Hamra had not been looking forwards to this part of the job. The Merchant, Alburn, often bid her to greet his guests, and that was fine. She was well acquainted with moving in business circles and navigating the varying cultural etiquette’s of New Eden’s dominant ethnicities. Her Sebiestor upbringing had taught her to appreciate the nuanced attitudes to expect from other Minmatar tribes, which she often felt made dealing with Gallenteans or Caldari all that much easier for her by comparison.
Even the Amarr she could take in her stride, unencumbered by much of the old racial tensions which many Minmatar and Amarr often fell prey to when dealing with each other. Hamra prided herself on keeping an open mind and in the virtues of modern thinking, it had served her well to do so. But this particular guest was different. This one gave her the creeps.
She stood in the hallway outside of his rented quarters and waited until the allotted time. The space was neat, tidy, functionally well maintained but lacking in character, as if the station managers had concluded that there was little need for anything more elaborate. Hamra could not have afforded to rent one of these rooms for more than a few hours, not that she would have been permitted to do so even if she could. Only Capsuleers were permitted to use the quarters in this part of the station, she had merely been granted access as far as this particular door of this specific hallway, for a few hours and no more to meet her guest.
The door opened so quietly that she almost didn’t hear it at all. As she turned to face the door she came eye to eye with a cold, synthetic gaze that looked down upon her like a camera lens focusing upon an insect. Although on reflection, she wasn’t sure if it’s owner might have been more impressed with the insect. She felt an involuntary twitch in her eye and fought back the urge to visibly shudder. Instead she forced out a smiled and found her voice. If the Capsuleer even cared, his expression didn’t show it. Two points of dimly glowing green light stared down at her through mechanical irises.
The ocular implants were functional designs, but little attention had been paid to making them appear at all natural. Hamra could clearly see dark lines running just under the epidermis along cheek bones and the temples, extending back from the false eyes to interface with other cranial implants. The Capuleer’s skin was pale and looked slightly clammy, it appeared tight as if stretched slightly too tight. He was tall but lean, standing straight yet with shoulders that hunched inwards. The effect was both intimidating and feeble, all at once. Was this an immortal demigod descending into the mortal world, or a sickly wretch of a man stepping out from the safety of home?
“Good afternoon sir! My employer offers his warmest welcome and is most honoured by your return. He has instructed me to show you to his new apartments, he has relocated since your last visit. May I call ahead for any refreshments?” She took a step back as she spoke to put some distance between herself and those analytical eyes, extending an arm to show the way to the meeting.
The Capsuleer took a hurried step backwards and regarded the raised appendage with a look of clear disgust before regaining his composure. Was he startled? His reaction had not been what Hamra expected and the realisation began to dawn upon her that this immortal was feeling anything but relaxed coming into this encounter. When the Capsuleer finally spoke, his tone was flat and his pronunciation precise. “No, I shall not be eating or drinking anything from this…place. You shall take me to your employer, I do not wish to spend any longer here than necessary.” As he spoke he visibly gathered himself together and straightened up to stand at his full height to look down up Hamra. “I only require that you and any of your colleagues I encounter maintain an appropriate distance from myself. This world of flesh and blood you subsist within is an unwelcome inconvenience that on occasion I am burdened to endure. I have no desire to sample any more of it than I must to complete my business dealings here.”
Hamra had no answer ready for that. She wondered if the Capsuleer had come to specialise in a bizarre form of insults but simply settled for replying politely. “As you say sir, please, this way.”
Hamraled her guest through the station halls in silence, opening doors for him so that he did not need to touch anything but the floor beneath his feet, and even that he seemed to begrudge. She began to wonder how anyone could seem so resentful of such innocuous surroundings and so detached from other people, and yet wield so much power, wealth and influence. The immortal stalked alongside her, always an arm’s length apart. His head turned continuously as the dully glowing eyes inspected everything and everyone they passed. As far as she could tell, nothing he saw passed its cursory inspection.
She was relieved that Alburn’s apartments were so close, relief was at hand. She showed her guest inside, nodding in recognition to the man standing behind the large reception desk, she guided her charge down the short corridor leading to Alburn’s grandiose ‘audience chamber’. The carved wood doors opened slowly and smoothly as they approached. The audience chamber was a large space decorated in a modern Gallentean style. Much of the rooms surfaces were cream-coloured enamels highlighted with colourful illuminated down-lighting. Walls and tables played host to an eclectic mixture of art and artefacts defying categorisation. A large conference table occupied the far end of the room, unused.
One wall of the room was given over to an expansive viewing window overlooking the station docking port and a steady flow of ships large and small. Beyond them and filling the panorama was the deep blue-grey expanse of a Storm-class planet. Huge rolling cloud formations completely covered the surface, punctuated by flashes of lightning storms raging throughout the atmosphere. A flickering blue light washed across the room and reflected in the armour of four figures stood lined up against the room’s opposite wall.
Each of them stood over six feet tall and was clad head to toe in sophisticated, full-body combat armour. Their faces were concealed behind smooth, featureless face-plates and every inch of the armour had been given a highly polished, mirrored finish that reflected back the lighting of the room and storm flashes of the planet before them. Each stood motionless, their blank masks looking out across the room to the planet before them. Even unarmed they made an imposing impression, yet the Capsuleer granted them but a cursory suspicious glance, no more than he did to anything before turning his attention to the Merchant.
Alburn stood smiling and waiting in the centre of the room. He was a stark contrast to the armoured figures, he was of average height at most and of average weight at best. He dressed ostentatiously but often in doubtful taste, although Hamra often suspected that he did this on purpose sometimes. He projected confidence and celebrated excess, doubtless intending to convey the promise of success to his clients.
Alburn spread his arms wide with a beaming smile. “My friend! Welcome! Please, come join me.” He gestured to a pair of overstuffed leather chairs in front of the view port with a low table between them. A computer terminal and holographic projector were set up ready for the meeting. Alburn led the way past a succession of expensive and quirky artefacts, pausing to comment on a couple of them before finally sitting down next to the computer. The Capsuleer followed, showing little interest in the artefacts boasted of but noticeably avoiding touching anything.
Hamra began to wonder how long it had been since this pod-pilot had last left the confines of his capsule. She had last seen him some nine months ago when the merchant had acquired a stock of illegal combat boosters, had he spent that entire time suspended in fluid, drifting among the stars? She had not many Capsuleers, but had heard that some of them became increasingly detached and resentful of their flesh and blood bodies, limiting the time they spent among mortals as much as they could. Could that explain this man’s behaviour?
Alburn spent the next few minutes making random small talk, mostly with himself as the Capsuleer said next to little throughout. Alburn finally admitted his guest to the monologue by asking “And how fare your planetary holdings down, there?” He asked, gesturing with a broad smile towards the sweeping planetary backdrop of the meeting. “A robotics production line, isn’t it..?”. For a couple of heartbeats, his smile slipped.
“Yes.” the Capsuleer answered in his flat, detached voice. “My operations continue to run without undue complications. Or, for that matter, pointless delays.” He looked pointedly at Alburn before continuing. “But that is not what we are here to discuss. You have a new commodity for which you lack the necessary clearance to bring to market.”
“Ahh yes, to the point as ever!” The Merchant’s smile did not flicker as he leaned in closer to deliver his proposition, in a more hushed and conspiratorial tone. “But in fact, the two topics are related. This particular commodity is a new type of munitions, one that you would do well to bring to market as early as possible. That is where you Capsuleer’s make the largest killings, no? By being the first to sell the latest technologies?”
The Capsuleer remains impassive, giving a wave of his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Munitions have little bearing on our planetary holdings. No mortal force dares provoke us by attacking our holdings directly and there are…conventions in place against Capsuleer’s taking military action against terrestrial assets. Your product therefore has no market!” He was becoming restless, Hamra noted. His voice had risen a little and taken on a harder edge. He was looking less at the merchant and more around the room as time went on, his attention quickly wandering.
The merchant seemed undeterred and continued his sales pitch, delving into the schematics of his product and the details of pricing. The holographic projector was summoned to battle to better illustrate the product’s virtues with a flurry of statistics and graphics. The negotiation continues and the Capsuleer grows visibly more restless and distracted, as if he could smell a strange odour or hear a peculiar noise but could not pin down the source of it.
After an unproductive back and forth exchange, the merchant finally leans back in his seat and declares to the Capsuleer “My friend, I feel you should open your mind. Times are changing, and faster than you think. There is a new age upon us, and new markets.” His guest looked back from studying the room to deliver a derisive look, but refused to be drawn in. Alburn smiled back “You have rivals…”
The Capsuleer seemed almost ready to laugh, his thin lips peeled back. “Rivals? All Capsuleers are rivals, this is nothing new. It is in our very nature to adapt and to overcome!” His eyes were darting around now, searching the other side of the room. Seeking out something with an increasing, almost desperate, intensity. “My mind is always open to new possibilities, I assess, I analyse I…”
He stared warily across the table, not at the merchant sat in front of him, but at the row of masked figures stood lined up against the back wall of the room. Their polished armour reflecting the light of the planet dominating the sweeping view port behind the Capsuleer. His fidgeting had ceased, where his eyes had wandered the room before, they did not so much as blink now.
The four guards, each standing perfectly motionless as instructed, were indistinguishable to Hamra. She wondered why the merchant had been so insistent on having four unarmed guards present, the cost and hassle of clearing them for access to this Capsuleer area of the station had kept Hamra busy for days. Although, she had only done the paperwork for three of them. The identity of the fourth was a mystery to her.
Her uncertainty was not helped at all by this Capsuleer’s behaviour. Hamra had not expected him to pay any more attention to the guards than he had to any of the few other mortals that he had encountered since leaving his quarters. But this was different, his eyes were locked on to the guard stood to the left, his entire attention now focused on the suit of armour as if he were trying to carve it open with his augmented eyes, to dissect whomever was inside of it. The other three had become utterly immaterial to him, no more important than a picture on the wall.
It was only then that Hamra realised the merchant was staring just as fixedly at the Capsuleer. Her eyes darted between the two of them, trying to read their expressions. The room had fallen silent for nearly a minute, the quiet hum of the ventilation system was moving from being an insignificant background noise to a veritable roar. She caught the Capsuleer’s eyes widen slightly in surprise, as if he had been struck by an abrupt revelation, only for them to narrow again in suspicion. She couldn’t be sure but had that dull green glow intensified? A visible shudder ran through him, he shook his head slightly and the spell was broken. The merchant was openly smiling smugly now, a look that clearly did nothing for the Capsuleer’s darkening mood. Hamra had the abrupt feeling that this play had reached its final act.
The Capsuleer surprised her by being the first to speak, albeit slowly like his tongue was waiting for his thoughts to coalesce. “You have made an…interesting proposal. As ever, your presentation skills and flair for the…theatrical, shall we say? Your point is well made. Arrange to have your stocks of the munitions transferred to my ship.” At no point did he look away from the armoured figure.
He stood, again taking care not to touch the furnishings any more than absolutely necessary and with his business completed, strode towards the door. His pace was a little faster than it had been on the way in, Hamra thought to herself. She took a step to follow but the Capsuleer abruptly half-turned to wave her back dismissively. The merchant shook his head slightly to indicate that her services would not be necessary, so she remained where she was.
The Capsuleer’s eyes darted back to that same guard. The surprise had faded now, replaced by a look that was decidedly more predatory. The sudden shift towards clear confidence surprised Hamra, but not so much as what the immortal did next. His entire demeanour changed as he strode across the room to stand next to the guard, keeping a few careful inches between himself and the armoured figure, those predators eyes stared into the mirrored faceplate as he leaned in close to softly whisper a few short words. Then he smiled.
After a heartbeat’s pause the helmet turned ever so subtly towards the Capsuleer’s face, as if the wearer’s own eyes were now staring into those of the immortal. The helmet seemed to meet his gaze for another long pause and then nodded, apparently in some sort of quiet recognition. The Capsuleer’s expression did not change as he turned away and left the room. The helmet slowly tracked his movement until he had departed.
No-one moved for a few moments longer, the helmet’s eye-less gaze remaining on the now closed door while the merchant stared into nothing, deep in thought. Finally he nodded to himself and rose from his seat to go stand before the grand view of the crackling planet and shining stars. “Hamra, the three you hired may leave now. Have them paid in them in full, as agreed.”
Hamra motioned towards the door and the three guards filed out of the room. The fourth stirred and moved unbidden to stand next to the merchant. As the door closed behind them, the merchant spoke to the remaining guard. “So now we know, the Capsuleer’s mythical abilities really do extend beyond their pods. Could you sense him too?”
The bulky shoulders shrugged, a heavily modulated voice replied in short, rasping grunts. “Not sure. He creeped me out, but then so do them bloody body-modders. Weird arsed freaks if you ask me, all of ’em. But what do you care, you wanted to sell him the tactical munitions. You got your price. It isn’t you he’ll be trying to shell with that stuff some day.”
The merchant sighed and smiled again. “True enough. But as they say, ‘what does not kill you, makes you stronger’. And you my friend will take quite some killing as I hear it. Perhaps even more than it takes to kill on of his kind, after all, they don’t call you immortal for nothing! But tell me, what did he say to you?”
The armoured figure again fell silent a moment before answering. Hamra fancied that he was studying the stars rather than the planet, considering the Capsuleer. “He said. Welcome to the struggle. Your kind should choose your next move carefully, because we are waiting for you”.
The merchant nodded thoughtfully. “Well then, let me introduce you to another of his kind. I gather he has some interest in breaking into a certain area of the Robotics market, and would like to acquire some prime real estate.”
They stood together surveying the planet and making small talk as Hamra left them to go greet Alburn’s next guest of the day.