Friday, February 18, 2011

To live and die in Vermillion

By Carol Cooper, Multiverse Correspondent.

If you walk down the wrong street in the wrong city, and take a turn down the right alley, you will find a bar. The place has no sign above the door; no blinking neon light to advertise it or announce its location to the world. You have to know that it's there to even find it, and whatever name it once had is long forgotten. These days, it's just called "Reds".

Inside the smoky main room, the customers sit in sullen silence, glaring at newcomers before returning to nursing their drinks. Only Darnell, the bartender, holds eye-contact with new arrivals. He's been here longer than anyone, and I can see a look in his eyes that says he has seen it all.

I tell him I'm a journalist looking for stories, and his attitude changes. "You've come to the right place," he says with a smile.

He gestures to the far corner where a group of men are gathered round the pool table. "Red and Gold Squadrons will tell you a few. Sixteen men from nineteen died on their mission. Most of 'em don't even have names." He leans over the bar, and beckons me closer. "But if you want the real stories? The real hard-luck cases? Wait around for the poker game tonight. That's when it gets interesting."

I kill a few hours with the afternoon crowd. I buy drinks for some of them, and in return, I get their stories. All of them tell slightly different tales, with certain commonalities. All of them died just to prove that there was some threat, some danger, that another person would have to defeat.

When evening rolls around, the atmosphere changes. As more lost souls enter, the mood seems to lighten, as old comrades reunite and talk flows more easily back to days gone by.

The poker game the bartender told me about is apparently a regular occurrence. At the appointed hour, he gives me a signal, and I head to the back room. Inside, it's even darker than the main bar. Six people sit around a table which is strewn with card, chips, cigars and the other accoutrements of of a game of texas hold 'em in full swing. Darnell has spoken to them, so they have kept a seat for me.

I introduce myself, and give a brief overview of the article I've been sent to research. "What I need," I say, "is a story of the worst treatment an ancillary science-fiction character has received in the name of plot."

The two people opposite me, who have the air of a married couple, exchange sideways glances. "Can I ask what happened to you?" I ask the man.

"We just got turned off," he replies. "We were in The Matrix. The original one, not the sucky sequels. We were on the crew of The Nebuchadnezzar, and then we get unplugged, and never mentioned again. Even the mechanics had an extended family that showed up in the sequels. It was like we never existed."

His partner puts her hand on his arm to comfort him. "We didn't even get to do any Kung Fu."

"Damn right!" He pounds his fist onto the table, making the poker chips jump. "Biggest action movie of the decade, and our one and only and only action scene is us shooting at some cops and then running away. The most important thing I did with a gun was hand one to Neo."

"That's nothing," says the man to their left. "I didn't even get kill anything before The Borg got me."

I have been taking notes this time, and quickly interrupt to get their names. The couple call themselves Switch and Apoc (I never got their real names) and the new speaker is Lieutenant Hawk. I ask him to continue.

"Sure, I got given a name, which is more than some of the other crew. But the second I was asked to go out on the ship's hull with Picard and Worf, I knew I wouldn't be coming back. But that's part of wearing the red uniform, you know? You expect this when your name isn't in the credits." He pauses, takes a sip of his drink, and stares absently at his cards. I wait for a second, unsure if he is finished speaking, then he continues, "But it's what came next that really hurts."

The others at the table groan in unison; they've clearly heard this story before. Hawk ignores their protests. "I was put into the expanded universe. I was the main character of a book, set before First Contact. This was it, I thought to myself. Life after Redshirt death. I was over the moon, until I actually read the book. You know what the authors did? You know what they did to me?!" He directs this question at me with such force and vitriol, I am not sure how to react.

"They made you gay," the smiling gentleman sitting between us quickly interjects.

"They made me-" Hawk seems disappointed. "Have I told you guys this before?" He ducks to avoid a barrage of poker chips thrown by the other players.

"Olson's the name," says the man between us. "I was chief engineer of the Enterprise. Briefly."

I order us all a round of drinks (it's at times like these, I thank heaven for a journalist's expense account) and ask Olson to tell me his particular tale of woe. He happily obliges while dealing the next hand.

"Well," he begins in his clipped British accent, "there we were, just Kirk, Sulu and I. Our orders are to dive down from low orbit and destroy a Romulan drilling device. As we get closer and closer, the adrenaline rush is intense, so I leave it to the very last minute to open my 'chute. When I do, and am about to execute a perfect textbook landing, I'm suddenly blinded by a lens flare. Well, I miss my footing, bounce a couple of times, and over the edge of I go. The wind takes me, and Woomp. Into the laser drill's drilling laser." He clicks his fingers theatrically. "Instant incineration."

I have to tell him that this was an impressive story, but not what my paper was looking for. "It's not really a story of being treated poorly," I add, "it's sort of... awesome."

He smiles again. "I know. I just love telling it."

To my left, the two players who have yet to speak shake their heads sadly. They are both older than the rest of the room's occupants, and there is something about them that says one of them might have the story I'm looking for.

The one at my left elbow looks me straight in the eyes. "You want to know about Red Shirts? The expendable ones? I can tell you all about them."

The others go quiet. "My name is Major Hayes. I led the MACOs on Enterprise. You know who the MACOs were?"

I admit to him that I never watched Enterprise. Hayes smiles for the first time I have seen. "Don't worry," he whispers conspiratorially, "no-one did."

He continues: "The MACOs were Army to the Starfleet Navy. The ones brought aboard Enterprise were cannon-fodder, pure and simple. We had a rule: If one of us went on a mission, he had to clean out his quarters before he beamed down, so we could move someone else in straight away."

"So you were expecting it? To be killed in the line of duty?"

"Honestly? I was never sure. Yes, I was a MACO, but I had a name and a rank. I had conversations that went beyond I wonder what's down this darkened tunnel, stay here while I go look. I had a backstory, and I engaged with the bridge crew. But I should have seen what was coming."

Hayes stacks and re-stacks his chips in front of him while he considers the cards in his hand.

"I was the commander of red-shirts. The red-shirt of red-shirts, if you will. The show's producers weren't going to have me eaten by a monster of the week, or disintegrated by stray disruptor blast. Disrupted by one, I mean. My death would have to mean something."

He holds his hand in front of my face, the index finger and thumb about half an inch apart. "This close! I made it this close to the end of the season, and then BAM! Episode 23 of 24, and I'm toast."

"Wow," I say. "Just two more episodes, and you would have made it to season four."

"Thank heaven for small mercies," is his reply.

By now, it's almost three a.m. The bar in front has closed, and we seven are the last people in the building. There's only one person left who hasn't told me his story. In fact, over the several hours I have been here, he hasn't said much at all.

Finally, he puts his cards, face-down on the table in front of him, and leans back in his chair. "Colonel Henry Boyd, SGC. I was commander of SG-10. Now, SG-teams aren't exactly renowned for their life expectancy, and the higher the number in your team name, the shorter it gets. We went on one mission as a team, and it was to P3W-451."

He grabs a stack of chips and throws it onto the growing pot.

"It seems that P3W-451 was near the event horizon of a black hole, and was being pulled apart by tidal forces, killing all life on its surface. If that wasn't enough, the gravitational effects were causing time to slow down, and an increasing rate. So no matter how fast we ran, as time continued to slow down, we would never reach the gate and get home."

"Like Zeno's paradox of the tortoise." I volunteer.

"Just so," he says with a nod. "But that's not the worst of it. Against all the odds, we manage to dial out, but the wormhole closes in less than a second. Probably because time is moving slower on the Earth-side. A few seconds later though, it opens again. Out comes a M.A.L.P. probe, then some smoke, and then Captain Carter's dog tags, for some reason. This is followed by a broken gate iris - which really hurts by the way, when it's launched at your face by an inter-stellar wormhole network - a bunch of broken glass, and Colonel Frank Cromwell. Then the wormhole closes again."

"Wow, that sounds pretty bad-" I begin.

"Oh, there's more. A few minutes after that - we were about half-way through dialling another planet to see if we could escape, while picking the broken glass out of our hair and faces - the gate opens again. Cromwell was sure it was O'Neill sending a rescue mission. I wasn't so convinced. Apparently, over two years had gone by in the outside world by that time, and for reasons I won't go into, SG-1 needed to blow up a sun. They had dialled us, and then dropped their stargate into the star they needed to explode. The gravity on our planet, lensed through the wormhole, sucked through about a bazillion tonnes of burning hot stellar plasma. Right into our faces. Being hit by the shattered remnants of a broken iris felt like a full body massage in comparison."

The others around the table fold their hands. Boyd has won the pot.

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