I felt now was the time to ask the question that was burning in my mind, “Ger, and how does one become a capsuleer? I was trying to find information in The Net, but there wasn’t any: no application forms, no how-to guides, no nothing!”
“So you want to be a capsuleer?” smirked Gerhardt.
“I don’t know if I want to, but I am curious why such secrecy. Does the government want to keep the secret of immortality to a selected few?”
“Whoa, this question is wrong on so many levels! To give you a short answer, only very few people have a potential to be capsuleers and it is bloody hard to select those few. And don’t blame the government – they would love to turn us all into capsuleers.”
“I don’t understand,” admitted I, “It just doesn’t add up. If the government wants to have more capsuleers why don’t they advertise left, right and centre. And, for that matter, I don’t understand what’s in it for the government.”
“You are asking too many questions,” laughed Gerhardt, “and they don’t have short answers. But the night is young and I am in the mood for talking. Let’s put it this way – as long as you maintain a supply of fresh Amarrian stout in my stein I’ll keep answering your questions.”
“Deal!” exclaimed I and ordered another round.
“So you want to know what’s in it for the government. It’s rather simple – capsuleers make a hell of a lot of money; and more money means more taxes. Capsuleers are much more efficient than regular pilots. Initially, the capsuleer programme was focused on fighter pilots only, and it is still the area where capsuleers’ dominance is overwhelming. Eventually though, it was discovered that capsuleers excel in other domains as well – exploration, transportation, mining, and even manufacturing. The government was excited like puppies in a shoe cabinet – the discovery promised a new era of hyper-productivity and immortality. Imagine that the knowledge and skills acquired by your citizens over their lifetimes do not disappear with their death but keep going and improving.”
“Aha,” interjected I, “here comes a ‘but’.”
“But,” smiled Gerhardt, “after the initial success of converting the best of the best pilots into capsuleers came a realisation that the pool of eligible candidates was not really big. It was not even small – it was microscopic. The problem is that to become a capsuleer one needs a pretty rare combination of properties. The scientists gave them a common name – plasticity.”
“What, like contortionists?” snorted I.
“You may be surprised but physical ability does not matter at all. When they refer to plasticity they mean one of two things. Firstly, it is an ability to learn. You may argue that every human has that ability, and you’ll be right. However, there is learning and there is learning. To be efficient, a capsuleer is expected to absorb a lot of knowledge, but not mechanically, by rote. It must become part of a person’s world view and be readily available for split-second decisions. A capsuleer’s mind must not simply include information, it should change itself to adopt it. That’s why they call such ability plasticity.”
“But surely,” interrupted I, “you have plenty of people who are brilliant learners. I guess, they mostly end up wearing white robes and dissecting innocent little things in labs.”
“That’s right,” agreed Ger, “Such learning ability is essential for academics, and many eggheads were targeted by the initial recruitment drive. And here came another ‘but’. You know that capsuleers rely on their brain-computer interface to give commands. But do you know what it feels like for a person to use such interface?”
“No idea,” admitted I, “I can only imagine that if you want something to happen, you just think of it, and voila!”
Gerhardt smiled, “That’s how they describe it in TV shows. In reality, it has nothing to do with conscious thoughts. When my capsule is attached to a ship I become part of that ship. In fact, I am the ship. I control every module and every movement of the ship as naturally as you control your body. Do you, in order to walk, command your legs to take steps?”
“Hmm, I’ve never actually thought about that, but now that you mentioned it, I’d say I rather will my body to move.”
“Exactly,” said Gerhardt, “and now imagine that suddenly you have eight legs, like a spider. Will you be able to control them as if you had them from birth?”
“Well, not immediately, but I think I can eventually learn how to use them.”
“And if you really can, then you are true capsuleer material. This is the second type of mental plasticity and it is much harder to come by than the first one. It appears that most adults, when given a brain-machine interface, are simply unable to adapt their minds to directly control the machine.”
“If such talent is rare how come the initial group was so successful?” asked I.
Gerhardt leaned to me and looked into my eye, “Believe it or not, but they were just lucky. The first group converted to capsuleers were elite pilots, and those guys fly by the seat of their pants. They already had a strong connection to the ship, and adding a direct interface link just enforced their control.”
“Are you saying that only top guns can become capsuleers?”
“No, but you need to have an aptitude to become one.”
“Right, and how do they know if a candidate has an aptitude? Do they put him through pilot training?”
“No, that’s too long and too expensive, and it doesn’t guarantee the result. You see, the whole problem with capsuleer recruiting is that there is no cheap way to determine if someone is able to become a capsuleer. That’s why recruitment is not open to the public – testing every Joe Citizen who wants to live forever will not pay off.”
“Then how does it work?”
“Not very well,” smiled Ger, “while they are trying to figure out a cheap way to test for aptitude, the recruitment works pretty much by referral. Researchers who are looking for a correlation between various mental characteristics and capsuleer aptitude may refer people from target groups to tests. Also, every capsuleer is encouraged to recommend people who they think may be successful candidates. So far, in both cases results seem to be random.”
“And what happens when one gets a referral?”
“Candidates are given a link to an online portal where they can apply for testing. They will have to sign a contract, and that’s where a lot of people change their mind and decline.”
“Decline?” exclaimed I. “Decline an opportunity to live forever? Why?”
Gerhardt sipped his beer and said, “Because they don’t want to die.”
“Ger, I’ve probably had one too many. You’ve completely lost me here. You offer someone a chance to become immortal and he says ‘no’ because he doesn’t want to die. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Gerhardt looked at me for a while and then laughed, “You know, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use this pun for a long time. I must say that your reaction was very satisfying, thank you.”
I felt annoyed, “Now that you’ve had your fun, can you please answer my question, Mr. Smarty Pants?”
“Sure, don’t take offence,” Ger raised his hands in conciliatory gesture, “you know the interface slots I have in my back. These came built-in with my last clone that I am using now. How do you think I got them the very first time?”
“I guess you had to have an operation on your original body.”
“Nope, such operation on a fully-developed body is very expensive and very risky. Clones, on the other hand, are grown in such a way that they have additional nerve branches at the right places and lend themselves easily to installation of interface slots. So here comes the hitch, to get your interface slots you have to transfer your mind to a clone, and your original body will die in the process. It is an essential requirement of capsuleer testing, it’s spelled out in large letters and you have to sign that clause separately. For many people it’s a breaking point. Their idea of capsuleering is that they will live happily until they get killed or until their bodies become too frail and only then, when there is no other option, they will undergo mind transfer. And suddenly they discover that they’ll have to ‘die’ tomorrow without any guarantee that they will become capsuleers and will be entitled to their medical clone.”
“Whew!” whistled I, “I see what you mean. That’s harsh. But I thought a candidate is tested before he gets the slots.”
“Unfortunately, no. As I said before, there is no easy way of testing candidates for the second type of mental plasticity – they have to get the slots first. Then they are given 6 months to reach a certain level of ship control. The bar is not high but the candidate needs to show progress. If they start getting the hang of it, then they are given as much time as they need to master the ship. But the vast majority of candidates never get past the initial motor disorder stage when the ship under their control moves absolutely erratically. Those are dismissed after half a year and never get another chance. They retain their cloned body with interface slots but they are completely useless for them. I once saw one of such guys in a bar where he bragged he was a capsuleer and showed his slots as a proof. That was sad.”
We drank our beers in silence for a while. I was a bit depressed by Gerhardt’s story and didn’t feel like talking. The reality appeared not as glorious and mysterious as I imagined.
Gerhardt felt I needed time to absorb the information, “I see, you don’t have any more questions. Then it’s my time to shout.”
He ordered another round and we changed the subject. I was curious about what it was like to be a capsuleer and Ger was only too happy to chat. It seemed he didn’t have friends outside capsuleer community, so for him it was a chance to impress a landlubber with tall tales. I don’t know how much of it was true but all of it was exciting. He told me about remains of ancient civilisations and drones which guarded their treasures; about pirate clans and dangerous missions he ran against them; about capsuleer corporations and their battles in which fortunes worth several planets were destroyed in a matter of hours; about mysterious wormholes and ships which entered them and were never seen again. The things Ger told me about were beyond my imagination, beyond anything they showed on TV. Hardly ever leaving the planet, I never suspected that New Eden was that interesting.
We talked all night and parted only when Itamo appeared from behind the planet.
Before leaving, Gerhardt said, “I think you would make a fine capsuleer, Vlad. If you ever decide to go through tests, I’ll be happy to give you a referral.”
“Thanks, Ger. Maybe some day, but now I am not ready to ‘die’,” replied I and we both laughed.