was designed that way,” Anton confirmed. “In a traditionally plotted course, you can account for directional positioning, and such a deflector is a useful tool. In our situation, it did little to help as our ship was angled so that most of the debris swept down the length of the ship, rather than the front.”

          “The dark metal itself was dense enough to deflect most of it, but external sensors, antenna, and anything else that had to be placed outside of the dark metal itself had been battered. Likewise, the docking bay, or the Garage as you call it, was significantly damaged by pieces of debris that got in behind the deflector and punched through the bay doors. The power systems are housed in the docking bay. It was an intentional decision. If a power system went critical, being able to vent the area into open space was important.”

          “So, what happened after the space debris?”

          Anton took a big bite of his meat skewer and gathered his thoughts. 

          “In the aftermath,” he started, “we did a scan for repairability operations. Automation would resolve many of the major issues. The smaller stuff could be ignored for the final deployment procedures, when more citizens would arrive that could help with repairs. We found that we had everything we needed to make it work, except the most important item anyone can ever have… time.”

          “How long would the repairs take?”

          “Thirteen hundred years, give or take a hundred.”

          Olivia, who had just dared to take a bite of food, nearly spit it out. “What?”

          “Over a millenia.”

          “Are you about to tell me you are over a thousand years old?” she asked.

          “Not exactly.”

          “Alright,” she said, turning to face him, food down. “Now you’ve got my full attention.”

          “Our problem was simple. The repairs would take over a dozen lifetimes to complete, and they would require physical inputs throughout the entire process. To make matters worse, assuming the World Ship did manage to repair itself, the general population code required a genetic command, which only the deployment team could provide. Without us, this World Ship was doomed.”

          “So, what did you do?” she asked, daring to take another bite of food. Her chicken was getting cold, but she kept forgetting to eat. She was enraptured in this history, this deep legacy of the place she had called home, and food suddenly seemed too trivial.

          “After a long discussion, we decided to break protocol. We planned to add our crew’s own genetic templates to the World Ship Core. Then we could live again and again, passing on our knowledge to one another, carrying the repairs forward through the entire process. The problem, which we discovered quite quickly, was that if we had fifty people all getting copied and created in the Core, we would be taking valuable genetic materials away from the general population. For each deployment team member we added to the Core, we would be forced to replace one citizen’s template.”

          “Oh,” Olivia said. She hadn’t considered this tradeoff. She wondered if they could have bypassed it, or found another way. “Did you decide to go with that idea?”

          “We took a vote. We decided that we could sacrifice two citizens in the larger effort to save the World Ship. If our plan failed, they would be lost anyway, and all the others would join them. The deployment team chose two individuals. The first was me, Anton Mertens, and the second was another engineer named Rayland Walsh. We—”

          Olivia spit her most recent bite of chicken right out of her mouth. “WHAT?”

          “What?” he repeated, sounding confused.

          “Rayland Walsh. Rayland Walsh was an engineer on the deployment team, selected over a thousand years ago to be added to the Core?!”

          Anton nodded. “Yes. He and I had our names added to the general population manifest, and we started work on repairs, knowing that when we died, a clean copy of our youthful selves would emerge, ready to take on the next step of the plan.”

          “Rayland Walsh is the Mayor of our town,” Olivia explained. “Does this mean he’s like you? Does he remember all this stuff you’re telling me?!”

          “No,” Anton said, his voice suddenly quiet. “No, Rayland is like every other citizen now, a clean template ready to be deployed. I’ll explain that when we get there, but right now, we’re still at the outcome of the catalyst.”

          “Wait,” Olivia chimed in. “Listen. I want to hear more. I have to hear more, but right now I am starving, and my chicken has gone cold.”

          The older man gestured toward the walls of the garden. “Any street beyond the garden should be filled with food vendors by now. Let’s go get something new to eat and then we can pick up where we left off?”

          Olivia nodded, her mind swimming in thoughts of new foods.

          She forced her newfound knowledge about Rayland Walsh behind the rumbling thunder of her appetite, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it there for long. A quick bite would suffice, and then she was going to get more from Anton.

To Be Continued…

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