Taking His Medicine
Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden
* * *
Acting relaxed when other people are tense is part of my job. Just the travel to the tiny independent station in lowsec was enough to make friends question my sanity. They see the holovid operas where every every gate is camped and even a civilian personnel transport is a target for a booster-crazed ganker. Not just the baseline pirates who usually would rather get protection money, but a nigh-immortal capsuleer who will risk their own ship and crew “for the lols.” Some of my friends and associates haven’t left highsec for the last ten years - since the growing availability of pods created the capsuleer menace of late night drama. Many are young enough that they barely remember when there weren’t capsuleers. But then my profession does tend to largely employ the young, or those who can pass as still being young. As I slip into that second category, contracts like this are what I need. The young might lose their composure in such situations, while those of us who have seen it before can keep our professional demeanor.
So when the station boss, Harold, kept pacing back and forth across the false wood flooring of his private quarters I just eased back into one of the leather oversized chairs. I hiked one leg up on the arm of the chair, but only drew the eyes of the other person in the room: Harold’s chef Anki. If it ever comes around that I can’t distract a young man with a stretch of my legs then it’s time to retire. The fact that he had the look of someone raised in strict Amarrian culture was to my advantage. I don’t turn down advantages any more.
"Boss, he's docking up now." The tower operator’s disembodied voice came over the intercom. Anki gave me a shy, nervous smile but turned back to his boss. Harold had stopped pacing finally.
"Thanks, Roger. I want to know if anything warps within 250 klicks for the next few hours. If anyone asks, we're closed for some repairs and expect to be open for business again tomorrow. Field up and nobody else docks without my say."
Harold swiped at his battered wrist-comm then tapped a rhythm on its surface. "Jared, we're clear. Your scanners should confirm four on station: Roger in the tower and the three of us in my quarters. Welcome and come on in."
I straightened and stood up as Harold turned back towards me. Time for me to earn the exorbitant sum in the contract.
* * *
Jared looked rough, rougher even than I expected. The pod doesn't give you any room for niceties, what with the body plugged up in pretty much every orifice. Or so I’ve heard from other capsuleer clients. He’d pulled on clothes at least, even if nobody had worn those old style cuts for years. The patches had been ripped off, but I recognized the Federation trim and colors.
"Amanda, huh?" His cold eyes looked me over as if he was valuing loot from a gank wreck. "You don't look like an Amanda. Deteis?"
"Mostly. Little bit of lots of things." I kept my eyes on his, forcing myself to keep my face relaxed and pleasant.
"I've killed lots of Caldari. Maybe a hundred thousand." He took a step closer, staring down into my eyes. The stale smell of pod grew in my nostrils. Harold had warned me, but even without that I could see the pain that echoed behind the glare.
"Just don't make it a hundred thousand and one tonight, okay?" Smiling at the right time was part of the job too. I shifted my weight, subtly curving towards him. That his eyes drifted to my chest and then to the curve of my hip was a reassuring sign. Somewhere inside of there was a man, trapped behind the killer.
His eyes closed, his body seeming to draw inward. He turned away. "Damn you Harold, all you could find me was a squid?"
"She's out here in the middle just like us." I had never heard Harold's voice so soft.
“Body scan plus all her things. She’s clean. Her bag’s in the bedroom if you want a personal check.” Harold nodded towards the door.
The capsuleer nodded once. "Fifteen minutes, then send her in." I could see the tension through his back as he stalked into the bedroom. He looked like a man who was always expecting someone to try to stab him in the back.
Harold looked at me as the door closed behind Jared. "You sure you're still okay with this?" It was honestly more than I expected of him.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure." I gave him a wink. “I’m a professional.”
* * *
He took me roughly, which I was prepared for.
Some capsuleers do that because they’ve lost some vital human element and now only seem to get off on pain and tears. They’re dangerous and I try to avoid contracting with them.
Some capsuleers do that because, for all of the tales of their freedom and power, they are dominated by other capsuleers every moment they are in their pod and they feel a need to lash out and dominate someone else. These I’ve learned to tolerate and manipulate - they generally pay well too.
Some capsuleers put all their fears into that desperate moment of release.
* * *
"Look, I'm sorry about calling you a squid." He couldn't meet my eyes to say it.
"I've been called a lot worse before." I settled in beside him, a short arm's reach away. For some clients the only time they let themselves be vulnerable is in those naked moments after their lust is spent. Part of the job is knowing when to just listen.
"That bit about killing Caldari - the worst thing is that I could have said that about any faction. I could have said that about any pirate nation. About any kind of people in all of New Eden. You name them, I've killed them."
"So what keeps you from stopping?"
He laughed, a dark bitter thing. "I don't even know how many bounties are on my head anymore, but there's got to be at least a half-dozen that only pay out on my permadeath. People who are just waiting for me to be out of my pod in one place long enough."
"Isn't there any place out away? Off in Null somewhere?"
“Ha” his laugh barked out. “Null? You must not know anything about Null. I can’t trust anyone in Null.” He pushed himself up on the bed and swung his legs as if to leave, a bitterness in his eyes. That look softened a little as his eyes ran over my body. “Damn.”
He was gentler the second time, softly kissing the bruises he had raised before.
* * *
Afterwards he was ready for other appetites. He opened the door and smell of cooked meat wafted into the room. Jared only bothered to pull on shorts; I've found that many capsuleers have lost cultural feel for body modesty. I grabbed a simple gown from the pile where Jared had searched through my bag.
Anki stood by a simple table set for two, draped with a white table cloth. I could almost imagine it was the exclusive setting of some of the more wealthy clients of my past, if I overlooked the raw metallic backdrop of the utilitarian quarters.
Jared stared a long moment at Anki, until the smaller man turned his head down in submission.
He turned to Harold. "How long has he worked for you?"
"About eight months. You know what the turnover is like out here. Keileigh took off for some line job at Bourynes after last time."
Jared eyed the food as Harold continued. “All the ingredients came through sources I trust. I watched Anki make all this while you…“ his eyes flicked to me, “.. while you two were busy. I put samples of everything in the bioscanner you sent. Damn it man, it’s not like this is the first time.”
There was a long pause as the brothers stared at each other, history weighing on them.
"Well, I'm hungry enough, come on Jared." someone had to break the tension so I headed for a seat. Anki jumped to get my chair for me, his eyes clearly torn between the discretion of his Amarrian training and the viewing opportunities offered by the thin cloth wrapped about me. The eyes I wanted to distract right now were the capsuleer’s, but their cold hardness had returned, focused down hard on his brother.
“Jared we do this every year, but it’s not enough. You can’t stay in that machine.” Harold was almost pleading.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Jared stalked forward until he was in his brother’s face. “No idea what it is like.”
“You’re slipping away. This isn’t enough to remind you what it is to be human anymore. All this we do to remind you …”
"Come on Harold, you know I need it." Jared's hands surged forward and Harold stumbled back. "Come and give me my medicine." His eyes had the wild look from when he first stepped in from his pod. "Do I need to remind you again? Remind you why you're stuck in some backwater lowsec dive while I've piled up the ISK?"
"Yeah, cause you look like a trillion ISK right now." Harold gave a long tired exhalation, his eyes not looking up to meet Jared's, his body half turned away.
Jared leaned forward, eyes wide. "Come on, you want me to remind you why we’re really here… about the Center... about her?"
Harold turned towards him, fist rising from his hip in a quick arc, lifting Jared off his feet with the impact. Harold had warned me his would happen, but it didn't keep me from sliding away from the table and putting my back to the wall near the door to the kitchen just in case I needed a quick way into cover. Anki nearly dove into the kitchen to escape.
They knew each other so well; after that first hit it seemed that each of the next blows were anticipated. They circled and traded jabs without committing. I had to wonder if all capsuleers had some rituals to avoid mindlock - a way to remind them of their flesh. “Meat needs” I had heard a capsuleer once call them. Was this something else he needed - to feel his body battered in some way other than feeling the signals of missile hits on his hull?
Once they might have been evenly matched, but Harold had aged honestly while Jared's clone body reflected what he was like when he had first been strapped in a pod a decade ago. That showed soon enough when a heavy hook drove Harold sinking down to his knees. Jared stood over him, great labored breaths racking his chest. I couldn't take my eyes off of them. Somehow it felt like this was the most meaningful way they stayed connected. How many times had they done this?
I heard the door to the kitchen slide open very slowly. It was that careful motion which caught my attention; it felt wrong. When the snub nosed gun came into sight I felt myself freeze.
"The Nation sends its regards." Anki's voice seemed colder, calmer than the shrinking menial I had taken him for. The gun went off with a loud explosive sound and Jared spun away as blood spattered the back wall of the room. At that moment it seemed all I could see was that gun as it shifted slightly and fired again.
I'd like to say that I was some holovid heroine, but what I realized at that moment was that he probably didn't mean to leave any witnesses and he didn't yet know I was right there. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to grab Anki’s gun hand at the wrist and him as hard as I could in the balls. The gun fired again right as I felt my toes smash into him. Anki folded over as the pain exploded across my foot. It didn't hurt so much that it kept me from kicking him in the face and again in the side of the head as he went down. After that he didn't move, but I just kept kicking him until the gun fell out of his limp hand.
"Amanda." Harold's voice did not sound good. "You've gotta help me." Harold was clutching his left arm, blood soaking through his sleeve, but he was staring at Jared. I felt bile rising in my throat. Jared’s side was torn open, blood pooling on the floor.
“You have a doctor somewhere nearby?” I rushed over him, stripping off my gown and trying to figure out how to wrap it around him.
Harold shook his head. "Not near enough. We've got to get him into his pod."
Jared’s head rolled towards me, but his eyes were unfocused. He tried to speak, but it was barely a whisper. I leaned in close. “It’s okay Jared, we’ll take care of you.” I felt like I was babbling.
His eyes focused briefly on mine and he whispered weakly, “They told us we’d be Gods.”
We struggled to get him to the pod door, but once we laid his body out inside it seemed the machine knew what to do. I could see his chest just barely rising and falling as the pod sealed itself around him.
"Roger, come in Roger." Harold barked into his comm. "Fire up the defense grid. Jared's pod is coming out. Lock it and pop it, fast as you can."
"What!?" Rogers confused voice was loud even through the commlink.
"Don't argue with me. I'm force-undocking him now. Lock and Fire. I repeat, lock and fire."
I staggered over to the nearest port window, my right foot a ball of pain anytime I tried to put weight on it. There was a thump as the docking ring let go of the pod and it was shot away from the station.
"Come on Roger, don't let me down here." Harold begged as he slumped to the floor.
I've seen ships destroyed before. Crazy capsuleers dueling outside of busy stations and hapless freighters caught by a suicide ganker. It has always been a moment of fear and apprehension for me, something that makes my breath catch. I've never held my breath hoping to see that explosion, never been so glad to hear the chatter of autocannons. At least, I hoped it was the tower that killed him.
I never found out. Harold got patched up. I got my pay plus a substantial bonus and got on the first ship out of there. I haven’t heard from either of them since. Sometimes I’m tempted to look up public records for Jared, assuming that was his real name, to see if he’s gotten a new CONCORD bounty since that day. But if he hasn’t, does that mean he died before the pod could transfer him to another clone, or that he somehow got out of the capsuleer rat race. I honestly don’t know which one I’d wish for him.