The Forge Region – Orpana Constellation
Wirashoda System – Planet VII, Moon 5
Hyasyoda Corporation Mining Outpost
20 April YC 122
Some think that independent capsuleers are their own masters and can choose what they do and when. Ha, I wish! I’d been a freelancer for six years and during that time I learned, the hard way, that if you ignore other people’s wishes they will soon start ignoring yours. And the word spreads fast: one misstep and suddenly no one wants to deal with you – nobody gives you missions, no one bids on your contracts, and without that you are as good as a baseliner. This is why I always took extra care to maintain good relationships with all important people in my line of business, and to do that you have to make yourself available for all sorts of engagements: silly birthday parties, boring corporate functions, stupid but urgent missions… Thus, one day you are woken up at an ungodly hour to secretly ferry a military VIP to his mistress, and the next day you are suddenly selected out of thousands of applicants as the best candidate for a lucrative Caldari Navy security contract. I am sure you know how it works.
After years of such daily grind I was ready for a vacation but I couldn’t simply strike out all appointments from my diary. Despite months of meticulous planning, my two previous attempts to free up two weeks in the calendar had failed because of the last minute requests which I could not decline without ruining my career. Still, I didn’t give up and on 20th April YC 122 I was packing my suitcase, ready for well-deserved planetside holidays. I planned to spend most of the time in my home town Onnebira on Oniteseru planet and was looking forward to meeting old friends and family. There would be tall stories to tell!
You see, the whole population of Onnebira worked at Hyasyoda-owned factory and hardly ever left the planet or met a real capsuleer. Capsuleers, pod pilots, empyreans – they were the heroes of news and soap operas. Every boy dreamed of becoming a capsuleer one day. I was a rare one whose dream came true. It was going to be my first homecoming after the graduation and I relished a furore it would produce. You might think me narcissistic but trust me – that would be a small compensation for years of trying to make a name among people for whom I was Just Another Pod Pilot.
At that point my daydreaming was rudely interrupted by a buzz from the commlink.
“Oh, no!” groaned I. “Not again.”
My previous getaway attempts were aborted by calls from clients who needed me and only me, there and then, so I didn’t expect any good news this time. Imagine my relief when I saw the caller’s name – Sota Mizushima, one of my childhood mates.
“Takumi! You, old rascal! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” yelled Sota by way of greeting.
“Damn! How do you know? I asked Mom not to tell anyone. It was meant to be a surprise,” replied I.
“Not anymore, mate – the whole town knows. Your mother was so proud of you, she had to tell everyone. What time will you arrive?”
“About 3 pm.”
“Excellent! You’ll have four hours to explain to your old Mom what took you so long to visit her, and after that I’ll be expecting you at Izumi’s place. I hope you are not too proud to share a drink with us, baseliners?”
I made an offended grimace, “Sota! How could you?”
“Just kidding,” chuckled Sota, “So don’t forget, 7 pm at Izumi’s.”
“Will see you there,” said I and hung up.
Obviously, Mom ruined my plans to surprise everyone but, in fact, that could have amplified the effect of my visit. I thought I could almost hear our town buzzing with rumours about Kanako Nishimura’s high-flying son. Then I realised that it was my commlink buzzing again. I smirked – now I could expect calls from all my friends and, who knows, may be even from some former lady friends. I picked the device and an arrogant smile disappeared from my face when I saw the name of the caller – Nojana Dyodo. She was a lady all right but she wasn’t a friend. As a matter of fact, Miss Dyodo was a Level 5 agent in Corporate Police Force, a security arm of the Hyasyoda mega-corporation. Any other time a call from such person would receive my undivided attention as Level 5 security agents were providers of the most profitable missions. Now, however, it meant that my carefully planned vacation went down the drain.
For a few seconds I watched the commlink, unsure what to do. As I almost made up my mind and was going to answer the call, the vibration stopped.
To hell with it, thought I. What’s the point of being a high-earning professional if you can’t spend your earnings on what you want?
The commlink beeped and showed me a text message from Nojana:
I have an urgent and confidential mission for you. Call me ASAP.
I knew what it meant. Agents expected you to be available at any time of day and night, whether you were making love or war. This was a courtesy message which Nojana deigned to send me only in recognition of our long-standing professional relationship. If I didn’t reply there wouldn’t be another message or call. Ever. Cursing this heartless world I tapped Call Back button. She replied immediately.
“Good morning Takumi. Thank you so much for calling back,” said Nojana in her polished, professional voice, without a hint of sarcasm.
Ever so slightly raising a corner of my mouth to show appreciation of her manners, as both of us knew who called the shots there, I replied earnestly, “I am terribly sorry that I missed your call, Nojana. In fact, I was… in a bathroom and didn’t have my commlink with me. And good morning to you too.”
She made an elegant hand gesture dismissing my apology, “Spare me the details. I am really, really glad that you made yourself available for this conversation as you are the only pod pilot whom I can trust with this mission.”
That was new. She had never told me that I was the only capsuleer suitable for a mission she offered. On the other hand, if I declined she would say the same to the next pilot. Interesting, was I actually the first one she talked to about that mission? Yeah, I know, cynical me.
Aloud I said, “I am honoured by your trust, Nojana. How can I help you?”
“You know the rules, Takumi. You have to come to my office in Ohkunen to discuss the mission.”
“Sure, sure. The only thing is, I have an engagement in New Caldari today. Can we talk tomorrow?”
I was still hoping to salvage at least a day of my ill-fated vacation.
“I would prefer to meet you today,” said the agent with just a bit of metal in her tone, and then added with a smile, “The conversation will not take long, and it’s just a two-jump detour on your route from Wirashoda.”
I ran out of arguments. Of course she knew where I was – after all, it was another Hyasyoda-owned station.
Trying to conceal my frustration, I nodded, “I’ll see you in 30 minutes. And please tell the campers on Mastakomon gate not to do anything stupid.”
“I’ve already warned them. See you soon, Takumi,” replied Nojana crisply and hung up.
The Forge Region – Orpana Constellation
Ohkunen System – Planet IV, Moon 10
Corporate Police Force Testing Facilities
20 April YC 122
Nojana’s office looked very modest but I knew that its real value was invested in things which were not visible to a human eye. Concealed in its walls were state-of-the-art passive and active counter-spying measures which made it virtually impossible to eavesdrop. They were the reason why the agent always asked pod pilots to come to her office for mission briefings – if the classified information was leaked she would know whom to blame as no third party could possible be involved.
The agent started our conversation with a warning, “I don’t normally say this in my briefings as I expect the pilots to be fully aware of non-disclosure requirements but in this case I’ll make an exception. Please note that this is not a reflection on your mental ability to understand the contractual terms but rather an indication of an extreme sensitivity of the matter at hand. Everything you hear in this room must remain only in one place, your brain. Is it clear?”
I nodded, “Clear as vodka. One question, though: how urgent is this mission?”
“This is a special case. We give you a week to think about it and a week to execute, if you accept.”
I tensed. On the one hand, I could have a week of leave. On the other, Level 5 missions were usually the offers no sane and sober capsuleer could decline. What was she trying to get me into?
“Okay,” said I slowly. “So, what’s the mission?”
Nojana turned her monitor to me, “Do you know what it is?”
I shrugged, “Sure. That’s Ashimmu, a Blood Raiders’ cruiser. Is it why this mission is special? Because it’s in Amarr space?”
“No. This one was spotted in Orpana Constellation three days ago.”
I raised my brow, “Really? What is it doing here? I thought that Amarrian blood was sweeter than ours.”
“Don’t know about that but it intercepted a Hyasyoda’s space liner.”
“Well, it’s a formidable vessel but you know the saying – for each mean cruiser there is a meaner battlecruiser. Give me the coordinates of their base and I’ll take care of it.”
“It’s not that simple,” sighed Nojana. “We don’t know where the Raiders keep that ship.”
“Then why did you call me? Is it a kind of a reccy mission?”
“No, we don’t care where the cruiser is berthed. But we know who supports it in Caldari space. We have discovered a Sani Sabik colony in one of the asteroid belts. There is a convincing evidence that the Ashimmu is serviced and supplied by its inhabitants. We want you to destroy it.”
It took me a few seconds to realise all the implications of this proposal. Then my hands involuntarily curved into fists.
“A colony? You mean settlers?”
Nojana looked at me intently and nodded.
“Settlers. With families. With kids. Right?”
The agent nodded again.
So this is what it was about, thought I. Child homicide didn’t look good in anyone’s books, so they needed a discreet assassin, and out of all candidates they had chosen me. That wasn’t the kind of honour I had in mind when I thanked Nojana. I turned the monitor back.
“No,” said I curtly and stood up, ready to leave. No relationship, no money was worth it.
“Takumi, wait,” implored Nojana. “I have something else to show you.”
She touched the screen and turned it toward me again. It showed a photo of a smiling little girl in a pink dress.
“This is Anne Tahtinen. She was one of the kids taken from the Hyasyoda’s liner. The Raiders didn’t touch adults. They only took children. Do you know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because they think that children’s blood is purer.”
I felt weak in my knees and slumped back into the chair.
The agent continued, “I guess, you know what Blood Raiders do with their victims. Anne will not suffer. She will be kept sedated in a bed, well-nourished. There will be a little pipe connected to her vein through which the Raiders will collect her blood. It will last a few days or weeks depending on the strength of the girl but eventually her life will be extinguished. She will die of blood loss.”
I breathed heavily, “So this is what you offer, to choose whose kids’ life should be saved – Caldari or Sani Sabik? Right? I refuse to make such choice!”
Nojana looked at me with uncharacteristic sympathy, “No, the choice has already been made, Takumi – Sani Sabik colony will be destroyed. If not by you then by someone else.”
I felt dizzy, “I… I can’t. I don’t know what kind of person could agree to such mission.”
Nojana extended her arm and touched my hand, “Takumi, I understand. But this has to be done. Please, don’t decline straight away, take your time, sleep over it. You have seven days.”
I stood up and without another word left the room. Only when I was walking toward the docks I realised that I didn’t formally decline the mission.
The Forge Region – Kimotoro Constellation
New Caldari System – New Caldari Prime, Moon 1
Chief Executive Panel Bureau
20 April YC 122
On my way to New Caldari I couldn’t stop thinking about Nojana’s offer. For the first time in my capsuleer career the choice was not about money or reputation, it was about life and death. And the worst thing was that I couldn’t really avoid that choice whether I did anything or not. If I accepted the mission I would choose to kill Sani Sabik children – the children, as many would argue, who would become either Blood Raiders, or their supporters and would spread death and terror across New Eden. But I couldn’t be sure they would.
On the other hand, if I did nothing and, miraculously, Hyasyoda would not find any other mercenary to bombard the colony, then Blood Raiders would continue hijacking passenger ships and harvesting blood from Caldari kids. But again, I couldn’t be sure they would.
It was maddening – whatever I chose to do, children would die. My thoughts bounced between “what-if” scenarios and could not settle on a lesser of evils. And evils those decisions were as there could be no right thing to do.
In such gloomy state of mind I arrived to Chief Executive Panel Bureau station where I planned to back myself up before travelling planetside. Unlike the pod brain scan which destroyed your grey matter in the process, backups were made by gentler devices which left the brain intact but took much longer to copy it. It was a usual precaution for capsuleers who left their pods for an extended period of time. If they were killed outside the capsule there was no way to immediately take their brain snapshot but the backup at least guaranteed that they didn’t lose too much of their memory when it was imprinted on their new clone.
Absentmindedly I checked in at the clone bay reception, undressed in a change room and took my place in a glass sarcophagus. The cover closed over me with a hiss and I was given an injection of sedative to keep my brain activity to the minimum during the scan. I came to when the scan was over and proceeded to the change room. Just when I finished dressing and was ready to leave I received a call on my commlink. The caller’s name was unknown to me but the phone number belonged to Corporate Police Force, the same corp which employed Nojana.
“Why can’t they just leave me alone?” sighed I and took the call.
The screen showed a corpulent, middle-aged man in a police uniform.
“Er… Mister Nishimura? Takumi Nishimura?” he asked doubtfully.
That was a strange question to ask. If he called my number, who else did he expect to answer?
“Yes, it’s me,” replied I letting just a shade of irritation colour my voice. “I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage…”
“Oh, my name is Katashi Fujimoto,” babbled the stranger, “I am a police Chief in Onnebira and I am calling you because I’m investigating a murder.”
My heart sank. The only recent connection I had to my home town was a couple of calls I had with my Mom and Sota. Could it… could it possibly be related to them?
I swallowed hard and asked, “Whose murder?”
The Chief looked hesitant and then stammered, “Erm… yours.”
Somewhere I read that the greater the actor the longer the pause that she can make during a performance. By that measure both of us had missed a brilliant career on stage. The time we stared silently at each other felt like an eternity and after it passed I was the first to blink.
“Pardon?” said I weakly.
Katashi licked his lips, “I know it sounds crazy but three days ago you were killed at Izumi’s pub in Onnebira.”
I raised my hand in protest, “Wait a moment. Three days ago I was on an official mission and was nowhere close to Onnebira, Oniteseru or New Caldari. For that matter, I wasn’t even in Kimotoro Constellation. You can check CONCORD records.”
The policeman gave me a strange look, “And what day was that?”
I rolled my eyes and snapped, “Don’t you know how to use a calendar, Chief? Okay, let me help you. It was Friday, 17 April YC 122.”
Instead of taking offence at my rudeness Katashi looked at me with sympathy, “I am sorry to say this, Mr Nishimura, but three days ago was Monday, 20 April.”
“Okay, I don’t know what timezone you live in, Chief Fujimoto, but according to Eve Standard Time today is…”
I flicked the finger across the commlink screen to check the clock… and froze. The device showed that it was 13:45, Thursday, 23 April.
“What’s this?” mumblered I. “Some kind of a joke?”
“It’s not a joke, Mr Nishimura. Today is Thursday 23 April YC 122. After your death on the 20th I contacted you corporation and informed them of the incident. Unfortunately, with all the formalities and the paperwork it took three days before you could be, um… restored.”
That’s when the empyrean penny dropped – it was not the first time I was leaving the clone bay after the backup! All capsuleers studied the basics of brain scans but we didn’t get down to practicalities. It all looked very abstract and remote – yeah, I’d back up myself just in case. But what if it was the case? We had never been told to actually expect something like this to happen. In the hindsight, the first thing I should have done after leaving the clone bay was check the time. And the date.
Seeing the signs of epiphany on my face the Chief patiently waited until I came to terms with my position in space and time.
“Okay… right…” said I slowly, then looked Katashi in the face and took the plunge, “Tell me.”
“I think it would be better to show you, Mr Nishimura. We have a CCTV footage from the pub, if you don’t mind.”
I winced. Never liked to look at myself on video. But that was the best way to restore my lost memory so I reluctantly gave my consent. Katashi made a few manipulations on his commlink and it started playing back the video record. I saw the interior of Izumi’s and noticed that it didn’t change much since my time in Onnebira. Although I didn’t regret my decision to become a capsuleer I felt nostalgic – the good old Izumi’s place evoked so many treasured memories.
“This is around 8 pm on 20th April,” commented Katashi. “You had been there for an hour with your friend, Sota Mizushima. Do you recognise him?”
Of course I recognised Sota; I saw him on commlink just a few hours ago. Well, a few hours on my timeline. On the screen I saw us sitting at the table and laughing.
“Remember Tomiko, the plump one?” said Sota. “Do you know who she has become?”
“Of course I remember Tomiko. She is kind of hard to forget,” replied I. “What about her?”
Sota covered his mouth with a hand and whispered something in my ear. My eyes got round.
“No way! You must be kidding!”
Sota, enjoying my reaction, nodded energetically, “She did!”
I sat for a second with an astonished face and then guffawed. Sota readily joined me.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” a loud hoarse voice interrupted us.
The camera didn’t show the speaker but he sounded vaguely familiar.
“This is Yamato Ikeda,” explained the Chief. “You might remember him from your school years.”
Now that Katashi mentioned his name I recalled the image of a burly fellow who was a couple of years older than Sota and I and had a predilection for cruelty. These days, I’ve heard, it’s considered okay to go and complain about bullying to the principal. In my time we just tried to keep away from his sight. After the school Yamato got a job in hospitality industry, as he called it, which in reality meant he was a bouncer in a night club.
Soon Ikeda appeared in the picture in the flesh. He got fatter since the last time I saw him but was still recognisable. My on-screen twin also guessed the identity of the intruder.
“Good evening, Yamato,” said I in self-assured tone.
I didn’t know what my twin was experiencing at that moment but I had a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw Ikeda’s face. With my capsuleer training I really had nothing to be scared of. I guess it was irrational. Anyway, you are doing well, thought I. As Mom had told me – never show the dogs that you are afraid of them.
Ikeda smirked and bowed mockingly, “Good evening, little Takumi. Or should I call you Captain Nishimura now?”
He turned to one of his friends who came with him to the table and laughed, inviting him to appreciate the joke. The guy giggled obsequiously.
Yamato turned back to the table and said, “And how is your kid-murdering business going, huh?”
I froze. There could be no one, absolutely no one who knew about my conversation with Nojana. How could that thug get a whiff of it? My twin seemed shaken too.
“What are you talking about Yamato? I do not kill children,” replied I.
“Don’t you? Isn’t it how you, empyreans,” he spat the word, “make your living? By killing helpless innocent kids?”
I made a deep breath, “No, it’s not. You must be drunk, Yamato.”
Ikeda nodded, “Oh yes, I am drunk. And you know why? Do you want to know why?” without waiting for my answer he continued, “Because I am mourning the death of my little brother. He was just sixteen and he got murdered by one of your ilk.”
I was put on the back foot and stuttered, “How… how did that happen? It must’ve been an accident.”
“Oh, so that’s how we call it now – a workplace accident, right? Probably because he didn’t follow, whaddya call it, occupational health and safety rules, right?”
Confused, I shook my head, “What workplace accident?”
Ikeda’s demeanour turned from mocking to aggressive as he growled, “Two weeks ago Yori got a job at a Guristas station, and today I heard that it was blown up by some fucking capsuleer!”
Sota who was worriedly watching this exchange gasped and asked me, “Is it true, Takumi? Is it what you do now?”
That’s when I made a mistake. I should have said that I was sorry for Yamato’s loss and set an example of grace and dignity but his mention of Gursitas was like a red rag to me. For years I was working to rid Caldari space of that pirate plague and I knew quite a few things about what they did for living.
“Guristas, you said?” I asked in a menacing tone and narrowed my eyes. “So little Yori became a Gurista and you are blaming me for killing a pirate?”
“He was not a pirate! He just worked for them!” protested Ikeda.
“So he worked for people who sold narcotics to schoolkids?” continued I, steely.
“He had nothing to do with drugs! He was just a cleaner!”
“For people who supplied ten-year-old girls to paedophile rings?” I raised my voice.
“He didn’t supply anyone! He just did his job!” screamed Ikeda turning red.
“For people who stole babies and sold them for organs?!” roared I and jumped to my feet.
A small part of my brain which remained an impartial observer noticed that standing up was another error – I left my sedentary, passive position and now presented a direct challenge to Ikeda. But its teeny voice was drowned by the white hot fury that filled my head. Even though I knew where it was leading, I was totally on my twin’s side. In fact, that was the point of no return – given our agitated state there was only one possible way out of that situation… Ikeda swung first.
My capsuleer reflexes made it easy to dodge the punch but I couldn’t evade another attack that I didn’t anticipate – a blow to my kidneys from behind. I could see on camera what my twin couldn’t – one of Ikeda’s pals circled the table and stood behind my twin’s back waiting for the signal, and when he saw the opening he made his move.
I was never much of a pub brawler, so instead of retreating to a place where I could see everyone and control the situation, I turned around and tried to retaliate. Naturally, by doing so I exposed my back to Ikeda who grabbed a bar stool and smashed it against my head with a loud sickening thud. My twin silently collapsed.
Suddenly the pub went very quiet. I couldn’t see the whole room but all patrons visible on camera were staring at panting Ikeda and my twin’s body; some of them were reaching for their commlinks. The guy who punched me in the kidneys bent over me and checked the pulse. Then he removed his hand with a jerk as if he was bitten and looked at Ikeda with widened eyes.
“You killed the poor bugger, Yamato!”
Still breathing heavily, Ikeda scoffed, “Don’t worry. He’s a capsuleer. They never die.”
“Wanna explain it to cops? Good luck with that,” said the guy and ran for the exit.
No one stopped him. Everyone was now looking at Ikeda. His confidence seemed to be shaken but he put on a brave face and unhurriedly followed his associate.
After watching that scene I felt numb. It was the first time I saw myself die. To be sure, I was podded many times but there was never such a detailed record of my death. In a sense it was ironic – a capsuleer, an empyrean, a highly trained, immortal being was murdered in a pub with a bar stool. A strange thought passed through my mind – thanks goodness, it won’t be on a killboard.
With a wry smile I said, “Thank you, Chief. I think I’ve seen enough. So how can I help you?”
Katashi looked perplexed.
“We-ell,” drawled he, “to start with, I am not sure how to qualify this crime. A murder?”
I looked at him sarcastically, “If Takumi Nishimura was murdered, who do you think you are talking to now?”
Katashi chewed his lip, “Right, right… Then… maybe grievous bodily harm?”
I made a spectacle of examining my head.
“Nothing seems amiss, Chief.”
“Hmm… I don’t know then. I am sure there was a crime committed, I know it when I see it, but I have no idea how to classify it,” said Katashi, visibly flustered.
“What about, say, forced recloning?” smirked I.
Katashi perked up, “Is there such an article?”
“I am sure there is,” I said drily, “Now, if you don’t mind, Chief, I have to excuse myself. I’ve lost three days of my life and I have some catching up to do.”
“But wait, I need your testimony as a victim.”
“I am not pressing any charges. You can close the case,” I said brusquely and hung up.
That was a rude way to finish the conversation but I was so shaken after watching my death that I could not make myself dwell on this subject. Also, the notion of an alternative timeline was extremely confusing. Was it actually me on the record? Should I consider what I’d seen part of my personal experience? I needed a distraction, something to occupy my consciousness with while my brain processed all those questions in the background.
Although I told Katashi that I had some urgent business, I had no idea what I was going to do next. There were still four days until I had to respond to Nojana’s offer. I could go back to my home city but that idea didn’t seem appealing anymore. Or I could spend some time at a luxury planetside resort, as I planned for the second half of my holiday. Yeah, it would be nice to relax somewhere on a beach with a cocktail in hand, watching girls frolicking in the surf…
My musings were interrupted by a beep from the commlink. I looked at the screen and saw that the caller was Sota Mizushima. That name brought back the painful memories of my clone’s last minutes at Izumi’s – I recalled Ikeda, his hate for capsuleers, his brother’s job at Guristas… My thumb hovered hesitantly over the screen for a few moments and then decisively tapped the Decline button. After that I blocked Sota’s number and deleted it from my contacts list.
I was about to put the commlink in a pocket when suddenly it became crystal clear to me what I wanted. I activated the device, dialled a very familiar number, and when Nojana Dyodo’s face filled the screen I said just two words, “I accept.”