By Djavak Andrard
It is YC 119. I am 32 and I am standing before the clan council. My wrists are in chains. Four of my tribe’s councilmen stand before me. Their faces are grave as I look upon each of them in turn. I see no sympathy. No warmth. One steps forward and speaks. His eyes are like black marbles set deep in an ancient stone carving, and his voice, though aged, carries well in the stone hall.
“Name yourself, tribesman.”
I lift my chin and look him in the eye.
“I am Kerrid, Flametender of Brutor, born free of Irakhli on the Mioaran plains.”
“You have brought shame to your family and your clan, Kerrid of Brutor.”
I nod my head.
I am thirteen. I lay on the shaman’s table and my eyes bore into the ceiling above me. Ulfric stands beside the table, his hand on my shoulder. He gives me a nervous smile that is barely visible through the incense smoke and his shaggy black hair. I try to return the smile but manage only a slight grimace before the shaman’s firm hand grips my chin and holds my face still again.
“Strength, brother. Today we are true Matari,” Ulfric says, gesturing to the fresh tattoos on his face.
The shaman’s needles hum as they etch similar marks into my flesh. The shaman’s chanting and the needles’ buzzing ensure that my friend does not hear the pained noises I make, and I thank the Elders that it is so.
As the shaman calls forth the marks of my destiny, Ulfric’s hand remains firm. It is three hours before the shaman’s work is done, and when it is, the wizened man nods his satisfaction.
“You have the mark of a flametender, Kerrid of Brutor,” he proclaims. “A great leader, perhaps. One who fans the flames of the spirit. Especially the spirits of others.”
The shaman looks at me with what might have passed for approval, though he retains his Matari reserve.
“A noble calling, Kerrid Flametender. Be worthy of it.”
Ulfric’s smile broadens as the shaman speaks and his grip tightens on my shoulder.
Later that evening, Ulfric and I sit across from each other, a small fire between us. He has a knife in his hand and he cuts his palm, then invites me to do the same. We clasp our hands together over the small fire until the blood drips between them and sizzles into the coals.
“Brothers of blood and hearth.”
Each of us speaks the words and Ulfric smiles through the solemnity of the ritual. My gaze drops to the flames between us and the drops of blood on the rocks around them.
One of the council speaks. “You abandoned your fellow tribesman. A tribesman to whom you were bloodsworn.”
“I did,” I reply.
The crowd murmurs, then goes silent as the councilman who spoke strikes the ground with the butt of his staff.
“You know the punishment for such a crime,” the councilman says, his inflection dropping to make it a statement.
I swallow against the unwelcome knot in my belly and nod.
I am eighteen now. The warmth of the spring does little to heat the cold pit in my guts as I gaze at the sight in front of me. Ulfric and I stand before the large steel training facility.
“Capsuleers,” he says, his voice thick with awe.
We have been selected and screened, poked and prodded, and finally approved. We begin our training to become immortal warriors of the Brutor. To fly the warships that will bring glory to our tribe and freedom to our people.
I nod my head and smile as he turns to me. My brother of blood and hearth chases my fear away with a gesture. We laugh and take the stairs two at a time, beginning the most difficult period of our lives, but beginning it together. As family.
I remember the itch of the implant at the base of my skull, the endless genetic screening, the hours of meditation, and the years of preparation. The instructors harden our minds and our bodies. The technicians scan our brains and grow the clones.
We will become immortals.
“You are stripped of your title and tribe,” the councilman declares. “You have strayed far from the path of the Elders, Kerrid.” I lower my gaze and clench my fists. The councilman continues. “I sentence you to death. May the end of your life end the shame you have brought upon us.”
“I have one request,” I say, my voice hoarse. It barely cuts through the rising murmur of the crowd. The councilman’s eyebrow lifts slightly, but he says nothing. I continue. “I would see him once more before I die, to ask his spirit for forgiveness.”
“I do not think his spirit will listen,” the councilman says. He frowns, shakes his head, draws a breath, and lets it out between his teeth. “You may see him tonight,” he decides. He speaks with reluctance.
I nod my thanks and the men who escorted me to the hall take me back to my cell.
It is YC 110 and I am 23. I sit in a sterile classroom at a steel desk in a room with a polished ceramic floor and no windows. Our instructor is speaking of the risks of the capsule technology. Risks like the mind-lock, when the body and the capsule reject each other. It leaves the would-be capsuleer in a state of waking coma. There is no cure.
Ulfric shudders. “Give me a clean death if you ever find me that way. Promise me.”
I frown and nod, speaking low as the instructor continues. I give him my promise and ask for his.
We learn about the transneural brain scanner and its past failures. The marriage of capsule and clone. We learn of all who came before us and the great victories to be won for Brutor. For all Matari. Ulfric and I train and grow strong together.
The first time I am placed inside the capsule, I hold my breath. It fills with the hydrostatic fluid and I feel the cold stab of the implant at the back of my neck. The cowl over my face and the tubes in my nostrils go numb, and as I continue to hold my breath, I realize I am without a body and the need for air in my lungs vanishes entirely.
When next I open my eyes, I see through the lens of a camera drone behind my ship. I look at the training shuttle that is my body and I hear the hum of the ship’s engine that is my heartbeat. The ship and I are one and I feel my spirit expand to fill a volume of space thousands of kilometers across.
I am a capsuleer. I am free.
I am sitting in my cell. It is a room of cold and unforgiving steel with a floor of perhaps six square meters. A metal cot with no mattress and a toilet in one corner are the only provided amenities. It has been two days since I spoke to the council and I have had little to do but to count the beats of my heart, wondering how many more are left to me.
Enough, I decide, for me to complete my task. Enough to do what I must before I die a final time and face the final judgement of the spirits of my ancestors.
The slot in the door snaps open and a bowl slides through. The slot snaps shut before I can call out and ask the guards anything. Before I can ask them questions they will not answer. I eat the lukewarm porridge and realize the acidic taste in my mouth isn’t the food. It’s the fear.
Hours later, the slot opens again. The hand takes the bowl and snaps the slot closed, but this time the door unlocks a moment later. I can feel my pulse in my throat as I understand.
“Kerrid of no tribe. You may see him now.”
I get to my feet and extend my hands to accept the shackles but the guard shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “You will ask his spirit for forgiveness as you are. The council will give you that much and no more.”
It is a small mercy but I thank him for it. He steps aside and I follow him down the halls towards the medical wing.
We are above an Amarrian colony world. There are dozens of us with dozens more arriving as each hour passes. There are entire colonies on the surface, colonies of Matari slaves from every tribe and every corner of our space. Slaves to be used as fuel for the Amarrian war machine. Fuel for their damned empress and their false god.
Ulfric and I, each in our Rifter-class frigates, set out to prove ourselves. To be the ones to draw first blood on the Amarrian fleet. A fleet that grows each hour, as our does. We, the immortal warrior capsuleers of the Matari, will earn glory for our tribes and our homeland. Most importantly, we will win the freedom of our people, one planet at a time, until every Matari is freeborn. Until the slavery of our people is a distant memory told by the old fathers around our fires.
The battle feels as though it lasts hours. We kill many but lose many more. The tide of the war has been against us. Even now it seeks to pull us under, to drown the very slaves whose freedom we fight for.
As I watch, an Amarrian cruiser’s turrets track my ship. A Malediction class interceptor closes in on me. Too quickly. My microwarp drive fails as his ship locks onto mine and my frigate slows to a crawl. Just when it seems that I may die yet another pointless death, Ulfric’s war-yell splits the silence. His autocannons reduce the Malediction’s hull into an expanding cloud of hot gas and cooling metal shards before I have time to see it happen. Before I have time to shout a warning.
The Amarrian cruiser’s turrets expel columns of white light without end, tearing into Ulfric’s ship. I hear his strained voice over our commlink.
“My capsule,” he hisses. “There’s something–”
A burst of static. His ship is struck again. I see a yawning hole spewing his frigate’s atmosphere into the uncaring void. I see the tiny, writhing shapes of his crew as they are ejected. I see the writhing stop.
I want to help him, but there is nothing to be done. He is dead, surely. I must rejoin the fleet, I think to myself. Only now there is no fleet left to rejoin. I look around me and I see a space filled with the husks of Matari ships. The broken hope of another colony’s dream of freedom.
I run. I run and I am ashamed.
The door slides into the wall in the treatment centre. It is a white room with soft light and muted sounds. The life support equipment beeps and hisses solicitously. The guards remain in the hall as I step into the room, lock the door behind me, and approach the bed.
Ulfric lays there, his once robust form somehow shrunken in the midst of all of the equipment keeping him alive. He stares up at the ceiling, his jaw slack and his eyes expressionless. His chest rises and falls as the machines help him breathe. His mouth does not smile. It will not smile again.
The medics tell me that the capsule did what it was designed to do. At the moment it was breached, the transneural scanner took its perfect snapshot, even as it destroyed the brain it was preserving. The neurotoxin was simultaneously injected, killing him instantly.
When Ulfric’s clone awoke, however, it was unresponsive. The technicians had seen it before. Although the condition was exceedingly rare, it was known. Mind-lock. When the consciousness cannot properly transition from the sphere of two thousand kilometers back into the brain.
I grip his shoulder and squeeze, some part of me hoping for a response while knowing there would be none. I sit at my brother’s bedside and close my eyes against the tears of shame and regret.
The shaman of my youth told me I was marked as a flametender. One who sees the fire in the spirits of others. One who fans the flames of the spirits of others. A motivator. A leader, given enough time. A great destiny worthy of hearthside songs. All the time we had grown together and shared our blood, I always felt as though it was Ulfric who tended the fire of my spirit, rather than me tending his.
“Strength, brother,” I say, my voice quiet. “I’ll see you in the clearing at the end of the path.”
The life support equipment hisses and beeps as it keeps Ulfric alive. Ulfric, to whom I am bloodsworn. Ulfric, to whom I made a promise.
Disabling the life support systems is the work of a few moments, but even as the alarms begin to wail and the guards begin to hammer at the door, I know they will be too late.
I sit calmly in the midst of the growing cacophony and I watch as my brother’s flame is extinguished.