Thursday, 28 July 2011

Aato: The beginning of the end.

Minmatar Republic, Metropolis region, Ankard constellation, Eygfe VIII – Moon 9 – Ishukone Corporation Factory, YC113.

“Just to let you know, I won that cage match. You owe me Seventy ISK. You can pay me next time we go drinking.

Obvious code if her mail really was being read, but recognising it as code and understanding the real message were two very different things.

Aato read the rest of her messages, staying entirely professional as she sorted out the day-to-day of her employer's personal itinerary and safety. She wasn't alone in the office, though nobody ever sat too near her desk, no matter how cramped the facility they were in on any given day might be. She had a tendency to unsettle people.

Once, she wouldn't have. Not so long ago, she'd have been the life and love of the security team, everybody's best friend and the object of most of their fantasies and affection. It went against the grain somewhat to drive them off with a prickly demeanour and the utterly cold fa├žade that her clothing and thin buzz-cut of blonde hair were calculated to create.

So, she completed her work and then, without a word or glance to anyone else, she stood up and departed, locked herself in the head, and allowed herself to cry for the first time since she had left Jesken's Reach, and for only the second time in her adult life.

The message had read, to the dwindling supply of people who knew how to read it: “G-14 captured, presumed dead. Get in contact.”

Eight left, herself included. Eight out of thirteen.

With the self-control that had been drilled into her since early childhood, she forced her professional mask back into place until the redness around her eyes was gone, until her chin was steady enough to balance a glass on, and cleaned sticky tear runnels from her cheeks. Then it was a simple, short walk to Pilot's office.

Pilot Hakatain was reading a message written holographically in the air above his desk when she entered, which vanished as those targeting-laser blue eyes flicked over to a command icon, then focused on her. He didn't appear to notice anything out of place, which Aato took as a good sign that she was outwardly as composed as ever. If a Capsuleer with a top-quality social adaptation chip couldn't spot evidence of her grief, then she wasn't showing any at all.

“Afternoon, Aato. Report?”
“No report sir, everything as we agreed yesterday. I'm here to request leave.”

Pilot blinked in surprise, and one of his eyebrows quirked upwards for a fraction of a second, but there were reasons that Aato liked working as his Personal Security Officer. The cloning contract and the umbrella of his diplomatic immunity were part of it, but Hakatain was also nicely discreet. He would definitely be curious, but he had a very clear sense of what was and was not his business.

“Effective...?” He asked, leaning back in his chair and stroking his beard.
“I may need as much as a month, sir.”
“I'll need a replacement PSO while you're gone.”
“Jenesk” Aato said, without even having to think about it. Pilot nodded.
“Then your leave is granted effective as soon as you've briefed him.”
“Thank you sir.”
“You've never taken leave in three and a half years, it's about damn time. Take two months, fully paid. In advance, if you want.”
“That won't be necessary, thank you sir.”

He shrugged. “Offer stands.” He gave her a long, calculating stare then shrugged again. “Any other business?”
“No sir.”

Aato could feel him watching her as she left.


Caldari State, Lonetrek region, Malariya constellation, Endatoh V – Echelon Entertainment Development Studio, YC113.

It was a subdued, very Caldari greeting for people who hadn't seen each other in four years and who were in many ways closer than siblings. A brief embrace, a quiet “Saisa” and then they were immediately down to the business of opening the bottle of Hak'len.

It was a busy bar, with sound-mute fields around each table to give everyone some sonic elbow room and prevent eavesdropping. In an Echelon studio full of teams who spent their working lives turning out mass-media for an insatiable market, gatherings of eight people weren't uncommon, and nobody glanced twice at them as they lifted eight shot glasses and drank a toast to the ninth, sat full in front of a vacant seat.

Present: A-7, Aato Sihayha. A-12, Akio Munioten. D-3, Dahtoh Miit. F-1, “Big” Fisk Onaneri, F-2 “Little” Fisk Sichono, K-8 , Kirase “Puppy” Korkukka. M-15, Mikasa Navirola and Y-2, Ylamaa Aritie.

Absent: D-10, Danani Pekewara, G-14, Geshozura Askuo. M-2 Mitakada Vantoh. S-3 Sundan Appas and S-9, Skitichida Ronken.

“We can't hide forever.”

That was Big Fisk, a man whose nickname hadn't required much imagination. “G-14 was just as good as any of us. We've been safe for four years now, but if they got to him...”

There was a general nodding round the table as he trailed off meaningfully. They all had gone through the same training, the same half-hell, half-heaven childhood.

“Better than me.” Ylamaa opined. “Gesh was one of the best of us. Almost as good as you, A-7.”

Aato didn't bother denying the compliment. She had come second in the class, beaten only by S-3 who had been the first to die, on the day when the corporation decided their services were no longer necessary. Instead, she knocked back another shot of black liquor, content to just enjoy the company of her classmates, even in such sad circumstances.

“So trying to get lost isn't going to work.” Puppy said. “It's a big State, but not big enough.”
“Not a big enough damn cluster, really.” Navirola said. “Skits went to the Guristas for cover, that didn't stop CBD from finding him. And I think M-2 was working at a pleasure hub in the Federation.”
“So... what do we do?”

Aato set her drink down. “We Troubleshoot.” she said, simply.

The reaction was mixed. Both the Fisks, D-3, Navirola, and Y-2 nodded, as if the answer was obvious, but Puppy and A-12 looked alarmed.

“You're kidding!” Munioten exclaimed.
“We can't hide, we can't run. May as well try doing what they trained us for.” Aato told him.
“Troubleshooting some backwater Serpentis courier is one thing. But we're talking about an unknown number of people of unknown competence with Megacorp backing.” Puppy said.

So it's uncertain just what we're up against. Whereas we know damn well that if we just stay hidden and try to put ourself out of CBD's sight and mind that they won't give up, they'll just hunt us down and either send in a strike team while we're asleep, or have some fucking egger blow us up like happened to Vantoh.” That was little Fisk, who was only “little” when compared with Onaneri.

Besides. I'd rather go down fighting.” Navirola added.
Show of hands” said D-3.

It took a few seconds for Korkukka and Munioten to decide, but eventually even their hands went up. They were all in agreement.

First step is finding out who our targets are.” Aritie said, sniffing another shot of Hak'len.
If I know Gesh...” D-3 mused “he'll have had a contingency ready.”
Probably, but... Seven, you work for one of those eggers, right?”
We're not involving him” Aato said, flatly.
Why not? He's got the money, the connections, the tech...”
We're not involving him because capsuleers are trouble. Mine's not bad, and I think he'd help me if I asked him... but getting him on board would solve three problems and create twelve.”
Besides, it was a podder who killed Vantoh.” Little Fisk repeated.

Aato restrained herself from correcting him with the slightly more painful truth that the podder in question probably hadn't thought for a microsecond about all the people on that pleasure hub when they blew it up, and that they'd probably never even heard the name Mitakada Vantoh. It would just have been another in a long, anonymous string of contract work to them. Instead, she ran a hand across the fuzz of her scalp.

I know somebody who could probably help who isn't an egger.” she said. “Assuming he's still alive.”


Caldari State, Lonetrek region, Makiriemi constellation, Pakkonen system, Planet III – colony “Jesken's Reach”, YC113.

Daii Tarko was warm, comfortable and a little tipsy after a large whisky, so having to haul himself off the couch was a source of instant grumbling, but the voice recognition controller for his apartment hadn't worked properly in months and his pension never quite seemed to stretch to getting it sorted out. He lightened up very slightly when he saw who was calling.

Aato, Kirjuun, it's good to hear from you agai-” he paused, looking again at the image made slightly fuzzy from cheap fluid router line rental. “The fuck'd you do to your hair?”

Aato gave him a rare smile. “Sorry it's been so long since I last called, Daii. You don't like the buzz cut?”
Makes you look like a man, kid.”
Beats the hell out of not being taken seriously, partner.” she said.
You never make social calls, Kirjuun. What do you need this time?”
A few friends and I are coming to Jesken's Reach on an... assignment. We're going to want to talk with Neurone.”
Neurone?!” Daii's voice went up half an octave partly out of outrage, partly out of fear. “No. Aato no, seriously, I swore I'd never deal with that son of a...” he paused, mindful of Neurone's reputation “...of a woman who I'm sure was lovely and kind. Anyway. Never again. Not after the first time.”
Ten thousand.”
Scrip? Aato, I wouldn't go within a mile of Neurone for that kind of money, he scares the white out of my teeth.”
Not Scrip. Interstellar.”

It was almost as if a stiff gale had suddenly blown from the screen, rocking Daii back on his heels as he performed a swift currency exchange in his head and produced a number large enough to banish prudence. His voice caught in his throat.

That's... I don't know Aato. Neurone...”

She's desperate, Daii realised. An old cop's instincts swung into place, the fatal ones that always meant you backed your partner up, no matter what. Anybody willing to pay twenty K Interstellar to talk with one of the most dangerous Guristas in Lonetrek had to be in serious trouble, and not so long ago, Aato had been his ward and partner.

And with twenty thousand I could retire to New Caldari.

Done.” he said. “But I pray to my ancestors you know what you're doing, Kirjuun.
I'm quite sure I don't.” Aato said, characteristically blunt. “But that's how life is for me right now. Meet my at line bottom when my friends and I arrive tomorrow?”
Thanks Daii. You might literally be a lifesaver.”

She signed off, leaving Daii to the bitter thought that anybody putting an old friend in touch with Neurone was pretty much the opposite of a lifesaver.

His cybernetic knee whined in protest as he limped back to the couch and poured himself a whisky much larger than the one he'd just finished.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Something From Nothing.


The Caldari had their own name for the small, distant, ruddy star that gifted their world with barely enough heat to live, but it was the Gallentean name that had stuck.

For now, it was invisible. Risen above the horizon, but not the mountains, it had brought second-hand light to the valley to see by, but not full illumination yet.

It was cold in the twilight of a Caldari Prime autumn morning. Cold enough to set even a nine year old girl who was determined to be on her best behaviour fidgeting in the climate-controlled comfort of her coat.

The grown-ups didn't seem to mind it. Even with the chill turning their cheeks and noses pink and raising great clouds of warm moisture with every breath, Silver and Ami were in quiet conversation and Cia was distant, as if she wasn't really paying attention even when she lightly touched Camille's shoulder to get her to stop jigging on the spot.

They were standing slightly apart from a knot of other attendees who had the uncomfortable expression that normal people always wore when in the presence of a capsuleer, let alone two. Camille had always heard that you should wear black at funerals, but nobody here was. Instead, everybody was wearing white, or green, or blue. It looked more like a sombre party than a funeral to her, except without cake. She fought back a treacherous giggle at the thought.

She looked around at the temple again. It was a bit more than she could take in easily. They were by an avenue of smooth, neatly dressed stone that led to the front door, flanked by standing stones and trees that sheltered them under an arched ceiling of copper-hung limbs. The temple itself reminded her of a Scorpion-class battleship, with two arms sweeping forward to create a courtyard in front of the main door where a pyre had been neatly stacked. It was built on a mountain shelf, and to one side there was a stunning view over the valley, and the pinkish glow of the rising sun on the mountain peaks opposite. To the other side, a dense forest of evergreen trees that seemed to swallow the light.

There was another hand on her shoulder and Camille thought she was being stopped from fidgeting again, but the touch was the firm weight of Ami's hand, rather than Cia's light pressure.

“They're coming.” Ami murmured, nodding towards the long flight of stone steps that led up to the avenue from the plaza at the bottom of the mountain.

There were sparks there. Five fire torches, just like the ones from the summer festival on Debreth. It was a small procession led by an old man who looked like he should be freezing cold in his robes, but showed no sign of it if he was, who lit the way with a big torch. Behind him came the bier, carrying a man who looked startlingly like Mr. Verin, if Mr. Verin was old, well, really old instead of just old. Mr. Verin himself and three people – a man and two women – that she didn't recognize were guiding the bier as it floated along on four graviton pads, also holding fire torches.

Mr. Verin caught her eye as he walked past and gave her a little, sad smile and a bit of a wave with the fingers of the hand holding his torch. Camille waved back, but she wasn’t sure he saw before the bier went past.

The guests fell into line behind the bier as they passed between the temple arms and fell into a crescent around the pyre as the bier lifted itself on top and settled among the dry, oiled wood. The priest and family bowed to the body, followed by the guests. Camille had to hurry a little as it took her off-guard.

The priest cleared his throat and when he spoke, he spoke softly, but well enough to carry his words to everyone present.

“We are here to carry out the sad duty that must come at the end of life.” he said. “And to honour Mattias Iroh Kuwabi Hakatain for the life he no longer lives, for the legacy he leaves to us, and persons who will remember him. We pray that his Ancestors receive him in kindness and honour. Please, be silent for a minute to reflect on his life.”

Heads bowed around the half-circle, and for a minute the only sound on the temple courtyard was the swish and rush of wind in the trees and the cry of a bird of prey as it circled in the frigid morning air. It was broken eventually by the priest, who raised his head again and shook his hands clear of the sleeves of his robe.

“We are not the Starsmith's creation.” he reminded them. “It is important to remember that the only thing in all of infinity that the Starsmith made is the stars themselves. Everything else that has come since that moment has been an evolution from initial conditions.

“We are not stars, or planets, or even this blood and bone. We are spirits, luminous minds born from oblivion. The fact that we exist to stand here today to grieve and remember Iroh is a greater miracle than the fact that the stars turn, or the worlds dance. We are creation in its purest and most perfect form, something made from nothing. Impossible, but real nonetheless.

“The spirit does not wither and die with the body. The body is an ordinary creation, something made from something else, subject to all the laws of entropy. The spirit however, the perfect creation, endures. Living proof that the mind – the soul - exists independent of the body stands here today, among our number. ” he bowed slightly to the small knot of capsuleers at this.

“Death is only a small ending. It is the conclusion of one chapter, but the next begins straight away. Our grief is not for a soul destroyed, but for ourselves, forced to endure bound in the chains of matter and entropy while Iroh is free to join his Ancestors.”

Here, the priest stepped forward and lifted a clay jar sealed with a wooden stopper, which he removed. Camille caught a powerful scent that reminded her equally of flowers and of Cia's spicy cooking. As he spoke, the priest poured a drizzle of clear oil from the jar all over the pyre. “All his life, this man has been bound in service. He has raised a son and daughters of the Caldari people, successful in their own right. He sought, and found, wealth among the stars and brought prosperity to more than just his own family. Thanks to his selflessness, it is impossible to count just how many people have had their lives improved by his work. His memory is an example to all Caldari of a life well-lived, and his place among the Ancestors will be honoured.”

He placed his hand over the body's heart, and anointed Iroh's forehead with the scented oil. “Rest, kaashivono haanuu. You are free of your Heiian at last.”

He bowed to Mr. Verin, who stepped forward and murmured, so quietly that Camille could barely hear him; “Okrikaato useuusai fuzasen yn taisaan.Uaaka haokosen nahui arkuu.” and lowered his torch to the wood.

Dried timber soaked in flammable oil lit with a fwoomph noise and Mr. Verin took a step back as the flames spread to the whole pyre in seconds until there was nothing to see other than an impenetrable wall of flame. The heat was incredible, even from several paces away, but welcome after the chill they had been standing in for so long. Something in the fuel made the flames burn with a blue edge that made harsh shadows on the walls and on the faces of everyone present. The sweet flowers and spice scent that had come from the jar became powerfully present, but not oppressive.

Some of the guests stood for only a few seconds before they bowed and started to walk away. In ones and twos, they left the pyre behind, slowly and thoughtfully. Eventually, Cia took her hand and led Camille away as well. Camille wanted to ask her how Mr Verin’s papa could go down the River if he’d been burned up, but Cia’s expression told her that now was not the time for questions.

Camille glanced back as they went. Verin had sunk to his knees, staring as firelight reflected in the startling blueness of his eyes, and off the wet lines on his cheeks. He was, very faintly, smiling.