At the Drop of a Key

I was surrounded by darkness. I looked around and saw a blue light. I flew to it. The light was growing brighter and brighter as I approached it. I was curious if there was something behind it and circled the light. I didn’t find anything but then I saw a yellow light in the distance. I went to it but again didn’t find anything except steady luminescence. Then I noticed a red light and, like a moth, I got attracted to it and made a full circle around that light. By the time I finished my circumnavigation I heard a strange noise. It was getting louder and sounded like a loose sail flapping in the wind. The noise was very disturbing and I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Finally, when I decided to investigate the source of that sound I… opened my eyes and woke up.

The noise that I heard was made by Professor Muhamad, his assistants and all our group who were clapping their hands.

“Congratulations, Vlad! You’ve done it,” I heard Professor’s voice.

“Done what?” asked I, still feeling groggy.

“You’ve completed the route,” shouted Lenka.

“Have I?” I was still trying to understand what happened. “So am I a capsuleer now?”

“Not so quick,” said Professor, “to become one you have to do it again with your eyes wide open and dead sober. As you said yourself, no one is interested in sleepwalking capsuleers. So go have a dinner and return to the pod.”

Fully awakened, I flew the capsule to the dock musing on how quickly events unfolded. Only this morning I asked Professor about the key and by midday I’d got it. Well, not in a literal sense, of course – it would be useless – but something much more efficient and surprisingly easy to implement. Professor’s team, after listening to me and understanding what I was trying to achieve, proposed an ingenious way to keep me half-awake. They overrode one of the sensor channels so that the feedback it sent to the brain caused mild discomfort. The signal was triggered by a simple computer routine when the engine was switched on through brain-machine interface. As soon as that happened, the program increased the signal level making me uncomfortable, and then reduced the intensity to avoid waking me up completely. It took just a few hours to create such trigger, so it was ready for use soon after lunch.

The very first run, as you know now, was total success. In fact, it delivered more than I expected. All I wanted to achieve was a prolonged semi-conscious activation of the pod, but I didn’t anticipate being able to see the beacons and navigate between them. Later, Professor explained that in the state of disturbed sleep my eyes didn’t fully close so I was still able to receive visual information. Now the challenge was not to close the eyes at all. As I soon found out, it was easier said than done.

Of course, I was not immediately able to consciously control the pod – that neural path was still weak and I couldn’t use it at will. What we focused on in the next days was trying to increase my understanding of how the neural path was activated. For that, we again reprogrammed the capsule so that the signal activated by the engine did not subside but increased its level until I was awake. At that very moment I tried to analyse my physical state, especially the feelings I had when my mind stopped controlling the engine. At a sensory level it was like relaxing a muscle, which I immediately tried to flex again.

After several days I started getting results. Initially, there were short, random engine bursts. When they became pretty regular I stopped trying to get to sleep and started experimenting in the state of full wakefulness. The first time I managed to fire the engine with clear mind was the moment when I realised that I would definitely become a capsuleer. All that remained to do was to repeat that exercise until I fully mastered the control of the pod.

Finally, the day has come when very slowly, focusing entirely on my newly discovered muscle and trying not to upset the delicate rapport established between my mind and the engine, I moved the capsule, firstly, to the blue light, then to the yellow and, finally, to the red one, without a single break. Although I was supposed to use just one neural path, I felt mentally and physically exhausted when I scrambled out of the pod. My legs were shaking and almost gave way when I was supported by the strong hand of Professor Muhamad. Ignoring the dripping amniotic liquid he hugged me and congratulated on the successful completion of the second test. But he could keep the solemnity of the moment only so long before his usual jocular manner got the better of him. “You know, Vlad, you have a talent for cliffhangers. Normally, those who pass the second test do it after four, at most five, months. You are one of the very few who left it until the very last moment. Have you tried to write books? If your capsuleer’s career goes pear-shaped you might have a backup job as a pulp fiction author.”

“In fact, Prof,” I answered a bit shyly, “I was thinking about starting a blog. So many things happened to me in the last year; it would be a shame not to share my experiences with anyone.”

“Really? I’ll be your biggest fan if you start writing. Please send me a link to the blog. But I hope you won’t disclose the testing techniques we are using here; people may cheat by preparing to the first test in advance.”

“Oh, Prof, you know me – I would never do such a thing,” said I, earnestly looking in Professor Muhamad’s eyes.

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