The First Test

The 48-hour countdown started as soon as the induction meeting finished. I ran to my room and checked the datapad. I expected to find volumes of new information, probably scientific or engineering, related to capsuleer technology. That would make sense as such info would be useful for those who passed both tests. Instead, I found just one page with pretty simple instructions. The main rule that we had to learn and follow concerned the usage of Napanii language. For the duration of the test the pronunciation of all words changed as follows:

  • All voiced consonants became voiceless and vice versa.
  • Vowel “a” was pronounced as “o” and vice versa.
  • Vowel “e” was pronounced as “i” and vice versa.

Nothing else was changed – the grammar and the spelling remained the same. It took me some time to realise the ingenious simplicity of this test. It was as if a new language was loaded into your brain – the whole vocabulary and grammar – and you could instantly recall every word you needed and mentally construct a sentence. The only thing that was missing was speaking practice.

I tried to read a simple sentence aloud following the new rules, and managed to do it correctly only on the fifth attempt, speaking slowly and with long pauses between the words. To give you an example, the word “Caldari” would have to be pronounced as if it was written “Goltore”. Now, if you think that saying something the new way was difficult, imagine how it was to listen and understand. When someone speaks, you don’t have a luxury of making him pause until you mentally translate the last phrase you’ve heard – you have to do it in real time.

The second rule of the test was to use the octal numeral system. I thought it would be a simpler rule to follow as, being a software developer, I was already familiar with the octal system, and also because numeric calculations did not normally require real-time response. My first assumption was correct – the prior knowledge helped, – but the second one was immediately proven wrong by the third, and the last, rule: if in any interaction with staff, automata or fellow candidates I noticed a pronunciation or a calculation mistake, I had to point it out and correct it as soon as possible by saying the right version aloud. In practice, it created some insidious scenarios. For example, once I made an order in a bar which costed 5 kredits; I gave a 10-kredit bill (we were not allowed to use electronic payments during the test) and received 5 kredits change. Sounds right? Think again! I had to immediately tell the waiter that he owed me only 3 kredits because 10 in the octal system was 8 in decimal.

All in all, the learning process was organised pretty well. For the duration of the test, including the 48-hour grace period, we were limited to the part of the station rented by the corporation and it was a different world. There, we were totally immersed into an environment where everyone spoke Inverted (as we called it) Napanii and counted in octals, and that helped a lot.

Still, 48 hours wasn’t much time and I decided to make the best use of it. I found Lenka’s room number in the directory and called her. When she replied, I slowly said the following carefully “translated” phrase in Inverted Napanii: “We need to practice speaking. Do you want to join the efforts and help each other?”

After some pause Lenka replied in the same style, “Sure, let’s meet at the bar.”

I was impressed how quickly she managed to to understand what I said and put together a response. There was only one mistake in her reply which I noticed only after she hung up. It was too late to point it out to her, but the third rule required to say the right version regardless of the audience (I guess, with total surveillance we always had it anyway), which I quickly did, correcting Lenka’s mistake… and making another one myself! So I had to quickly self-correct and repeat the phrase again.

This episode should give you an idea how conversations between candidates played out in the first few days. Once, I witnessed how two girls took turns in trying to pronounce a sentence correctly and only succeeded on the ninth attempt. Although it was hard to speak in Inverted Napanii, it was good fun when everyone made mistakes and interrupted each other trying to say the correct version first. But the mood had visibly changed when the grace period was over and we knew we were monitored and judged on our errors. The conversations became slower, each word was articulated, and every correction was met not with laughter but with a frustrated sigh.

A couple of days into the tests we also started receiving individual tasks. Those provided some body of knowledge and then required to critically assess it or use it to solve a problem. We still had to use the octal system and Inverted Napanii to provide answers, but the new tasks had a different angle. If the initial rules checked how good we were at unconsciously using new knowledge in our everyday life, the new tasks tested our ability to deliberately use reasoning powers. I remember one interesting problem I was given: it described a tax system and a business. The task was to find loopholes in the tax system and minimise company taxes. During the allocated time I managed to prove that at least 50% of all business transactions could be structured in a way that reduced the taxes to zero. If I could use a computer, then within the same time I could write a program and use a method of gradient descent to optimise all possible transactions. However, I believe the purpose of that exercise was not to check our programming skills, but to test our ability to intuitively find inconsistencies in knowledge systems. Inventing tax avoidance schemes was fun while it lasted, but then the real work started – I had to explain the whole solution in Inverted Napanii which, at that time, I still found much harder to do than mathematical reasoning.

The first week was pretty intense, what with the constant pressure to correctly speak the “new” language and watch the numbers. Nevertheless, the new knowledge started sinking in and felt more natural: conversations became faster and fewer errors were made. I was walking down the station corridor in rather upbeat mood when I met Christoffer who was carrying his suitcase.

“Hey, where are you going?” asked I.

He replied in normal Napanii, “They kicked me out. Told me I wasn’t making good progress.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that. I thought you were doing well.”

“I don’t need your sympathy,” snapped Christoffer, “and don’t talk to me in that monkey language!”

“I have to,” I continued speaking in Inverted Napanii, “there are rules.”

“As you wish, but I am glad that I don’t have to play these silly games anymore. All the best!” He turned and walked away.

That encounter shook me a bit as I expected that everyone would be given the same time to learn new stuff and the conclusions would be made at the end of the allocated test period which was two weeks. Now, it appeared that the goal was not just to finish within the defined threshold but also to keep the high learning pace. I was worried. Was I keeping up? Was my learning curve steep enough or did I need to try harder? I didn’t think I could since all my days were filled with conversations and individual tasks. My experience told me that there was no point in practicing language extra hours as I would simply burn out.

I was brooding over those questions when I received a message from one of the staff members. She informed me that I was expected to point out Christoffer’s failure to speak in Inverted Napanii and to provide the correct version ASAP; she understood that it was a rather unusual case but I had to follow the rules nevertheless; and I still had an opportunity to provide the correct version by saying it aloud as soon as I finished reading that message.

I wasn’t in the mood to be harangued, so instead of following the instructions I sent a rather stiff reply:

“Dear Ms XYZ,

I would like to bring it to your attention that the third rule that you referred to in your previous letter applies to interactions with ‘staff, automata or other candidates’. At the time of my last meeting with Christoffer, he already was not a candidate and, obviously, did not belong to any of the two other groups. Therefore, in those circumstances I was not compelled to follow the rule. If you believe that my interpretation of the rules is incorrect, I will be happy to escalate this issue to Professor Muhamad.

Yours sincerely,

Sending such reply wasn’t the smartest thing to do and I regretted it as soon as I pushed Send button. But what was done was done, and I had to deal with the consequences. Interestingly, there weren’t any – no reply, no escalation and no apology. I wondered if it was a type of negative testing which checked that I was following the rules only within their defined scope.

The second week of testing was similar to the first one. The only differences were that we were given less time for each individual task, and there were fewer people each day in the cafe. I guess they suffered the same fate as Christoffer.

Two days before the end of the test I went to the bar for a nightcap and found there only Professor Muhamad who was browsing something on his datapad. I got my drink and came to the Professor’s table, “Do you mind if I keep you company, Professor?”

“Oh, not at all,” Muhamad raised his head and smiled.

“I haven’t seen you much since the induction, Prof. By the way, I wanted to tell you how impressed I was by your memory at that meeting – you seemed to know every candidate’s name and there were four dozens of us.”

“Ah yes, this is one of my strengths – I can put a name to a face after just one meeting, and although I didn’t meet any of you before, I had an opportunity to go through your files first.”

“I’m still impressed. It would take me a lot of time to memorise everyone’s face and name in our group. To be honest, I still don’t remember all the names. With a memory like yours, Prof, you could try for a capsuleer yourself.”

Professor’s smile became sad, “In fact, I did. I was one of the first academics the government tested after the fighter pilots.”

“Prof, don’t tell me you flunked the test!” exclaimed I.

“Not the first one, no, but the second test was a total failure.”

“So,” I pointed at his back, “you’ve got the slots?”

“I do, indeed, but they are useless and I don’t have a clone.”

“Can you buy one?” I asked the question that I had in my mind for quite some time.

“Oh no, I can’t afford it. Do you know how expensive it is to grow and maintain a clone?”

“Whatever the price, every capsuleer has one. Surely, a scientist of your calibre should be remunerated at least as well as a spaceship pilot.”

“Vlad, you have no idea. Firstly, capsuleers are not just pilots. Secondly, they don’t actually pay a single kredit for their clones; the government does. What it means is that even the taxes capsuleers pay are high enough to cover the cost of clone maintenance.”

“Hmm,” said I, and then remembered Gerhardt’s words about the government’s willingness to turn everyone into a capsuleer, “but your work is pretty important, Prof. Can you ask the government to pay for your clone? Would they not be interested in the continuity of your research?”

“Of course, they are interested,” smirked Professor, “but it’s a very sensitive issue for them. If they start handing out immortality to people whose taxes cannot cover it, they will have to explain on what basis they choose those lucky ones. And it’s such a controversial topic that they won’t touch it with a bargepole.”

“So you are saying, Prof, even a talented person like you can’t extend his time in this world?”

Professor Muhamad patted my hand, “Don’t worry about me – I am in a better position than most of my colleagues. For one thing, I have already got the second lease of life when my mind was transferred to the cloned body which was much younger than my original one. For another, I have free access to a capsule and my time to master it is not limited to six months. When I failed the capsuleer test and was instead offered the role of the Head of the testing panel I grabbed it as a lifeline. During the first year I spent many hours each day in a capsule trying to get control of it, to no avail. It took me that much time to realise that I didn’t have an innate ability to adopt external appendages that I wasn’t born with. Nevertheless, I wasn’t convinced that such ability wasn’t something that one could learn. I still believe that some of the successful candidates managed to develop that skill even if their genes did not provide an aptitude for it. My team have closely monitored and rigorously interviewed each capsuleer who graduated from this lab. We are trying to find common patterns in their transformations which could guide ordinary person’s efforts in controlling the capsule. Every candidate who passes the second test brings us closer to the solution of this problem. And who knows, maybe you will be the one who will help us to make the breakthrough.”

“I’d be happy to assist, Professor, but I still have to pass the first test.”

“Ah, about that – I don’t think there is a point in keeping it secret. Congratulations, Vlad, you’ve made it. Looking forward to seeing you in the capsule,” Professor Muhamad slapped me on the back, finished his drink and walked out of the bar.

I didn’t reply as I was dumbfounded, not only by the meaning of Professor’s last words but also by the way they were delivered – in pure, ordinary language. Before, I didn’t even realise that all that time I was speaking – unconsciously, effortlessly – in Inverted Napanii.

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