Black Mountain: Dismantling

The repair facility falls to pieces. The metal debris which dotted its floors now flies through the air, shaken like dust in a gale. Some of it has been here almost as long as the station itself.

For the longest time it had seemed like the station wouldn't get built at all, surrounded as it was by scandal, controversy and rocketing costs. Planetside resistance was immense, and build approvals were only ratified after the Gallente government threatened to use the planet for experiments in geoengineering. As it turned out, the station became so beneficial to planetary business that when someone suggested, years later, that commutes between the two be curtailed for reasons of security and planetary independence, it effectively ended his political career.

The facility was among the first rooms of this station to be built, and it was a symbolic one, meant to indicate that in the tumultuous process of creating the spacestation all wounds had been healed and all reputations repaired. Unfortunately, the ratification process had taken so long, and deadlines were getting so close, that shady deals were made and substandard builders were given contracts based on promises of speedy work.

While no major catastrophes occurred, various niggling problems would hound the station operators for a long time afterwards. There were always indications that some of the raw material used to build the station hadn't been quite as fresh as the builders claimed, but had instead been brought in from destroyed ships and ruined colonies nearby; the lesser the costs of transporting it through dead space, rather than constructing it from scratch down on the planet. Surprisingly, while it sometimes interfered with more complex operations, this mishmash of construction did not affect the station's basic stability - amalgamates are always stronger than pure metals - and if someone noticed an odd curve or bend in the architecture as the station was being assembled, they didn't comment.

Long after, when the station had been abandoned and cut adrift, its new inhabitants did not even venture once into the repair areas. This was a secret place, not a safe haven, and you did not dock here expecting refuge.

***

One of the pieces from the repair facility, a massive metal girder, pierces the already weakened blast doors and goes through, crashing onto the walkways below. They shudder from its impact, the tremor leading through the walkways and up into the walls, where it combines with the station's own trembling death throes until the air is filled with a discordant hum, like a hymn sung by machines at prayer. The vibrations get worse, until the station seems to be breathing, its nooks and crannies shrinking and expanding in tune. The windowframes suffer for this, and in short time the few remaining windows are shattered, even the bulletproof ones, even the blastproof ones, showering their glittering edges onto the broken paths below.

Worn hands built these walkways. Tired souls fitted the glass in its brand new window slots. There was hope and hard work here. The rumors were that the entire project might be endangered, so people pulled together, and people worked hard. Some of them didn't last, and left silently on shuttles that took them anywhere they wanted on the planet below. The ones who did make it through stood in their places of honor at the station's inauguration: Down below, in the gloominess of steel, machines and noise, where they had to be if anything broke or bent out of shape. Nobody else saw them, but they didn't need to be seen. They were everywhere, in the rivets and welds and wirings of the world around them.

***

Glass breaks all over the station. The main walkway, where the shopkeepers used to hold court, gets covered, and it's as if there was a blizzard. There are no signs here any longer, no marks of past vendors, and the only thing that lasts is the graffiti etched into the stores' metal walls. Then the walls themselves begin to topple, one after the other, revealing the dusty, vacant spaces inside. After one set of walls falls over it lets out a mass of antiques, priceless artifacts in almost pristine condition, trapped in there as if they'd been in invisible amber.

To ensure fairness and discourage agglomeration of big business, vendors were let into the station according to a weighted lottery. Some known trademarks made it in without question - Quafe was one of the first - but the end result was a varied selection of known and lesser-known names. Laws were passed on the amount of money a company could funnel into its station stores and on-station advertisements, and some restrictions were placed on the extent to which larger companies were allowed to browbeat the smaller ones into submission through sheer force of presence, but that was it. This being the Gallente, it was expected that once business started, the best man would win.

The brotherhood that had formed among the station creators did not extend to the shopkeepers, and dirty tricks became the rule. Surprisingly, the small businesses did much better than the large ones, at least initially; their owners had clearer memories of their startup days and had less inhibitions about bending the rules. Everyone loves the underdog, and every time the small businesses put one over on the big companies they became all the more popular. As time went on this led some small businesses to become medium-sized businesses, and eventually the smallest ones got squeezed out. It was harsh, but that's how it went.

When several stores banded together to create a mutually operated mall - one of the many workarounds around the merger laws - one still resisted. Since this rebel was located right in the middle of the other stores, they focused their attention, pooled their resources and, after luring away key employees who had insider knowledge of the lone business, managed to put it out of action. As it turned out, the business space was in a dead zone of the mall area, so the others merely walled it up untouched and turned it into a general notice area. For years that area would serve as a reminder of the futility to stand against free enterprise and, to more cynical eyes, as a plastic-decorated war memorial for the dead and gone. Its contents, like a sacrificial offering to god, were never spoken of nor touched.

***

Close to the shopkeepers' areas there is an open square. A gigantic piece of the roof breaks away and falls onto the square, goes through it and doesn't stop until several floors below. There is a pause, then a rumble, and what is left of the ceilings above is lit up by an orange light. The light changes, gets brighter and starker, and for a moment its glare is reflected down to the chaos below. Shadows are cast, flickering and black.

A fireball erupts from below, roars through every level and sets the floors ablaze. It doesn't scorch the debris but melts it, disintegrates it, blasting through everything in its wake until it hits the ceiling, where it spreads out like an inverted tree taking root, its magmatic tendrils trailing through the air and hissing as they land on the ground below.

This square was once the base of operations for a fledgling union movement. It started with one woman, a low-level engineer frustrated at low pay and plexiglass ceilings, who began meeting with other workers and speaking of the hazards and dangers of station repair jobs. She was charming and well-spoken, and had that governor's combination of steely presence and welcoming aura that made her audience both appreciative and attentive. When the group began to grow and people started to worry about reprimands by station authorities, she made the remarkable choice of moving their operations out into the open, settling on a small square where they spoke freely among themselves. Any outsider could stop to listen and hear their plans, or see them argue. It was a brilliant but dangerous move, and it worked; they were wiretapped, of course, but the powers that be didn't know anything more than everybody else who passed by, and eventually the crowds began to grow. When the police threatened to disband the meetings due to overcrowding, they set up keyless video feeds, ones that were streamed live through other

open datafeeds, piggybacking on their signals, and could be decoded at receiver ends with datakeys that were given out freely and anonymously. The authorities never quite knew for sure who was watching.

***

The seething magma melts through the floor and pours into tunnels and crevices below. There are crackles and sparks, and the square's electrical wirings give out for good. There is a series of twangs as the remaining cables, overstretched and overheated, finally give out, lashing their way out from the gaping hole in the center and flicking at one another like mad fencers. Eventually they, too, give out, and hang there limply, pointing at the abyss.

The authorities, annoyed at the stir the group was creating among station workers, eventually decided that people, deep down, didn't want to risk the station's own well-being, and that an aura of assistance and goodwill would better resolve the problem than harsh tactics would. So they gave in to the various demands for workers' rights the group had posed, but declared that as the station would now have to re-budget for assured self-sufficiency, and since they could not levy more taxes on the general citizenry, they would have to cut nonessential services. For some unexplained political reasons these cuts, which restricted availability of everything from unlicensed mind clash game broadcasts and non-brand egone sets to Quafe shots and low-grade alcohol, affected recreational activities enjoyed almost exclusively by the lower classes. Right after the cuts were implemented there was a surge of crowd control issues on station, to which the administrators responded by cracking down even harder on imports of various incendiary goods, adding that these restrictions would be reviewed after the workers' rights issue had been resolved. Cheap alcohol and budget risque entertainment products fell right off the radar.

It wasn't long before the masses reacted. Graffiti denouncing the workers began to appear in the more rundown areas of the station, followed by barroom conversations that got increasingly loud and spirited. The flashpoint came when a channel formerly reserved for sports was shut down and replaced with direct vidcasts from the activists' meetings. Someone in the bar put down his glass, got up, yelled incoherently at the video screen for a while, then drunkenly marched off proclaiming that he was going to give the activists a piece of his mind. Others followed, word spread, and by the time the progression got to the square it numbered in the hundreds (though minus the original instigator, who'd stopped at a street corner to pass water, fallen over his own legs, and passed out) and was in very red spirits. The activists were dragged off and nearly beaten to death. What saved them was a group of station police officials, who, eventually, made their way through the angry crowd and set up an inertial shield around the beleaguered activists. This effectively trapped them inside, like animals in a zoo, while the mob pounded on the shields from the outside.

When the crowd finally dispersed and the police lowered the shield, the activists walked away, each in a separate direction, without saying a word. Their group was disbanded from then on. The station took them in, healed their wounds, then offered them each a lucrative and quite public corporate job. They each took the offer, and worked with loyalty and dedication and unquestioning verve for the rest of their lives. Their offices, by their own request, were located so that they looked down on the square, through unopenable windows that housed bulletproof glass. Nobody else took up the mantle, and since the activists' meetings had all been broadcast through unofficial channels, station archivists did not keep copies of the group's discussions. Restrictions were lifted, alcohol and entertainment returned, and whatever it was the group had fought for was forgotten, as was the group itself.

Not every action has a reaction, and not every movement leaves a trail.

***

The living quarters have all but collapsed. The first ones to go were the high-rise buildings, spacious and fragile, followed by the ones standing unsupported next to open spaces that once housed parks and fashionable market areas. Even the apartment buildings, the stalwarts of cramped living that towered over the darker parts of the station, have given way to the fire. Remarkably, the only spaces still standing are the Rust buildings, tenements meant for people who'd fallen on the hardest of luck and were stuck on the space station with nowhere else to go. Space is always at a premium and so the Rust flats are squeezed in tight, with little space for anything but sleeping and eating and despairing. But there's such a mass of them, huddled together like animals for warmth on a cold, cold night, that they practically support each other. They don't give way until the ground itself gives, and even then they take a long time to fall.

Back in the days when its inhabitants were breathing, every now and then love floated through Rust, catching the unwary in its grasp. And sometimes he beat her, and a few times she was afraid she was pregnant by someone else, but they loved each other, and their relationship outlasted many others, for that is what love does, for better or worse. Their quarters were small but big enough, and they raised several children there, those of whom survived to adulthood eventually lived in bigger quarters than their parents, and wore grey clothes and grey faces.

***

After the Rust collapses, everything goes. Corridors throughout the station crumble, taking with them whatever they were holding. Plummeting alleys, once dark, are lit by the rumbling fires below before disintegrating. In one of these a man known as Polok can be briefly seen before he, too, falls into the fire. His work takes longer to fall, as if it wants to hang on and endure, if only a few moments beyond Polok's last breath. At last it gives way, to be licked by the flames, engulfed, swallowed whole, and in their crackling roar the unseen listener can still detect its tearless sigh of relief. Everything ends. Everything always ends.

A long time ago, a childless, middle-aged Amarrian couple walked through this territory for some unthinking reason, and in their shiny shoes and unholed clothes were set upon by several denizens of Rust. Bitter and frustrated, the inhabitants took their life's anger out on the poor couple, demanding things they couldn't give, threatening to take even more, and eventually making good on that threat. Whether by accident or brief, unthinking intention, they left the man dead in the street, and ran away before any of them thought of taking the woman's life as well.

The couple were religious, and as the man's life ran out he struggled to say a prayer he'd learned as a child, one that supposedly would guarantee his passage into the heavens. In his life he had long since learned that this guarantee would come not from words praising the next world but deeds honoring this one, but at this moment, in this cold and lonely place, it was all that came to mind. His wife, crying silently, comforted him the best he could, but he died with the prayer unfinished on his lips.

Afterwards, every year on that particular day, she would return, alone, carrying blessed water in a small container. She would go down on her knees and begin scrubbing the area where her husband had bled to death. Word spread, and it was made clear by official and religious authorities both that any unpleasantness towards this lady would lead to a scouring of Rust.

People guessed that she was trying to wash away her husband's blood from the unholy site where he'd been slain. In reality, she was sanctifying the ground that had received his warmth, and praying, to any gods that would listen, that even though her husband had not managed to finish his invocation, he would nonetheless be let into paradise.

***

And now the structure gives way for good. Central walls are shaken down, support girders are parted like chaff, and the destruction moves to the core of the station's heart. The fires tear their way through every part of the station like ink in water, so omnipresent that they can no longer be distinguished from their surroundings. This place is fire now, it has become an inferno and no longer a station, and all that remains is for the outer walls to part and crack and reveal the gutting within. A station's exterior is always the toughest part of its structure, for whatever happens inside may never be allowed to breach the outer shell.

Someone went insane. Nobody minded, because they were a colorful breed who talked to themselves, to others and to anyone who was or wasn't there; perfectly charming and civilized. An old man who walked through this little world, telling people he would go on until the end of time. He lived in the same place for most of his life, and while nobody knew when he'd moved in, everyone felt that it was as if he'd always been there. People liked him.

And now, when he's been long forgotten, a secret place is breached, somewhere that was also long forgotten by all but this man and the ones he brought here. This place is among the last to go, and it spews out whatever had been stored inside. Leather straps. Drawings and discolored photographs. Little shoes.

They're shaken out, and burned in the fire, at last, at long last.

And with that, as if breathing its own sigh of relief, the station, purified and clear in purpose, goes nova. Steel and stone, plastic and rock, and everything else that ever was, all grind themselves apart like the station is trying to fall to pieces and stay together and reach out in a thousand directions at once.

And with a flash that glows through the vastness of space, all these memories are gone.





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