Offspring

I had been able to build a solid reputation and my work had become highly sought after. Many corporations wanted to recruit me but I had always resisted the temptation. As an employee in a capsuleer corporation I would become ‘an asset’. A thing to be played with. A chip, and not an expensive one, in the everlasting poker game that is capsuleer politics. Instead, I had found a safe haven in a subsidiary of the Sisters of EVE Alliance. An independent research institute subsidiary that developed technologies that could be licensed to the broader universe. I received generous funding and was free to engage in my own pursuits. Sometimes work was commissioned and I was contracted out to whatever entity was prepared to pay for my services. For this project I was working on the new propulsion system for a destroyer class hull. Although the project wasn’t a great challenge, some of its features were useful in the context of a larger overhaul of ships’ systems which, if I managed to pull it off, would be scalable from simple frigates all the way up to titans. It would be a game changer, something that would reverberate throughout the universe and have an impact on the outcomes of many future conflicts. I was irritated that I felt smug about developing technologies that capsuleers would be using long after I had gone. My technology would be the butterfly effect that would have its influence felt in all layers of New Eden society, and most of those people would never know that it had been me flapping my wings.

My wife had understood the smugness and told me to indulge in it but to never lose a sense of where I was in the universe. She is a spectacular woman. It was impossible to resist her outrageous character when we first met. Later, when we were married, she told me she had come to find me for my technological expertise but found a greater appeal. I never know what to do with my hands when she says that. Sometimes it feels like she’s talking about a work of art. She has a disarmingly tender side to her character that she shows to no one else but me. I am extremely frugal with the sentiment. When she told me she wanted to have a child with me it was as if I only understood what it means to be a man in that moment. I love remembering that moment. She said she had very specific plans for this child. I told her I would be thrilled to take care of my family. Then she elaborated on some of the specifics of those plans.

I told her “I will have to break down the cost of that but that’s probably going to run well into the millions of ISK. I will have to take out a loan to cover all these costs.”

She had barked with laughter at that. She kept laughing so long I thought she’d never stop. I never wanted her to stop. Her laughter truly is like music to me. When she managed a modicum of self-control and reduced her giggles to an occasional sniggering she waved away my concerns.

“Don’t worry about the money, don’t ever worry about the money. I’ve got the money covered.”

She gave me a DNA-encrypted data packet with the things she needed me to take care of. It was a detailed description, she had clearly put a lot of thought and effort into it.

“This looks like a long-term plan set in motion. I feel like a cog in a machine. Were you looking for a ship designer or a bit of fun on the side, did I pass some kind of test?”

She put a finger on my lips.

“You make me laugh,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eyes as she drew closer.

When she learned she was pregnant, she stopped working and stayed with me until the baby was born. We used the time to grow much closer to one another and we taught each other the ins and outs and the weird quirks of our respective professions. Some of the things she told me, with off-hand casualness, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand upright. She relished conflict, actively sought it. There seemed to be no end to the amount of enemies she had made. She never mentioned who her opponents were by name but I genuinely pitied them. I came to understand why she insisted on the byzantine layers of security she had built around herself and me, now being part of her extraordinary life. My own stories on the intricacies of designing custom warp coils for corporations were decidedly more pedestrian. All that time together, the initial morning sickness, the astounding stories, the weird food combinations she craved and our deep bonding over our impending parenthood was the very best time of my life. I was at once elated by my soon-to-be fatherhood as well as dreading it because it would mean my wife was about to leave the warmth and safety of our nest. As soon as our son was born she began to plan for a return to her ‘regular life’. She never once hinted at being hurried or displayed any impatience as she took the time to deeply bond with the boy, but I saw the spike in the data traffic as she was coming out of her voluntary seclusion. She produced more data in a day than I did in a year. Most of it she kept hidden. Not because she did not want to confide in me. Simply, I could not be made to tell anyone, through whatever method they chose to use (how’s that for a nice, clean, spine-chilling metaphor?) that which I did not know. She did show me the minutiae of her household budget. I was shocked to see the amounts she dealt with as her personal purse. The budget for the upbringing of our son, which I had worried about, did not amount to a rounding error compared to the funds that she used to run her life. I told her I could not help but feel a little intimidated by the sheer weight of the numbers in her life.

She leaned in and said “Well, at least you know I didn’t marry you for your money,” and gave me a quick kiss to close the conversation.

Before long, I found myself behind a one-way glass wall. I had great misgivings about saying goodbye but even that she had made easy.

“This is not for my convenience, because I will miss you dearly. This is for the safety of the both of you.”

Although it made sense it still felt like I was losing her. She was at the door as it chimed the arrival of her associate. She turned around and blew me a kiss. Then the door slid open and a huge man appeared in the door opening. A guard of phenomenal proportions with a fierce expression on his face. He briefly inspected the interior of the hallway before giving her a toothy grin.

“Great to have you back, boss. Let me take your kit.”

He lifted her heavy suitcase as if it was a bag of feathers. Then the door closed behind her and there I was, a father alone.

---===O===---

When he was 5 he came into my study and started playing with some of the tools I was using in my research. I had adopted the habit of writing on paper using an old-styled pen. Learning how to write using a pen had been quite a journey all by itself. It was an extraordinarily expensive way of writing because the paper had to be specifically created and shipped to wherever I found myself developing custom work for corporations. Funds were never a problem though, not anymore. Although much slower than just sending my thoughts to a screen, writing with a pen offered me a particular kind of connection between what I was thinking and how that thought appeared on the paper. There were a few disadvantages to using this old process. One of them was that it was impossible to dynamically index the content of what I had written. The main advantage was security. There was just one copy of the document and it was not stored in electronic form. Although it could be a particular burden to carry a lot of paper around, it was reassuring that my most sensitive work was not easily susceptible to surreptitious access. Some of my work was classified with an internal security clearance by the corporation. For certain projects that implied that they had ‘never existed’. Once delivered, I myself wasn’t even allowed to access the work later. The corporation’s competitors were always looking for strategic advantages. Stealing experimental designs was very much part of that effort. After he had been fiddling around for a few minutes, the boy nonchalantly drifted over to my desk and started playing distractedly with some paper I had crumpled into the bin. A waste paper bin, the rare visitors to my office never understood why I even had such a thing. Then, when he tired of the old paper he put his head on my knee and looked up at me.

“Daddy, do you love me?”

I returned his earnest gaze and my face bloomed into an expression of extreme joy.

“Daddy loves you very, very, very much!”

I picked him up, put him on my lap and gave him a great, big hug.
He wrapped his arms around my neck, and gave me a kiss.

“I love daddy even more!”

After that, he jumped down and ran out of my office shrieking like a banshee. My eyes followed him until he was out of the room and I shook my head at the almighty ruckus he was making. He reminded me of his mother, who also has a penchant for making a lot of noise, especially when she thinks life needs a little shaking up. Which is often. Then I picked up my pen and before long I was again lost in my research.

When he was 10, he came to me in my laboratory. This place was in a pocket of dead space, where the corporation I was detached to had built research facilities to help them develop more efficient means of producing their own equipment and space frames. I had my misgivings about exposing our child to the additional risk but he had to be in my custody at all times. I tried not to worry too much about it lest it would reflect on our son and put clouds in his eyes. He had the delicate traits of his mother in his face but my lean build. My parents had had the money for genetic editing and they ‘bought’ me a keen mind and a strong body with excellent metabolism. Not a brute force approach to correcting fatal flaws in their own genetic makeup, rather a delicate tweaking of the available potential of two bright and beautiful people. They had been able to resist the urge to give an ‘artistic quality’ to the gene expression so that I did not have to contend with having blue skin or hair in weird colours and strange places, which some people seemed to relish in. Seeing as how well it had worked for me, and given the funds to have it done right readily available, I had made the suggestion to my wife. She had declined. It was ‘not something my people do’, she had said and that had been the end of it. There is a finality to her decisions that prevents any further discussion. An eternity spent as an immortal will do that to a person. We did share our DNA to see if there was a potential for nasty surprises and we were both glad, and relieved, that none were apparent. Our child was, by and large, what nature had in store for us and we were both happy he came to us as a beautiful and happy little boy. 10 years. It was as if it had been yesterday.

He started fiddling with some odd bits and bobs and looked distracted. I put down my pen and called out.

“What’s going on, buddy?”

He let out a deep sigh.

“I’m bored, dad.”

I pushed back my chair and beckoned him. He joined me at the window looking out into deep space. I pointed out a particular star.

“Do you know which one that is?”

He frowned and made some calculations.

“That’s Perimeter?”

His voice told me he wasn’t sure of himself.

“Close,” I said.

“That is actually Jita, the most important trade hub in New Eden. Perimeter is the one a bit to the right.”

He looked up at me.

“Mom told me you can make a lot of money in Jita.”

I tried not to wince at that one. His mom had expanded, in quite some detail, on the mechanics involved in making a lot of money in Jita for people in her line of work. It mainly revolves around navigating huge fields of debris containing wrecked space ships and people’s corpses floating in space. I wasn’t sure how much his mom had told him, I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression of what she did although I couldn’t quite figure out how to give the right impression when that involves the brutal practicalities involved in the life of the space pirate. She had told me she would cover that ‘when the time was right’. I had told her that when it comes to explaining that aspect of her life, the floor is all hers. She had given me a look as if she had eaten all the cheese off of the table.

“Have you done your homework yet?”

I asked him. His face scrunched up.

“Mom has me started on an astrophysics module but I want to learn about shooting lasers. LAZORS RULE!!!”

I could not help but chuckle. His mother had devised an elegant solution to her missing at the family table. She had created an entire curriculum of lesson material that she had recorded in exquisite 3D. It allowed her to be present in the life of the boy without being physically in the room. Part of the didactic package was a ‘live’ interactive sequence where she had recorded a whole slew of possible scenarios to guide whatever happened in the life of our young child. From bruising his knee to giving praise for doing a good job, even to gently chide him for acting up. The AI decided which sequence was the appropriate one based on his and mine inputs. It worked eerily well. My wife had spent quite some time recording but it was the post production work that had been the greater cost. How much? It surpassed the entire book value of the corporation I currently worked for. It had bought as life-like an experience of being present as it was possible to get without actually touching a physical human, although touching a hologram felt real enough.

From time to time she arranged for live material to reach us, through means we never bothered to find out. It gave our child the impression that mom was always thinking of him, which she no doubt did, even though she could not be present herself. Every time we ‘found’ some of that content he was elated for weeks because it showed her doing all sorts of interesting things in far off places that he had only seen on a screen. I had come up with the idea of lavishing him with lots of ice cream at every such occasion to reinforce and augment the psychological impact of ‘hearing from mom’ again. We wanted to build as positive an experience of his childhood and adolescent years as we knew how to in the absence of his mother.

“Tell you what, sport,” I said as I ruffled his hair. “There’s going to be lots of time to learn about lasers and other things that go boom. All in due time. Let’s see you do your homework first and then we’ll see some 3-Vids and have some ice cream. How about it?”

“ICE CREAM?! Did mommy send us movies?”

He erupted in squeals of delight and jumped into my arms for a hug that almost broke my ribs. It’s a sacrifice being a dad but somebody’s got to do it.

“Can we watch mommy first, can we, can we? Please, please, please? Puhlease??”

I almost gave in to his cherub pleading but that would not bode well for the future.

“We’ve done this before, haven’t we?” I asked. “The sooner you get your homework done the sooner we can watch mommy’s movies. And I’d really appreciate it if you could just go ahead and do that because I haven’t seen the movies yet either and I’m dying to find out what mom is up to these days.”

I didn’t have to lie about that part. He rolled his eyes in abject frustration but I would not relent. I shooed him off to his room to complete his homework. He ran out of the lab hollering with joy. I turned back to my table to continue working and found myself terribly distracted by the prospect of hearing news from my wife.

Throughout the years I had placed regular calls to a close friend of the family. It was part of my routine interaction, designed to not raise any eyebrows during standard security sweeps by the people I had been working for or ‘other parties’ interested in my line of work. We would engage in some friendly banter and keep each other up to speed on what was going on in our lives. By way of reporting back to my wife my friend would leave some innocuous markers in the public spaces he visited. They only served to indicate that all was well. To the uninitiated they would not look anything like a message at all. There would be no further interaction, nothing that could establish a link between my wife and me. On occasions such as these I would ‘leave a mark’ as she put it. Behind the scenes an entire process was then set in motion to protect me and my son along the way.

“Hey Raymond,” I said. “I’ve read your latest paper on the Jovians. Really superior work. If you carry on like this the Federation is going to start looking into your pencil drawer to see if you’ve got a wormhole to Jove space in there.”

The humour was lost on him.

“You’re not kidding. I’ve been in two ‘how do you know all this’ meetings with the Federation Navy already, and some of the ‘students’ that come into my lectures have square jaws that my regular bumbling milquetoast undergrads shy away from. “I’m only here on a Federation Service Member Grant, professor.” Yeah, right. It’s astonishing how they all manage to look so good when the rank and file Navy retiree pension doesn’t buy lunch for a family of four on the Tier 3 deck of 4-4 once every month. They also always come up with questions that make it seem as if I’m going to Jove space every week for tea, crumpets and the hidden secrets of the universe.”

I couldn’t help but grin at that one. “I thought you’d be happy to have some smart students for a change.”

Raymond’s face contorted in a sneer of derision.

“Give me a break. When I point out my sources, public sources by the way, and tell them that if they spent the same time and effort sitting down and reading the source material and put two and two together, maybe they could learn a few things themselves, they act all offended. Do I know it’s a harsh universe out there with mean people that want to harm us? Have I forgotten where all my ‘lush’ funding comes from and how the poor tax payers save the food out of their mouths to keep characters like me all cozily bundled up in their fancy laboratories?”

He made a throwaway gesture.

“Big guns and fragile egos, just what this universe needed more of. As if the capsuleers were not bad enough already. Federation Navy intelligence have a hard time parsing a sentence without tracing the line with their finger. And when someone comes along who can make sense of it all when it’s all written out before them, now we’re in national security territory. Quick! This guy can do something we don’t understand, we can’t trust him.”

He gave himself some time for the frustration to bleed off.

“I get carried away, I’m sorry,” he said. “Anyway, you haven’t been idling either I understand. I’ve seen your work on propulsion systems and how that’s winding itself through the manufacturing process. Impressive stuff. I never had the stomach to chew through the field equations for warp coil geometries. I don’t know where you get the patience.”

“I spend a lot of time doodling,” I said.

That put a grin on his face.

“I bet there’s a lot of people who wished they could doodle that well. At least you’re not swimming in some fluid like the pod pilots. You’re still working in the Sisters of EVE labs, right?”

“I haven’t been there for a while, actually. I’m being shuffled around to where the corporation keeps their engineers hidden from plane view.”

He shrugged. “You get to see part of the universe and someone else is footing the bill. What’s not to love?”

“Honestly? It’s a lot of hassle. They pay for the expenses, it’s true, but I’m not part of the corporation proper. I’m just the guy their engineers told them they should be talking to. If something happens to me or my son on the way to wherever they want me to work they’ll raise an eyebrow, pay off the insurance and find someone else to annoy.”

“Can’t you just shrug it off and go elsewhere? I’m sure you could easily find accommodation with people who can use a man of your talents if you go looking for it,” he said.

“On the surface it would look like that, right? The reality is that there aren’t a whole lot of people involved in that kind of work. This research is very restricted because of how few people are working in it. I’m on a first-name basis with everybody who works in this field precisely because of that.”

“So, reach out and touch someone. You couldn’t call someone and ask for a job?”

“I can call someone and they will give me a job. Only they will then spend the rest of their life mining Spodumain because their political leaders won’t like them for talking to me,” I said. “I can only really talk to people who don’t have strong political restrictions and then only to those people who are actually doing something worthwhile in this field, and there aren’t a whole lot of those, which narrows my options considerably. So now I’m heading out to see this guy, somewhere in a deadspace pocket in low-sec, where the funny people live, to look at his setup. He tells me he’s found a better way of doing something that I don’t think can be done any better. I’ve spent a lot of time working on that and I believe he’s wrong but if he’s onto something real his work might open the door to entirely new technologies. If he turns out to be right I’ll be looking at years of new research. Either way I’ll be there for a while running tests.”

“Does it have to be in low-sec?” Marlon asked.

“You want I should talk to his CEO and tell him to pull up sticks and move his operation to Dodixie because I’m afraid?”

“Maybe that wouldn’t come out right… And your son is coming along?” he asked.

“Of course he is. Where would he be staying?”

“How is the corporation handling the risk of you bringing your child along?” he asked.

“I’m pretty sure they don’t care about that at all. Being his parent that is my responsibility entirely.” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll both be alright. When you get back I'll buy you lunch at 4-4's top tier restaurant,” Marlon said.

"I'm definitely taking you up on that," I said. "If this guy's idea turns out to be nothing it might even be sooner than you think."

We took our leave and I promised to let him know I was back in civilised space as soon as I got back from my deployment. I had done my part. The markers that would normally indicate there were no problems in need of addressing were changed in subtle ways. Unseen, a chain of events was set in motion that neither he nor I would be made aware of. Everything that would happen now as far as I was concerned was happenstance and coincidence.

The next day I received the documents arranging for my travel and stay and a manifest for the equipment I was expected to bring along. To my astonishment there were no travel arrangements for my son. When I called the local corporation office they told me that their security policies had dictated my son was not to join me on my trip over to the research facility but if I had any problem with that I should contact their diplomatic service. This was the first time a corporation had offered a reservation to me bringing the kid along, because he was now starting to be old enough to be a spy. Such is corporate logic. I showed them the breadth of work I had done for them and other corporations throughout the years and how my son had always been by my side. I had no other family, I was his legal guardian and more importantly, I was his father and his education was my principal responsibility. Was I to give that up because the boy got older? Finally they relented. The corporation never acknowledged their acceptance of my argument, nor did it admit to its position being wrong, it never did, but when my final orders came travel arrangements and living accommodations were available for two people and they even provided child care amenities and a full study curriculum for a boy of my son’s age. Understand: the corporation was not magnanimous, hospitable, generous or particularly interested in the welfare of my child. The corporation was pragmatic. It did not tend to the needs of my son. It tended to my needs as they pertained to my son. In order for them to have the benefit of my expertise, they could not afford to have me distracted by the fact that I had to care for my child. So they did that for me. If my employment would ever stop for whatever reason, their childcare effort would stop mid-sentence and any assets they had assigned to that effort would become unavailable effective immediately and without recourse.

My fears for the journey proved to be unfounded. Right before we left there were reports of increased pirate activity and the corporation had detached a small but impressive support fleet to make sure we reached our destination unharmed. The local news mentioned skirmishes between pirates and some corporations involved in mining activities, somehow we seemed to neatly miss all of them on the way to the corporation's base of operations. My son was fascinated by the stories of the battles and drew detailed maps of where activity was reported and which ships were involved. For the entire duration of our trip I could not persuade him to do some studying. He was only interested in stories of battles unseen and footage of heroic encounters with pirates. I felt I should be more worried about the fact that he took the side of the pirates rather than that of Concord but, keeping his mother's proclivities in mind, I guess it was to be expected.

---===0===---

He had just turned 16 when the day finally came. We had anticipated it right from the start and had been extremely nervous and scared for when that one special moment would inevitably come. It was unfortunate it came in the middle of a deployment far away from home. His mother and I would have preferred to have this conversation in as safe a place as we could make it. As it happened I was working in a station in low security space where the corporation had an office. I had frowned at being asked to take the risk of making a journey through systems where there was no Concord protection worthy of the name.

He had been playing with the Curse model I usually punched up for him. When he was in a contemplative mood he enjoyed letting his mind wander by looking at pretty pictures of space ships. He was particular to Curses, probably because his mom favoured them. Every inch of the ship he knew by heart and I could see that he was starting to take an interest that exceeded the purely aesthetic. I could see him considering aspects of the ship, wondering why certain parts were the way they were and how they all fit together. He would sometimes ask me questions.

“What is this one for?”; “Why is that here instead of there?”

A great designer was budding inside that mind, but I didn’t want to push him. It would all come in due time, or not at all. There is always the risk that nothing will emerge despite a parent’s best intentions. This time he was looking at the model but not really focusing. He had this frown on his face that I recognised all too well. I had seen it in the mirror more times than I cared to remember. I sensed the frown forming on my own face now because his expression of it was more subtle and indicated real internal conflict.

“What’s going on, buddy?”

He shrugged.

“It looks like something’s troubling you. It will help you to talk about it.”

He sullenly looked at the ship model. Not good. We had taught him to voice his needs and concerns clearly and openly. We had taught him the value of communication. A lack of communication closes off many avenues for new opportunities.

“Where have you been today? I thought you were going to dedicate some time on your ship building skills.” I pressed on.

“There’s a few other kids here my age, we hung out on one of the lower tiers.”

“I didn’t know there would be other children here,” I said. “I thought this place would be far too dangerous to raise a family.”

“Some kids catch rides with capsuleer ships to get away,” he said.

“Get away from what?”

I took a seat and tried to prepare for the moment.

“From their lives, dad. They’re trying to get away from all the crap in their lives.”

“Are you trying to get away from your life?” I asked.

“No, I didn't mean it like that. I felt sorry for them without parents to love them.”

I nodded my understanding. “What was it like interacting with people your own age?” I asked.

"Well," he said. "I didn't expect to see kids my age. It was nice to talk to someone who is not an adult."

He snapped his fingers.

"This is what I was thinking about when you walked in, when I was talking to the other kids, they each had a name. And when they asked for mine I couldn't tell them. I never thought about it that way. I don't know my name. What's my name? It totally freaked me out. Why don't I know my name? Is this something specific to our culture?"

"And there it is," I thought to myself. "Today's the day."

I thought about the conversation my wife and I had had about this very moment and how I should go about managing it. We had decided on allowing him to take the initiative and then give him a real surprise.

"No," I said. "Children are typically named at birth."

"So," his eyes lighting up with anticipation. "What's my name then?"

"Your mom and I decided not to give you a name."

He was dumbstruck when that registered.

"But... why? Don't you love me? Didn't you want me? Is... is that why mom has never visited us?"

I saw his face falling in utter despondency, it was the closest I'd seen him to crying with existential pain. I took him in my arms for a reassuring hug and wrapped his head with my knuckles.

"Hey, look at me, don't put any ideas into your head. Everything is ok. There's nothing to worry about. I promise you it will all work out." I said. "Have you felt unloved, have you ever thought you were not welcome?"

"No, you and mom have been awesome to me. But I don't understand. Why did you not give me a name? Am I being punished? Is there something you want me to do? Do I have to pick my own name?"

"Listen buddy," I said, "I understand this is not easy. It's not easy for me either. Not giving you a name was extremely hard."

“Is that why I could not play with other children when I was younger?”

“Your mom and I decided it would be safer for you not to interact with other people until we had had a chance to teach you a few things other children typically don’t get taught. Certainly not at your age.”

He pointed towards the gear in my lab. “Is it this? Is that what all this is about?”

I chuckled. “No. It’s definitely not about that.”

“But is this not what I see you do all the time? You’ve been in a lab like this for as long as I can remember."

“That is certainly true. But this is not some kind of elaborate ruse. This really is your dad’s job. I design propulsion systems, among other things, for space ships. I am with added drama a spaceship nerd.” The phrase amused me. “I have been doing this long before I met your mother. In fact, this work has been the reason your mom came to find me.”

"Mom came to find you? But why? She’s so much cooler than you are.”

I threw my hands in the air “Well, thank you very much, beloved son! Who has been taking care of you all these years? Who’s had to deal with all the inconvenient ‘accidents’ and ‘bloopers’? Would that not be me, your dad?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s mom who’s taught me all the interesting things about… stuff. All the things she does in space with her friends, that looks just awesome!”

This was the line his mom had been waiting for.

“Would you say it would be something you’d want to do yourself?” I asked.

"You mean: flying in space?"

"Yes."

"Don't we already do that? When we go to your new postings, I don't really like this place though."

"Not like that," I said. "Like a capsuleer."

"But how do I do that?"

"That, my dear boy," I said, nodding in the direction of his study room, "is not a question for me."

He was out of the door without saying another word. He waited for me to join him in the study room. “Hi mom,” triggered one of a range of possible responses by the algorithm. This sequence was her sitting on a chair in a lab, intently studying the interactions of some chemicals in pipes and bottles.

“Oh, hey honey. There you are. I thought you were late for your lesson. Has your dad been keeping you busy?” she asked.

“Sort of, we were talking about why I don’t have a name.”

At once the scene the AI displayed changed. The speed of the chemical reactions increased dramatically until the ‘room’ was filled with nothing but smoke. The room exploded in a soundless blast of white light. When the glare faded away the scene had changed completely. Now his mother was shown, dressed in the full attire of her race and standing. Even I had never seen her dressed like that myself. I was stunned at the splendour she displayed. She wore her robes as if she was part of the Amarrian royal family herself. In fact, I wasn’t sure at all that she was not a member of the extended Amarr royal family. That part she had, in her own words, never ‘cared to expand on’. The AI’s uncanny ability to track people in the room allowed my wife’s avatar to look me in the eyes as though she was physically present in the room.

“You need to make preparations to leave here as soon as possible,” she said. Turning to our son she told him “There are no oversights with regards to the way you were raised. Do you understand that?”

He nodded silently.

“It is also important that you are aware we have not elected to ignore your needs as an individual or denied you affection as part of a punitive regimen for perceived transgressions against a doctrine or philosophy. Do you understand?”

His face turned quizzical. “What about when I flooded the apartment?”

“No. Disciplining is not a punishment in the sense I’m talking bout. We have been over this. Flooding the apartment does not help you grow into a well-adjusted adult, unless the disciplining is considered the material aspect of helping you grow into a well-adjusted adult. That was not the point of disciplining you for acting like a child. Destruction without direction is stupid and deserves no encouragement. Which is different from the time you disabled the station’s power supply. That was a brilliant plan, perfectly executed. And we rewarded you for that.”

“Why? You didn’t let me flip the final switch.”

“That was not necessary,” I said. “Your execution of that plan had been flawless. You did not need to complete the sequence. Nothing would have been gained by alerting people to that vulnerability. We also did not need the inevitable chaos that would follow the station’s power supply failing completely."

“All that,” his mother continued “to show you we had a plan to raise you the way we did.”

“And that plan included not giving me a name?”

“Very much, yes.”

“Will anyone please tell me why?”

He turned to me in desperation.

I pointed towards his mother. “That part I happily concede to your mother. It was her design.”

He turned towards her. “Mom?”

“I have always wanted to tell you. That part of the plan requires for us to have a meeting.”

He opened his arms. “Um, hello? I’m right here?”

“I meant,” she said “for you to come and meet me. In person.”

For a moment he was stunned, trying to understand what his mother was saying.

“Meet you? For real? I get to meet you for real?”

His mother’s face gained an aspect of intense happiness. He started whooping and hollering as he was besides himself with joy. We gave him some time to burn away the endorphin rush. At last he regained some measure of composure.

“I can’t wait to finally meet mom!”

“You have no idea how much I want to see you too, sweetie. I’ll make arrangements to charter an InterBus transport…” she was interrupted by our son.

“I don’t want to sit in an InterBus, I want to fly wherever you are in a Curse!”

She shook her head. “Only capsuleers get to fly those kinds of ships, sweetie,” she said.

“Then I want to be a capsuleer!”

Her eyes found mine in that uncanny way. She looked as if she was going to burst with pride.

“Do you really want to be a capsuleer? We float in soup most of the time. You don’t get to stretch your legs a lot.”

“I don’t care, I’m going to meet my mom!”

“He’s had every part of the training except for the trial,” I said. “If he can handle immersion and the right skills, he could fly every ship in New Eden.”

“I believe so too,” my wife said.

She addressed him. “Sweetie, this is one of the very few times where it is more important than anything else that you listen and accept what I’m about to say. Do you understand?”

He nodded vigorously.

“This is not for your dad, for me or anyone else. This is for you and you alone. Your dad and I know you are smart enough to handle all the theory. You are years ahead of students of your age group. This is not about the theory. This is about taking the actual test to become a capsuleer. All other parts of the training are about learning how to work the systems and the technologies involved. And they are important, you need to understand how they work. However, none of it is as important as actually being in the pod. You will spend long periods of time in pods. You can’t just tolerate the environment, you have to actually seek the experience. You have to want to be there.”

“I know I will."

“Listen to me,” she said. “I’m speaking from long years of personal experience. I have a deep understanding of what this is like. You will spend a lot of time in that liquid. You have to do more than be able to tolerate it. You have to want to do that more than anything. To some it comes naturally, they take to it as part of their personality. Some people keep trying and they never get there. There is no shame in admitting the experience is not for you. It is important that you admit that for yourself early so that you can move on with your life. If you make the mistake of not accepting that limitation you will be looking forward to an absolutely miserable experience of life and that is not what we had in mind for you.”

“You will have every opportunity to let us know what you decide,” I said. “Whatever your decision is, your mother and I will accept and respect it as your personal choice. This will determine the course of your life. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re intimidated by that choice, it’s perfectly natural.”

“So, what do they make you do?”

“My family also considered it very important that I know what I would be signing up for when it was my turn to take the test,” my wife said.

She displayed a schematic of a trial environment. It was a giant tank of the fluid capsuleers spend their time in when sitting in their pods. At regular intervals straps were mounted on the floor of the tank with breathing masks. The test was as simple as it was brutal. Aspiring pilots had to spend as much time in the tank as possible, to see how they reacted to being submerged for protracted periods of time. Telemetry measured physiological and psychological responses to stimuli. A harness provided the sensation of the contacts that would be inserted into the spinal cord after tests were completed successfully. People who could not adjust to the environment were removed to prevent psychological damage. It also ended their chances of becoming a pod pilot.

“These are typical test banks. Almost all factions use a setup that’s similar to this. Most pilots receive their training in tanks like these.” The scene switched to a different environment. This was a far more austere setting. “This is what they gave us. We were put into the tanks and got fed a near-live feed of a ship as it went through its paces. We were able to command it, or it felt so real that when I commanded my first ship I could sense no difference.”

“How long were you in the tank for?”

“I was the last one out after about 3 weeks. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t stand it any longer, the tank developed a problem and to address it they had to evacuate the occupants, which was only myself by that point.”

“What does it feel like for you?”

“It is like being one with the universe,” my wife said.

She produced an image of a solar system. It displayed all important structures in exquisite detail.

“You know everything about the system, within scanner range obviously, your ship’s sensors capture the information. The difference between reading it off of a screen and the ship’s data feed is that you ‘live’ the information. It is every bit as much a part of you as feeling your muscles twitch, the experience of sound, smell, vision. It is part of your homeostatic make up. The information is an intimate part of your psychological profile, you become one with the information, the information becomes you. It can be scary at first.”

"I'm fine. Really, I'll be fine. When can I take the trials? What do I do to get there?"

His eager anticipation was most infectious. He saw himself already as the experienced space hand flying in his favourite ship on the way to his mother whom he would finally get to meet.

"If you took the Interbus you could leave as early as tomorrow morning, with the first ship that heads my way," his mother said.

"I'm not taking the Interbus, I'm going to meet you as a capsuleer."

"This is not a negotiation. You are not getting your way by insisting you should get your way. Tomorrow you will take the InterBus, we will meet in Amarr. Believe me, you will have all the time in the world to fly as much in space as you want to. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

"Now, go to your room, pack your bags. I can't wait to meet you, it's been far too long since I last saw my boy."

That part was certainly true. I did not look forward to have to close this part of my life and say goodbye to my little guy, now a budding young man with a purpose in his eye.

The following morning I could not find him anywhere in the apartment and the tracking system could not place him anywhere in the station.

I went to the study and summoned the image of my wife.

"He's gone," I said. "I've used all the scanners I could command but they did not come up with anything. He was seen with some people, somewhere around the space dock. A few ships have left this morning, none of consequence, none in directions heading to the Throne Worlds."

"He has chosen his own path," my wife said.

She projected an image of herself, comfortably sitting on a chaise longue, cocktail in hand in front of an open fire

"This is his first true act of rebellion as a man. He has decided to shape the world as he wants to see it, not as it was planned for him."

"How does that feel?" I asked.

She beamed. "Other than that it was planned decades ago, I couldn't be happier. My little man is going to make a name for himself, quaint turn of phrase there, and the old folks won't stand in the way of his ambition."

She did that thing of looking me in the eye again.

"The AI is not quite strong enough to be certain about your feelings. Let me tell you that you did a marvellous job. You should feel proud of yourself because you have raised a strong young man. This is not a failure on your or my part. This he had to do. This is what it needs. I would have been disappointed if he had taken that InterBus ride, it would have told me he was not ready for it, maybe he'd never be ready for it. He is to become a capsuleer. A pod pilot needs to take the lead or he's not going to be much use to himself. He has spread his wings, let's see how far he can fly."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I can't help but feel trepidation about the risk he's taking."

"I fully understand, taking that risk is the leap of faith. With that risk comes the potential of great reward. He might fail. He might not make it through the trial, he might be killed before he is cloned. I would not be more heartbroken about that than you would be, I would at least take comfort in the knowledge that he lost his life choosing his own path. Many people never get there."

"And where do I go from here?" I asked.

"Why, dear husband of mine, we shall meet again, of course. I cannot wait to wine and dine you in the great houses of the Empire. A whole new career awaits you. A natural continuation of your work so far, a humble token of appreciation for all the risks you took and for believing in my absurd little plan."

She ended the conversation with the kind of pictures of her that went along with the first humans who ever set foot on another heavenly body in a bewildering show of light and lust, thereby ending the solemn atmosphere as I burst out laughing. She never ceases to amaze me.

I had never been so delighted to break a contract with an employer as that day, paying the ludicrous penalty with a big smile on my face. Finally I got to go home.

---===0===---

"Boss, stop fidgeting," Martok said.

Martok, Helicity Boson's body man, was almost driven to distraction.

"What the hell is the matter with you today?"

Martok was one of the only people in New Eden who would have the courage to talk to her like that and not have to fear waking up in a medical clone.

"You act as if you're a girl on her first date," he said.

Helicity raise her arms in frustration.

"I'm nervous, I haven't slept well. I haven't been myself all morning," she said.

"You're not kidding. We passed two Hulks and an Orca and you didn't even try to lock them. A guy with 200 billion ISK on his head got to waltz out of a deadspace pocket without getting himself popped. Concord popped your Curse, again, and you didn't even bother looking for your luggage in the wreck. And about that, your FC scooped it up and it's sitting in your hangar. You lost a set of officer mods and the two BPOs are gone as well. And to top it off, you came up in the elevator, standing next to a Brutor and yet, somehow the Royal Amarr Navy has not jumped to the slave worlds to seek retribution. So yeah, you do seem a little out of sorts today. Is it the weather?"

Helicity fidgeted again, trying to adjust her clothes.

"It's the robes. I don't know... Do I look too formal?"

Martok was baffled by the question. In al their long association he had never heard his boss express the slightest doubt or reservation about her attire, or at least not to his awareness.. He struggled to come up with an answer.

"Boss... are you ok? Now you're making me nervous."

"Or maybe it's the makeup," Helicity said. "Would you say I was using too much lipstick?"

"Boss, keep this up, I'm calling the doctor."

She waved a hand and giggled.

"No, silly. I'm just a bit giddy. I got myself a pair of Corsair heels, do you think they match the robes?"

"Ok, alright, that does it." Martok nodded furiously. "We're done."

He tapped his communicator.

"Doc? Martok. Helicity is having a stroke."

Helicity's eyes became large.

"Why did you do that? Why did you have to do that?"

"Boss," Martok said, raising a hand.

"You're behaving irrationally. Something's wrong. You're not yourself."

"Call him off," Helicity said.

"I can't do that."

"CALL - HIM - OFF!"

"You know I can't do that. I called him, he's coming. Nothing is going to stop him from seeing you. He'd never take a chance..."

Before he could go further a tremendous ruckus was heard on the lower floor. A group of men came down the corridor. One towering figure was dragging two station crew along as if they were garbage bags. He dropped them off in the middle of the corridor. One of his team mates threw up a sonic barrier. Then he approached the men who were scrambling to get back on their feet.

"Today is a good day for you!" he said. "This is your lucky day. You have no idea how glad you are going to be that we came by today."

He pulled out two credit sticks and handed one to each man.

"Take this money and walk away," pointing in the direction they had come from.

The men hesitantly looked at the rest of the group that hadn't broken pace and was heading towards the upper level.

"Don't go that way," the guard said. "It'll end soon, it will end badly for you and you don't want that because today is a good day. Don't make it end on a sad note."

Two other guards had walked to the base of the stairs. They had thrown up an opaque shield. They stood at the ready with a hand on their side arm. The first guard pointed at his team.

"They are not going to warn you, they will shoot straight away and they are very good. You'll be dead before you hit this fancy carpet here. You don't want that. Tell me again why you don't want that."

One of the crew hesitantly offered "Because... today... is a good day?"

"Hot damn, you're good!" the guard said. "I bet you were the top of your class. You should some get some kind of medal, like what the capsuleers get, you're so smart."

"Now," he concluded, pointing towards the exit, "time for you to leave. There is nothing there for you. Nobody is being harmed, nobody's breaking anything and your station is safe. Get cracking."

As they were walking away, the guard looked at his tall partner.

"I think I handled that very well, wouldn't you say?"

The tall man paused for a second.

"You sure do talk a lot though."

In the mean time the last guard had gone up the stairs, leading the doctor who was engrossed in the telemetry from Helicity's implants. As they approached her, Martok rose to meet them.

"Doctor, I'm sorry, I spoke too soon. Everything's fine, you don't need to doffghlgl."

The last words were muffled as the guard put a hand over Martok's face and pushed him out of the way of the path of the doctor and then firmly guided him down the stairs. The doctor hadn't even registered Martok's intervention. He produced a scanner and beckoned Helicity forward while looking for any telltale signs of pain, discomfort or motor impairment the readouts might have missed. Helicity gave an exasperated sigh but the doctor did not relent.

"Stand still!"

He would not back down until his diagnostic was complete and he was satisfied she was fine. Not even Helicity herself could stop him, a fact she was keenly aware of. She submitted for as long as was necessary for the examination to complete.

"You appear to be fine. All readings are nominal to profile. There's a bit of an elevated heart rate and increased oxytocin levels. You're nervous and excited about something. Maybe you're horny?"

Helicity rolled her eyes.

"I - am - fine, for Bob's sake! I've got an important meeting coming up and I'm nervous about it. Have you never been nervous about anything?"

"Do you need counselling," the doctor asked.

"I need to be left alone. Being left alone for a few minutes would work really well for me right now."

"Is this meeting with someone we know of in our organisation?" the doctor asked. "Do you need medication to help you deal with stress?"

"No," Helicity said. "This is personal business, I don't know whether there will be an operational implication. There might be one, there might not be one. I don't know how it will go. This is a family matter and frankly I'm very unsure about what will happen today."

"A family matter and one that gives you, you, stress..." the doctor said. He verified some information. "It has been long enough... is this about your son maybe," the doctor asked softly.

Helicity froze. Her outward demeanour did not change, but on the inside she turned cold as ice. She had never mentioned having children to anyone and she was certain her husband would never have mentioned her by name or as the mother of his child. The security implications were too dangerous to ignore. They had a clear understanding of what could or could not be mentioned. She came to a conclusion. She would have to find out as much as possible about what exactly the doctor knew before she had to have him killed. It was not something she wanted to do, he had been an excellent doctor, but this was too much of a breach of security to be handled timidly.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

The doctor shook his head and waved his tablet in front of her.

"I'm still reading your telemetry. Your cortisol levels just went through the roof. Let's not play games, you and I," he said.

Playing dumb isn't going to be enough. "Why would you bring that up? What makes you even mention that? You know what position you put me into."

"I am your doctor," he said. "My job is to care for you. That covers all aspects, if an emotional disturbance has the potential to affect how you behave it could jeopardise your entire operation. That is why I am here."

"How... how long have you known about my son?" she asked.

"Quite a few years ago you were in the field for a protracted period of time. Far longer than your typical stay in space," the doctor said. "A holiday you called it. You have also been using this clone for a very long time. You don't typically do that. This clone is old. By your standards. You don't like being old. If you go through the effort of ageing a clone you had a reason for that."

He showed her the statistics of all her clones in various stations in New Eden.

"All your other clones are decidedly younger than this form and you have been extremely careful not to engage in combat when you are using it. I never questioned that. You do the things you do for your own reasons. But now it makes sense: you needed an older form to look more like a regularly ageing adult."

"Go on," she said.

"How long have you been planning this for?"

"70 odd years. It occurred to me that the opportunity might present itself and I did not want to be in a position to have to invent the logistics chain as events were overtaking my initiative."

"Outstanding planning, as per usual," the doctor acknowledged. "When you returned from your stay in deadspace you jumped into a different clone to start your delightful Hulkageddon initiative."

He raised the hand that held the tablet.

"Of course I performed a complete medical on the clone you left in the station, in Amarr no less. The queen of low-security space leaves her most valuable clone in the safest possible place she can think of. You are a capsuleer, I am a doctor. You know your job, I know mine. This is what I do. It was obvious that you had given birth to a son."

"I don't know anything else about the event," he went on, "and you may rest assured that I am not in the least bit interested in finding out what the exact circumstances were. I know my job, I also know my place," he said.

Helicity was amazed at the casual mention of her deepest secrets.

"How, and why, did you keep that information out of the hands of the other doctors?"

The doctor smiled. "I, ah, applied some liberal editing to the trace logs. I know I would never abuse the trust you placed in me, I could not be certain, not really, that my counter parts would likewise put their duty of care before a big pay-out. It is one of those things that you only have to get wrong one time for unrecoverable calamity to occur."

His hands produced one of Helicity's jump clone logs. Entries were listed in greens, yellows and reds to indicate the status of various aspects of the clone's condition. A tap on a button produced an intricate log file Helicity could not make heads nor tail about.

"The only true difficulty is to have all the logs update at the same time so that there are no discrepancies in the time stamps."

"That has to be hugely illegal," Helicity said.

"It's a hanging offence," the doctor agreed, "I don't mean that sarcastically. People die for doing exactly that."

"How did you know how to alter the trace log?"

"It's really not all that hard," the doctor said. "You just have to know where to look."

Helicity raised a hand to hold the thought.

"I'm not buying that."

"Why is that?"

"When I started... this project, I had my scouts go looking for a competent doctor. Someone who had no obvious ties to any faction and no latent issues with outstanding loyalties and liabilities," Helicity said.

"You were very gracious with your offer. Accepting it gave me liberties I would not otherwise have enjoyed."

"I was not thorough enough in my due diligence, was I?"

Despite the blatant security issues Helicity could not suppress a smile.

"Why exactly were you on a remote outpost somewhere in low-sec, when someone of your abilities could easily make a stellar career in Empire space?"

"It allowed me to apply my trade in the service of people who would not have had access to, forgive me the boast, good medical care otherwise."

"That's a great crock of shit to sell someone on an intake interview. I'm going to have to talk to my recruiters."

"I assure you, every word I said when I was hired into your service has been nothing but the truth," the doctor insisted.

"Oh, I'm sure you haven't told a single lie. I bet everything you said has been nothing but the truth."

"It really was," the doctor said.

"But not all of the truth, was it? Hmmm? You maybe left out a few bits that you thought would raise too many questions?"

"I have answered all questions I was asked without reservation."

"We already established that. What's the punishment for altering medical clone logs," Helicity asked.

"Because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue and the nature of the people we work for, when found guilty of tampering with the 1:1 quality ratio of medical clone logs, the punishment is a default death sentence for all parties involved."

"That's where you got that," Helicity said. "You had altered a medical clone log."

"Yes."

"You were found out.

"Yes."

"You were going to be put to death."

"Yes."

"Whoever you changed the log for had plenty of clout, a very great deal of money and they liked you a lot."

"Yes, yes and, thank Bob, yes," the doctor said.

"They put you up in that deadspace pocket my guys found you in."

"Yes."

"Was there a compelling reason for you to accept my offer?"

"Yes."

"Was it money? Did you buy too many prostitutes? Got in a bit of a tiff with the fuzz? You had some gambling debts you could not get rid of?"

"No, it was nothing of the kind."

"You got bored, is that it? Too many drunks with funny infections? Too many whiny kids with a nosebleed?"

"Actually, yes."

"You're joking. You were set up for life. You could do anything you wanted as long as you didn't get into any trouble. Why would you give that up?"

"I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity I was offered. I have had time to heal and to make a plan for what I wanted to do next. The only thing I wanted for was an opportunity to... to matter again, I guess."

"Have you tried contacting your former employer?"

"No. That would not be wise. I made a promise. That page is turned, I could only invite a lot of unwanted attention to my former employer and myself."

"Were you aware of my reputation when you accepted the job?"

"No. But that happened quickly though. You seem to leave quite a bit of an impression in your area of operations."

The doctor had seen plenty of newscasts decrying the unbridled ambitions of pirate capsuleers and their hunger for bounty at the cost and to the detriment of their fellow pod pilots.

"Yes," Helicity said. "People do go on about that. I'm just providing a service to the greater New Eden demesne."

Helicity's propensity to go after miners in expensive ships had gained a notoriety all of its own. Although no mining ship in Empire space is safe, she has a particular desire to make that point clear to pilots mining in Hulks. She contemplated her situation for a moment.

"The information you had could have made you a fortune, even as capsuleers understand that concept. I'm pretty sure the idea of hitting me through my children would be an acceptable strategy for some of my opponents," she said.

"It would have been a breach of trust," the doctor said. "In all my years working for you I have never seen you pass an unfair judgement to the people working for you. Harsh, yes. Brutal, sometimes. But always to those who deserved the object lesson. No doubt you have saved many people's lives, certainly their fortunes, by enforcing your policies. I found myself taken by your style, if not always by your politics. And of course, you have been nothing short of extremely generous towards me. There have been many, very many, opportunities to make a fortune off of that privileged position, yes, but never any temptations."

Helicity took some time to adjust her robes as she processed the information. The doctor had been keeping her secret all that time. She was taken aback by the realisation that, had she been in a similar position, she might not have been as loyal to her employer. She had used strategic information on some of her partners that was far less sensitive than this to make a profit. The doctor must have had an inkling about how much money he could have made from selling this information, but he was not privy to the channels Helicity used to trade this kind of information back and forth. It would have been enough for a regular capsuleer to drain their assets and acquire that kind of knowledge. Information that would expose the vulnerability of a name, a character of notoriety in New Eden's social strata, an alliance would think nothing of spending the price of several titans if it meant it could strike a crippling blow to an opponent. For this kind of information she herself would have spent every single ISK she could beg, steal and borrow. She stopped fidgeting at last and placed her hands on her robe.

"You have been open and candid with your answers and you have served me far beyond any employer's reasonable expectation. For that I am truly grateful. In the future, if any obstacle should cross your path that you need help with to overcome, you will call on me first."

The words had come softly but it was very clear from her tone that they were final. The doctor didn't know how to handle himself. This was beyond anything he had experienced before. A capsuleer had reached out a hand in friendship. He was bowled over by the gesture. He quickly rose and made a clumsy attempt at a bow, almost bumping his head on the side of the table. At once the universe regained its usual proportion and Helicity found herself annoyed at how people behaved.

"What is that? No, really what is that? What was that supposed to be? For Bob's sakes, man. Get a grip already. I didn't ask you to marry me, did I?"

She rolled her eyes.

"Are you done here? Is your examination complete? Are you going to tell me your telemetry tells you my heart rate just shot up because I don't enjoy the company of buffoons?"

The doctor hadn't lasted all this time because he didn't know how to land on his feet.

"Apologies. I momentarily stumbled under the weight of your generosity. That kind of gesture doesn't happen to me every day. I doesn't happen any day. My body couldn't keep up with my mind there for a second. My examination is complete, you're in superb condition," he said.

"Tell me something I don't know," Helicity said. "Nice recovery by the way. Now get out, I've got stuff to take care of. Send Martok in."

The doctor, now back to his normal self, nodded curtly and withdrew with the guards in tow.

---===0===---

Martok studied the schedule. "You talk about a meeting but I don't see any details pertaining to a meeting or any name associated with that event."

"It's a special meeting, with someone I haven't met in a very long time."

"Fair enough," Martok nodded. "Can I at least have a name?"

"Anteen Tolkar."

"I haven't heard of him."

"He's a member of the Amarr clergy, a cardinal."

"Alright, standard security measures it is."

"The cardinal is an old school cleric. I don't want him or his retainers subjected to a deep scan before I meet him. It will greatly annoy him," Helicity said.

Martok had an understanding of the thoroughness of the security detail and their unrelenting drive to reduce risk to as close to zero as they could make it. New Eden is not a place to become lax about security. Mistakes like that are expensive and embarrassing to the team that 'let one slip past' the security screen.

"Security will have none of it," Martok said.

"They will be much worse than the doctor is when it comes to protecting your security."

"I know," Helicity said. "I still don't want it. Here's what I want them to do: when the cardinal and his retainers join us, I want them to welcome them according to protocol. They are not to be screened but security can dress up like servants and 'accompany' the cardinal into the room. They are to stay there for as long as the visitors are here. If they see any weapon produced under any pretext I want them to shoot without warning."

Martok raised an eyebrow. "That's rather... direct?"

"It's going to be the only thing that will stop the nagging."

"Fair enough," Martok said. "Do you have any other requirements?"

Helicity gave it some thought.

"I have," she said. "There is a box that I take with me. It has some heirlooms. One in particular. I will give you clearance to retrieve it from my ship. Before you think of making off with it: it's a worthless trinket. The only thing that makes it a bit valuable is that it is an old worthless trinket. The cardinal will want to make ablutions before our meeting. The trinket will be placed in a shrine in the room where he makes his ablutions."

"Is it a weapon," Martok asked.

"No," Helicity said, "although it's amusing that you think it would be acceptable for me to kill a member of an old line of Amarr nobility."

---===O===---

"I thank you for the welcome of your home," Anteen Tolkar said. He had been ushered into the room by a full squad of guards, dressed up as servants. They had taken the his luggage out of the hands of his three retainers and insisted on carrying it for him. The smug expression of disapproval showed how much he liked being catered to. He would have been less impressed had he been made aware of the fact that the security detail wanted to take possession of anything in the way of a weapon that might have been carried in the luggage.

"My house is honored by your presence, monsignor. I trust you had a safe and comrfortable trip?" Helicity answered with the traditional phrase. Although she did not like to engage in formal courtesy, she had been very well groomed in the customs of her race.

"No hazards were encountered that a moment's respite and a sip of a cup won't overcome."

This was the formal phrase indicating he was ready to make his ablutions and come to the order of the day.

"My house is humble and my amenities sparse but if your honor deems it suitable, I invite you to a room I have prepared for you."

The formalities satisfied Anteen Tolkar entered the corridor that would take him to the guest room to perform his rites.

[INSERT PIECE HERE]

As soon as the door closed behind him, Helicity turned towards the cardinal's three retainers who had been awaiting instructions with their hooded faces towards the wall so as not to attract undue attention on themselves, as was the custom in Amarr households.

They could tell she was behind them by the rustling of her robes. She studied them intently, keen to find out which of them was the one she wanted to keep. Two of them she touched on the shoulder.

"A guard will take you to a waiting area where you will be offered a meal. Your master will come to collect you there eventually. Go now." They left without a word.

When they had left the room she touched the remaining figure on the shoulder.

"Turn around."

She did not look at the face. She looked at the hands instead. Supple hands. Strong hands. The hands of a young man. She took his hands and looked past his shoulder at a guard.

"You will scan this one. He is a capsuleer. If you find a weapon, retrieve the weapon. No fuss, no force. Do it!"

To the figure in front of her she said. "I'll keep your hands in mine. Do not reach for a weapon if you have one. They have orders to shoot first. They will shoot first."

The guards had become quite agitated. A capsuleer pretending to be someone he was not is rarely good news. One guard waved a sensor across his body. "What do you know? This one really is a capsuleer!" Without further preamble he was submitted to a thorough frisking. "There does not appear to be any trace of a weapon."

"Thank you," Helicity said. "If you are satisfied there is no imminent threat you will give us the room and report to your duty station."

"This is our duty station, Ma'am," the scanning guard said. "The boss told us not to lose sight of you."

Helicity rolled her eyes. "Not this again, not twice in one day." She paused for a moment. "I'm safe. I really am. I'm not less interested in not getting shot than you are. I really need to be alone with my guest here. So, here's what we'll do: the first one of you out the door doubles his year's pay. The last one out eats Blood Raider sausages on the Tier 3 of 4-4."

The room cleared in 10 seconds, including some pushing and shoving.

In the silence that followed Helicity said. "Always give a carrot and a stick, make the carrot bigger than the stick. Always follow through."

"Words to remember."

She let go of his hands and gently removed his hood. She studied his face intently.

"You are as handsome as your father is, you have my eyes though. And that look on your face, you're the spitting image of your grandfather. I'll show you pictures." She caressed his face. When her hands touched his shoulders she pulled him into a firm embrace. He eagerly reciprocated.

"You were so small when I last held you," Helicity said "I have missed you so much."

"Not more than I. I have been waiting for this moment my entire life."

When they ended their embrace, Helicity was amazed she found her face covered in tears.

"I did not know I would be so emotional. But there you are. I'm so glad to see my baby boy again."

"I have worried you might have been upset at my running off to come and find you in 'my own spaceship'."

"No," she shook her head. "That was part of the plan. If you had not really wanted to be a capsuleer to the point where you ran away to become one, you would not have been ready for the experience. We were a lot more worried you would have balked and left when you found out we had chosen not to give you a name."

A brief shake of his head.

"I had not missed one up to that moment. At first I thought I might have done something wrong, even though you said I didn't. Then I thought about all the time and effort you put into making sure I had a great childhood. It's cool to have a hologram for a mom and dad has always been amazing."

"The idea for your name was mine alone. Your father had terrible misgivings. He thought you might go off gallivanting across the universe in some kind of morbid revenge. He has a knack for melodrama when he wants to," Helicity said.

"I'm ok with it now. It has its own drawbacks but there are some advantages that help with the privateer life. Was that the intention all along as well?"

Helicity was proud her son understood the reasons for why she had made her choice. "I wanted you to have an advantage over other pilots. You will be hard to be target-called, you will be hard to be identified as a thief and a scoundrel, if that is the path you choose. You will be a much harder target for scams and rip offs. You will have a natural advantage in these fields. And life will be much harder than it should be for some of the more mundane, every day tasks. I was hoping you would see the risks as smaller than the reward," she said.

"I do."

"There is a backup plan though, it's really pretty simple."

"You have a name for me."

"I -do- have a name for you, if you want one."

He lightly covered her lips with a hand and shook his head.

"I don't want to hear it. People give me a name all the time. They can't grasp the idea of not having a name so they give me one. I'll even go along with it as is expedient. I'll just as readily abandon it, because it is not my name. I know it's not my name, it has no relation to me. As soon as you mention one, even if only as a hypothetical, then that is my name for you have given it to me. I don't want to be torn between knowing and not using, I'd far rather not have one, I've never had one. I'm fine."

Helicity beamed at her son's confidence. "You're as amazing as your father is. I want you to prepare to undock and go to the coordinates I'll be sending to your ship. We must leave at once."

"But I just got to meet you."

"Don't worry. This is a vacation of sorts. We're going to meet your dad. I bought him a moon. Something that's not rich in minerals or attract the attention of mercenaries. It's a beautiful place."

"What will you tell the cardinal?"

Helicity waved a hand.

"Don't worry about the cardinal. We won't be seeing him for a good long while. At least not until he found a decent excuse for insulting our family."

"When did that happen?"

"Just now."

Helicity pointed in the direction of the room where the cardinal was invited to do his ablutions. She punched up the image of the chalice she had ordered Martok to put onto the table for the cardinal to use.

"The cardinal is a man for whom the formality of tradition is sacrosanct. When a man of the cloth is invited into ones house he is offered to make his ablutions, the better to prepare him for the business at hand. Speaking of which: what business did you persuade him to discuss with me?" She was met with the wicked, mischievous smile he had inherited from his father.

"I asked him to introduce me to your House as an apprentice."

"Hiding the truth behind a truth," Helicity said. "This is something your father would do. When I first met him and asked what he was working on he said it had to do with space ship plumbing."

A nod.

"Back to the cardinal."

"Yes! The cardinal. So, the idea is that the host provides the clergyman with a room to perform his ablutions, a means to cleanse the spirit of the burden of mundane life.

One of three things happens:

  1. No cup is provided in the room. It may be the family is too poor to afford a ceremonial cup but those are not the families the clergy will typically visit. The connotation is that the meeting is 'open' and suggestions to help the family with the issue at hand are invited and welcome without a commitment to accept the advice provided.

  2. There is a cup in the room but it is empty. The clergyman is invited to fill it with his own wine. This means that somebody somewhere made a big mistake or did something really stupid and is accepting the consequences. The connotation is that when the chalice is found with the clergyman's wine, he will voice his support for the family's position so long as they follow his advice. If the clergyman does not fill the cup with wine he will still provide guidance but he will not publicly vouch for it.

  3. Here is where it gets interesting. This time the cup is filled by the host. The connotation is: the family asks for guidance but it has actually already made up its mind. The clergyman is expected to drink the wine and thus indicates a preparedness to accept the family's position and advocate for it, even it means exposing himself to whatever the political fall-out is. If the offer is accepted, and depending on how big the exposure for the clergy is, the silent assumption is that somewhere in the near future the clergyman gets a huge favour."

He contemplated the information while watching the animation of various chalices being displayed in the air over the table.

"It seems like a... quaint way to handle it."

"Doesn't it? The thing is: before the first word is spoken there is already an understanding of what each party expects from the encounter. This in turn drives the way the conversation is handled. It is the way of our people. It is your way too."

"I'm not sure about that?"

"I am sure about it. It doesn't matter that your father is Gallente, you're also my son and a descendant from a long line of Amarr nobility. You will learn and adopt our customs because they will become important to you over time in big ways and small. That doesn't mean you won't have an opportunity to do the same thing with your family from your father's side, although they are decidedly less interested in formal decorum, but then: they are Gallente, it is to be expected. From each side you will learn that which will help you most in life, you're going to enjoy the ride."

"There's a lot to think about."

"I'm sure there is, but you have all the time in New Eden now. There is no rush, no pressure. It's not all stick and no carrot. There is plenty to enjoy too."

"Did you fill the cup?"

"I had it filled, yes."

"What if he refuses to drink?"

"He will refuse to drink. That was the whole point of filling the cup."

"How can you be sure?"

"First of all: the cardinal came to see us. He's here to impart wisdom, he's not here for my opinion. Second, the cardinal himself is part of a long line of distinguished clergy. His family has built a lineage of respected and revered members of the priest class. Some of them are even directly connected to the royal family, although not through his line, to his undying chagrin." Helicity displayed a wickedly charming wolfish grin.

"At least it should leave him with some options."

"Aha! Very astute. He does have options:

  1. He can leave the chalice untouched. It means he's not interested or he feels he can't engage for whatever reason.

  2. He places his own chalice next to it and leaves it empty: he won't accept our position but he's happy to offer his own perspective for us to take it or leave it.

  3. He places his own chalice next to ours and fills it. Now we're going to see how far each of us is willing to negotiate. If we win he'll accept our position and defend it. If he wins, we will accept his advice and he'll support us.

  4. He tips over our chalice and spills the wine."

"Why would he spill the wine?"

"Because he does not accept our position of dominance. Our chalice is not as ornate as his is, it doesn't have as many references to social status. His lineage, or so he believes, is older. You can't tell me what to do. He would typically place a coin next to it, indicating that we are but beggars, helping us pay to replace the wine. We have now made an enemy or at the least someone who will regard us with contempt and openly declare his disapproval."

"That doesn't sound like a victory for us and yet you would not have gone through all that trouble if you had not secured a win beforehand. I just don't see how you get there."

Helicity could not suppress a broad smile in delight. "You are going to be so much fun to be with. You are so incredibly smart. We have won already indeed. Our chalice was created before most of the customs surrounding them had been established. Only later did the elaborate designs of the noble classes emerge. For its day our chalice was an implement that did not need ornate design to be special. We come down a very ancient line of Amarr nobility even though we don't advertise our presence. When the cardinal tips over the chalice and spills the drink he will see the royal seal of Amarr embedded into the base. He will be astonished to find it there. It is quite rare indeed, something he might have heard of, not something he will have ever seen, there were never more than a handful of them in existence and the owners do not flaunt them, but its antecedents are unmistakable. He is certainly not expecting to see an object of that quality in the hands of a random stranger. Having realised the magnitude of his faux pas he will gather up his belongings and make his exit through the other door in the room and be grateful for our generosity in not publicly embarrassing him, all the while cursing us for doing this to him."

"You came up with that at the drop of a hat as soon as you heard an Amarr cardinal was going to visit you?"

She stroked his chin lovingly. "My dear boy, this body is almost 50 years old but my chain of clones have lived for nearly 730 standard years. I have, you could say, acquired a bit of a repertoire. Over time you will too."

A thought occurred to him.

"How did you know who of us three to pick from the line?"

"As I walked past, two of them cowered," Helicity said. "They are used to being talked down to and are afraid to stand their ground. If you had cowered before your own mother, you might as well have left the room yourself."

--==O==--

The Pilot's Lounge was empty save for one smoking hot young woman. She had to be a pilot, the room was off-limits to non-capsuleers. Even without the social limitations applying, it was clear she had to be a capsuleer. She was wearing the most elaborate cranial implants he had ever seen. He couldn't even tell which ones they were exactly, they were so exotic. The least he was sure of was that, aside from them being ridiculously expensive, they would help her command a ship and a fleet a lot more effectively and efficiently. All the implants had the same style and type of design, they had to be part of a set and would therefore augment each other's performance. The location of the implants corresponded with the area in the brain the primary attribute was associated with. Even though the implants were designed to fit together into a cohesive design to make them look good when worn together as a set, they still gave the head wearing it a very mechanical appearance. As if the wearer had gone through a horrific accident and the implants were the patches where the skull had been stitched back together. Most capsuleers did not bother with the aesthetic aspect of the implants. The only thing that mattered to them was the attributes the implants afforded them. Outside of a pod they seemed unwieldy and out-of-place, hair styles be damned. Inside the pod, their true purpose manifesting itself, it was as if an awkwardly perambulating animal on the beach took to the sea and gained the full use of a body that was designed to propagate through water. A capsuleer inside the pod felt a symbiosis with the ship she was commanding on a level that had to be experienced to be fully understood. With implants, that wide array of senses that were available to a pod pilot came into sharper focus, gained a wider reach and augmented an already enhanced experience of the universe. A Zen monk from ancient Earth would have been enthralled by the sense of unity, the immensity of the sensation of being able to connect to the vastness of space, and to be able to see things with a clarity and focus that a room full of prayers would never be able to provide. He sat down across from her. She had her eyes closed. She was a triumph of superior genetics, the most beautiful woman he had seen so far in his still young life. Under her closed eye lids he could see her eyes moving. He assumed she must be using some component of the implants to connect to the ship and the fleet she was in. She had a familiar aura about her. Somehow she made him feel comfortable and they had not exchanged a single word.

"Can I buy you a drink?"

She raised a finger to hold the thought. When her transaction was completed she opened her eyes, looking straight at him. He almost stumbled back when the perspective kicked in. The youth of her features belied her eyes. The light reflected in them was an almost iridescent gold. Those eyes had seen the ages. He knew those eyes.

"Mother?!"

"I don't drink before I fly," Helicity said. "It can cause an imbalance that ruins the bond with the ship. It's not a good place to be when you expect to engage in a fire fight. Some people are very fond of drinking when they fly. People post kill mails of their ludicrous losses. My crew never flies intoxicated."

"How come you are so young?"

"You know what a jump clone is, right? You have only ever seen me in a jump clone I reserved for the specific purpose of raising you. This is what I usually look like. When we raised you I wanted to present you with the view of an older person, someone with authority. I aged in a jump clone just so I could present that persona. It took many years to get that clone to that age, it was very frustrating. I... don't like feeling that old." Helicity produced a 3D set of images, slowly rotating in the air above the table. "This is what they look like." The clones each listed the vital statistics. Location of the clone, implants available, time in stasis. The eyes in the faces were open but lifeless, as if only the presence of the active mind established awareness.

"What does it feel like?"

"What does what feel like?"

"To awaken inside a clone."

Helicity raised an eyebrow. "Have you not been podded yet?"

He shook his head.

"That's my boy! Count on it happening though."

"I absolutely do. What should I expect?"

Helicity thought about that for a moment. "It's different for each clone, except for the moment of disorientation, we call it 'plugging in', when your mind has to adjust to the state of the body it finds itself in. It's an alterity particular to each pilot, how they feel about their other bodies and how they care about them. I condition my bodies, because it feels better to be in shape. They're around the same age but they have different characteristics. Sometimes you don't have cranial implants, the universe has a... dimmer quality, you don't see the things you usually see. These here give me some control of the fleet and remote sensing through the ship, even when not hooked up to the pod proper, which is quite fantastic. They are deliciously expensive. When I have no implants, I lose that perspective. It can be disquieting. Also, one clone might have a sore muscle, or I have a cold in another one. Or I'm in a bit of an older clone and my boobs feel bigger. Stuff like that. The 'parent' clone was quite a bit older and required clothing that was a few sizes more than what I usually wear. It's something I have had to keep in mind. It also did not have implants because I wanted to look 'normal' and not a constant reminder of being different from your dad in any other way than that I was not there to raise you in person."

"It seems I have a lot of experiences to look forward to."

"Expect new experiences all the time. New Eden never gets old. Even when you have the perspective of the centuries, you will forever be running into new experiences. Keep learning new skills, keep making mistakes, it's the only way to stay young."

He pointed at her. "That and renewing your clone, apparently."

"That is the pod pilot's life. There is no escaping it," Helicity said.

He tapped a few controls and brought up a star map.

"You were going to give me coordinates to fly to."

"Yes, I want you to join us here," she connected to the star map and gave him a bookmark to a location deep in null sec space. "Now that you're a pod pilot we're going to have many more ways to communicate and share information. First we're going to meet up with your dad, have some fun together, then we're going to work."

"Will I be able to join your corp?"

She shook her head. "We're not going to fly together. Too many questions by too many people. The risk to your father is too great. I don't want some idiot bragging about how he managed to bomb Helicity Boson's husband. There are too many connotations and they are all negative."

"We could be very careful?"

She snorted at that.

"It doesn't work that way, honey. I would have to put up a defensive screen around your dad, he would not like that experience. More importantly, I have to be successful at defending him every time, whoever the adversary is only has to be successful one time. It is not going to be possible to say which direction an attack will come from or what form it will take. It is much easier to not have the problem in the first place."

That closed the topic, he knew it would be useless to try and insist, he had inherited her special brand of stubbornness and understood pressing the point would be unwelcome and pointless to boot. No use spending the energy.

She put up a picture. It was a scene from a hangar. It was filled with ships in all shapes and sizes, from all the factions in New Eden. Only the first two rows were assembled. A loading manifest came marching past in a separate window. The list scrolled past so fast it became a blur.

"That's a lovely stack of ships. I'm guessing somewhere between 300 and 500 of them?"

Before Helicity could answer the manifest scrolled to the bottom of the list, stating the total as 8054.

"8054 is a good number. I'm space poor at the moment but if you can spare two out of those I'll be happy to pay you for them. Your price is my price."

Helicity selected one from the stack and had its image rotate in the air above the table.

"That one, I'll take that one! I've always wanted a Curse!"

"Your father mentioned how you took a liking to them when he was working on their revised propulsion systems," she said.

"Dad will make 3D models of the finished engines and then run them through rigorous tests. Conditions no pilot is ever likely to encounter. He delights in seeing them fail catastrophically. Not when he's still designing them though. He gets frustrated when they fail when he's still building them."

"I recognise that," Helicity said. "He's so proud when his warp coils are performing at peak capacity, especially under combat conditions. It's why I came to find him in the first place."

"About that Curse?"

"Put up your stack," she said.

When he produced his inventory and wallet, Helicity shot him a contract for 8054 ships and 10 billion ISK.

"I have been building a stash for you over the years. I had hoped to reach 10 000 ships before you found me. Never mind, these will allow you to do a lot of experimenting. Don't be frugal with them, they are not heirlooms. Lose all of them but make every loss count. Learn from every one you lose. You'll start losing a lot less as time goes by."

"Wow, I don't know what to say."

"Thanks, usually works well in these circumstances."

"Of course, thanks! Now what?"

"We'll allow your dad to settle in and then you'll come visit is."

"What do I do in the mean time?"

"I hope you're not expecting me to hold your hand. I'm kicking you out of the nest. This is it. There's no tearful ceremony, no quivering lips. Go on, get out of here. Go do some damage. Make a name for yourself!"

Read “Mirage” next

Abulurd Boniface

Abulurd Boniface

I fly around in space ships.