These Friendly Skies by Maxim Peltast
(This article originally appeared in the Federation Marquee’s Culture section as part of the Mad World column series, August 17, YC 114. Reproduced with permission.)
I’ve been waiting here a long time. There’s a gigantic silver dome above me. It’s interesting enough to look at—platinum waves of electric light crisscrossing over a spiral window pattern inlaid in the silver—but after an hour and a half, my patience is starting to wear thin.
I am sitting in a sunken portion of this cavernous room, enveloped in a gigantic couch. In front of me is a large glassplated drink table carved out of choice sabarinth, with tasteful outcroppings sprouting from its four corners in a carefully organic fashion. On my right, past the floor-to-ceiling windows which lead to the outside, a crowd of vaguely famous young people—holostars, models—thrash around in a narrow beach alcove bordered on the opposite side by a sheer cliff. The muted lighting lends a surreal green glow to the cliff stone and the sand on the beach, casting the revelers into sharp relief with the black sea and sky beyond.
I decide I need another drink. I wrestle myself from the couch, jog up the steps leading to the main floor of the chamber and make my way over to an embarrassingly wellstocked bar that takes up a whole corner of the room. As I approach it, one of the guards steps in front of me. “Sorry, Mr. Peltast,” he says. “No more drinks until Mr. Voras arrives.”
I am shocked and bewildered. “What?” I say.
“No more drinks, Mr. Peltast. Mr. Voras has instructed us to restrict you to a three-drink maximum until he’s personally present.”
“Maximum,” I say to him and pull a cigarette from my case. “Funny story. Do you know how I got my name?”
I kind of like doing interviews with a broken nose, anyway. Keeps you alert. They jacked me up on ultrafancy local and plopped me back down on that couch. Plugged me up pretty good, too. I suppose bleeding on a couch like this would be something of a faux pas and they would rather save me the embarrassment.
The guards have given me an extra drink. As I start to ponder whether it was their own initiative or whether the capsuleer planned for this all along, the man himself enters. He takes a couple of steps into the room, makes a cursory scan of the surroundings, then nods to his men and heads straight for where I’m sitting.
His hand feels like powdered rubber and his grip is pistonlike. Sickly smooth, soft, precisely measured. He’s a full four inches taller than me. Freckled grayish-dark skin, long braided hair held back with a lizard fang cross, a gleaming white grin way too perfect to be real.
“Mr. Peltast, a pleasure to finally meet you,” he says in a warm baritone.
“Mr. Voras,” I say. I let go of his hand and plant myself on the couch again. While he sits down I take out my recorder and set it on the sabarinth showpiece. It’s an outdated piece of equipment, but I’d rather not use the subderm this time. I want this guy to be fully aware he’s being recorded.
I’m sure your time is as valuable as mine,” he says. “Why don’t we get started?”
If he even notices my smashed nose, he’s not showing it.
I decided long before I got here that relentless straight shooting would be the best strategy. When dealing with someone this accustomed to calculating every move, the only way to catch them off guard is to throw a flurry and hope you find a weak spot.
“So, tell me how you feel about death,” I say.
He smiles with a mildness that surprises me. He leans forward slightly with his elbows on his knees, rubs his fingertips together for a brief while.
“Well,” he says, “in my line of work, it is a filthy necessity. It sits on your shoulder, it surrounds you in your capsule. You go through it several times. Gradually you come to terms with it, just as the bricklayer comes to terms with lung disease, and the journalist reconciles himself with half-truths and ambiguities.” The mildness in his smile has turned to wryness.
“What about the people under your command?” I ask him. “Do you find a need to reconcile yourself with their deaths?”
He looks down at the table and for a moment he’s silent, then he says, “None of those people were unaware of what they signed up for. They know there are risks, same as with any other profession. Sure, the primary goal of my alliance is making money and expanding our influence, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about the people in our employ. Our agencies send out personal letters of condolence to the families of every single person who dies on one of our ships. We provide insurance payouts to next of kin for all ship personnel.”
He’s looking me straight in the eye. The composure is absolute. I decide to shift gears slightly and pursue another avenue. I ask him what types of ships he generally pilots.
“Anything short of a capital ship,” he says. “Battleships for large engagements, HACs and recons for smaller skirmishes. I like to grab an inty or a covert ops and do some tackling or scouting every once in a while. I’m not part of the command structure, so my role is rather fluid. I like it that way.”
“For the benefit of the readership,” I say. “Hacks? Inty?”
“My apologies,” he says, with practiced grace. “Common shorthand in the business. ‘HAC’ is an acronym, stands for heavy assault cruiser. ‘Inty’ is short for interceptor.” I detect only the slightest trace of smugness in his smile.
“So when one of your ships blows up, how many people would you say die on average?” I ask.
“Anywhere from three to three hundred, depending on the ship I’m piloting,” he says. “Gallente ships are a slight obsession of mine, so my crew complements tend to be smaller than those of the guys who fly other tech. The Gallente have a great love of automation.”
“Better for machines to do our killing than for us to have to do it,” I say. I don’t say this for political reasons; I simply happen to concur on this particular point.
For a few moments he looks at me with a completely unreadable expression. “I don’t know,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I stopped thinking about it a long time ago.”
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “I learned early on in this game that if you let those kinds of things gnaw away at you, they’re just going to keep gnawing away at you forever. And in my line of work, forever can be quite a long time.”
“It’s interesting that you call it ‘the game,’ ” I say. I briefly outline a theory that’s been making its way through the Gallente psychological establishment recently, which posits that a capsuleer’s life resembles nothing more than a game, and that the Jove may have given us the capsule for the sole reason that they wanted to use us as a test bed for the Jovian disease; that, just maybe, the disease is essentially extreme ennui at the fact that death means nothing anymore. When you exist largely on a field devoid of connection to the rest of the universe, you start to withdraw from it all. Or so it goes.
He chuckles, but there’s little humor behind the sound. “We keep hearing that,” he says. “But what are we supposed to think? I mean, here I am. I’ve gone through all this training and modification. I can operate marvels of engineering with little more than my thoughts, and under the right circumstances I can cheat death. All this, just so an unfortunate race of genetic mutants can use me as a test bed?” He shakes his head and smiles. “It’s flatly ridiculous. They are a technologically advanced people. I’m perfectly sure they have ways of testing their subjects that don’t involve giving up fundamental tech knowledge.”
He pauses for a while, then says, “You know what? Even if the whole thing were true, I’d rather be a capsule pilot fighting for an alliance than a construction worker building a church.”
I ask him if he ever does think of it as a game.
“The more you’re in it,” he says, “yeah, the more it does start to seem like that. I mean, it gets knocked into your head from the moment you get past prescreening, and the veterans never tire of reminding you: casualties are casualties, and you are having actual casualties. Fleshand- blood people, gone forever. But it doesn’t really hit home until you get popped for the first time. The first time it happens for real, in the heat of combat—the first time you actually lose something, whether it’s crew or money or pride or alliance assets—you realize a couple of things.”
He pauses here, rubs his forehead pensively for a brief while. “One of them is that loss is an inevitable fact of this whole messy business, and the other is that you yourself are going to be around for a while. Let the negative aspects infest your head for long enough, and no brain scan or clone jump is ever going to save you.”
“So essentially,” I say, “you learn to not care about the people that have to die because you’re furthering the aims of your corporate overlords.”
“What I’m saying, Mr. Peltast,” he replies, not skipping a beat, “is that these independent adventure seekers, having been informed of the risks, willingly take their lives into their own hands when they sign up for crew duty. They are amply compensated, make no mistake. More importantly, they know they’re playing their part in something that is bigger than they are. As am I. As are you.”
“ ‘Having been informed of the risks,’ ” I say. “By which you mean, ‘having been deceivingly enticed by promises of incredible exploits and a better life in deep space, when really they receive nothing but a dirty cot in cramped quarters and a socket wrench to turn five times a day.’ ”
He stares at me levelly for a few seconds, then very calmly asks me to go on to the next question.
“So tell me about this get-together you’re hosting right now,” I say. “Holostars and local dignitaries, I bet.”
“Something like that,” he says.
“How do you decide who gets to come to one of your parties?” I ask. “Quite an exclusive list, I’d imagine.”
“Not really. You just have to be acquainted with me or with someone I know, and be within traveling distance. Travel is really the deciding factor. This little getaway of mine is a fair distance from the nearest populated planet, so whoever can arrive in time gets to come. Simple as that.”
“So whoever comes and however powerful they are is a measure of your stature,” I say. “I’ve heard of this before. You call it ‘yacht wrangling.’ ”
His smile tightens. Crow’s-feet appear at the corners of his eyes.
“Keeps your high-society contacts on their toes,” I continue. “Zip off to some locale on an errand, throw an impromptu soirée that evening just to see who can make it. Instant leverage over everyone who arrives, since the mere fact they’re here means they’re dying to get in good with you.”
“Well, now,” he says and clears his throat. The sound is crisp and snappy. “I see you’ve read up.”
Not just a pretty face, egger.
“Approximately half the people here are agents of various corporations, and approximately half are representatives of various interests—social, political, or religious,” he says. “I prefer to view it this way: whoever arrives here has shown a willingness to enter into a dialogue with me on making things happen, down on the planets, on the stations. In the real world, away from the blunted abstractions of my customary arena. True, it does tickle that they come all this way to see me, but don’t make the mistake of thinking my motives purely mercenary, or my parties purely frivolous.”
Before I can counter, he gestures for his men to fix me another drink. “On that subject, I seem to have an archdeacon to attend to,” he says. “Just a few minutes. Make yourself at home.”
While he’s away I sip my horrendously stiff bloodclaw and ponder the racial dynamics of the situation. Over the next minute, my subsequent line of questioning becomes apparent to me. By the time he returns, my glass is sitting empty on his million-ISK table.
“So, Mr. Peltast,” he says and takes his seat again, smooth and unruffled. “Let’s continue on with it.”
“All right,” I say. “You yourself are Brutor Minmatar, correct?”
“Very astute of you,” he says. “I would have thought the fang cross a bit of a giveaway.”
“And this planet we’re sitting on is located in the heart of Amarrian space, correct?”
He nods, his expression neutral.
“And most of the people attending your party right now are Amarr.”
“Yes, Mr. Peltast. Does this surprise you terribly?”
“Well, I guess the obvious thing for me to say right now would be that given the current state of relations between the two nations, it would seem odd that your country would allow someone of your influence to associate with the enemy, and furthermore to curry social—”
“Mr. Peltast,” he says, standing and striding heavily up the steps to the main floor. “Are you seriously pretending to be so naive as to think the nation-state still means anything in our current climate?” He walks over to the nearest wall and gestures at an artifact replica hanging there. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s a khumaak,” I reply.
“It’s a replica of a khumaak,” he says. “A real one would cause legal problems for me in this part of the universe. Do you know why I keep it there?” he asks.
“I’m guessing it’s not to remind yourself of your beleaguered brothers and sisters,” I say.
“You’re perfectly correct,” he replies. “I keep it there to remind myself that national symbols are a folly of the past.” He steps back down to the sunken area and plants himself on the edge of my couch. “The race of a capsuleer, Mr. Peltast,” he says, leaning forward and staring at me with curiously flat eyes, “is as insignificant to the world of politicos, power brokers, and social climbers as his hair color or his sexual habits. I have not aligned myself with the republic or its aims for a good few years now, for the simple reason that I came upon my alliance, and in them I found a better fit for my outlook and preferred methods than anything I’d encountered before. The nation-state is fast becoming an irrelevant entity in the face of the new order, anyway.”
“The new order being what?” I ask.
“You know this as well as I do, Mr. Peltast,” he says, standing up and circling back around to his earlier spot on the couch. “I’ve read your columns. I know where you’re coming from. Please don’t insult me by assuming I don’t have cadres of analysts working to harvest what substance still exists on the withered vine of popular culture.” As he sits down, he gestures for one of his men to get him a drink. I privately note that it’s his first since I got here.
“So what’s in it for you?” I ask. “Knowing the anguish you’re causing to millions of people the world over every single month, knowing the cascade of consequences you set in motion every day, while continuing to belong to a privileged class . . . what keeps you going? Why continue as you are?”
His freshly mixed drink now in hand, he genuinely appears to ponder this for a moment.
“Do you know that thing, when you’re just falling asleep, and you’re sort of drifting off into unconsciousness, and suddenly you feel like you’re falling and you’re jerked headfirst back into reality? That’s what it feels like to die, only the oscillation is orders of magnitude more pronounced. And the mind never learns that you’re actually coming back. The mind just dutifully replays your whole life before you, every single time. I mean, it only takes a second every time, but that second gets expanded to infinity.”
He stares into his glass and gives it a gentle shake. There is a small tinkling of ice. “I can tell you,” he says, “I’ve been through my life just shy of thirty times, and . . .” He looks up, points that hollow glare right at me. “I don’t see any pattern,” he says. “It’s all just there. It’s a random dance of interlocking phenomena, a battle fought between two sides just because they can. In time, you reconcile yourself to the fact that this is what it is, that you’re likely in it for the long haul, and that you might as well enjoy being part of the equation.” He stares at me, his gaze level, lips closed, and jaw relaxed.
And here it is, the thing that’s bugged me throughout the whole scenario. I’m searching for the fake, the angle in the man’s words, and I’m just not finding it. You would think someone of his stature would have hordes of publicity staff clamoring to program his every word when he makes an official press appearance, but beyond the thuggish guards (whose degenerate simian faces you can expect to find on sex offender lists all over the federation in the near future), there hasn’t been anyone present at any point during this interview, beyond just me and him. And right now he’s looking at me with that perfectly straight goddamn face.
With a creeping horror, it begins to occur to me: he is able to reveal himself here, no strings attached. Right now, his only game is simply to have no game, because most of you—our beloved readership—don’t really care, and the small minority of you who do are too goddamned puny and ineffectual to do anything about it. He can safely reveal himself, because we are so many rungs below him on the social ladder that it is merely a case of the sun preaching its timeless gospel to the space dust.
And these particular stars are multiplying, children.
Wait, you thought the world was screwed up already?
You ain’t seen nothing yet.
— Maxim Peltast
(Author’s postscript: After making his speech, Mr. Voras excused himself, shook my hand, thanked me for the interview, and left his untouched drink on his table.)