Lu Tien Hannarad fastened his coverall securely at the shoulder and paused to check in the mirror. Pale blue and spotless, it gave the young man a distinguished look, or so he felt. He hoped. He rubbed his hands together in an attempt to stop their trembling.
This was a big day.
At the door, he paused, taking a deep breath and allowing it to rattle his narrow frame on its way out. 'Relax,' he whispered. 'You can do this. It's just like the exams.'
He was shaking.
In the next room, a man and a woman were waiting, seated at a table and looking over holograms projected into the air above its surface. The man, Alric Takiri, looked up.
'Ah, Lu Tien, we're just reviewing the procedures for today's subject. Take a seat.'
The woman, Vienne Miyental, keyed up another image. 'I realise this is your first procedure outside of the exam holos, Lu Tien, so you'll have both of us keeping an eye on your progress today. Alric will be assisting you, I'll be back at the control desk watching on camera while I keep an eye on her vitals.'
Lu Tien nodded, not trusting his voice. Vienne rested her hand on his. 'Relax. There isn't much that can go wrong here which can't be fixed quickly and easily with minimal impact. Our subject today is in good health. She's prepared herself for this day for the last five years, and now it's up to you to bring her dreams to life.' Her fingers squeezed his momentarily and released.
The young man gave his superiors a wobbly smile. 'So no pressure, huh?'
They reviewed the procedure step by step over the next hour, and Lu Tien began to relax. It was like in the exams, except this time he would have living flesh and blood under his hands. Vienne and Alric would be there the whole time, he wouldn't be alone, and despite the complexity of the procedure, it wouldn't be life-threatening.
She was waiting in a comfortably-furnished room just outside of the surgery, looking neat and official in her Academy undress uniform. They shook her hand and Alric introduced Lu Tien as Doctor Hannarad, the cybernetics technician in charge of the procedure; Lu Tien bowed and expressed his pleasure at meeting her and the honour he felt at being the one to work on her. She smiled and said the honour was hers. An assistant came and led her away to the prep room while the three technicians returned to the surgery to make certain all was in order and ready.
Lu Tien's shakes had returned. 'I don't know if I can do this...' He surveyed the array of equipment laid out on tables and trolleys and platters before him: the tools of the trade he had so long hoped to excel in. Alric's hand gripped Lu Tien's shoulder.
'You can. We'll catch you if you stumble, but we're not here to hold you up.'
Soon, too soon, the young woman was wheeled in on a surgical trolley, already sedated and laid facedown with her hands resting on shelves below the level of the table-top to prevent circulatory disfunction; she was naked but for the open-backed operatory gown and a paper-fabric sheet draped over her legs. Vienne plugged in and started the bank of computers monitoring the woman's heart rate, brain function and neural network. Assistants swarmed around Lu Tien and Alric, faceless in surgical masks and caps, ever-present, never intrusive, prepping the technicians to work their craft in turning an ordinary pilot into a capsuleer.
Alric took up a position on the opposite side of the patient from Lu Tien. 'While this procedure is not risky in the sense that it could potentially maim or kill the subject, there is a chance that minor damage may be done to the spinal structure. In that sense, we must be cautious. She already has the initial training jacks and wiring; what we're doing is merely upgrading the system. Lu Tien: begin.'
He'd feared the nervous trembling would cause him to falter, but as he prepared to work, the shakes eased. By the time the first incision was made, a sense of peace had stolen over him, his mind and body settling into the familiar rhythm of a procedure he had performed a hundred times before in simulated scenarios. As he worked, Alric kept a steady, low-voiced monologue, as if weaving a story into the movements of the young technician's hands.
'There was a time when the single contact point in the skull was not considered enough for a capsuleer to have contact with even the training setups. The jacks were crude, heavy, plainly visible to anyone and had to be located at multiple points throughout the body for total nervous systems interface.'
'First socket is in place and anchored,' Lu Tien murmured into his microphone to Vienne at the control desk. 'Connection is secured. Begin interface sequence.'
The third technician tapped a command into a terminal; signals pulsed through the wires slotted into the new and old jacks. Suddenly awakened nanofilaments stirred within the hardware and began travelling along preexisting neural pathways, interlinking and spreading throughout the pilot's systems.
'Eventually, advances in the technology were made,' Alric continued. 'The hardware became smaller, finer, more capable of managing the demands of capsule command. Corporate competition drove the design to further refinement until the standard became what is in use today.'
'Second socket in place and anchored. Connection secured.'
Each implant was carefully mounted on the vertebrae of the woman's spine, nanofilament connections binding them into her nervous system and to each other. The flesh was sealed around the implants with a protective, flexible medical foam which would deteriorate as the healing process progressed.
'It's the initial ordeal of receiving capsuleer implants that can make or break a pilot.' The implants ran the length of the woman's spine, now, and the final stages of the surgery were in process. It was mostly Vienne's scene as she monitored progress and status, making adjustments as necessary.
Lu Tien looked at Alric. 'How so?'
The older man gestured to the sleeping pilot. 'When a capsuleer's clone is grown, the implants are developed with it. There's no invasive surgical procedures, and everything is meshed perfectly. It's this first step, where the pilot becomes more than human, that's the biggest and hardest. Imagine being in her place, waking up after this. Even with all the testing, all the training, nothing quite prepares you for the feeling of something alien inside you.'
Vienne gave the thumbs-up as the final test completed. 'Green. Get her to the recovery ward. Good job, people.'
'It's the reason we don't leave them alone from the moment they awaken. A small percentage can't handle it. They lose it entirely and all that can be done for them is care homes and lots of therapy; some kill themselves within the year.'
Lu Tien stared at his mentor, shocked at the notion, then at the pilot as she was carried away. 'I never... I never thought of that.'
The omnipresent assistants removed the technicians' masks and gloves; Alric rubbed the end of his nose with the back of one hand. 'Finally!
'Look at it this way. Nearly everyone has some minor cybernetics, these days. Optical repairs, audio implants, maybe a replaced or repaired internal organ or bone. Those are minimal things. Capsuleer implants hug the nerves so tightly, a pilot can feel it at first. Sort of a tightness, maybe a burning sensation, like a vague, sourceless pressure in every limb. That's how one described it for me, once. The feeling of it can be devastating if they're given time to think about it.' He glanced at Lu Tien. 'Becoming a god is neither easy nor painless. It's up to us to ease that transition as much as possible even as we initiate it. You did well today.'
Lu Tien looked around the operating theatre; assistants were bustling around cleaning up and shutting down various pieces of equipment. 'Becoming... a god?' he murmured. He thought about the pilot as she'd been when he'd met her. 'She's beautiful.'
Someone clapped him on the shoulder; he turned to see Vienne, looking tired but happy. 'Wait til you see what she becomes.'