By the time the beatings stopped, Rokan was barely even aware of what was happening. There had been rising increments of sharp pain, delivered to his ribs and his legs and his hands and his head, and then there was suddenly nothing but the dull, hazy, red-rimmed awareness of excruciating aches all over, fighting for their share of attention from his fading consciousness.
It was so late at night that even if he had dared to take his hands from his face, he wouldn't have been able to see. All he heard was the sounds, like slabs of meat being bashed by rocks.
He lay there, hunched in on himself. In the part of his mind that had gone very cold and analytical, he was amazed to find that he was unable to move. Also, he was lying in a small puddle of water, so he should have been freezing, but his body felt numbly warm.
Daring the world to poke and stab, he cracked open one eye, then the other.
It was hardly worth it. He was in the same alley as before, with his back to its mouth and his face to the wall. He saw light glinting off the puddle he was lying in.
Someone took a few steps behind him. The glint of light was blocked out.
A deep, raspy voice said, "I believe this is our man, Mister B."
A rather lighter and softer voice said, "I do believe you are correct, Mister H."
"Shall I hoist?"
"If you would be so kind."
Rokan was lifted up with such strength that it was as if he were weightless. Maybe he wasn't paralyzed, he stupidly thought; maybe he had simply died back there and these were the collectors who'd come for his remains.
But his body was hauled out of the alley - one of his captors said, "Look sharp now, young man, you're out of harm's way" - and set inside a hovercar that pulled up and hummed quietly. Everything hummed quietly, inside Rokan's head.
Coming in right after and taking their seats opposite him were two men in dark coats and hats, each at least a decade older than Rokan. Their faces betrayed no expression: They were neither cold nor confrontative but simply, Rokan assumed, at ease with who they were and with the purpose of what they were doing.
The warm numbness started to fade, and he gingerly tried to stretch his arms and legs. They obeyed, if creakingly. So he wasn't paralyzed. It must, he reasoned, simply have been the fear.
The two men did not look as if they were inclined to speak, and the windows were shaded so dark that Rokan couldn't see out, so his attention naturally turned to himself. He gingerly felt his face. His lower lip was busted, and one of his eyes felt swollen up.
The men apparently noticed this, because B regarded him for a moment, then reached into a pocket and handed him something. "Here. Put this on you, son."
Rokan accepted the thing. He regarded it with careful interest. It was a small round patch, sheer but with faint lines crisscrossing it like a gossamer web.
"It's a cure," B said. "Electrodes will cool down the swelling, and the silk they're embedded in will stick to your rather broken skin without harming it any further."
Rokan nodded his thanks. He peeled off the patch's protective skin and gingerly placed it on his face, as near the swollen part as he could tell. It felt nicely cool.
There was a slight bump on the drive and he winced, but his face didn't throb as much as he'd expected it to.
"Where are we going?" he asked them.
"We'll be there soon," the other man, Mister H, told him in a dulcet voice.
Rokan shifted in his seat, which made little lines of fire crackle throughout his body like veins in a lava outflow. He could move, though, and no bones seemed to be broken. He wondered if he could bolt from the hovercar - they were clearly keeping to low speeds - but decided not to take that thought any further. Whoever these men were, they had saved him from a terrible fate.
"Look, I don't want to sound ungrateful," he said. The two men regarded him with something resembling faint amusement. "But am I in even more trouble than I was before?"
"Lying in the street, being kicked to death by hooligans?" H asked him.
Rokan gave an awkward grin, feeling the skin on his face tear just a tiny bit. "They're, uh. They're maybe a bit more than that."
H seemed unconcerned. "You have talents, young man. They got you into trouble, and we aim to have them get you out."
Rokan closed his eyes and sighed. "Talents. So you know why they were after me."
"Of course we do," B said, quite jovially.
"I am not going to work for you." He opened his eyes again and gave them what he hoped was a defiant stare, though its effects were somewhat spoiled by the need to keep looking from one to the other. "I needed to get into that vault, and I tried, and I failed, and they were probably going to kill me for it."
B made a tch sound. "These people were amateurs who were going to beat you to a pulp. We really cannot abide that sort of behaviour." He leaned in. "We have a proper use in mind for you, young sir."
"Look ... you know what it is I do," Rokan protested.
"You break into secure places," H said. He had not leaned in but was sitting upright; in fact, to the best of Rokan's recollection, he not moved during the entire trip.
"I don't break into them. I just..." He shrugged. "I undo the locks."
"That place you were trying to 'undo' had some quite powerful, time-sensitive safeguards. Ones that are usually bypassed only by very complicated - and very expensive - AI procedures," H said.
"Those aren't that big a deal," Rokan said.
They raised their eyebrows at him; not in admiration, he suspected, but rather in genuine surprise.
"Of course" – he rubbed his bruises – "I didn't know about their backup systems. Or how quick the guards would come."
"You're pretty good at this kind of thing," B said.
"When I'm not getting beaten to shit? Yeah, I rather think I am," Rokan told them.
The car glided to a stop. They stepped out, Rokan waving off the offered support from his two rescuers and gingerly finding his feet on solid ground. They were in some manner of underground parking complex, cars all around them at regular intervals. Rokan had no idea where they could be. The walls were metal and opaque plastic.
"This way, please, sir," B told him, raising an arm in guidance down one of the marked walking lanes beside the cars. "Mind you keep to the path, now. Some of the vehicles come fairly roaring in here, and we don't want to put you at risk."
They led him out, up a series of steps that led to a door. B arrived first and quietly stood in front of it. There was a hiss, then an extended pause, followed by a click as the door unlocked.
"Scanners?" Rokan asked.
"Cellular. Gaseous form," H told him.
"Seriously? Why not ocular, or DNA?"
"Those rely on body parts," H said. "Can't trust them."
They walked through the door, down a well-lit corridor that led them to other well-lit corridors. Eventually they went into a room that Rokan half expected to be terribly uncomfortable, like an interrogation chamber or a prison cell.
It wasn't. It was smaller than he'd expected, and outfitted with a carpet on which stood three faux-leather chairs. Two of them were side by side, facing the third. Beside that one was a small machine, a square block with dials and screens, on top of which lay variously coloured patches similar to the ones he'd received in the car. The machine put Rokan in mind of the world's first robot. The lighting in the room was pleasant, originating part from a large semitranslucent bulb in the ceiling, and part from standing lamps located in each corner. There were pictures on the walls.
"You can be at ease, sir. We only want to engage your services," B told him.
He sat, and the chair quietly moulded itself to him. After the beating, and after the tension of the drive - where, he now realized, he had been scared rigid even though the seats had been quite comfy - he felt the tension at last seep out of him, as if he were a dirigible stretched full of air that had been pricked with the tiniest of holes.
"We want you to put these on," H said, indicating the patches. "They will feel a little ... grippy, maybe a little sticky for a moment."
He hesitated, so B added, "Oh, don't worry, sir, we'll turn our backs.”
"Where do I stick them?" he asked.
"Anywhere you like. They'll inject some things that can move around on their own."
He leaned forward and gingerly pulled off his shirt, wincing when he saw the muddy streaks of blood on one side, where he'd been cut, and the red welts on the other, where he'd been repeatedly kicked. As he applied the patches he found they stuck pretty well the moment they touched his skin. They adapted to his skin in a manner he didn't understand; after a little while he could barely see they were there.
B handed him a dry new shirt. He pulled it on and gave a pleasurable little sigh when he smelled its freshness.
"Who do you work for?" he asked them.
H, who was checking the machine, looked at him briefly and said, "A capsuleer," then returned to tuning the machine's dials.
The word raised such dread in Rokan that he felt as if electricity had been shot into his heart, doubling its beats and crackling out through his veins until it reached the skin of his fingertips. He gasped for air.
"Steady, now!" H said, raising an open hand with palm out either in placation or warning.
He took a deep breath. Whatever this was, it was bigger than he could probably handle.
B regarded him amiably. "Would you like something to drink?" he asked.
Rokan realized his throat was parched. "Yes, please," he croaked.
B left the room for a moment, then came back with a glass of water. Rokan drank it down. It was wonderfully cold.
He looked at the machine, which H had finished tuning. It was silent, but several of its monitors displayed ever-changing figures. "Do I have to ... I mean, what do I have to do?"
H said, "Nothing very much. At least not right away. We're just measuring some of your basic abilities. Do you feel anything?"
He sat there quietly, checking for itching, strange bumps, odd internal pokes, or anything he might not be imagining. The two men took their seats opposite to him and waited.
After a while he took in another deep breath and sank a little further into the chair, letting the backwash of adrenaline envelop him. It really was very comfortable here.
"No. Nothing much at all."
"So am I going to be working for this man?" He checked himself. "Is it even a man?"
They nodded. "You could be very useful to him, and to others of his kind," H said.
He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. From the looks they gave him he was sure they knew what he wanted to ask, but he tried to say it out loud nonetheless - for some reason it was important to him to ask how he could be useful, to take charge of his own usefulness - but his throat was parched again and all that came out was a croak.
"We are measuring your ability to handle certain types of stimuli," B said, pouring him another glass of water from a transparent can. Rokan couldn't even remember him having left the room to get the can. B continued, "The tests shouldn't reach you at a conscious, perceivable level, at least not the kind we're doing right now."
"So what are they for? Is this a health check before I go on board?" Just the words go on board gave him a nice, warm little sense of freedom. He found that he didn't care much about what he'd have to do. He'd be away from here; on a spaceship, out in the darkness. What an adventure.
B gave H a look, who said, "It's a check, yes. We want to see if your brain can handle the pressure.
He liked their funny speech, and the odd way they emphasized things. "Like a capsuleer," he said. He really felt very cozy. "Can I have something more to drink?"
B filled his glass while H continued, "Yes, precisely so. Capsuleers interface with modules in very much the same way that we're having your body do now, albeit at a much simplified level."
Rokan drained his glass in two gulps. A question popped into his mind, one that he'd never have thought - or probably dared - to ask.
"Why isn't everyone able to be a capsuleer? If I've got talents..." He left the second question unasked, his voice trailing off.
B said, "Well, not everyone has the constitution. Capsuleering isn't just sitting in a pod. It's a thoroughly complex interaction of many different elements, mechanical and biological, that converge inside a person's body."
H added, again with that weird emphasis, that certain sections of the brainwere capable of dealing well with certain parts of that interaction. "It isn't quite understood how they work, but we're constantly researching it. Sometimes we find out how certain ship modules can be better adapted to the capsuleers, so that their output or function can be improved. But it's hard."
"I can imagine. Must be ... complex," Rokan said.
"Not so much, but it's a difficult bit of ..." H waved a hand, apparently looking for the term. "Reverse engineering."
Rokan started to say something, but H plunged on. "There are a million ways to adjust the modules. We're just not always aware of exactly how they should be adjusted. First we need to find a brain that's capable of operating at better capacity than hereto identified, and then we know in what direction to take the technology."
"Are these huge changes?"
"To be honest, they don't look that grand on paper. Maybe some piece of equipment, some module in a spaceship, raises its output by five percent. But that alone can make a huge difference in interstellar combat. It may turn the tide of entire battles."
"So you need candidates like me," Rokan said.
"Am I going to get to meet the capsuleer?"
B and H looked at each other again. B said, "Mmm ... I suppose that isn't out of the question."
Rokan thought all this over. "That's awesome," he managed. The three of them sat in silence for a moment before he found himself bound to add, "I mean, I'll be happy to help you with your research."
" I know you will," B said, quite genially.
"But guys, I'm feeling really tired right now. Could we ... sorry." He leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. "Could we take a break?"
The fuzziness in his head was overwhelming. It felt as if the lights had been dimmed; and things glinted: the machine, the chair legs, the teeth of Mister B and Mister H, who were giving him big, benevolent smiles.
"Oh, it's alright," they said. "Rest now."
The room really was rather dark.