Interview with a Zwilnik

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(Written by kestrel404; posted January 18-19, 2007)

It took us two minutes with a 'waved scalpel to cut the remains of his space suit free. Sal and I were both sure he was a goner. No respiration, almost no pulse, and blood everywhere. No cuts, though. No open wounds. Just blood, around his mouth and down his front and covering the inside of his suit. We both figured the poor guy had major internal hemorraging from his suit rupture, massive internal bleeding, that kind of thing.

Crewing the first ambulance in space, we'd both seen this kind of thing before. Today, we'd seen it far too often. With the battle between the Reavers and the SOS-dan still in progress, we’d probably be seeing it all day.

Sally hopped into the front to set our course while I tried to keep our two passengers alive. The one on the right would live. Steady breathing, wearing an oxy mask. He probably had a concussion. He was the lucky one.

The other guys on the ship hadn’t had suits when their hull had been holed. One of them had been badly cut up, probably by shrapnel. Two more had died from exposure. The other guy through...

The last one was the mystery. He had a suit, but it was badly holed. He’d managed to tie it off with a dead man’s belt, but it had apparently been leaking slowly. When we got to him, the pressure in the suit was almost as low as Mars surface. And the internal bleeding. But for no good reason we could tell, he wasn’t dead.

Fighting off an urge to procrastinate further, I go over and check him. Not breathing. Pulse, but weak as hell. Blood pressure well below normal. That, at least, is something that can be addressed. Hoping that it won't cause more internal bleeding, I hook him up to an IV and sit back to watch my patients.

A few minutes later...

Usually, it's pretty obvious when somebody starts to wake up in an ambulance. There's a change in breathing, one of the monitors will ping, or at the very least the patient will groan and ask where they are.

But mister bloody, well, one minute he's still and silent as the dead, barely a beep coming from his monitor, and the next he's got his eyes open and he's giving me the coldest stare I've ever seen. He struggles for a moment against the tie downs holding him into the gurney, and then he relaxes and his eyes close again. A moment later, he takes a deep breath, his eyes flutter open, and he give the obligatory groan. I'm back into familiar territory, until he rasps out, "Damn, an ambulance."

Overcoming the momentary strangeness - you get a lot of strangeness out here, and I pretty used to it now - I try to calm him down. Struggling will only make the internal bleeding worse. "Lay still, don't try to talk. You've got..."

He cuts in over me, like he doesn't much care what's wrong with him. "Do me a favor."

I'm kind of used to this. Usually from the ones that know they're going to die. He's a pretty likely candidate, though the fact that he even regained consciousness is a good sign. Humoring him might be enough to keep him still. "Sure."

"Don't take these straps off me. No matter what else I say or ask for."

I stare at him blankly for a second.

"Later, I might ask you to loosen them up or something. Don't do it. I don't want to kill you."

That last bit gets my attention. The anger on my face must have beat out the what I was going to say, because he cut over me again.

"I'm not threatening, just stating a fact. I don't want to kill you, or anyone else. But if you let me up, I will. I won't be able to help it."

This is strange enough to stop what I was going to say. Puzzled, I watch him for a quiet minute, but he seems to be content to sit quietly. Finally, I ask him something that's been bothering me. "Who are you?"

He pauses to give this a bit of thought, and then gives me a sly grin. "No, I'm with the other ones now. The ones who draw up borders, control currency, handle all the decisions that happen transparently around us? I'm with them. Same group, different department."

It takes me a minute to place the refference, then understanding dawns. I'd walked right into that.

We'd picked him up off a reaver ship, after all. "So I should call you Justin then?"

'Justin' nods thoughtfully. "It's as good a name as any."

"I'm Jeff. Nice to meet you. I'd offer to shake, but..." He smiles vaguely at my lame attempt at a joke, and I re-check the monitors. His respiration is steady, now. And his heartbeat is stronger.

Blood pressure is up to a more normal level. It looks like the IV is helping. The other one is still out, but stable.<br/p <p>There's another moment of uncomfortable silence then. A reaver. Or a zwilnik, a boskone, a dark empirial. There are a dozen names for the 'fraction' that lived off of everyone else (including each other). I'd never met one before, and honestly I was curious.

"So, um...why?"

"Why what?"

I hesitated. It was probably rude to ask, but curiosity won out. It was still a long trip to the moon. "Why did you join" I couldn't think of a polite way to put it.

"Why am I a zwilnik, you mean? Why are you flying in an ambulance in space?"

I'm used to people who don't like to answer questions. I decided to humor him. "I like to help people. It..."

He interrupts me again. "No. Not the platitudes and rationalizations you tell yourself now that you're here. Not your inner reasonings and internal dialogues. There was no moment in your life when you got up in the morning and said, 'I think that I want to be an ambulance driver'. No. There was a desk, and a chair, and a pen, and a standardized form. It had checkboxes on it. Or maybe a computer screen with a standardized form. Forget about how you felt at the time. Forget about what you think you were thinking. For some external reason, it was very important that you choose the right checkboxes - your grades, your image, your parents, maybe even your ethics. And because you picked those checkboxes over some of the others, you ended up in an ambulance. And because you were different from everyone else, you managed to get your hands on a bucket of goop that could make your ambulance fly. And because everyone else was doing it, you poured some of that goop into the engine of your ambulance, and took off into space. Am I right?"

I nod. He might have been right. I mean, I never really had decided to be an ambulance driver. I'd applied for the job, but by the time I'd gotten out of college it was the only job I was qualified for.

"I had a standardized form too, the first time. I checked the boxes that made me a computer programmer. It wasn't hard work. And when Fen started taking off into space, I studiously avoided the super-goop. That kind of thing can get you fired from my kind of job. And I liked my job. And in the end, it didn't matter anyway. There is no desk and chair and standardized form before you become a zwilnik. Those are just ornaments. And what you're thinking at the time usually doesn't matter much, either. It was everything else - my family, my image, my life. 'What do you want?' is a good question, but in most situations a better one is, 'What do you not want?'"

I left Justin alone for a moment to check on Sally. "Well, Ms. Woods, I think both our patients will make it to the hospital, no thanks to me. How much farther?"

"Well, Mr. Crew, even with the lights on it's going to be a while. I can hear you talking back there. Did the big one wake up?"

"No, the bloody one did." She raised an eyebrow at that. I was always envious that she could do that and I couldn't. "He's very...strange."

The silence quickly became awkward after that, so I went back to make sure Justin wasn't falling asleep. He probably didn't have a concussion, but an alert patient is always better than an unresponsive one.

"" He looked at me curiously and I started again. "What did you do, as a..." I still had a hard time coming right out and saying it.

"I was a programmer."

I looked confused. It definitely wasn't the answer I was expecting. "Isn't that what you did before?"

"Yes, I was quite good at it."

"So, they, um, hired you because you were a good programmer?"

He grinned at me. His teeth were still stained red from the blood that was in his mouth when we found him. It made for a very malevolent grin. "No. I went to them because I had run out of choices. They accepted me because they always need more people. And they let me be a programmer because when their recruiter told me I was going to board ships for a living, I hit him with a crowbar until he changed his mind."

"Oh." It was all I could think of. It began to dawn on me that the person I was having a conversation with was not a nice person. In fact, he'd already admitted to murder at the very least.

"I just watched the first two times the recruiter came down and picked up whatever thugs were willing to go into space. There aren't many, you see, 'cause there are a lot of easier things to do for a living than try to hijack ships from very smart people flying very strange spaceships. Worse, most of the ones that are willing to go are complete idiots who couldn't 'wave a car and get a spaceship out of it. So, just about anyone that shows up and has more than two braincells to rub together for warmth gets into space. The recruiter shows up the first time wearing this stupid-looking brown spacesuit. Looks almost like it's made out of paper bags, cardboard, and a fishbowl. And he lets punks waving around uzis just waltz into a cargo container with him, cool as anything, and they take off. I figure that's the last time I'll see him, right? well, I show up the next time, and the same guy, wearing the same stupid suit shows up, grinning the same stupid-looking sly grin."

"This time, one of the thugs gets jumpy and tries to knife him while he's still walking carefree towards the cargo container. The knife hits, bounces, and cuts the next thug in line on the ricochet. The would-be ship stealer is then summarily pummeled by the guy he managed to cut, and dumped on the sidewalk. Everyone else piles into the ship, and it takes off. I stop to check on the guy. His knife is broken, and he keeps complaining that his hand is numb."

"The third time the recruiter shows up, I go along with the gang. I've got a set of earplugs, some hockey gloves in a backpack, and a crowbar. I'm not nearly the weirdest one in the group. There's also a couple of morons carrying shotguns, two more that appear to be unarmed, and another loner who's got a suspicious bulge under his jacket. We follow the guy into his cargo container, we're sealed in with him, and we lift off. The actual ship is attached to one end of the container, and it's not connected to us at all."

I was following the story all right thus far, but curiosity won out at that point. "Why not?"

Justin smiled. "Because they didn't want any idiots with no idea of how things work in space to try to hijack the transport. They let the recruiter wear a heavily armored spacesuit, and if things get really bad, they vent the atmosphere. Nothing the thugs bring with them can hurt the recruiter, and anyone stupid enough to try can be identified before they become a real hazard to the gang. Cold, but smart."

I nod, sickened slightly by the idea that they would just 'vent the atmosphere' if the group they picked up was causing trouble.

"So, the two with shotguns are the first to complain. The recruiter tells them that if they're claustrophobic, they shouldn't have come into space. Sounded like a well-used line to me. One of them starts to raise the shotgun at the recruiter, and my crowbar hits him in the nose. There's a rather tense moment as I calmly explain to him what would happen if he fired - with either shot or slugs loaded into the gun - in very minute detail. Most of the people in the room - except the recruiter - go green. They're all armed with guns. In a metal box. In space. With no spacesuits. I'm pretty sure that the recruiter usually explains them to them. Of course, I was also pretty sure that, even if the idiot were using slugs in that shotgun and fired it point blank at the wall, it wouldn't break through, but no point in mentioning that."

"The ride went rather smoothly after that. The recruiter gave a short speech on 'live in space', covered the chain of command, little as there is, and told us that we were all expected to start at the bottom, as grunts. This is what I took offense to. He laughed, and asked me what I was going to do about it. In response, I took out my earplugs and put them in. Then I took out my gloves and put them on. Then I proceeded to thrash at his joints and fishbowl helmet until we arrived. By the time I was finished, everyone else in the container with me had lost a bit of permanent hearing - including the recruiter. And I got my choice of assignments, by threatening a repeat performance."

Justin finished his story with a little shrug. I shivered.