"How're you feeling?" Hona asked. She had just entered Nale's cabin, and was sitting alongside him on the bunk."
Nale rubbed his temples. "Feeling fine."
"You don't look it."
"A lot of things have changed. It's tiring."
She turned to him. "I'm not blaming you, you know."
"About my entire crew being turned to vegetables."
"I should be, but they knew the risk, same as me. All that matters now is to stop her."
"But I still want to know-"
"Because I didn't realize her people would be immune, too. If I had, I'd never have let you or your team board that ship. I didn't imagine in a million years they would set off the Book. I thought they were thugs." He ran a hand through his greasy hair.
"Guilt?" she asked, before regretting it.
"Tired," he simply said.
"Could you tell-"
"It's made by the Jove. They wanted to counteract the Jovian Disease, that immense sadness which kills them. But it didn't help, and all it did was brainwash people. At lower levels you'll be left happy, calm and without much drive to do any harm. Higher levels, well, you've seen those."
She got angry at that. "Cut that out. How do you even know what I was going to say?"
He looked at her with eyes that were far too much at ease. "I can."
"Oh really? Can you see what I'm thinking, too?"
"Fine. Fine, mister psychic. What number am I thinking of?"
She stared at him.
"It's in your eyes, and the way you sit," he said. "I can see everything now. Everything."
She kept staring at him. "That machine changed you."
"The others, too?"
"No, just me. At least on my own team."
He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "My trainers would probably say I showed immense aptitude. I beat everyone else in the tests they laid for us. I'm a bit of a prodigy, it turns out. But that's not it."
"Then what is it?"
Her jaw dropped. She started to say something, but he interrupted.
"Don't. Please. It's chronic, but causes no pain or discomfort. One day my brain will simply tell my body to stop. It's a condition far older than this mission of ours, and it should've killed me ages ago, since exertion is known to bring it on, but apparently I'm tougher than I thought." He inspected his nails, searching for the words. "Anyway, ever since I found out I was going to die, I saw things in a different light. It's weird, really. I sat in a small room, listening to a voice tell me I was a dead man, and it felt like I was the only thing in this world left untouched. Yes, I was the one who changed, I was the one who found out that my own personal sphere of existence had been irrevocably altered. But I was still the same person, or at least I felt like I was. The world itself, everything that is not me, that's what changed."
"Or your perception of it."
"Precisely. And I can't tell you how liberating it was. All those old worries of the world, they vanished. The rules had changed, altered, gone even. Ever since I got the diagnosis I could feel my mind casting off its weights. But even so, something remained. It's like being told the answer to a puzzle, but not having figured it out yourself. You can see why it is the way it is, but you can't intuitively understand it, and thus it feels like you haven't got the answer at all."
"I know what you mean," she said.
"And then, as luck would have it, the Sisters swooped in and carried me away. And for a while, it helped, but it still wasn't enough. It gave me purpose, gave me an answer, but I still hadn't figured out the question." He got up, picked up a backpack and said, "Let's go for a walk."
They left his quarters and headed towards the cargo bays.
"You're different," she said, in the tone of one who's earned the right to say a thing like that.
"Yes. It's the Book."
"How did the Book change things?" she asked.
"It opened my eyes to the larger picture. It explained the answer and the question, at long last. Even after joining the Sisters I'd still been playing the same game, with all the same worries and doubts, right until the encounter on that ship. You can't do that and honestly expect to make a change. What happened showed me that people can be freed from fears and terrors. They can be made to understand everything."
She furrowed her brow, then asked him, "You're not seriously suggesting what I think you are?"
"Well, I can't rightly free someone the same way that it happened to me, through a chronic illness leading to death. That would be a horrible thing to do. So we can use the Book instead."
"That is horrible."
"It's what my people were planning to do all along. I just didn't realize it until I thought the whole thing through. You're a captain, you've been in your share of fights. Have you never had a moment where you wished you could make everyone stop? Where you were so utterly tired of wading through blood that you wanted to grab the world by the throat and scream in its face?"
"Of course I have. So you want to lobotomize them?"
"No. At lower levels the machine simply erases warlike thoughts. There's probably a subsection of the human race it won't affect - the people we're after are apparently immune, for instance - but for most people, they'll be granted peace and serenity. They'll be a little sluggish, I'm sure, but they won't be killing one another, or suffering the same endless doubts that I did."
"Do you even have approval for this?"
"It is right. I need no more approval."
"Nale, you're talking about taking away people's will, and their freedom of thought."
They rounded a corridor, and walked down a metal stairway. Their feet clanged on the steps.
"Let me ask you a question," Nale said. "Why are you a captain?"
"What do you mean? It's what I do."
"Great, that's how it should be. Why?"
"Because. Because I want to do my part in protecting the Cartel. And because I'm good at it."
"Do you like doing things you're good at?"
"And do you like doing your part for something you believe in?"
"So long as my conscience can live with it, yes. And before you say a word, I may not always be perfectly happy with the way the Angels run things, but it doesn't compare to what you're planning."
"Never said it did. Why do you like doing those things?"
"What do you mean, why?"
"It's your life's work. It's what you spend most of your day engaged in. Why?"
"I don't know. Because it gives me satisfaction, I suppose. I'm part of something, and I get to do it well."
"Look, is there a point to this?"
"Absolutely. Keep answering the questions. Why do you want to be part of something and do your part well?"
"Same reason everyone would, I guess. To feel my life has a purpose."
"And if you feel your life has a purpose, what does that do for you?"
"It makes me happy."
"Precisely," Nale said and gave her a frightening smile. "Anything you do, any purpose of your life, it'll eventually boil down to happiness. That's all we want; that's all everyone wants. The way we tear each other apart every day is borne only out of frustration that we cannot find the happiness we seek."
"Funny, I thought it was a bit more complicated than that."
"It is if you let it. Most people don't truly think about why they do what they do, no matter whether it's drinking a bottle of Quafe or putting a bullet into someone's head. But you take almost anyone in this world and ask them why, believe me, it'll boil down to happiness in the end."
"You know, even if you were right, there are other ways to achieve this. People don't need to be brainwashed. You could simply encourage them to seek their own paths."
"Most people are self-destructive, and unreliable even toward themselves. As a rule, they don't put much effort into their search for happiness, and no amount of positive encouragement is going to change that. Why do you think holoreels are as popular as they are, and meditation isn't?"
They came to a door. Nale took off his backpack.
"Still," Hona said, "You could do it differently. You don't have to push people towards bliss. You can encourage them to seek it themselves."
"I'm not going to stand there, like a mad prophet, constantly harping on other people to go after their true purpose in life. All I'm going to do is eliminate the roadblocks."
Hona stepped in his way, and looked him straight in the eye. "Don't do this, Nale. Don't. If you even manage to regain the Book, you've no guarantee it'll work like you think, and even if it does, you'll be taking away people's basic rights. You'll be no better than the capsuleer who ruined our mining colony. And besides, how on earth will you achieve any change? What if the effect is only temporary?"
"Then we will use it on the right people first; the ones who determine the lives of others. Everyone at the top of the social stratus. Leaders, and dictators, and every capsuleer we can get to. After that, we will find ways of duplicating the Book, and we'll start to spread its word to the masses."
She goggled at him. "You're talking about a revolution here. You're going to be violating people's basic rights on a fundamental scale."
"The fundamental right of man is to be happy," he said to her. "You'll see. This is right. It's the only thing that makes sense."
He went around her, opened the door and stepped into the empty storage room beyond. He removed something from the bag, then dropped it outside the open door.
Hona looked at what he was carrying: Four inertial balls. She gave him a puzzled look.
"I've modified them slightly," he said. "Removed the acceleration inhibitors."
"Are you trying to die?"
"I'm trying to see if I'm worthy of the task I've undertaken."
"How will you even know, apart from not ending up a bloody mess?"
"I'll hear it on Black Mountain."
She hesitated at that, unsure of what to say, and he turned away from her, whirling the inertial balls in his hands. There was a soft sound and a click, as of a gun being drawn and cocked.
Nale did not look back. "Now or never," he said, and after a moment he heard the door close behind him.
He smiled, and closed his eyes. The spirits moved around him, their hazy shadows enveloping him. Their whispers told him the truths.
He threw one ball. It bounced off the floor and sped up; bounced off the wall and sped up; bounced off the ceiling and sped up. Soon it was a blur, zooming through the room at bone-breaking speed with a cacophony of gongs as it bounced off the walls. Nale listened closely, and every time, stood where the soaring missile didn't go.
He threw the others, moving lithely from place to place as they bounced around him, his eyes opening and closing in tune to the blinking lights on the tree that still reached for him. He avoided its grasp, and he avoided the soft, soft rocks that bounced around, beckoning to him to hold them, to let them touch him.
They went faster and faster, until the entire room was covered in hazy, half-seen trajectories, the rocks tearing their way through the empty air. And still he dodged them, at a speed unimaginable, as they roared through the rapidly heating air, their hisses melding with that from the frustrated tree of kingdoms. The spirits guided him, and slowly the floor disappeared, until he was floating above the tarry sea of the shadowy angels and shared unconscious, seeing everything, knowing everything, in tune with the world, on this path that led inexorably to freedom.