Big Echo

Critical SF


by Wm Henry Morris

SafeForge Incident Report




Everyone (except me)


SafeForge (the entire station)


SafeForge is an orbital station converted from an asteroid in the BN37 star system to mine heavy metals from the asteroid belt as well as serve as a refuel station for the infrequent occurrence of ships traveling between the two clusters of TheHub and BurstRose. The human component of the station was comprised of 233 individuals. A protectorate of the Materials Alliance Group, it operated as a self-regulating cooperative set at 15% member fluctuation, a cap of 10% admin, and 20% minimum gruntwork per cooperativist. The minimum buy-in was 5,000 toil cycles. The official culture designation was technocratic agnostic with high altruism and low deviation from galactic standard.

That's the official line. But here's the truth: the station's isolation had led to a higher than standard localized culture and a high self-perpetuation state (89.3%) as well as proto-animism. I believe this is an example of what The Flangent Group has identified as closed system inductive drift. At the very least, there existed a slavish devotion to minor (or miner [as it were]) superstitions.

For example:
Although there was no reason to, every shift the miners would draw numbers to determine the order they would leave the station for their excavators. They would use the same stack of cards until there was an accident that either damaged machinery or led to the injury or death of the operator. After such an occurrence, they would publicly incinerate the stack of cards and prepare a new one.

Another example:
Women in a state of gestation always walked the corridor for their morning exercise that had been walked by the first woman who successfully brought a child to term on the station. Though the corridor had later been extended during an expansion, the historical end of the corridor was still marked by a stripe of red paint. The women never crossed it while exercising. There was a rumor that women who crossed the line had a higher chance of miscarriage or other unfortunatalities. [Yes, that's inexcusable word play. I'm leaving it in. Maybe it explains something.]

One time (before my parents moved to the station), a group of teenagers thought it would be amusing to paint over the line and paint a new one several feet into the newer section. According to rumor, all the women who were gravid at the time lost their babies and the four culprits stole an excavator and crashed it into Riva, the gas giant that is the nearest planet to the station. This sounds like one of those cautionary tales generated by necessity rather than events, but I found the documentation. It's delightfully ambiguous on whether the shuttle was stolen or provisioned. [That word delightful is a red herring: if I were truly interested in the gray technicalities of bureaucratic cover-ups, I would have found more joy in my admin internship and would right now be exercising petty retributions on the still-living cooperativists of SafeForge.]

Also: yes, the name of the station turned out to be quite ironic: Ha. Ha. Ha.


The station is in complete disarray. Many systems are down. All sectors (but mine [and I'm barely holding on]) are derelict. All 24 mining excavators are missing or destroyed. I am unable [and, to be honest, unwilling] to do detailed assessments.


I know I'm supposed to feel different now that it's gone, but SafeForge has never felt like home to me. Perhaps it is this distance that created the necessary conditions for me to write this report. Perhaps not, especially since it has taken me so long to file it. I should explain further. But to do so requires starting at the beginning. Kasstel writes that beginnings rarely matter in the end. Maybe they're right. Maybe it wasn't the beginning where things went wrong. And yet as I did the research necessary to prepare this report, I found myself returning to it again and again.

So: I was a lonely child. My research suggests that nearly everyone says they are. I have come to believe that this claim is proof of the narcissism which is bound up in any attempts to reflect on a childhood: to claim loneliness is to hint at thoughtfulness and uniqueness. Who, after all, wants to claim that they were a noisy, thoughtless, joiner of a child who spent all their time reacting to other children, head full of play? No, much better to be a child apart from the world: in one's own little world: creating the oddities and concerns that can bring insight and novelty to the world once refined by education and experience. Or to put it another way: it is a way to sidestep the naiveté, to not be implicated in the cruel innocence of children. Still: I actually was a lonely child. I can prove it thus:

I was born on DromePort to ordinary parents: conceived and gestated in the ordinary way: raised in as comfortable (ordinary) and stimulating (ordinary) environment as my parents could afford. In my sixth year, my parents were accepted into the SafeForge cooperative. I now know that this had been their original goal--that I had been one step in their qualification for membership. I mention this not to deflect blame, but rather to provide a fuller picture of the situation.

One would have hoped that such a backwater would have very few children, but the locals had taken advantage of its insignificance and isolation to go on a procreation spree. In my pool of children, there were 17 of us: only 20 less than the much larger colony in which I had been born.

This abundance pleased my parents. The consequences for me were devastating: the move only solidified my middle-of-the-packness in an even more provincial location. I tried to fend off the sociable enthusiasms of the others, but there are only so many places to hide on a small, increasingly crowded station, and I was not so socially defective as to desire to isolate myself completely so I often was forced to join in. This was abetted by my parents, who were delighted to see that my--in their words--“friends” wanted to play.

Except they didn't: I have verified this in my review of the creche feeds. They wanted me to run with the pack, but gave me no role within it. Once I joined, they ignored me completely. I was only present for them in my absence. Once that presence was discovered they would hound my parents or sniff out my quiet spots so that I would be forced to join in.

One might think a child such as I would turn to art. My education file shows that some attempts were made to nudge me in that direction, but to no avail: I showed neither talent nor interest for the foundations and lineaments of any particular art form. At most I exhibited a slightly higher than average eagerness to consume the communal entertainments to be found on the station, which were paltry in number and thin in value, consisting mainly of screen-based slice-of-life narratives and live imaginative role-inhabiting/swapping (where, incidentally, I always played the overly serious project chair/captain/lead). In fact, I have no memory of and can find no record of me ever accessing the masterworks database until I began crashing about manically doing the research required to write this report. I have spent quite some time with it since then. My parents never seemed to worry about me. Why should they? I never stole rations, or moved sensors, or flooded the network with crude images or dirty jokes. Speaking of jokes: I somehow never grew out of the stage of development where children tell dumb ones. This is likely because my parents, especially my father, laughed uproariously at every one I told, no matter how hoary or unsophisticated.

Let me illustrate with one that is representative:

Q: What did the miner say to the asteroid? A: I dig you. [For those unacquainted with space mining operations, it's funny not only because it plays on the dual meaning of the word dig but also because heavy machinery operators are known for their monosyllabic literalness, especially in their expressions of romantic interest. Or to state another truism: a miner is always only after one thing.]

Or how about this one?

Q: What's the difference between butt waste and a vitprot bar? A: Shit if I know. [Alternate punchline: shit isn't what it used to be]

These all should have elicited groans from my parents, but instead were met with laughter every time. Even the fifth time and the seventeenth time and the thirty-first. Even after I entered my teen years. Even after my mother died in a freak accident.

My peers were no better. They also always laughed. Not as hard or long as my father, but they still laughed. And yet as I grew more self-aware, this laughter only reinforced my loneliness. It always seemed to create distance between me and the person laughing; whereas, I was looking to bridge it: to find some kinship: some spark between brains. It never was clear to me if I was being humored or laughed at or merely causing some reflexive action. So I told the jokes, each time hoping that this would be the time where things clicked. And they always laughed.

Little did they know that after I finally grew out of these jokes, I had one more to tell. One that would grow horribly wrong. But that was yet to come and even after writing all this I feel like I'm forcing narrative on to the truth of my childhood and adolescence. Granted, it's a narrative that I, myself, have forced, but I'm not entirely convinced, and I will never know how convincing it is to anyone else. As the poet Sleek wrote: I been back and forth in my mind / like a faulty switch / swinging between possibilities / never landing on which.


None (because they're all dead). I strained my lower back while dragging bodies to the recycler, but that was post-incident. It has healed over the past couple of months.


It occurs to me that there may be some questions about why it has taken so long to file this report. I want to start by emphasizing that what finally happened was not in the plan at all: I did not want to destroy SafeForge. Keeping that in mind, believe me when I say that this report is not some exercise in nostalgia or exorcism or self-justification. It is a reconstruction: meticulously documented, exhaustively researched, corroborated where possible. (Of course, much of the documentation is gone, even my exhaustion has its limits, and those who can corroborate are all dead.) In addition, I have sifted through a multitude of research looking to situate this event in a theoretical framework that would be useful to those who will be doing a more thorough post-mortem [Sorry. Really: truly: sorry] of the failure. It seems to me that I have failed to find the right one, although I do not know if that is because of my deficiencies as a researcher and analyst or because I am too close to the situation. Indeed, even though I will likely never see the final Galactic Auditors report, the desire to provide something that will contribute positively to that report [but, hopefully, without biasing it] is what led me to finally completing this form.




This is where it gets complicated. And requires more information on my upbringing, specifically my adolescence and early adulthood.

I don't think much needs to be said on issues of sexuality:
I was in the lower end of the middle third in terms of frequency and number of partners. My partner profile centered around the descriptors: gentle, adequate, attentive, consistent.

Schooling and career fit requires a bit more detail:
I have already expressed my ordinariness. This inevitably translated to mediocrity in studies. I was cautiously interested in but never passionate about everything. Ironically, this dull dilettantery (please don't be impressed with the turn of phrase: I stole it from Shon Za 8) meant I was the only one in my group to rotate through every single occupational exploration station. As you should by now anticipate, I showed no strong affinity but also no strong aversion to any of the occupational tracks. I also exhibited only a very weak desire to leave the station. But even if that desire had been stronger, it wouldn't have mattered. Neither my psych profiles nor my evaluation scores were good enough to afford me that opportunity; while at the same time I was unwilling to commit (at least until it was too late) to manifesting the anti-social behaviors that would get me immediate passage on the next ship out.

In order to understand the next part I must explain this:
During my career exploration, I served a stint at the med station. It was quickly discovered that I lacked the urgency to be of use in emergency treatments or surgeries and the empathy to assist in non-emergency care, so I was assigned to behind-the-scenes stuff: sample analysis, ongoing treatment preparations, etc. For once, I became intensely curious about something: why were more than half of the residents of SafeForge being slipped synapse stabilizers in their vitprot bars (which I had a hand in preparing for the 40 remaining toil cycles of my med term)? I don't know why I was trusted with this information. That's a lie. I know exactly why: see everything above. But anyway: one of the medtechs let it slip that many of the members of the cooperative needed a little extra help so their moods stayed within the ranges needed to cope with station life. Clearly, they were trying to make the job I was doing seem more important and/or interesting. Not smart. But how were they to know? I was to find out later that this was just one of many indications that SafeForge had slipped into monocultural torpor. As Dinduh-Rae sang: How were I to know / You were this dumb? / With up your butt / Your only thumb? [So sorry. I may be experiencing the effects of long-term sleep deprivation.]

And now I must explain this:
You already know about the jokes. I also went through a phase where I became quite interested in accounts of practical jokes. All of my peer group did. That's how it works, right? Somebody dredges up some bit of gold from the archives; the rest go frantically panning for other nuggets with which to impress the group. Once that plays itself out, it's on to the next thing. Except with this one I kept up my search. Not obsessively: consistently. Which is how, several years later, I came across it. It was, as such things often are, buried in a report.

There are hard limits to the miscreantsy that teenagers on a station can get up to: limits so effectively drilled in that the kids aren't aware of them.

For example:
One does not mess with anything that could affect station pressure.

Another example:
One does not do anything that could diminish or taint water supply.

However, this is where the ingenuagility effect invariably comes in: the limits created by the unthinkable mean that the thinkable often becomes that much more twisted. The report gave me the basic idea, but the details on how it was carried out were heavily euphemized. I had to read between the lines and draw certain inferences. It wasn't that hard. Now, though, I wonder if I completely misinterpreted the nature and scope of the prank.
Synthesizing the chemicals was easy (I expressed interest in doing another cycle in the components lab: this was such a rare occurrence that it was immediately granted and largely unsupervised). So was the delivery system (the vitprot bars). Clearly, I made a mistake in the amounts or in my understanding of how soon they would flush through an individual's system. I also probably shouldn’t have paired it with the removal of the stabilizers from the vitprot bars: I thought it would intensify the effects: I was correct. [To my horror.]


I have assigned myself the primary blame. But I believe I was only the spark that lit the tinder. Tharsten's work on systems failure has been quite useful in explaining what happened next, especially their observation that the search for inflection points forces a narrativistic perspective which is generally not useful at rooting out core causes. I don't have the expertise to generate a multi-nodal analysis, but I suspect the rest of the incident was caused by the systematic, cascading social failure of the human components of the station: a collective fall into delusion and violence.


I'm sorry if that all sounds a bit dramatic. And yet it was. I have had to quarantine the feed archives to stop my obsessive viewing of them. I will give only four examples of each phase [Fillip Skance: Four is always more (than three)]. You can isolate out the rest from the feed archives [which have now been coded to open only by input of a Galactic Auditor credential].

At first it was amusing (which is what I was going for): A shift supervisor paired the specialists up by the euphony of their kin names. A food tech over-sugared the pre-shift bowl of grains. A group of teens acted out the tragedy of the galactic family dressed in bedsheets and vacuum hoses.

Then it was disturbing (which is where I began to be alarmed): The off-shift miners had words and fists with the ore processors over accusations of credit shaving.
A creche leader ran calisthenics until the children collapsed. The admin team refused to process any fatigue exemptions. A group of teenagers formed a jeering circle around an elderly cooperativist.

Then it was terrifying (which is where I isolated myself): Three of the shuttles bringing back ore tried to weave a double scissors and split into each other. A surgeon overrode the robotic controls and scalpeled a forested mountain with river scene onto a patient’s skin. An irate shift-supe flushed an insubordinate subordinate out an air lock and then shortly afterward received the same treatment from the remaining irate shift workers. The counselors opened up the medstores and the corridors soon filled with the dazed, the psychotic, the failing.

And so I was a coward cowering, but one provisioned and isolated, brain chemistry intact, and with access to most of the video, audio and system feeds available on the station. And so SafeForge fell. And so I researched and wrote this report.


So many. But it boils down to this: whether the failure was that of the system that produced the individual [Me!] or of the individual itself [Also: Me!]. I am, obviously, too close to the problem to offer a definitive answer, but I hope this report will provide an adequate starting place. Every end has a start. I wish you luck in finding it.


After the audit, SafeForge should be (at most) the object of a salvage operation.


I would hurtle SafeForge into BN37, but I don't know how. I'd carry out justice directly on myself, but I have too healthy a sense of self-preservation. I'd keep things running indefinitely, but the enviro systems still working are reaching the limits of my knowledge of how to maintain them. If by some outlandish coincidence you receive this report in time to help, don't come for me until after they fail: that would ruin the joke.

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