Chapter 6 – Insights
“Damn, this meat is hella tough…”
“Hey, you’re the one who cooked it,” Phoenix retorted.
Pierce scowled. “Don’t blame me for this shitty meat. If it starts bad, it’ll end bad, no matter how you cook it.”
“Oh, suck it up,” Brikén responded from her seat on the couch. She took another bite of her own breakfast meat before continuing, “get used to it. With this Quake, all of the good stuff will just get more and more expensive.”
“Hmph…” Pierce grunted in annoyance as he continued eating his breakfast and contemplating his life in misery. After dealing with the looters the previous day, he and Phoenix had packed up all of their things and moved over to Brikén’s apartment — only to find that hers was even smaller than theirs, with only one bedroom, a living room, and a tiny kitchen. The Nimalian’s apartment was at least clean, which Pierce was thankful for; however, as the lone man, he had been forced to sleep on her tiny couch. At six feet tall, Pierce wasn’t too much taller than the average Earthian or Nimalian man, but he still turned out to be half a foot too long for Brikén’s couch. As a result, he had had a terrible night of sleep, compounded further by the substandard food items he found in Brikén’s kitchen that morning. She claimed that the food wasn’t actually that bad, and that it was far cheaper than any alternatives; Pierce and Phoenix could at least agree with her frugality in principle, but neither felt that her judgment of the food’s quality was in any way accurate.
As much as Pierce disliked the situation, however, it was what he had to deal with. So he sat down at Brikén’s small table across from Phoenix and miserably consumed the breakfast before him that tasted so terrible, despite his best efforts.
“Maybe you just don’t like it because it’s not the meat from Earth,” Brikén eventually suggested. “Food always tastes different, from planet to planet.”
“Sure, but I’ve had better meat than this while here,” Pierce countered. “I’m pretty sure your tastebuds just suck.”
“Whatever you say,” Brikén replied flatly, her attention primarily directed somewhere else. From Pierce’s perspective, it looked like she was simply staring into empty space, but he knew that she was actually just reading virtual articles fed directly through her eyes via Augmented Reality ocular implants. The technology was widespread throughout the galaxy, particularly among those who engaged in interstellar travel; however neither Pierce nor Phoenix were quite so lucky. As Earth was so technologically primitive compared to the rest of the galaxy, foreign technology was prohibitively expensive, so the Earthian Technological Advancement Agency — better known as the ETAA, the organization that managed the outreach program Pierce and Phoenix were participating in — could only afford to grant Pierce and Phoenix the bare minimum of implantation they would need: a set of realtime audio translation implants. These RTA implants allowed the two Earthians to communicate verbally with non-Earthians, but they remained locked out of all the other implantation-based conveniences of the galaxy.
Up until this point, Pierce hadn’t cared much about not having AR implants — he didn’t need them for running, to have fun, or get news, after all. But after the start of the Quake and the effective shutdown of the city, he found himself growing more and more restless and bored. Normally he would simply go for a run to cool his head, but given his and Phoenix’s recent experiences, Phoenix and Brikén both advised against spending much time outside. So instead he was left to stew in boredom, with nothing to alleviate it. Damn it, this fucking sucks, he thought, if only SOMETHING would happen—
“Oh for fuck’s sake! I can’t believe this…”
Pierce and Phoenix both snapped their attention toward Brikén, who now wore a scowl on her face.
“What’s the matter?” Phoenix questioned.
“Some idiot managed to crash up in space,” Brikén responded irately. “Apparently they lost control of their craft and hit the inner rings. The resulting debris started a collision cascade…”
“Yeah. The NSD forecasts that, by the end of the day, the planet will be surrounded by a debris field that could persist for months… or even a few years.”
“That sounds bad,” Pierce commented.
“Of course it’s bad,” Phoenix replied, “handling spacecraft and setting up satellites with the rings around must be dangerous enough as is, but to then throw a bunch of uncontrolled debris into the mix? I’m sure this is bad for the space station evacuations, as well…”
“It’s a fucking mess, that’s for sure,” Brikén declared. “All because pilots refuse to learn how to pilot their spacecraft without relying on the Chaos Energy-based systems. This is basic shit.”
“To be fair, though, no one expected the Quake,” Phoenix refuted. “Can you really blame someone for relying on something that, historically speaking, has almost always worked?”
“That ‘almost’ is the problem. If you told me this during the first Quake, I could sympathize, but this is the second one. People should’ve been prepared. Hell, the last Quake was only 40 years ago, that’s still within living memory. I remember the first Quake!”
Pierce regarded Brikén with surprise. “Hold on, what? You’re telling me you’re over 40?”
“I’m actually 52,” Brikén replied. “I don’t see why you’re surprised.”
“52?!” Phoenix exclaimed, “you barely look a day over 30!”
“…Oh, I see.” The Nimalian smirked. “This is a racial difference. Nimalians usually live for around 125 years, going by the standard Union calendar. Most Nimalians look as, er, young as I do at my age.”
“Damn.” Pierce whistled. “Life expectancy on Earth still caps out at 100…”
“Though, now that I think about it, we use a different calendar than the Nimalians,” Phoenix pointed out. “We can’t really directly compare those numbers.”
“Ah, the Nimalian year is only five days shorter than ours. So they gain one year over us every, what, 60 years or so? That’s nothing.” Pierce snorted. “Hell, that means Brikén is older than our parents!”
“Alright, I really did not need to hear that,” Brikén responded in annoyance.
“You look a lot better than my mom does, though,” Phoenix declared, “and my mom doesn’t look too bad, herself.”
Brikén scowled. “Enough with the parent talk, already.”
“Now that we know that you lived through the first Quake, though,” Pierce spoke up, “just what the hell was that like? Did everyone panic their damn heads off then as much as they are now?”
“Worse,” Brikén replied. “At least this time, everyone knows what to do… sort of. But the last time, it was a complete surprise. Complete chaos. No one knew what caused the Quake, or how long it would last, and it took weeks before people were even able to confirm that the entire galaxy was affected.” She sighed and shook her head. “It was… crazy. I lived on a Tier 3 world at the time, called Chiníka. Back then, it only had a population of 20 million, or so — basically, everyone lived in one of three cities. Like most Tier 3 worlds, Chiníka was self-sustaining when it came to food and water, but almost everything else was imported from elsewhere in the Union — actually, at that time, the Nimalian Union didn’t even exist yet. We were just the Nimalian Territories.”
“You’re making it sound like it was more than just four decades ago,” Pierce remarked.
“It sometimes feels like its been longer, with everything that’s happened during those four decades…” Brikén sighed again. “But, as I was saying, we were huge importers at the time. Then the Quake hit, and suddenly we could only use the Interstellar Gate to travel to other planets — that placed a hard limit on what we could ship in. One lone Gate can’t compare to the shipping capacity of a whole fleet of spacecraft, after all. Barely a month later, most of the luxuries people were used to started to dry up.” She chuckled bitterly. “You don’t realize how much you take soap for granted until you suddenly don’t have it anymore.”
Pierce and Phoenix responded with uncomfortable silence.
“…And then, about six months after the Quake started, the power plants started running out of fuel,” Brikén continued. “We still had some solar plants, thankfully, but the nights got rough, fast. A lot of people ended up going without fully-functioning heat for a winter, my family included. By the time the winter was over, at least a million people had died from exposure. …My mother included.”
“…I’m sorry to hear that,” Phoenix commented quietly.
“Yeah, well, it was 40 years ago.” Brikén shrugged and smirked, though Pierce could tell that the expression was forced. “But that was just my experience with the Quake. Honestly, Chiníka got off easy. Dozens of lower-population worlds were completely wiped out, since they were dependent on incoming resource shipments that couldn’t reach them. And the Tier 1 and 2 worlds all had to deal with de-orbiting space stations. Most stations at the time relied entirely on anti-gravity for station-keeping, which, I’m sure you can imagine, didn’t turn out so well for them.”
“Is that why everyone’s panicking about the space stations here?” Pierce questioned.
Brikén nodded. “That’s exactly why everyone’s panicking. That said, Ainminthalus’s stations were retrofitted with non-Chaos Energy-based station-keeping systems as backups some time ago, so the stations should be fine. But who knows. This new debris field sure won’t help at all, that’s for sure.”
“When you put it that way, I can understand why people are panicking,” Phoenix responded solemnly.
“I can, too, but it’s still no excuse. We should have learned from the first Quake. People should know that they can’t always rely on Chaos Energy.” Brikén scowled. “We could have prevented this debris disaster, if pilots just learned how to use their ships without relying on Chaos Energy, like I have. But they don’t, and now look where that got us.”
“Sounds like there really are dumbasses everywhere,” Pierce remarked.
“They ruin everything for everyone, don’t they,” Phoenix lamented. “Just one mistake, and space travel for an entire planet is ruined!”
“At least it should be easy enough to clean up once the Quake ends… assuming it does end,” Brikén said. “But in the meantime… orbital maneuvering will be tough.”
“Hold on a second…” Pierce glanced at Brikén with confusion. “I thought spacecraft were supposed to be grounded. What the hell was a civilian craft doing up in space?”
“That’s only half of it. Spacecraft that were already on the ground were grounded, but spacecraft that were in orbit at the time were told to remain in orbit.” Brikén smirked bitterly. “Most spacecraft use anti-gravity to manage their descent. Without that, they can’t exactly land without a skilled pilot at the controls. And larger spacecraft won’t even be able to land at all.”
“The galaxy sure loves anti-grav tech, huh?”
“It’s incredibly useful, I won’t deny that. It’s incredibly versatile, in the kinds of structures and transportation that it allows. But without Chaos Energy, it’s useless.” Brikén sighed. “There was actually a big push for non-Chaos Energy systems to replace most Chaos Energy-based tech after the first Quake. Or at least, to build in redundancies. The CSA made a lot of progress there for a few years, but then… people just started to forget. Chaos Energy is too damn convenient. And by the time of the Nanocreature War 20 years ago, it felt like people had basically just completely forgotten about the first Quake. It’s insane.”
“I guess everyone was hoping that the Quake was a one-of-a-kind event,” Phoenix commented.
“Would’ve been nice if it was,” Pierce muttered. “It sounds like a fucking nightmare.”
“The galaxy’s had its fair share of those over the past few decades,” Brikén said. “…I really hope this is the last of them…”
“Well, while we’re on the subject — and if you don’t mind of course,” Phoenix started, “…if you lived through the first Quake, then you had to have lived through the Nanocreature War, as well. What was that like?”
Brikén passed Phoenix a weary glance. “…Even worse.”
“Didn’t last nearly as long, though. Only about a month for the first part, and then there was a second attack a few months later, but that only lasted a day.”
“I heard that the ones who stopped the war were Nimalian.”
“That’s how the story goes. A bunch of young Chaotics, in the name of the fledgling NSD, went around and kicked ass. Ha.” Brikén snorted. “Sounds a little too convenient to me.”
“Isn’t that literally the officially accepted story, across the whole damn galaxy?” Pierce questioned. “What’s so weird about it?”
Brikén passed Pierce an incredulous glance. “You’re telling me that a group of less than ten people were able to stop an enemy force that threatened the entire fucking galaxy?”
“Yeah, but they were all Chaotics, weren’t they?” Pierce pressed; through the corner of his eye, he caught Phoenix giving him a wary glance, but he ignored her. “Chaotics are supposed to be hella powerful, aren’t they?”
“Sure, but they can’t do everything,” Brikén countered. “People give them too much credit.”
Pierce smirked. “Sounds like jealously to me.”
“No one who understands how things work in this galaxy is jealous of Chaotics,” Brikén refuted. “Sure, it could be useful, or even fun to have superpowers. But I wouldn’t be able to own and fly my own ship if I was scooped up by the military when I was 10 years old.”
“Not to mention how dangerous they can be. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Battle of Neticen, during the Nanocreature War?”
“You mean the battle where a fight between two people blew up a whole planet?” Pierce snorted. “Yeah, you could say that’s a popular story.”
“And that was just two people,” Brikén commented. “Two people! That’s just too much power for one person to hold. And that’s not even considering the fact that Chaotics can go berserk.”
“What does that even mean?”
Brikén pursed her lips, her brow furrowed. “…You remember two nights ago? That was all because of a berserk Chaotic.”
“What? …Oh…” Pierce’s expression clouded as the memories of that night momentarily flashed through his mind — chief among them, the memory of Trenon’s death. From what Pierce could recall, all of the damage he had seen that night had been caused by a sort of feral-looking silhouette. So… that was a berserk Chaotic? Didn’t it take three or four other Chaotics to stop them? And even then, Trenon… A dull throb passed through his torso, prompting him to gingerly grasp his wound. If I hadn’t been there, then… no. I can’t think like that. He shook his head and looked back toward Brikén. “…Sounds like you aren’t a big fan of Chaotics, huh.”
“I have mixed feelings about them, really.” Brikén sighed wearily. “I’ve worked with and talked with many Chaotics, and most of them were like Trenon. Honest, earnest people who tried to do the best with what they had. But… it’s tricky. I don’t like discriminating against people for something they can’t control, but when that something can literally kill other people at a moment’s notice… well, that changes things.”
“Do you think Chaotic conscription is a good idea?” Phoenix questioned.
“That one’s a little over my head,” Brikén replied. “I don’t like conscription in general. But with Chaotics… I don’t know. Someone needs to keep an eye on them, I guess.”
Pierce and Phoenix exchanged wary glances; neither offered a counter to Brikén’s argument.
“…Well, anyways.” Brikén stood up from the couch and stretched. “That was a good talk, but I have some work to do.”
“What work is there to do, now?” Pierce questioned incredulously, “the whole city’s basically shut down!”
“We’re working on that,” Brikén countered as she retrieved her long coat from her room and began putting it on. “The local government is breaking out some non-antigrav transports today, and I happen to be one of the few people qualified to handle them.”
“Sounds like you were prepared for this kind of situation.”
“Only as much as everyone else should have been.” The pilot stepped up to the front door of her apartment. “I should be back by evening. Until then, sit tight.”
“Be careful out there,” Phoenix replied.
“Ah, don’t worry about me.” Brikén then opened the door and stepped outside. “See you later.”