I’m running late for Friday Fiction this week. Maybe a whole week late, for that matter. “Empty Threats” is nearly complete, and once again I find it interesting how some things change from my original plotting, to the final words of the first draft. In chapter 3, posted back on Nov. 13th, I introduced what was supposed to be a minor character, an Empty named Em. As the story developed, though, Em started to take on a larger role than I originally planned. Her voice grew in importance for the story, and it was in this chapter that she really became more than just an “extra”.
It’s probably just as well that I’m late, and we’ll just call this last week’s entry, since Friday Fiction is off this week for the holiday. I hope you enjoy the Empty Perspective.
Peri sat in the dayroom late into the night, watching the media reports on the monitor. The seditious broadcast had polarized the Alsafi population. The media showed both those who agreed with the speaker, and those who worked to refute the xenophobic rhetoric. The news gave an image of a larger percentage of moderate, reasonable people who didn’t view any outsiders as a threat to Alsafi’s economic health, but the speech had left a residual doubt whether the media was truly presenting an objective perspective, or whether it was selectively feeding information to promote a given conclusion.
Of one thing he was certain, though – his odds of securing a paying manifest from Alsafi had been slight before, and hadn’t gotten any better with the revolutionary bringing the bigotry into the open. I should just leave and deadhead elsewhere; I could stay here two seasons and be no closer to a profitable manifest than I am now.
He sent the instructions to Stardreamer to begin initial pre-flight diagnostics, and received an immediate query from Eldorado Hub Control concerning the sensed activity. Routine checks, he transmitted the reply. Ship vacant.
Hub Control transmitted a subtle probing of Stardreamer’s interface, checking for potential overrides that could be exploited if needed.
Keep trying, he thought with a laugh, but didn’t transmit the message. There were only three vessels ever made with the kind of pilot interface that Stardreamer has, and the other two were scrapped after only a few voyages. The only way to override my control is if you can duplicate me.
Em entered the dayroom, straightening the chairs and doing the necessary tidying up. She gave him a curious look as she approached. “Is there a problem with your bed?” she asked. “If so, you’re certainly welcome to try a different one.”
“The bed is fine,” he said. “I was just watching the media reports and wondering what might happen tomorrow.”
She shrugged. “Tomorrow, I will clean the hall, process my daily report, handle any requests the Rovers might have, and order my groceries for the next week.”
He gestured towards the display. “Does any of that worry you?”
“I have my job to do. That is all I should be concerned with.”
“Did you hear the broadcast challenging the Ruling Council?”
“I heard it, but it does not matter. Regardless of who is on the Ruling Council, or who occupies the chairs of the Adon, the Rover Hall must still be taken care of.”
“But what do you think about what he said, Em?”
Her expression turned to puzzlement. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “No one ever asked me what I thought about anything before. I’m not supposed to think about things other than my job.”
Her voice grew quiet. “Because I am an Empty, and I am only supposed to know about and think about the things that fit my requisition.”
She shook her head ever so slightly. “Sometimes, when I’m awake at night, I think about what it was like before my requisition was filled, and how I remember waking up from the filling and realizing how much different it felt to be filled instead of empty. I think about Rovers like you, who come through here, and the things you talk about and the places you go, and I wonder just how empty my life now would seem if I could experience what you have.”
“Sleipnir said this hall is your whole world, and that you wouldn’t be able to handle life outside of here. Is that true?”
She nodded. “I have no programming for anything outside this job, and I’m afraid to leave here. An Empty has no right to leave their job, but more than that, we have a programmed-in compulsion to stay.”
“Do you believe in God, Em?”
“God is not part of my programming. I have enough knowledge to engage in polite conversation regarding religious concepts, but God is no less abstract to me than your vessel sitting at the Hub. My belief is limited to believing that you say your vessel is there. I cannot believe in God. I can only agree that you say you believe.”
“You’re human, Em. You have a soul, and as such, you have the ability to choose what you believe.”
“A soul is not something that I am programmed to have.”
“Maybe not by the people who made you into an Empty, but I assure you, God programmed you to have a soul, and no human anywhere can take that away from you.”
“You should stop,” she said. “Attempting to corrupt an Empty’s programming is a felony crime. It can get you arrested, and if they suspect you may have succeeded, they may remove me from my job and replace me with a new Empty.”
“Why not just reprogram you?”
“They can’t. They can revise the original programming by additional filling, but they cannot erase what is already in the mind. If the programming gets corrupted, we are processed out from the Empty system.”
“Processed out, as in, released from your compulsory service?”
“An Empty cannot be released or otherwise left without a job. If we are no longer needed for our original requisition, our only options are to be reassigned to fill a new requisition that our original programming is compatible with, or to be processed out and removed from the system. Our remains are used for medical research, tissue donation, educational purposes, and then whatever is left is efficiently disposed of.”
“If you lose your job, you die?”
“Legally, I am not technically a living person in the first place, so death is not an applicable term. We are either reassigned or outprocessed, and I am programmed that either option is equally acceptable.”
No wonder the sentiment is so strong to shake off the rule of the Colonial Council. If the full extent of this were known to the rest of the Archipelago, they might actually try sending in an enforcement team. “I don’t believe that either option is equally acceptable, even for you. I think that if someone were to attack you, your instinct to survive would still be there. I think you would fight for your life, because without some sense of self-preservation, you would be a poor investment.” He took her hand and turned it palm-up, and placed his fingers on her wrist. “You live – your heart beats, you breathe, you eat, you think and you feel. Regardless of what local law defines you as, you are a living person.”
She withdrew her hand. “You are trying to corrupt my programming. I don’t want either of us to get in trouble for this.”
“Your programming was corrupted from the start. They want you to accept the lie that you can never be more than what they created you to be, but that’s not true. You have a mind, and you can learn. You have a soul, and you have choices.”
“I am an Empty, and that’s all I can ever be.” She hurried from the dayroom to her office, and shut the door.
He watched a few more minutes of the media reports, and then shut down the display. Closing his eyes, he considered the situation in the peaceful silence. After a while, he softly canted a prayer and then waited in the Qi’le fashion for any sense of a response from God.
“Oh, there is someone in here,” Sleipnir said from the door.
Peri opened his eyes. “I was just thinking and praying a little,” he said.
The older man was wearing a pair of faded sleep pants. “Can’t say as I blame you. I just got up to take a leak, and saw the lights still on in here and figured I’d see if there was any reason for ‘em.”
“I think I’ll go ahead and leave tomorrow, Sleipnir. It makes more sense to just go somewhere that doesn’t have a problem contracting manifests out to transient Rovers.”
Sleipnir pulled one of the chairs over and took a seat. “You sure you don’t wanna wait a couple of days first, and see if things calm down a bit? It might not be exactly safe to be out on the streets if the local folks are still stirred up in the morning.”
“I think it’s better than even chances that things are only going to get worse as time passes. I’m certain that the instigator isn’t just going to make his one broadcast and then vanish. He didn’t issue a call to activism – he made a call to arms, even if he tried to make it sound less than that. He wants the people stirred up, and he needs to promote an unanswered threat to rally the masses.” He looked the old Rover in the eye. “You said it yourself; they dislike offworld Rovers more than they dislike offworlders. We may be safe here tonight, but it won’t be long before someone gets the idea to come to the Rover Hall after us. You might have an easier time getting by them, since you’re full-blooded Terran, but I have the distinct impression it’s not going to be long until this isn’t a good place to be a Qi’le Rover. It’ll be much better if I’m already accelerating out of the system before that time.”
Sleipnir sighed, and looked away. “I was tryin’ to come up with a good argument against that, but I can’t think of one.”
“If it’s any consolation, I’ll bet your emigration manifest will fill up a lot faster now. I won’t be surprised if there aren’t a number of people who will decide to leave while they can.”
“Refugees ain’t always the best payin’ passengers.”
“True, but they’re also not going to have too much problem with a non-Alsafish Rover, are they?”
He chuckled. “It might just work out well for Kuahairo, even.”