Nale wiped the sweat off his brow. He'd only just returned to the bench after the day's physical set, and his hands were still shaking. If he weren't a dying man, he'd have been worried about his health.
He looked around. The gym was active, if basic. The mats weren't self-cleaning, but they did have a fairly good antibacterial skin - as Nale had been grateful for during all those times he'd had to do sprawl or duck-and-roll exercises - and they were being put to good use by two dozen men engaged in various versions of fight sports. In the cardio section, the magnetic treadmills had auto-adjusting capabilities that kept the speed and incline in line with one's required heart rate, and the pads could even be tuned to variable repulsion in order to better simulate grass. They worked and worked well, and routinely put Nale to within a fraction of a heart attack, but they were getting a little worn. Nale suspected that one of these days a treadmill would break and someone would find themselves launched through the roof. The gym had low ceilings, too.
A logo of the Sanctuary, one of the corporations belonging to the Sisters of EVE, was stamped on all machines in this section, along with all the benches. Nale idly reached out and rubbed the logo embossed on his bench. The narrow ridges of the Sanctuary star felt wonderfully cold to the touch. He'd been here for several months, training and doing missions, and at times the only things that felt real in this world were the ridges and bumps in the logo, and the fire in his body when he worked out.
The compound itself was shaped like the Sisters' logo, with three isolated sections forming a rough circle. One of them was the living quarters and training grounds for the task forces to which Nale belonged; another was the administrative and general work center, where normal Sisters business was conducted; and the third was the ops center, where nobody went.
Everywhere in the gym, someone was being brought to sweat and tears. In one corner Berkhes, a close friend, was being put through the inertial test, where a machine fired rubber-coated balls at him at high speeds. Nale watched him and rubbed his own bruises, bright purple and growing. He hated that machine.
One of the monitors sat down with him and asked how he was doing. The monitors were half personal trainers and half nurses, and showed up usually when people collapsed or started to vomit.
"I'm all right," Nale said.
The lights in the gym were tiring Nale's eyes. It was after dark, and the ceiling in the gym was beset with windows. During the day the crew'd be blinded by the sun, and at night the stars would look down on them with icy glares. Every so often a trail would pass over the skies, and Nale, trying to keep his mind off the exhaustion, would wonder if it was a falling star or a capsuleer. They turned the lights up after dusk, and the monitors made sure the trainees kept up a constant pace. Everyone knew the agony of stopping or changing your motion was so much worse than plunging on.
"Well, you did push it pretty hard there," the monitor said, and Nale had to squint to see his face. "I saw you do the inertial. You'll make that machine burn out before you quit."
"That's the point," Nale said. "This is the only thing I still haven't gotten a handle on, and I'll keep doing it until I get it right."
"That's what I like to hear," the monitor said. "Ops want to see you."
"Do you know where ops is?"
"Everyone knows where ops is."
"Then get your ass in gear, son."
As Nale hauled himself to his legs and set off, the monitor added, "Oh, one thing. You eaten yet?"
He wanted to die.
Instead of being greeted by serious people in Sisters uniforms, he'd been met by more monitors, asked to change into an electrorhythm costume that would monitor his body to an insane level of detail, and sent deep into the place for even more tests.
This part of compound was also well-lit, but its architecture felt far less welcoming and was closer to Caldarian angles than the Gallentean curves he was used to. There were narrow corridors with locked doors, and once Nale had finally been led to the testing area, things didn't much improve. The equipment was sleek, black and massive, and most of it looked like a cross between mining equipment and torture devices. Only even half of the devices, to Nale's mind, could possibly fit a human body in one piece. They had no logos, and operated in utter silence. There were no windows here.
One of those machines was called Infinity-8, and looked like a drive shaft: A large spherical construction on one end, one that turned out to contain a gyroscope, followed by a long, windowless corridor. The gyro spun him through 360 degrees at high speeds, after which he was made to walk through the corridor and found it beset with monitors on every surface. The monitors transmitted video specifically designed to disorient his perception, and blasted out alpha sound waves aimed at affecting his cognitive abilities. He made it through without screaming, crying or vomiting, though it was close, and on the other end had to put on a helmet that attached itself to his face through microscopic probes and forced him to play Mind Clash against AI opponents, first a single one, then groups of smaller ones. He did better against the smaller ones, which relied more on oversight than concentration, but by the end his head had started to throb quite strongly. Also, the microprobes made his scalp itch like mad.
Once he was finished with all the tests, and vowing that if he lived through the day he was going to start drinking again, they made him go through a series of inspections. In theory the checkups could have been done by machines, but the Sisters preferred the human touch, so he had to stand naked and rather embarrassed while the monitors went over his vitals. One of them mentioned to him, "You're a natural."
Nale, who was trembling from exhaustion and could barely stand, said, "I don't feel like a natural."
"Well, you're the first one we didn't have to carry in here on a stretcher. You're amazingly relaxed."
"Comes with death," he said.
The monitor gave him a funny look, then said. "Tests are over. After you've cleaned up, ops people want to talk to you." The monitor looked at the screen showing Nale's vitals and said, "Now his adrenaline rises. You're a strange, strange man, Nale."
He walked into a large and remarkably low-tech room. It had one round table whose surface was a glass finish, a black matte with a green shade, and at which were seated four people, three in official Sisters wear and one in casual. One chair was empty.
Nale recognized one of the three Sisters operatives as Riserakko Isenairos, the Sanctuary's chief advisor, but the other two were unknown to him. He looked at the casually dressed man and was surprised to see Berkhes, who grinned at him.
Nale addressed the Sisters. "I was expected?"
"You were," one of them replied. "Have a seat. I'm Jonak."
He sat. The chair felt remarkably soft.
"Comfy?" Jonak said.
"I could fall asleep here," Nale said.
Jonak said, "I imagine you could. They've been working you pretty hard out there."
"I suppose. I'd still like another go at the inertial, just as soon as my feet turn back from rubber to solids."
Jonak gave a brief smile, and slid a reader across to Nale. The device was about the size of Nale's forearm, and was already turned on. The words, "Book of Emptiness" were lit up on the front.
"You know we've been setting up scout teams," Jonak said.
"I know you've been setting up a lot of teams," Nale said. "I've done a fair number of non-scout missions. I've heard the name of Sansha's Nation whispered, but nothing concrete."
"So you have. About those missions ..." Jonak replied, and looked to his two compatriots.
Before they had a chance to comment, Berkhes cut in. "Most of them were simulated."
Nale stared at him. "What?"
"They've been pumping us full of nanomachinery and sending us after transmitters planted by our own people. Half the time, the stuff we were handling wasn't even there. I just got promoted, myself, and I wanted to punch these people in the face when I found out."
Nale sat back in his chair, stunned.
Jonak said, "We need people who possess not only an empathy for this kind of thing, but also an immunity to certain chemical, neurological and psychological pressures. People whose very natures would already make them perfect candidates for the Sisters, but who are willing to go even further than that."
"So they've been pumping us full of nanobots, usually by making us drink them, and making us see visions," Berkhes interjected again. "Supposedly it's a test of how we'd react to the Book itself. The bots flush out when we piss, apparently."
Nale sat there, still stunned, then shrugged and went, "All right. What do you need?"
The three Sisters representatives looked at one another, then back at him. "Do you have any questions?"
Nale tapped the reader. "I presume they'll be answered in here."
Riserakko, the Sanctuary advisor, scratched the thin strip of beard on his chin and said, "We've spent a long time playing with your head and pushing you beyond your usual limits in almost every conceivable way. Doesn't that bother you?"
"I'm a little concerned that you found it necessary to lie to me, but I appreciate that the tests probably wouldn't have worked otherwise. Aside from that, no." Nale leaned forward. "Look, I'm dying. I hope you know this. I'll be in perfect health one moment, then the next I'll be just one more cooling body. I've already had my world turned inside out and I'm still learning to see it anew. I honestly can't be bothered to waste energy on being angry at you people. Anyway, I've found new strength through the exercise, the tests and the missions, and nobody can take that away from me."
"This is true," said the last, unnamed Sisters representative. His face was rough-hewn, and he spoke in carefully measured tones. "There is certainly nothing we can take from you. In fact, I have been going over the results of your tests, and they are quite astounding. We have been hammering you from every angle, and not only have you withstood it like no one else, your abilities have actually started to exceed our measurements. We want to move you up from the scouting teams and into the operational league itself. Once the real thing starts, you'll be in the heat of the fray."
"Thanks. Uh, did you notice the bit about me dying?"
The man leaned forward. "Quite frankly, with the things we have been putting you through, if you were going to die any time soon you would be dead already."
Nale stopped short at that. All this time he'd had unwavering faith in the Sisters' ability to decide what was right for him and his faction brothers, even when they'd been sent out on dubious missions with no explanation given. It occurred to him now that one of the reasons he'd been chosen for this task force was precisely because he hadn't required any explanation, or asked any questions. "The information," he said, just to say something, "that's all in this reader, right?"
"It is," Jonak said. "You can't take it outside this section of the compound, obviously, so we've set up new quarters for you here. Go and familiarize yourself with the material, get something to eat, and we'll see you back here in three hours."
"Thanks. Any chance you could give me a quick capsule summary of this whole thing?"
"A rogue piece of Jove brainwashing technology is on the verge of falling into the hands of Sansha's Nation and we're the only ones who can stop it."
"Ah, right. Glad I asked."
"Welcome to the team," Berkhes said.