Understanding – by Garlon Das

Garlon Das stepped quickly from the change room onto the gym floor, and quietly made his way to the row of elliptical trainers.  The machines sat facing a large window overlooking the station’s massive internal docking bays, where ships moved silently in the internal vacuum of the station and suited crews and drones moved about them like so many specs of dust.  From inside the darkened bay, the gym’s window would simply be another point of light, unremarkable in its scale and placement due to the inherent uniformity of Caldari design.  However, from within the station the vista visible though the meter-thick polyplexite blast windows was a coveted vantage point, often reserved for senior administrators and bureaucrats within whichever megacorp held sway.

As Garlon stepped onto the trainer, he adjusted the removable audio buds linked to his neocom and thumbed through a range music that he hoped would drown out both the sounds of the gym and his own thoughts.  As the driving beat of Minmatar tribal drums set to a chaotic assortment of synthetic instrumentation drowned out the ambient sounds, he knew deep down that it would be the same as always; that even if the sound was loud enough to rupture his ear drums, it would not be loud enough to drown out his past, his pain, or what he had watch himself become.

Shutting his eyes briefly in a moment of quiet resignation, his hands reflexively moved to mute out any incoming messages on the neocom.  Earlier as his routine had developed he had struggled with this decision, but as his confidence in the crew of the Prometheus grew, he knew that they were more than capable of handling his temporary absence.  Any other messages could wait.

* * *

The two men stood awkwardly near the consoles in the darkened room as the two newcomers entered the cramped space.  The converted storage closed had been comfortable for two, tolerable with three, but now stood on the verge of becoming awkward with the arrival of their guest.  To minimize the EM signature, the only lighting in the room radiated from the displays mounted in the hastily erected security and surveillance panels.  They had been set up years ago as a temporary measure by the first covert detail on the station, but in keeping with the Minmatar way had been kept running with whatever could be quietly scavenged, smuggled or stolen.

“Thanks for joining us, we figured your unique insight would prove valuable” said the first of the two original men in the room as he turned back the monitors.  “We’ve been reviewing footage from earlier today and can’t figure a few things out.”

The guest stared dispassionately passed his hosts at the image frozen on the screen.  Despite the darkness, his eyes flicked back and forth behind the mirrored TLF issue glasses that were one of his few reminders of a past life.  “I wasn’t in much of a position to decline the invitation now, was I?” he replied curtly.  “You knew I owed you one and regardless of who I fly for, I’m a man of my word, despite what the media says to the contrary.”

“We are aware of that, on both counts.” said the second agent as he moved away from the console to make room for their Brutor guest.  “Take a look at the records from the facility’s cameras.  Everyone has their eye on this guy, but we can’t figure out why, or what he was doing here today.  More than that, today he breaks his routine.  We think that maybe it was a meet, but parts of that hypothesis don’t make sense either.”

***

Garlon adjusted the straps on the weights on his hands and wrists and programmed the elliptical trainer to compensate for his weight and desired level of activity.  It was an older model, which unlike many others in this gym, would not interface with his neocom, or display images from the myriad of intergalactic entertainment sources available to the media saturated inhabitants of known space.  Caldari space didn’t suffer from the blight of media over-stimulation to the degree that the Gallente did, but he was sure that it was just a matter of time.

As the rate of the paces continued to increase, he felt part of his universe slip away.  With every step, the mundane became less prominent as the steady rhythmical motion of the trainer transitions lured him into his early routine.  As the pace increased, Garlon felt beads of sweat start to form on his arms and the back of his head.  The distinctive feel of sweat running down the base of his skull and onto the cervical interface port, one of many along his spine that allowed him to become one with his ship deep within the womb of his pod, was uniquely comforting.  It always was, and he hoped it always would be.  He was a capsuleer, and as such was an immortal, and should he choose to repeat this ritual throughout eternity, it was his decision to make.

***

“If you brought me here to watch a guy work up a sweat, I really prefer women.  Naked.  This Caldari guy doesn’t do it for me.” Said the consultant, pulling the butt of a cigar from his jacket.  He thought for a second about making a show of lighting it just to panic his hosts, but thought better of it knowing that the sooner he got through this, the quicker he would be back on the Ripsack, one more old debt being repaid.

“Keep watching, this is where it gets weird.  Notice how it looks like he’s talking to someone.” Said the first of the hosts, pausing the image.  “Right here”.  He turned to face the newcomer.

“We were able to tap into his neocom channel when he got to the station, but it’s dead the entire time.”

“Any chance he knows this and found a workaround?”

“None.” said the slight Matari standing by the door.  “No transmissions were sent or received from his neocom.  Signature spectrum analysis confirmed it.  The neocom was dead except for the music.”  He shifted nervously back and forth.  “My thoughts are that the Caldari, or someone working with him, had developed some kind of cloaking suit, and that he was actually having a conversation right out in the open.”

“No way of that.  First, look at the level of exertion.  Even if he had wanted to do this to put on an act, it’s not efficient to be working that hard and trying to conduct a meaningful discussion.  Second, you’re telling me that there’s cutting edge tech out there, potentially Jovian or Terran from the sophistication we would need to be talking about, and its first field use is to talk to a guy in a gym, where anyone would be able to listen in? No.”  Roc peered closely at the screen.  “Do we have anything from the audio track in that room?”

The technician shook his head.  “He was sub vocal the entire time.  I’ve amplified the sound we pulled off the station security tapes and all I could make out was the occasional profanity.”

“And you guys really think this is a covert op.” Roc said as a statement more than a question.

The Minmatar seated next to Roc nodded.  “It has to be. The State, the Gallente Secret Service and even the damn Amarr are all over this guy.  It’s the only thing that fits.”

***

At the twenty-minute mark any feeling of comfort and complacency Garlon had was long gone.  His arms were drenched in sweat, and the sensation of his clothing stuck to both his flesh and the neural ports along his back was little more than a footnote.  Instead, Garlon fought to hold back the rage inside of him, but it always emerged.  He wanted it to.  He needed it.  He fed off of it, craved it like a crash junkie looking for the next fix.

And at twenty minutes, he unleashed it. Garlon’s hands flew off the elliptical grips and into a defensive pose in front of him.  Then, with grim determination he began a series of jabs at unseen opponents.  Alternating left and right strikes, he felt his arms and shoulders burn with both release and exertion.  He maintained the distance-crushing pace on the trainer as he lashed out again and again.  First at the pirate scum who had taken his wing mates before he had become a capsuleer.  He imagined their scowling visages being pummeled into by his weighted fists over and over. Faces of the unknown pirates whom he had long ago taken vengeance upon fell before him, other rose to take their place. Where before the visages of the imagined enemies were composites drawn from sims, corpses and fantasy, his new tormentors were from his past.  First came the cadets from the academy that, using their privilege and families’ wealth had sabotaged anyone who they judged as standing in their way.  Garlon’s pace increased as did the fury of his blows, alternating between powerful jabs and explosive uppercuts which forced him to twist and shift his weight to maintain his crushing pace.  The uppercuts sent spasms of joyous pain though his obliques and back as he fought to maintain his balance and pace.  Next came the guards from the Gallente work camp on Caldari Prime.  In his mind he replayed the tragedy as they tore the woman he loved from his arms and made him watch as she begged for them to stop.  Those faces would never go away. Long ago they too had paid with their lives, yet Garlon roared aloud in anguish and fury as he pushed himself harder, lashing out with elbows, remembering the feel of bone being smashed as he threw himself at his attackers.  If the other inhabitants of the gym heard, they knew better than to stare.

Sweat now ran freely down his entire body, and as his elbows arced out again and again, the cast off droplets of sweat glimmered against the backdrop of the docking bay window like stars against the vastness of space, until they collided violently like comets against the polyplexite.  Garlon shut his eyes against the sweat and the pain, struggling against the machine’s resistance and the tide of memories washing over him.  His arms burned as he continued to lash out, now grappling, blocking and striking faceless apparitions.  His opponents were legion and no longer required faces or names, and cared not who he was or why he struggled against them.  Now he began to weave and duck, but still the imagined opponents pressed on.  They represented a tide of adversity and responsibility, the expectations of his crew, of Caldari society, of his family and friends, both real and imagined; and against these foes his blows made no impact, yet he fought on.

And suddenly, when he felt he had nothing left to give, the tide broke, and with it his pace slowed and he grasped at the handles of the trainer for support. As his breathing began to return to normal he stared out through the docking bay window, now smeared with his sweat which he imagined ran like rivulets of blood left by those he had vanquished.

***

“Guys, sorry to disappoint you, but all I see here is a guy putting himself though hell.” Said Roc.  “Back it up and look again.  Here, his lips move whenever the pace falls below a certain mark.” He pointed to the monitor again.  “Zoom in.”

The tech manipulated the video feed like a practiced professional, zooming in on the elliptical trainer’s control panel.  He now saw what their consultant was showing them, which should have been obvious from the outset.

“Whenever the pace falls below 80 RPM his lips move.  He’s cursing, driving himself harder.  Look again, the resistance just increased again, the pace fell, his lips move, and the pace increases.  Good workout.”  Roc sat back and watched the scene unfold.  “Look at this, his punches incorporate the basics of traditional Caldari unarmed combat, but then get more interesting.  The way he twists his wrists, that’s Amarrian.  And here, this arm combination is Minmatar grappling.  I think I saw open handed Gallente combat blocks in there as well.”  Roc kept watching as the image moved away from the bank of trainers and into an adjoining room in the gym.  The feed switched camera perspectives to keep the target in focus.

Once in the next room, Roc watched as the Caldari staked out a quiet corner of the room.  Keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the ground, avoiding eye contact with almost everyone, he quietly lowered himself to the ground in a prone position.  Roc leaned in.

“So” said one of the Minmatar agents.  “Who does he think he is, some sim fighter?”

Roc ignored the agent as he watched Garlon alternate between sets up push-ups and exercises designed to strengthen his core.  Familiar set of twenty, alternating back and forth.  Roc had no love for the Caldari people, but now he was intrigued.  As he struggled to his feet the capsuleer grabbed weights and began a series of bicep curls, followed by triceps dips, mixed with pull downs and bench dips.  The wrist weights appeared soaked through, and the weighted gloves were likely the only reason he was able to hold the bars. That’s different, Roc thought to himself.

After completing a final set of leg lifts and push-ups, Roc watched as Garlon dragged himself to the locker room, utterly spent.

“Not much to see in the showers unless we zoom waaay in.” joked the tech. “He’s definitely not Minmatar.” The final jab solicited the obligatory chuckles from the agents.

Roc shook his head.  They didn’t get it, and most people didn’t.  The Caldari was a capsuleer, who lived and fought inside a cocoon of steel, protected by shields and armor, and fighting with hybrid cannons and missiles.  He turned to face his former colleagues.  “I’m going to make this little trip of yours worth while now, and then my debt is paid.”  Roc’s tone caused all lightheartedness lingering from the tech’s joke to dissipate.  “You asked if I thought he was some kind of sim fighter; the answer is no.  He knows what he is.  In my experience any capsuleer who forgets who he is and more importantly what he is, doesn’t last very long.  So now there are two questions.  Why does he put himself though this, and why is everyone watching him.  The answer to the first question is both simple and more complex than I can tell you without looking at his files.  The complex part is figuring out what’s eating at him, driving him to punish himself like that.  I’ll leave that to you.  The simple piece is knowing that he does it because he can, and because it reinforces discipline, focus, drive, you name it.  He’s proving to himself that he can go harder and faster than the people around him, and keep doing it.  He’s not doing it for fun, look at his face.”

The Matari agents stared at the screen, frozen on the image of the Caldari with his back to the camera.  After a workout that would have crushed many men, he stood tall, shoulders back. However, the reflection in the mirror on the wall beside him reflected a face wincing in pain from sheer exhaustion.

“That leaves the last question, which should be obvious to even you three by now.” Roc continued.  “Everyone except you are watching him because they realize that a capsuleer with that kind of focus and drive is dangerous.  Dangerous enough to make a difference.”  Roc lit his cigar and turned to the door.

“You have a couple of options.  You can sit back with your heads up your collective asses and do nothing, and hope that he stays clear of Minmatar interests.  You can try and recruit him, or you can neutralize him.  Whatever you do, it’s not my problem anymore.  We’re square and I have a jump clone to catch.” With that, Roc left the room, momentarily filling it with light and then plunging it back into darkness.

***

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