“Will you two stop dicking about!”

Gantry Commander Eskrid Vandeven tried to sound stern as she berated the two laughing technicians in her charge, but it was difficult to muster the necessary tone; their docket was hardly overloaded and the two men were quite amusing.

“Sorry Ma’am,” chortled the ever cheery Kalen from his console, “but Bal saw something outside.”

Eskrid looked out of the observation pane in the direction suggested and studied the vista. The familiar sight of the vast industrial sprawl of the Imperial Armaments Factory filled her view. Amongst the harsh industrial lines, row upon row of lights twinkled vaguely in the exhaust gases from the refining processes deep within the bowels of the four-hundred deck, forty-five kilometer structure. Narrow towers like their own hung on the station’s lower surface, casting their long shadows in the azure light reflected from nearby gas planet of Yuhelia V. The tranquil landscape was framed by a breathtaking star-smattered velvet blackness and distant swirling nebulae.

But even by combining her familiarity with the scene, her keenly trained eyes and her bitter experience, she could see nothing out of the ordinary.

“Yeah look,” grinned Bal, “there it is again.” He pointed out beyond the docking perimeter toward the starfield.

Eskrid squinted, but could still detect no unusual activity.

“Oh yeah, I see it. Wow.” chimed Kalen in support.

“I’m still not seeing it.” Eskrid grumbled, “Run a vector scan.”

“You don’t need a scan to see that.” Kalen said excitedly as he rose to his feet. “It’s right there!”

“Yeah, can’t you see it Ma’am?” Bal said as he peered out into the dark, “It’s there almost all the time now.”

“See what?” Eskrid demanded in an exasperated tone.

The two men sat back simultaneously and looked at her with mischievous dismay.

“Exactly. Nothing. It’s all we ever see. Endless empty nothing.” Bal stated glumly.

The young woman frowned at their satisfied looks of a point well made. She realised she’d been the target of their boredom-fuelled humour yet again. The Gantry Commander could appreciate they had little to do due to the complete lack of starship traffic to bring in to dock, but that was no excuse to mock her. She’d put them in their place.

“Yes, well done, you are very entertaining. Perhaps you should consider starring in your own holoshow.” the two men beamed, missing her sarcasm. “You can look into that right after you’ve both run a thorough diagnostic of the tractor arrays and the NIM. Twice.”

“Aaw, what?” Kalen protested, “But we did that five times last rotation.”

“And once yesterday.” added Bal.

“Nevertheless, it can’t be done too often. You know what can happen if the NIM glitches.”

The NIM, or Neural Inhibitor Matrix, was a powerful interface exchange system that linked directly with the NEOCOM that all capsuleers relied on to interact with their world. Every docking gantry in every station was equipped with a NIM to seamlessly allow gantry crews like themselves to take control of capsuleer ships and guide them into docking bays. Like everyone, Eskrid had heard the stories of what it could do to capsuleers if it were to malfunction.

“I don’t see the harm in the occasional glitch.” muttered Bal as he began his checks. “So the odd capsuleer ends up with a different accent or switches from right- to left-handed. Sounds pretty funny to me.”

“I heard that one podder ended up convinced he was Tibus Heth and immediately declared war on the Gallente hangar crews.” said Kalen, busy at his own console. “It took four security squads to contain him.”

Eskrid sat at her own console and tuned out their chatter, content that they were doing something constructive. She’d heard many such stories before and, although apocryphal, there was every possibility of truth to them. She recalled what she had learned during her Orbital Technologies studies at Pator Tech School:

The Neural Inhibitor Matrix was designed to release the deep-seated neural control mechanisms of the capsule-bound pilot without causing any neurogenic trauma. Without doing so, to seize control of a capsuleer vessel and tractor it into dock could cause untold neurological damage to the pilot as he would instinctively, but unsuccessfully, fight to maintain control of his ship. In the dawn of the capsuleer era, such episodes had been documented to result in a total and permanent loss of all motor skills in afflicted capsuleers. The NIM had been created to prevent that.

However if all the NIM did was disconnect the pilot, it would still be a deeply unpleasant experience for the capsuleer, who would be paralysed, blind and helpless in the darkness of his pod for the minute or so it takes to guide his vessel to it’s docking point. So the NIM also provides a degree of Immersive Pseudo-Reality to the disconnected capsuleer; firstly repeating the last image received from the camera drones, then fabricating the hangar interior until stasis fields are engaged and control could be returned. Although reportedly still a mildly jarring experience, psyche evaluations have shown an immense improvement in the mental stability of most capsuleers since NIM systems became compulsory.

The last genius feature the NIM was the ‘shroud’ effect. Once disconnected from the controlling capsuleer most ship systems shut down, rendering it very vulnerable during final approach. Many capsuleers would not hesitate to take advantage of this. It is at this point the NIM accesses the local NEOCOM and effectively deletes any visual reference to the docking vessel, rendering any nearby pilots unable to see or interact with it in any way. Few capsuleers question the sudden disappearance of docking vessels, presumably because they are familiar with the technology at work.

Her reverie was interrupted by a quiet alarm sounding. A light blinked on the system display indicating incoming gate activity. She watched as Bal ceased his diagnostics and established contact with Gate Comms, who would already have transmitted the ident codes for the inbound vessel.

“Inbound industrial vessel from the Barira gate. It’s an Amarr Sigil class, ident: BX-947-F. The ‘Golden Slug’ registered to a Max Entropy of Decadence Enterprises. It’s a capsuleer vessel. No security alerts. The customs scan indicates an empty hold.” Bal was professional when he needed to be. “Looks like they’re coming shopping.” But he still enjoyed a little colour.

“There’s a nice underwear shop on the deck 147 boulevard. Maybe they’re after a cargo load of nasty underwear for their Minmatar concubines.” leered Kalen, whose professional boundaries were much less well defined.

“Tasteful.” Eskrid chided, “Stow the smut and stand by for tractor acquisition.”

“Roger that.” Kalen took the hint and switched to a more professional tone. “We should have visual contact…now. Establishing passive lock.”

Eskrid looked out of the viewport to see a golden-hulled cargo hauler slide out of the darkness and appear silently on the docking perimeter. Despite being nearly half a kilometre long and having a crew compliment in the hundreds, to her naked eye it appeared as little more than a glimmering speck floating on the inky backdrop. It was dwarfed by the sprawling station that it slowly drifted toward. She thumbed a button on her console and a magnified view blinked up on the viewport HUD overlay.

“Docking permission requested.” stated Bal.

Eskrid glanced over the scan results, everything was in order. She checked the ship hangar logs.

“Granted.” she said. “Bring them in. Bay three is prepped and clear.”

“Tractors active.” Kalen announced.

“NIM engaged.” Bal said as his fingers flitted across his control console. “All ship systems inert and NEOCOM shroud active. Sweet dreams podder.”

Eskrid supervised the two men as they worked efficiently to guide the vessel toward the gaping maw of the waiting station hangar. The powerful station tractor arrays moved the vessel inward, her expert team guiding it at speeds the hauler was unlikely to be able to achieve under it’s own propulsion, at least not without heavy modification. She initiated the internal cameras and watched as the ship was passed from tractor array to tractor array and steered through a series of vast, illuminated hangar chambers toward it’s resting place.

She wondered if the capsuleer within was aware of the ship’s movements at all or if the pseudo-reality images they were broadcasting directly into his brain completely cushioned him from the sensation.

Then darker thoughts rose to the surface, riding painful memories. How many innocents had this podder killed or helped others to kill? She knew from bitter experience that they were all murderers. She blinked and briefly saw fire and darkness; it was her last memory of the exploding starbase control tower on which she had served until it fell to a marauding capsuleer fleet. That ordeal had nearly cost her her life and it still haunted her.

She unconsciously ran her hand across the skin of her new vat-grown forearm whilst briefly entertaining the idea of ordering Bal to give the capsuleer nightmares like the ones she had to endure all too regularly. But she took pride in her work and valued her reputation. Besides, she knew they could never get away with it. Maybe one day she wouldn’t care about the consequences, but today was not that day.

“Docking beams engaged, planck fields all nominal. They’re all tucked in.” Kalen’s voice dragged her from her darkness.

“Fading out neural broadcast loop. Re-engaging capsuleer visuals.” Bal grinned, “Shall we give him a lisp or a girl’s voice?”

“Tempting.” Eskrid replied, wondering if Bal knew of her loathing for capsuleers. “But neither.”

“Fair enough. NIM disengaged.” Bal said cheerily. “Welcome to Yuhelia-Five, podder. Enjoy your stay and please spend generously. Oh, and try not to kill anyone, or we will melt your brain when you undock.”

She smiled, knowing that Bal’s comms were off and there was no way the waking capsuleer could hear his words, but part of her wished that he had.

“Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it. Now what? ” chirped Kalen, sagging back into his chair. “I know. I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘N’”.

Eskrid rolled her eyes and settled in for the next round of predictable ‘nothing’ jokes. It was going to be another long shift.