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Everyone knew that Blank Sheets made the best workers. A Distant Stars short story.
Jervais looked up and winced. “Blank Sheet coming,” he muttered.
It took Darrow a few seconds to pick out the man from the crew members in the messhall. The man in grey overalls looked like one of the huddled masses in the dimly lit messhall except for the tattoo on his forehead.
Three dashes, which meant he had three years on his term.
"Marking them on their forehead is low even for Captain Daccard," Darrow muttered. "Can't believe Command allowed this."
A Repurposed's mark should have been on his wrist, but Captain Daccard had other ideas.
"Heard that he hates them because of what they were and all that. And that they're unreliable. Unpredictable," Jervais said.
The Blank Sheet made his way through the maze of tables, his attempts at eye contact not reciprocated. The next shift was about to begin, and the men and women grimly shovelling food into their mouths were not interested in conversation, especially with a Sheet.
"They're empty databanks with limbs. Maybe with one or two command lines to make things interesting. How unpredictable can you get?" Darrow took a big bite out of the mottled husk that was supposed to be bread, but tasted more like recycled cardboard.
Everyone knew that Blank Sheets made the best workers. They obeyed without question, executed commands with a smile and never complained. Personality traits like these were extremely useful in deep space missions like theirs. Most became mining technicians or engineering moles who had to crawl deep into the bowels of a ship to clean out muck or, if they were really unlucky, plug radioactive leaks. Basically anything that Planetians didn't want to do.
Why waste good flesh when you can put them to work?
"What does this one do?" Frankly, Darrow wasn't interested, but he needed to think about something else besides the package he was supposed to deliver.
Jervais sneaked a look at the Blank Sheet. He was now carrying a tray and moving towards an unoccupied table at the far corner of the room. People moved away from him like he was wearing a vest coated with leapfire.
"Probably cleaning tubes or sewage or something."
Jervais snorted. "The man could've been a mass murderer. Nothing pitiful about those."
"Or he could be an idiot who looked at an Admiral's mistress wrong. You know how these things work. Besides, don't they like mass murderers in the war or something? They would've promoted him to general."
"I'm more concerned about what he will do," Jervais muttered, his forehead wrinkled into a deep frown.
Darrow noticed that his plate was untouched since the Blank Sheet walked past them.
Darrow tossed the bread aside. "Damn it Jervais, if you've forgotten to align the capacitors again—"
"Not that." Jervais looked at the Blank Sheet again, then shook his head as if to clear his head.
"Jervais, if you don't tell me—"
"I think I know him," he whispered.
It took him a few seconds to process that. Darrow blinked. "The Sheet? You know the sheet?"
Jervais nodded, looking once more to his right, then ducked down. "Shit, I'm sure of it now." He leaned close. "That wasn't supposed to happen, right? They don't station Repurposed personnel near anyone they know. Right?"
"How the faerk do I know?"
"I don't know-know him, you know?" Jervais whispered. "But I just happened to be on the same ship when he was there. He wore a black uniform with gold pips on his shoulders."
Black uniform ... gold pips. He suddenly felt cold. Faerk. He didn't expect this.
"Intelligence? He was intelligence?" Darrow frowned. "Do you think my neural chip was minted yesterday, Jervais? Why would intelligence visit a mining operation in the Outer Lands?"
"I don't know, but two men disappeared after he made his appearance. We don't ask questions when Command do things, you know?"
If it was a joke, Jervais was determined to see it all the way through.
"You know what I think? They pop the Sheets into every Planetian ship to remind us that that could be us one day." He pointed at the Sheet.
“Whoever thought up these creatures is sick in the head,” Darrow muttered.
Jervais raised his metal cup like he was offering a toast. “You and me both, kid.”
It didn't matter what anyone of them thought about the Repurposed. He and Jervais? They were one of the many faceless, low-ranking minions on a Planetian mining expedition of little significance. A fleck of dust on a machine barreling towards unstoppable goals.
But the Blank Sheet posed a complication to Darrow's already complicated day. Why must it be today of all days?
They ate in silence. The bell rang on time. As one, the crew from their tables, tossing their trays into a grimy bin at the exit.
Blank Sheet smiled pleasantly at them as he walked purposefully out of the mess hall for destinations unknown.
Speaking about unstoppable goals, Darrow had his own. He tossed his plate into the service bin, his eyes on the Sheet.
The Blank Sheet was tending to a maintenance panel. This was an especially isolated corner of the ship. The air was thick with the smell of grease and burnt out circuits, and the hum of the ship's engines was louder here. Sound dampeners were apparently not an important consideration for this area of the ship.
This, of course, made it the best place to collect his package.
"Late night?" Darrow asked, tapping the panel. "I thought Blank Sheets don't work after hours."
The man, caught off guard, turned to face him, wearing a slightly perplexed expression.
"Sheet?" Then, a pause. "Ah you mean, me?" He pointed to the mark on his forehead.
He had always wondered if Sheets were aware of what they were. I guess he had his answer now.
"I know how to fix things. That's what I'm programmed to do. So I'm here fixing things, even if it is after hours," the Sheet said, sounding about as animated as a cleaning robot on sweeping duty.
"You got a name?" Darrow frowned. "Do they give people like you names?"
"XR8765. But you can call me Prism. It's easier."
Prism? They were giving themselves names now? Darrow sighed, looking up at the stained, soot-covered ceilings and wondered why he had signed up for this. But the money was good, and his package was right there and the Mantorans were good paymasters. Should be an easy job.
They could've given him some notice though, damn it. The next ship bringing him out of here was not due until the next sun cycle. And that's about 48 hours away and if anything happened during the transfer...
But if he didn't do it now, he may loose his chance to tap into this guy.
He hadn't expected the package to be on this ship, damn it.
"There's always something that needs fixing. I hate being interrupted." Prism unscrewed the lid off another panel.
"We have something in common. Who knew?" Darrow squatted next to Prism, who lifted his eyes in question.
"You must have something really important in your head for them to bother this much," Darrow said.
He took out the device the Mantorans had given him just two sun cycles ago. It fit snugly in his palm, its round shape gleaming under the faint glow of ambient light.
"Just a little tap into your neural chip and we'll call it a day," Darrow said as the device grew warm in his palm. "It's not going to hurt. Much."
It stirred to life, first vibrating, then trembling as metallic legs slipped out of its smooth surface, extending outward gracefully, searching, probing. The sphere skittered across the floor, its spider-like legs propelling it forward towards the Blank Sheet.
The monitors went blank.
"This was the last transmission received from our asset on the Planetian outpost of Solus IV." Eric Waite took a deep breath and braced for the inevitable rage.
"That's all? That's what we get for our investment? A blank screen?" The man who demanded an answer was Peter Starling, the Chief Executive Officer of Mantora Corp's Innovation arm. While Waite may be a scion of the Waite family, his genetic heritage had absolutely little bearing in this meeting room and Starling was happy to use it to his full advantage.
Before Waite could reply, Elena Diane said: "I understand that you're frustrated. But we've been successful the last four times and this asset has always delivered. Perhaps—"
He glared. Diane was his undersecretary, but she had dreams of occupying his seat. But she was also extremely foolish to think that she could outmaneuver him in this board room.
Starling narrowed his eyes. "I'm not frustrated. I'm two million credits poorer. Are you going to repay me the loss?"
This time, Diane looked down and stared at her hands. Starling had bankrupted executives for less.
"We will do better, Mr. Starling," Waite said. "The incident has given us the opportunity to course correct and improve the delivery of the ... data."
Starling tapped his fingers on the glossy table.
Tik Tik Tik Tik.
"I want a report in a hour. No later." He pointed at Eric. "No faerk-ups in the next one, understood?"
He didn't bother to answer. Starling swept out of his room with his entourage of executives and enablers and it was just him and Diane.
Diane looked askance at Peter's departing figure.
"You didn't tell him," she said.
"It wasn't significant."
"It wasn't—" Diane turned, her face confused. She looked away when he glared.
"I want the report. I'll give you fifteen minutes. And speak out of turn again and you will spend the next ten years as an asset handler in the Outerworlds, understood?"
She looked at him squarely in the eyes this time. "Of course. The report will be on your table in five minutes."
When he was finally alone, he activated his tablet and watched the real last minutes of Gray Darrow, a low-ranking Planetian miner and Mantoran mole.
The memory probe skittered on the floor. Prism looked up and he became a blur.
The world tilted. Darrow grunted. Yelled, then screamed. Then, his cry cut off abruptly.
His vision blurred, then sharpened until it settled at the stained ceiling. As Darrow's vision narrowed and greyed, Prism came back into view.
The Blank Sheet sighed and wiped away a drop of blood from his cheek. "I hate being interrupted. There's always something that needs fixing."
And he slammed the bulkhead cover down on Darrow's face.
The screen went dark.
Waite sighed. "Not a complete blank, then."
He tapped "Encrypt File" and set the table aside.
It was time to activate the next asset.
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Originally, I thought of including the author’s notes at the end of the story, gated as the notes are only for paid subscribers.
However, I don’t really like how when you gate some of your content, Substack doesn’t allow you to leave comments unless you’re a paid subscriber.
This defeats the purpose of my sharing the story in the first place — I want feedback to improve my ficiton writing.
So, now, I’m creating a separate issue for that, to be published at the same time as this short story.
Speaking of feedback, these are the kinds that I’ll be grateful if you can share:
If you spot a spelling/grammatical error, let me know!
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