Lieutenant Hirakii Pirkotan looked at his freshly shaven face in the steel mirror in his cabin aboard the Caldari cruiser Okarioni. Immaculate. For the first time in weeks the young lieutenant had the almost forgotten feeling of excitement in the pit of his stomach. Pirkotan's father had fought in the war against the Gallentean Federation and his thrilling tales of battles and bravery had made their mark on the teenage mind of Pirkotan. But the war had been over for 15 years, and in all the years that Pirkotan had spent in the navy, hardly anything noteworthy had ever occurred. Scrubbing, drilling, sleeping - that seemed the be-all and end-all of navy life. But then, less than two months ago, a new race had made contact with the Caldari. Pirkotan knew little about the race, except that they were most likely of human origins. Shortly after the first contact, the Okarioni had been ordered to the frontier where the new race had introduced itself. And now, after days of uneventful cruising through Caldari space, the ship was nearing its destination - a rendezvous with a ship belonging to the new race.
Pirkotan straightened his jacket for the umpteenth time and left his cabin. While walking towards the bridge his mind once again turned to this unorthodox mission. There were too many loose ends and unanswered questions for Pirkotan's comfort. Why had the Okarioni been ordered to berth on a high-security military shipyard belonging to the Ishukone corporation for two weeks before coming here? And what strange devices had been installed and then sealed in Cargo Hold B? Why this secrecy, preventing even him, the second-in-command, from knowing what was going on? Pirkotan was not happy with the situation and while he was aware that many of the crew members felt the same way, he knew better than to complain. With these troubled thoughts on his mind, Pirkotan reached the bridge.
Captain Ouriye was seated in the command chair on the bridge, overseeing the last course-changes to the meeting point. Pirkotan sat himself down in his own chair to the left and a little bit behind the command chair.
"So what's the situation, sir?" he asked.
"We should rendezvous in about 20 minutes," Ouriye responded. The captain and his sub-ordinate sat in silence for a minute. Finally, Ouriye spoke:
"Now that we're about to rendezvous I can fill you in on our mission." Pirkotan’s ears perked up; at last he'd know why they were being sent here. The captain sat silent for a full minute before he spoke again.
"This race we've made contact with calls itself Jove. I know nothing more of them, except that the high command informs me that they seem highly advanced. The reason for us being here is to exchange information. It seems these Jovians regard the acquisition of information to be their highest goal in life and are willing to pay handsomely for it," Ouriye chuckled, then continued:
"We're giving them all kinds of information: data on social issues, historical facts, navigational charts, even some military secrets," captain Ouriye was visibly upset by this last statement.
"But our superiors feel that what we're getting in exchange is worth it..." the captain trailed off.
"What are we getting in exchange?" Pirkotan asks.
"I'm not sure, lieutenant, I'm not sure. It's some sort of a device for controlling or communicating with your ship, that's all I know."
Pirkotan sat thoughtfully, scratching the back of his neck. It was still sore after the operation. While berthed on the Ishukone station Ouriye had encouraged Pirkotan to have neural implants inserted into his spinal cord and cerebellum, saying that it would definitely further his career.
"Sir, these things we're giving them, are they in Cargo Hold B?" Pirkotan asked the captain.
"No, that, uh... device, is what we're getting in exchange from the Jovians." Ouriye answered.
"What? We already have what we're getting here on this ship? I don't understand, sir." Pirkotan said puzzled.
"We've got a part of it. All the vital bits, such as the cognitive pattern decoders, are missing. The Jovians we're about to meet will bring those missing bits and show us how everything works." Ouriye said.
Pirkotan pondered for a while. "What I don't understand, sir, is why we were sent on our own to meet these Jovians."
"What do you mean?" inquired Ouriye?
"Well, I'd think that at this early stage in our relationship with the Jovians that diplomats, not soldiers, would deal solely with them, sir. I wonder why we weren't assigned a diplomat to handle the discussions..."
"We're not here as official representatives of the Caldari State. Our orders come directly from Rato Momoriyota, CEO of the Ishukone corporation. This mission, this trade, is strictly the business of the Ishukone corporation. Our superiors have every confidence in us to complete this mission on our own." Ouriye explained.
"By our superiors, you mean the heads of the Ishukone corporation, sir?"
"Yes, that's correct, lieutenant." Ouriye replied. "But that doesn't make this mission any less important or meaningful."
By now, the vessel they were to meet was clearly visible on the radar.
"Their ship doesn't seem all that big," Pirkotan observed. Indeed, the vessel was only half as big as the Okarioni, only slightly bigger than an average Caldari frigate. The ship was a combination of rather dull-looking shiny-metal green, brown and gray. It had a most peculiar shape, almost like it had been grown or carved, instead of built.
The communication officer waved them over. "We're receiving a message from the Jovian vessel," the officer said. "It says they're coming over."
"All right," Ouriye said, "Lieutenant, you know your duty."
"Yes, captain," Pirkotan answered and exited the bridge. He went to the shuttle bay, bringing four marines with him. "Behave yourself, men," Pirkotan said, "These are distinguished guests we're to escort, each and every one of you is now an ambassador for the Caldari State." 'Or the Ishukone corporation, at any rate.' Pirkotan thought.
A shuttle, in the same colors as the Jovian ship, was docking in the bay. Three small men exited the shuttle. Each of them wore a tunic-like uniform of fine materials, light-brown and gray in color. Although they were definitely human, they looked very strange: their skin was pale grayish yellow, almost transparent, with veins clearly discernible. The heads seemed abnormally big, but otherwise their bodies were thin and feeble-looking. Pirkotan couldn't help the uneasiness he felt by looking at them. The three men walked towards Pirkotan and one of them, walking in front of the others addressed Pirkotan. "Greetings, Caldari officer. I'm Anu of Jove and these are my aides Yed and Elas," the Jovian spoke in perfect Caldanese, with almost no detectible accent, his movements and gestures were lithe and graceful. Pirkotan wondered where the Jovian had learned such good Caldanese.
Pirkotan caught himself staring into the pale yellow eyes of the Jovian and stuttered his answer. "Yes, uh... welcome aboard the Okarioni, sir. Um... I'm lieutenant Hirakii Pirkotan. Please follow me." Pirkotan tore his eyes away from the probing gaze of the Jovian, turned on his heels and started walking towards the main deck. The Jovians followed and Pirkotan heard them chattering among themselves in a strange language that seemed to consist entirely of vowels.
Back on the bridge, Pirkotan introduced the captain and the Jovians. Ouriye seemed perfectly at ease conversing with the Jovians, unlike Pirkotan, who was nervous and uncomfortable. But while the Jovians were making small talk with the captain, Pirkotan for the first time managed to see them as humans and not some outer space aliens. They even laughed dutifully at the captain's jokes, showing their full understanding of the social etiquette found everywhere among humans. Soon, the conversation turned to the matters at hand and the Jovians asked to see the items they were to receive.
"Lieutenant Pirkotan, bring the crate in my personal quarters." Ouriye ordered Pirkotan, handing him a security key. "Bring it here to the bridge."
"Yes, sir." Pirkotan answered, motioning the four marines to follow him. As he was leaving the bridge he heard one of the Jovians ask: "Has he been prepared, captain?" and Ouriye replied: "As much as he needs to be." Pirkotan hesitated for a moment, but then continued, contemplating what he'd overheard. 'Were they talking about me?' he thought.
The crate was not all that big, maybe one meter in length and half a meter in height and breadth, but it was surprisingly heavy. Pirkotan unlocked the security bindings and the four marines struggled with it to the bridge. Pirkotan handed Ouriye back the security key and the captain used his personal code on the crate. The lock snapped open with a loud hiss and Ouriye stepped back, allowing the Jovians access to the crate.
Anu opened the crate and started pulling items out of it and handing them to his assistants, who compared them to a list they had, marking things off. Once the Jovians were satisfied that everything was as it should be they began studying the items carefully. They worked incredibly fast, inserting data disks and info clips into their palm computers, scanning the contents for a few seconds, then throwing it away for another. They fired up hologram reels and fast forwarded through them, casting flickering lights around the bridge and made the heads of the Caldari spin in confusion. After a few minutes the Jovians suddenly stopped all at once and began chattering excitedly to each other. It was obvious that they were satisfied with what they had seen.
"This crate contains what we bargained for. Please take it to our shuttle." Anu said to Ouriye.
"First, let's make sure everything we bargained for is in order." Ouriye replied wryly, emphasizing 'we'.
Pirkotan noticed a momentary hesitation in Anu before he answered: "Of course, captain. A deal is a deal. Everything according to the plan, eh?"
"Yes," Ouriye answered, glancing at Pirkotan, "according to the plan."
The doors to Cargo Hold B had been welded shut and it took few minutes to cut them open. Pirkotan felt his gut tighten in excitement, but also dread. He'd always prided himself in having full knowledge of every situation, full control. Now that he was left more or less in the dark, he feared the unknown. Pirkotan remembered a saying of one of his teachers in officer training: 'Always expect the unexpected. Then all surprises will be pleasant ones.' Somehow, this did not comfort him all that much at the moment.
The inside of Cargo Hold B was cold and darkly lit. In the middle of the floor was a black metal object, about four or five meters tall. Numerous pipes and wires linked it with the walls of the cargo hold. The object was obviously of Jovian design; it had the same oddly carved shape as the Jovian ship and shuttle. The Jovians walked up to the object and made a quick inspection of it.
"This is a capsule," Anu said to the Caldari. "It is used to control a ship. With it a ship a big as this one can be controlled with only a handful of crew and smaller ships, like your frigates, can even be controlled by a single person."
"How is this possible?" Ouriye asked. He was obviously skeptical, even if he didn't seem as surprised by what Anu said as the other Caldari.
"The controller, captain if you like, of the ship is stationed inside the capsule. Through it, he's neural rigged to all parts of the ship. The capsule is like one gigantic computer, with the captain at the core, controlling everything." Any answered.
"But how can a single man control a whole ship?" Ouriye pressed.
"Thank you, captain, I was coming to that. As I said, the captain acts as the central unit in a highly advanced computer. This role allows him to access and evaluate data at extreme pace. He can easily handle the jobs it takes 5 or 10 people to do normally. It also makes him a better commander, he has better understanding and awareness of his environment and he's not boggled down by tedious crew management issues and frequent communication breakdowns are now history." Anu finished, looking over the faces of the thoughtful Caldari standing before him.
"So what is the downside?" Pirkotan asked. "There is always a downside."
"Not in this case, lieutenant," Anu replied. "The capsule offers greater control to ships, yet fewer crew members. As you know one of the biggest costs in maintaining a ship is training the crew, this cost is now much reduced. We Jovians are not numerous, yet we can field a very formidable fleet because of capsules."
"So what about this capsule controller? Can anybody control this thing?" Ouriye probed, obviously eager to garner as much knowledge as he could about these capsules.
"Not anybody, no," Any answered. "The controller must have the required neural implants."
Pirkotan fingered the newly planted implants at the back of his neck; a grim realization dawning in his mind.
"But why this huge structure? Couldn't the controller simply be strapped into a neural chair?" Ouriye inquired.
"The neural riggings for the capsule are much more elaborate and advanced than those you know, captain; they require the user to be in complete stasis for efficient usage. The capsule is filled with a fluid, in which the captain floats. This fluid filters out all external interferences, as well as protecting and nourishing the captain." One of the Jovian aides had now opened a hologram blueprint of the capsule and Anu used it while explaining how it was built. "Also, the capsule has extremely strong armor, giving even more protection to the captain. We Jovians do not like unnecessary squandering of lives." Pirkotan thought Anu said this last sentence with an unusual fervor.
"So, can you make it work?" Ouriye asked, he had obviously satisfied his curiosity about this thing and now wanted to see it in action.
"Yes, as long as your engineers followed our instructions correctly when building the capsule and connecting it to the ship."
"You mean, this capsule will take control of the ship?" Ouriye asked anxiously.
"Yes, but we can override it easily. This is only for demonstration purposes." Anu answered.
The Jovians started fiddling with various control panels on the capsule. One by one, the systems in the capsule came to life, lights started blinking and a low humming noise emanated from it. Finally, Anu turned to the Caldari: "The capsule is now operational. It is ready for testing."
The eyes of the Jovians and captain Ouriye turned to Pirkotan. He felt like a mouse trapped in a cage. He knew now that Ouriye's suggestion about the neural implants hadn't been based on friendship; he'd been cunningly manipulated into this position and he knew it was impossible to refuse now. But why this duplicity? Why hadn't they simply ordered him to take the implants?
"I, uh... you want me to go into that thing, sir?" Pirkotan stammered, hoping against hope that his suspicions were false.
"Yes, lieutenant Pirkotan. You have the honor of being the first Caldari to test a capsule." Ouriye answered. "Don't you feel honored?"
"Ah, yes. Yes, sir. I'm deeply honored," Pirkotan whispered. The two Jovian aides were now standing beside him. Pirkotan started walking forward, as if his body was moving of its own accord. He was now standing before Anu, who placed his hands on the back of his neck. Anu explored the neural implants with his fingers and stared intently into Pirkotan's face. Pirkotan couldn't make himself meet the gaze.
"Please stand absolutely still," Anu said to him. "We need to hook you up." Pirkotan was too numb to answer, let alone move. One of the Jovians placed a tight rubber cap with lots of tube sockets over his head, covering his eyes and ears. Another Jovian inserted tubes into his nostrils. Finally, he felt his neural jacks being plugged. "He is ready," a voice said. Pirkotan felt hands lead him, he was lifted and he felt liquid engulf him. He was sinking!
But he could still breath through his nose. He couldn't see and he couldn't hear. All he felt was this cold, sticky fluid all around him. He was inside the capsule! Pirkotan slowly ran his hands over the inner surface of the capsule. It was very smooth and Pirkotan found no seams or cracks, or any controls or buttons for that matter. The capsule was tightly closed and no discernible way to open it from the inside. Pirkotan was not normally claustrophobic, but now he felt panic rise within him and he wanted to scream and run. But he could do neither; the thick fluid hindered all fast movements and when Pirkotan opened his mouth it was instantly filled with the strange-tasting bluish liquid. Pirkotan was forced to swallow it so he could breath again. Pirkotan tried to calm himself down, but when nothing happened for what seemed like eternity he once again despaired. He had read about people being accidentally buried alive in olden times and now he felt like they must have; this capsule, this thing, felt like a wet grave, burying him. 'Is this the end?' Pirkotan thought. 'Maybe the machine has malfunctioned, maybe they can't get me out!'
Then, all of a sudden, a bright light filled his eyes and a sound like rushing wind filled his ears. After few seconds the light dimmed down and Pirkotan was able to see, but everything became deadly quiet. And what he saw made his stomach somersault. He was looking at the Okarioni from the outside! It was as if he was floating in space maybe 100 meters from the ship.
"Can you hear me?" a voice said. It was Anu. Pirkotan tried instinctively to speak, but his mouth was again filled with the fluid and only a strangled croak emerged. 'Hello?' he thought.
"Hello, lieutenant Pirkotan," Anu said. "We can hear you. The communication link in this demonstration capsule is automatically open, normally you control whether it's open or closed. We are monitoring your progress. Can you see the ship?"
"Yes," Pirkotan replied, simply by thinking about it. "Yes, I can see the ship. But whose eyes am I seeing through?"
"You're viewing the ship through a camera drone. Think about moving. Try to move to the right. See what happens."
Pirkotan thought about this and was delighted to find the camera move according to his wishes. He swooped alongside the ship, spinning the camera in circles and zooming it out, all with a mere thought. Pirkotan noticed that no matter how he turned the camera, the ship always stayed in the middle of his vision. As he got more accustomed to this new sensation he could feel his surroundings much better. In fact, if he concentrated he could feel Okarioni, like he and the ship were one; he felt the engines purr in his belly, he felt the electrodes bounce on his skin, he felt the crew crawl around inside him. The feeling was exhilarating.
After a while Anu's voice came back: "You're doing very well. Now we are going to activate the audio synthesizers."
"Audio synthesizers? What do you mean?" Pirkotan thought.
"As you know there is no sound in space, but when we were developing the capsules we found that people wanted to use as many of their senses as possible, thus we added the sound. By letting a computer create three dimensional sound we also add to the awareness you have while in battles, for instance."
Several seconds later Pirkotan could hear the audio synthesizers kick in; he could hear the low humming noise of the propulsion system and the sudden hissing sound of course-correctional thrusters. Anu came back on: "Now we'll test the audio system."
Suddenly a missile was launched from one of the missile bays. It flew majestically out from the ship and disappeared to the right of Pirkotan's vision. Pirkotan turned the camera and watched it fly away from the ship. Then a stab of green and yellow light came from the Jovian vessel, accompanied by a loud crackling noise. The weapon burst hit the missile and it exploded. Pirkotan heard the explosion clearly and when he turned the camera to the Jovian vessel he could still hear the explosion's residue in the background. Once again, Anu spoke: "That went very well. Now for the final test. I want you to shut down the propulsion system, and then turn it back on. You must open the ship control menu and use that.
Pirkotan thought about the propulsion system. Nothing happened. Then he thought about controlling the ship. And then, before him and overlaying the ship, a menu appeared. Pirkotan navigated himself through the menu with his mind and found the shut down action for the propulsion system. He activated the action and the menu disappeared. Pirkotan now saw the propulsion glow fade out and the constant humming slowly died out. Pirkotan now repeated the process, turning the propulsion system back on.
"Well done, lieutenant Pirkotan," came Anu's voice. "You have concluded the testing. Your performance was faultless."
As suddenly as it had appeared the vision before Pirkotan's eyes disappeared and darkness engulfed him. He blinked his eyes several times, the vision of Okarioni still embedded in his nerves, but slowly fading away. Pirkotan then felt as if he was falling at a great speed, but before he could react he passed out.
Pirkotan awoke slowly like from a deep sleep. His eyes were open and he was staring at a dull gray wall. He tried to look around, but found that he couldn't. He felt strangely disoriented. From somewhere behind him he heard low voices speaking. He recognized the voice of his captain and that of Anu of Jove. He tried to speak, to let them know he was awake, but nothing happened. Suddenly the chatter in the background registered in his mind:
"I have examined him, I'm afraid the symptoms all point towards it." Anu was saying.
"This mind-lock as you call it, is it permanent?" captain Ouriye asked.
"I'm afraid so. We have studied it thoroughly and found no cure. It's a shame, if I may say so."
"But how do you prevent it in the first place? I mean, was this bound to happen?" the captain enquired.
"Under the circumstances, yes. The only way to prevent this is with intense training for many years. That timeframe was unacceptable to your superiors. Besides, you knew what was going to happen all along. You have no grounds for complaints now."
"I know, I know," Ouriye sighed. "I had my reservations, but what could I do? I was under strict orders."
"I understand," Anu replied. "The lieutenant performed admirably. You can be proud of him."
"I am," Ouriye answered.
Silence. 'What is going on?' Pirkotan thought. 'They must be talking about me. What mind-lock?' Then the captain and two of the Jovians appeared before him. They looked at his face, into his open eyes. 'Hey!' Pirkotan screamed in his mind. 'Help me!'
"He looks so peaceful, lying there. Is he conscious?' asked the captain.
"Who knows? Maybe, maybe not," came Anu's reply.
"It's sad to lose him, he was an efficient officer. And a valued friend," Ouriye said. "He will receive the Medal of Valor for this, it will be sent to his parents. His father will be so proud."
"And rightly so," Anu said. "Anyway, we have certain... treatments that can be beneficial to him, if you're interested...?"
"I thank you for your offer, but it is unnecessary," Ouriye replied. "We have very good institutions that can take care of him. He will be well provided for."
Pirkotan screamed a silent curse. His fate was sealed. He had been sacrificed for the greater good of the Caldari State, like a clog in a great big machine. Just before he passed into a murky slumber, Pirkotan read the motto of the Caldari Navy embedded on the captain's sleeve: 'All For the Good of Many.' Much good it would do him, stuck in his own mind for the rest of his life.