Written for Pod and Planet YC117 fiction contest
Author: Sugar Kyle
Todaki VI - Moon 1 - School of Applied Knowledge
The door cycled open and Nikol was greeted by a wash of stagnant air. It was not foul but she still felt her nostrils flare as it wafted over her and left a bitter taste on the back of her tongue. "Contamination?"
"The air is clean," responded the security officer. Vekosi, she reminded herself. She needed to know people not uniforms. "It's been on pure recycle for a while," he said, eyeing the notification by the portal. "No toxins. Normal organic composition. Oxygen is low but not hazardously so."
"Someone needs a shower," she responded and stepped through the doorway into the room. "Pull a sample for a complete analysis and then start a full scrub. I am not going to breath in some pseudo-demigod's filth."
Sterile, was how she would describe it. Silver, and silver again. A long couch occupied one side and the flicker of the vid the room's only illumination. Swathed in shadow, an empty bunk held a single blanket. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust to see the back of the head silhouetted against the vid.
She breathed again. The air had the same, dead quality to it. The fresher air from the station, rich with metallic undertones, seemed unable to penetrate the room. "Lights," she snapped. "Override, Onis 345D-765L-10H." Illumination chased back the dark shadows. "Capsuleer Jul," she snapped. "I am Investigator Nikol Onis." There was no reaction. No movement of the head. The short, thin blond hair hung still. Nikol kept her step soft as she swung a wide arc around the couch. The capsuleers profile came into view. Strong nose, full lips. The vid's lights reflected in unblinking eyes. She paused. A breath. A long pause. Another. The eyes never moved. Both hands rested in his lap. Nikol took another step and waited.
"Capsuleer Jul," she said again. No flicker of awareness to her presence. "Vekosi," she said. "Get me a full medic team in here." She could hear her words relayed as she watched the capsuleer. The slow, slight breaths where the only indication of life. She assessed the rest of the room. No weapons. No sign of food or water. Her steps had left faint impressions in a thin layer of dust. There were no other disturbances.
How long had he been here like this?
The question followed her as the medical team responded. They slipped into the room and the medic crouched in front of the capsuleer. He did not respond. She flicked a light into his eyes and moved one of his limp arms. Another monitor slid into the port at the base of his neck but first they had to blow dust away from the port. Efficiently, they checked the man's vitals but Nikol saw the same question echoed in their eyes. How long had he been here? LIke this?
"What is wrong with him?" Nikol got to ask hours later in School of Applied Knowledge's capsuleer medical facility. She had walked through the long, transparent tunnel that arced over the clone holding chambers. Below, millions of lights illuminated the silvery capsules that housed capsuleer bodies. Bodies that were empty of consciousness. It had been tough to repress the chill the shadowy chamber gave her. She did not wonder that the Amarr considered capsuleer's soulless. Now, she stood in a small room with the comatose capsuleer fully tied into the medical facility.
"I'd say his mind has been wiped," said the doctor. "It is similar to when they move their conscious from one clone to another, but Capsuleer Jul does not have a registered jump clone."
"Is that normal?"
"Normal enough. Some of them are state bodies. Even after they change, they are still just like us. Some never develop a taste for spaceships. Some spend years learning before they go look for work. Capsuleer Jul was one of those. He has never left the School of Applied Knowledge."
"Is this normal?"
"No. Not that i have seen. But you may want to talk to someone that can access capsuleer records."
"CONCORD then." She turned and paused. "Thank you, Doctor. What will happen to him now?"
"He will go into the deep freeze for now, until CONCORD rules on this. I will send you a copy of my report."
"I would appreciate that."
***Yulai IX - CONCORD Bureau
The diplomatic shuttle slipped into one of the smaller hangars on the underside of the massive station. Nikol had been fortunate to catch the transport. An enormous freighter floated above them. Connectors snaked between it and the station as a cloud of container drones loaded and unloaded the massive ship. Nikol felt like a child and she had to stop herself from pressing against the glass to gape at the enormous silver-gray ship. A fleet of Velators sped past, their antics a dizzy swirl as they swooped over the station and vanished into warp.
The shuttle slipped into the long, low hangar and settled upon a circular platform. It docked and a hum engulfed them as an energy field surrounded the ship and separated it from the open vacuum of the hangar. Nikol straightened her uniform jacket. A diplomatic envoy from the School of Applied Knowledge draped in a silver robe embroidered with the school's logo, preceded her. “Good luck to you, Investigator,” said the ancient envoy. “It is a disturbing thing that has happened.”
Nikol bowed. Two more capsuleers had been found before she left Todaki VI. The situation’s had been identical. Her search had unearthed a dozen more, scattered around the Caldari systems. All had been at the schools that had originally accepted them for training after their ascension to capsuleer. All of them had been found in the same, catatonic state. Now she had a list of questions that only grew longer every time she opened the file. Something was happening and there was only one place that held broader knowledge of what was going on with the capsuleers.
Nikol could not shake the feeling that she should not be involved in this. She was a human investigator, recently elevated to monitor the school. It was a starter post. One used for centuries for investigators. No one, as far as she could find, had a situation like this happen. Biomasses? Sure. Capsuleers were still human at their core and it was the only true death left to them. Even they sometimes got tired of their lives.
A skimmer had arrived and Nikol found herself enroute to the security office. More natural, and sleeker, a dizzying array of plantlife flickered by under the skimmer. A bird or two called from taller trees, their bright wings flashing and flickering as they avoided the skimmer lane. "How are they not hit?" she asked the driver.
"They are the descendents of the smart ones," he responded with a laugh. "Genetic engineering at its most basic." She laughed with him and watched the birds wheel overhead. It was peaceful and simple in a way her life had not been for years. She had never been in a station that vibrated life in the way this one did. Thick green branches draped across coordinators and streams bubbled along mossy rocks under arched bridges. Yulai might belong to CONCORD but it spoke vividly of its Gallente origin and age.
“Investigator Onis,” a young man greeted her. “I am Lieutenant Scrix.”
“Lieutenant.” She shook the young man’s hand. He was slim and wiry of build. For some reason she had expected a more generic, super trooper look from a CONCORD officer. He was relaxed under her inspection and waited until she was done. “It is good of you to meet with me.”
“Of course,” he answered. “Your report was quite useful,” he said as he headed towards one of the drop tubes. “We’ve been getting piecemeal reports in for a few weeks. But your investigation tied everything together. Quite neat, it was.”
Nikol felt herself glow a bit under the cheerful praise. It was unexpected. “Do you know what is going on?”
He looked at her. His eyes were a dark brown that she would call warm at any other time. They belied his youth. His eyes were experienced. “Yes. Some of it.” The good cheer left his expression for a moment. “If you will come with me?”
They walked across the gold star within a star mosaic of the CONCORD logo. Nikol felt odd as she walked. In the academy they had a symbol of the School of Applied Knowledge that no recruit was allowed to walk across. They must respect the symbol. Those memories surfaced as they walked. Her feet wanted to skirt the symbol.
“Of course.” Nikol followed Lieutenant Scrix past the entrance to the Concord Investigation Archives.
“As I said earlier, you’re query came at the right time.”
“I do admit, I expected a bit more resistance.”
“I know that Concord has a reputation.” He smiled at her. It was remarkably open and did not match the severe uniform. “It is both founded and unfounded. I don’t work in diplomacy. I work with cases. Anyone who can help us with answers is welcome in my investigation.”
“It is some hybrid of their education tech. We are not sure where it comes from. We have people trying to reverse engineer it, but it is a nasty piece of work,” Scrix’s voice was grim. “What do you know about capsuleers, Investigator?”
Nikol paused for a moment. “They are people. People who have been able to survive moving their conscious from their original bodies. It changes them. Death is a technical barrier instead of a physical fact.” Her position had not often put her into contact with capsuleers. Few of them committed crimes or infractions that would come across her desk. “The ones in the academy are normally new. They seek education.”
“Capsuleers as we know them have only been around for twelve years, Investigator. YC105 was the year of the capsuleer. Your society and that of all of the empire’s has radically changed in that time. It feels as if it has been forever, but it has been a scant number of years when we look at it. That means we are still learning. Only, what we know isn’t static. Capsuleers are people. That makes them unpredictable.” He laced his hands behind. “Aspiring. They dream and hope and want. Capsuleers are inspiring. They are why I joined Concord.”
Nikol looked out the window into a vast bay that opened up to space. In it hung a detached set of massive engines. Long cables snaked from backs of computers and connected into them. Suited figures hovered beside it. “Engines?”
Scrix stopped to admire the scene. “That is also why I joined Concord. Impressive, are not they? A new proposed capital propulsion engine. We are the only bridge between capsuleers and the empires that is somewhat neutral. The goal is to keep both sides as honest as we can.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to care about the politics of capsuleers.” She stood beside him. Cool gray uniform besides dark blue black and gold. The wall did not mirror their reflections but instead let them overlook the cold, dark depths of the disembodied engines.
“We don’t. But, those ships carry more than capsuleers. They also pilot them in neutral territories and unsecured space. We may not be able to respond everywhere, but we can try to put in some failsafes to stop some idiot from overloading their dreadnought and taking out a station.”
“Or some idiot from building in the overload?”
“You understand, Investigator.”
“I hope.” They walked. Nikol had wondered why they did not take a lift or ride a skimmer. Yet, as her feet covered the broad, well lit hallways, she realized that Scrix was helping her. He was letting her move past her awe of CONCORD as he gave her an informal tour at the same time. By the time they stopped in front of a triple plated door, Nikol was ready for her curiosity to be satisfied.
In a structure of impressive arches and doorways, the one they came to was simple. “Answers, Investigator,” said Scrix. Nikol stepped inside the door and stopped. Across the room, a woman stood. She was tall with long, wavy brown hair. Bright silver eyes caught the light and seemed to shine. She was lovely if severe but there would have been something engaging if her face had held any expression.
Nikol stared at herself.
Lieutenant Ha’al Scrix relaxed his grip on his blaster. It was a small, compact weapon, almost innocuous. Inside, it packed half a dozen hybrid, plasma charges. For such a small weapon it could rip a hole through light armor. It would certainly have stopped Capsuleer Nikol Onis. She would not have been the first Capsuleer he had terminated. However, the situation looked stable at the moment.
“That is me,” she said. Her voice, so soft barely rose above the hum of the filtration system. “Why is there a clone of me?”
“You left her here.” Capsuleer Onis looked stunned as she stared at her clone. A clone that she had left at this very station two years ago. A clone she did not seem to have expected. Six months ago you left her here, after we dropped the standings requirements. You then left for Todaki VI.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A month ago, you walked into your old office on Todaki VI. You sat down to work as if you had never left. As if you had no knowledge that two years ago you took the ultimate risk and killed yourself to become a capsuleer.”
“What type of sick joke is this?”
“A joke, Capsuleer Onis? CONCORD has many habits but joking is not one of them. When you arrived at your post with no knowledge of the two years you had been gone, you office contacted us. We told them to keep track of you. When you slept, we put in a selective neural block so that you would not notice your own sockets.” Her hands groped the back of her neck and she recoiled at the touch of warm metal under her collar. “Somewhere along the line, Capsuleer Onis, you have had everything that made you a capsuleer ripped out of your mind.”
She seemed rooted in her place. “What?”
Scrix was grim.“We are pretty sure that you did this to yourself.” In his right hand was another weapon. It gave a short, soft bark and Capsuleer Nikol Onis collapsed to the floor. “We have to make sure you are not doing it to anyone else.”
Behind him, the door cycled over. “Dramatic, Scrix,” said the broad, powerful man that strolled in. “I should nominate you for something.”
“A bit,” he agreed. “I needed the shock value. She has been functioning smoothly so far. Capsuleer tech did not startle her. The investigation did not change anything. Maybe, confronting herself would do it.” He looked down at the still body on the floor as the medic team swept into the room. “I think not. We do have a problem, Sir. Someone is leaving capsuleers empty husks.”
“You suspected her?”
“She has been the best lead so far. A plant, perhaps? I’ve monitored her traffic for the last month. She has been genuinely investigating this situation.” He watched the medics load her onto a gurney. “She’s very good. It’s a shame she took the leap.”
“It is probably why she took the leap. She isn’t a fellow lawman anymore, Scrix. Keep it together.”
“I never lost it, Sir. Something is stripping their minds bare. I wish I knew what.” He followed the medics out of the room. Behind him, the clone closed its eyes.
“The status report for Capsuleer Onis, Sir.” Lieutenant Scrix stood at attention before a long, simple desk that curved across one corner of the room. Viewscreens hovered around the desk. The screens that had blocked the front of the desk faded into transparency. Behind it, more screens showed splashes of light as capsuleer ships exploded.
“Capsuleer Nikol Onis has been released from suspended animation. A neural remap was executed in an attempt to reconnect her to some of her capsuleer education. It has been partially successful and she is currently on a reeducation program. Extensive review of her contracts reveal an unfamiliar item noted as a trans neural packet. She purchased it from the NeX. A capsuleer only exchange. We don’t have a full analysis of all of the items advertised through this market.” One of the screens flickered and changed to a long list of numbers.
“She did this to herself, then,” was the murmured response.
“Yes. For quick ISK she pulled out a portion of knowledge for a direct transfer. Instead of detaching a small set of skills it cleared her mind of all of her capsuleer knowledge. The memory loss was a simple result of damage. Once confronted with what happened she began to reaccess her damaged memories. I expect that she will recover.” In a way, Scrix had liked Onis. Or, he had liked pre-capsuleer Onis. She had been passionate about her investigation. What made her leave her humanity behind when she had been so human? He, like every other member of Concord was medically disqualified from making the change.
“Your thoughts on this.”
“This will not be the last of this. Although damage has resulted across all cases we have studied, how will we know who has been successful? Somehow the capsuleers are trading skills or accelerating their education without the current educational feed.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“Yes, sir.” Lieutenant Scrix stared at the view screen of a slowly exploding Avatar. “I believe it will change everything.”