Ameer had been in the slowly lurching line for several hours. He hoped the food wouldn't run out before he got in. He knew tomorrow it might be unaffordable.
The walls were tagged with slogans painted in just about every known human script. Blake was standing in front of one written in Korean. The smeared characters roughly translated to:
“Zeks fight for bread with spirit!"
“Got any spare credits.” A wrinkled faced man crowned with snow-white hair asked holding out a calloused hand.
“Sorry,” muttered Ameer turning his head away.
“Please, anything you can give.” he pleaded.
“I'm sorry I barely have enough for myself.” said Ameer.
“Can I just have a little of whatever you get?” The beggar asked in a last desperate bid.
“I can see what I have, but I doubt it,” Ameer said reluctantly.
Recognizing the noncommittal nature of blanks half promise He shuffled away his malnourished body struggling to support the contours of his twisting skeletal frame and tried his luck with the people behind Ameer, who preemptively turned their heads hoping he would not ask them.
The Frontier was a hub where men and material leaving Earth were distributed across the interplanetary network controlled by Singularity. The city-sized space station hovered just beyond the edge of Earth's celestial glow in the eternal void for decades.
Singularity determined to make humanity's galactic expansion as rapid a process as possible, so the space station's number soon swelled to beyond its intended capacity. Through the years the station was expanded until it had grown into a titanium Goliath so vast to the people on Earth it appeared to glow with the same ferocity of the white fire of the distant stars.
What they couldn't see though was the army of engineers and technicians that buzzed around outside the insects around a hive. Continually remolding and growing the mighty structure making it glow brighter and brighter.
But now the droning workers had all returned to the center of their colony rarely emerging past the outer walls. The period of growth and maturation for the structure had ended and it slumped into rapid decline.
The workers on The Frontier were provided only with what they could pay for. They bought what they needed with a digital script that bound them to continue servicing the station and its masters in perpetuity.
As the supplies diminished the prices of what was left soared, and people starved in full view of everyone else. As the prices rose, the artificial division of labor became the primary mechanism of natural selection on the station. If your role didn't afford you sufficient credits for food, you starved.
The people who emerged from the commissary held tightly to what little they were able to get. They were descended on by emaciated people offering everything they had left. Many of them offered to pay many times the going rate for the item, but the people holding on to the last of the supplies made available to the general population couldn't rely on the supply stocks replenishing.
The hoarders and the speculators no longer accepted the digital company currency. The ones still waiting in line salivated when they saw the small packages of food being carried by those fortunate enough to get in. They stared at the people exiting the commissary with a hungry gaze. Thier large, desperate eyes conveyed a lust that bordered on the violent.
“What did you pay for it? I'll give you three times what you paid for it!”
“No sorry....” was the rushed reply.
“Wait!” the bushy-faced man shouted jumping out of line to pursue him.
“Hold on let's make a deal.” He pleaded.
“Sorry not for sale.”
Everyone who walked out of the commissary found themselves at the center of a bidding war for anything they were holding. The mob swarmed them. They shoved each other out of the way and offered up their bids.
This was mostly happening in the line behind Ameer who was close enough in like so that he and everyone in his immediate vicinity decided it would be best to play it safe and wait until they were allowed in.
The iron gates abruptly dropped. The stunned crowd began to murmur. No one left. They began to demand the invisible authorities provide an explanation.
“The commissary is now closed.” The station answered in a cold monotone voice. The line disintegrated
“This is bullshit I haven't eaten in days!”
“We're gonna die if we don't eat!”
The crowd was threatening and begging in every language. The space-age Tower of Babble trembled as it's very foundation began to shift.
There were a collective gasps and subsequent screaming. Blake could see people piling up in the middle of the room as they descended on each other to take the final crumbs from the commissary.
There was screaming, and a gulch of people jumped away from a wide-eyed man furiously stabbing a shard of metal into a convulsing body. The metallic shard proliferating his flesh left dozens of blood spurting holes.
The assailant was gnashing his teeth together, blood trickle down his lip, and he hoarsely screamed in his long lost mother tongue.
The lights clicked off, and floodlights bathed the room in a dark crimson glow. A mechanical platoon appeared in the corridor and started indiscriminately smashing everyone in their path.
The Masters of The Frontier assured the increasingly worried and agitated workers the shortage was only temporary, a result of some problems earthside that would soon be rectified and the stream of cargo ships was sure to return shortly.
But as the men sat idle, their credits drained, and the food disappeared the less willing they were to accept the official explanation. Despite The Frontier's vast security network that monitored every inch of the station's confines discontent laborers, who had previously toiled compliantly despite the frustration and dangers of their plights turned into angry dissidents.
Erika, a 35-year-old construction engineer, was the leader of an organization called the Zeks. While many of the groups aired their grievances through violence with other groups of workers, they thought were getting more than their fair share Erika said everyone aboard The Frontier was a Zek whether they knew it or not.
She marched into the cargo bays with a cadre of hundreds of followers. They were met by a phalanx of security units. They were automated security unties controlled by the omnipotent security network. Their bulky ebony exo-armor gave them a human-like form.
The blood red kaleidoscopic eyes of their masks filtered and organized their perception into tightly formatted data slates. Their suits wirelessly linked their brains together as one and the unit moved in perfect unison, marching forward to confront the crowd.
Undeterred Erika marched forward to meet them, and her emboldened followers stayed close behind her. They met in the center of the cavernous titanium hold, the lines formed and a standoff ensued.
Anticipation silenced the masses. They watched in awe ask Erika stared down the metallic soldiers.
The machines were unmoved by the desperation of the workers. They could not sympathize with their fear of starvation. They were just another arm of a vast security network. They operated on commands issued by algorithms. "Human" was just an identifier in a database, a keyword. Life held no intrinsic value to the mechanized battalions.
“Return to your quarters.” Was the response. “failure to comply will be punished by force.” The synthetic voice ominously warned.“
Alright,” she said calmly. “if this is the way it has to be.”
The shrewd algorithmic based intelligence that surrounded them had coldly calculated the odds of a general uprising occurring and their ability to physically destroy it should it somehow come into fruition and decided not to strike first.
Erika knew this, but she was confident enough in her being an unaccounted variable. She turned to the crowd and with a confident grin raised and slowly raised her lowered her arms and hushed her rambling audience. She fluidly conducted the mob with the motions of her hands. They quietly waited for her instructions.
“My name is Erika On behalf of all the cargo specialists, structural engineers, pilots and everyone else who worked themselves to the bone building and running the place we depend on for life we demand access to what we need to survive, and we demand it now! There is no time to wait for cargo operations to resume, we need food, and we need it now. Not later, not soon, but now! She declared clutching a defiant fist as she turned back to face the security line.
“You have 30 seconds to vacate the premises or you will be forcibly removed.” The guards warned in in a single voice.
“Zeks and all working people here on The Frontier those in charge here have made it clear they are ok with us starving to death if it means they can rip more out our pockets. Right now we are choosing between life and death! She declared. “So what will it be? Are we going to go bac to our cells to die or are we going to show them we are not afraid to fight!”
The crowd was in an uproar. The cadre at the front of the mob locked arms controlling the surging flood.
“Forward!” Erika ordered.
The security forces unsheeted spiked titanium batons, the sharp tips designed to inject sedatives into the blood stream wherever they hit.
“March!” She bellowed.
The tide of humanity swelled into a tidal wave ready to crash down on the line of wired soldiers.
The machines were unmoved by the desperation of the workers. They could not sympathize with their fear of starvation. They were just an arm of a vast security network. They operated on commands issued by algorithms. The term "human" was just another identifier in a database life held no intrinsic value to the automated soldiers.
“Return to your quarters.” Was the response. “failure to comply will be punished by force.” The synthetic voice ominously warned.
Erika did not step down. The crowd was swelling behind her and like the machines, they faced they were waiting for their orders.
“What do you think? Should we go back to our cells and wait to starve to death? She asked.
The crowd booed down the sarcastic suggestion.
“Or do we decide today is the day and this is the hour that we demand what is ours and let the administrators know we are not taking now for an answer?!”There was a thunderous applause.
More and more had trickled in, and the mass of people was now several times larger than the line trying to block them. The workers now occupied the cargo holds.
Right under their feet, deep within in the core of the station specialists were fighting a losing battle to stabilize the melting nuclear heart of the beast. The burning reactor that produced and pumped the electric lifeblood all throughout the structure was engulfed in a radioactive inferno.
The digital intelligence that operated the majority of the ship was the sum of millions of sensors continuously feeding the processors with real-time data streams. The futile effort to stop the meltdown could only be attributed to a rigid adherence to some set of protocols or simply due to denial something the coldly rational system should have been incapable of experiencing.
Lev and a brigade of firefighters were descending into a dark tunnel in the ship's interior. They were silent while the huge left ran the down a screeching track into a mass grave.
When he looked down through the plastic window of his radiation suit down to the bottom of the shaft, the glow of the inferno got brighter and brighter as they inched closer and closer.
Lev's suit filled with sweat and a metallic taste filled his mouth. There was a breach in the suit.
“I knew how this would end,” Lev muttered. His blood chilled, and his stomach felt like he was falling into a pit. The clock was ticking he would be dead in just hours.
The lift came to a bumpy stop at the bottom, and the gate opened.
The claustrophobic catacombs carved through the interior of The Frontier were clotted with hairless corpses shedding their discolored flesh from their bones.
Lev and the brigade were herded along at gunpoint by the hulking mechanical soldiers. The sacrifice of the men fighting to contain the inferno had no meaning to them. The cybernetic collective simply saw biological machines performing an assigned function.
There was a row of men hastily welding a pipeline through the winding corridor while brigades of exhausted men liquefying in their radiation suits dragging heavy fire hoses to the molten core.
Lev saw a link in the human chain stagger and fall to his knees. Instinctively he rushed over to aid his fallen comrade.
“Are you alright?!” He struggled to shout over the chaos.
Through the transparent visor of the suit, he could see the horrific featureless remnants of a face sculpted by radiation. Blackened blood and flesh oozed onto the screen. He took his last few shallow breaths and stopped moving entirely.
Lev gently laid the corpse on the floor and stood up. He could already feel his knees getting weak. He felt all the eyes of all the weary men resting on him, silently nominating him their new leader. Right at that moment, he realized the frontier could either live or die based on what he decided to do next.
“Let's get this to the core!” He commanded.
With renewed vigor, the chain gang of dead men mustered their strength and hoisted the heavy iron pipe.
Some miles above their heads a bruised and bloodied Erika was gritting her teeth and charging against the heavily armored automatons. Bits of flying debris from their weapons smashing into human bodies splattered on their ebony armor. The crack army of workers surged in behind her giving her the strength to commute to push against them. The ground was littered with shattered bodies but by sheer force of numbers, they were eroding the opposing line.
“Hold the line! Hold the line! She barked. Her very voice was a boost to morale. The more she urged them on, the more they could fight. The surging crowd pushed the opposing force back towards the enormous hangar doors.
There was the hissing of gas grenades and the acrid mist started bellowing up from the floor and flooding the room. The rebels began to melt away from the clouds of poison converging on them.
Erika already heavily battered caught a dose of the gas potent enough to disrupted her nervous system. She hit the floor and gasped for breath. In her narrowing field of vision, she could see her dispersing soldiers trampling each other in a disordered retreat and the company of cyborgs unphased by the gas advancing on the laying waste to anyone still standing.
All around him, people were killing each other with piping, plasma torches, or if nothing else their bare hands. They killed those with food first and then killed each other until someone was quick enough to get away with the prize.
Ameer kept his head low and pushed his way through the rioters. The red glow of the floodlights was the like a matador's cape. The color drove them to madness.
The sound of screaming was accompanied by shattering bones and splattering blood. He could hear people being smashed against the metal walls.
He could hear knuckles breaking against skulls. He had to find somewhere to hide. He stepped over the body of a woman that still clutched a packet of powdered milk.
The white package caught his eye and he slowed down. Just long enough for an empty oxygen tank to smash into his face.
The grueling pace of the work did help to keep Lev's mind off his imminent death, but now sapped of energy and poisoned by lethal doses of radiation he found himself laying against a wall withering away in his radiation suit just like the corpses that greeted him when he arrived at the reactor.
Every new symptom of radiation sickness had been a warning his time was winding down. Now he was just waiting for the numbness to wash away the torment of the amorphous pain.
The pools had evaporated, there was no more water left for them to cool the core. The temperature continued to rise as more and more emergency workers were fed into the furnace.
The lift had ascended back up the shaft and never came back down. The interconnected labyrinth of control facilities around the core only housed the dead. The only sounds were the wailing of the sirens and the moans of the dying.
“I guess it's over then.” Lev murmured.
All the talk about self-sacrifice and the good of the whole had ringed hollow for him. He knew the short amount of time they gave the beast by offering up their lives was insignificant. The truth was the pragmatist in him knew this was just the most humane way he could die. No one would ever know what they did down there. He closed his eyes and settled into the permanent darkness.
The whistling nuclear kettle burst and a fiery explosion tore through the center of the frontier. The explosion ripped holes all the way out into space. Fire rushed through the geyser-like fissures and lashed out into space.
The shockwaves from the explosion reverberated through the superstructure. The powerful vibrations shook the entire station. All the lights went out, and the vast hive of tunnels was swallowed by a darkness every bit as deep as the infinite sea of space outside the walls. Ceilings collapse and walls caved in. People were crushed underneath giant pieces of equipment that sailed through the air like toys.
The heart of The Beast had blown out like an overloaded valve. The atomically generated electricity that coursed through the thousands of miles of wires that ran through its interior like veins ceased to flow and all the life support systems shut down.
The ones whose survived were left in a pitch black slaughter house. They would either be massacred, or they would suffocate when the oxygen ran out. They were bodies left in a titanium mausoleum left to circle the earth in silence for all eternity.