I’m sat on a chair outside the door to the Imperial Quarters inside the Royal Palace at the centre of Dam-Torsad, capital city of Amarr Prime.
It’s been a while since I wore ceremonial Amarr robes with the full script on. The collar rubs too tight against the sockets in the back of my neck. It’s too warm in here because the gigantic window at the end of the hall is letting the golden evening light of the Amarr sun directly in, as it was designed to do for impressive effect, and has done so every day for the last few centuries. The columns within this long entrance hall cast long shadows between each other. I stare at the shadow nearest to me for long enough to register its movement across the floor in conjunction with the setting sun. It is a sundial - the original universal timepiece.
I glance at the other timepiece on my left wrist that triples as a clock, a quantum computing/networking device plugged into basically everything going on in New Eden, and a comms device linked - text-only - into the local fluid router. As a tease, as a wind-up, I use the device to image the scene before me and post it on the corporation’s general channel. Within ten seconds my left wrist buzzes and various symbols appear in response from the corp, along with a message from Gettosmurf: “Ask her what colour her underwear is.”
I’ve been travelling for what feels like days. I’d berthed my ship, not in the trade hub, but in the more discreet and quiet Caldari place around Oris. I waited a day, then caught an intra-system trans-atmospheric shuttle from Oris over to Amarr Prime, which took 21 bloody hours because it had no warp drive - all just to preserve the delicate brains of its non-capsuleer passengers from cynosis. At least I’d taken the trouble to arrange a private cabin. I used some of the time to perfect my robes. Just a few nano colour changes to get them just right (black and red) and, with some neural implant assistance, I easily passed for an unusually glamorous, charismatic and socially-adept Amarrian Priestess who just happens to have facial tattoos.
It must have worked because when we eventually landed at Dam-Torsad’s spaceport, I was waved straight through the fast track past all the slavers, traders, pilgrims and pseudo-devout junior aristos who all search desperately for any sign of being related to one of the Houses, so they can worm their way in somewhere in the timeless human manner of ’who you know’.
I caught a ground car from the spaceport straight to the palace, where I now wait…
The air in the entrance hall is still too warm. I stand up and briefly waft the robes to get some cool air flowing. As a capsuleer I’m supposed to be free to exercise a certain licence towards dress in the Imperial Palace, but the invitation said ‘formal’ so I thought what the hell, and in any case I haven’t worn a dress in about four years. While I’m doing this the great door opens silently behind me, which I don’t see, so the next thing I hear is the gentle clearing of a throat.
I turn swiftly to see one of the 2.6-metre-tall Imperial attendants/courtiers/whatever standing by the open door. For some reason he carries a large sidearm. He is unmistakeably a slave jacked up to the gills on Vitoc because I can see it in his eyes. He lowers the sidearm, then motions silently with his left arm for me to enter the Quarters.
As I enter, the same courtier now holding the door behind me announces in a loud, booming voice that startles me briefly: “The Lady Cassandra Habalu of Danera!”
The room I’m walking into is the Quarters’ reception room. Curiously, there is nobody else in here. This room is as long as the entrance hall and has an equally-large glass window along its full length to my left, so the same setting Amarr sun casts a shadow of me on the opposite wall, to my right. I glance at it. I can see my robes flowing behind me, which is exactly the desired effect.
The only sound is that of my tritanium-tipped heels clicking on the mirror-polished stone floor. As I’m about half-way down the hall a figure emerges from a door in the far corner.
Empress Jamyl Sarum I walks straight towards me, padding almost silently on bare feet, which puts her at three inches shorter than me. She is in fully informal mode, with just the one set of purple robes, untied and loose over a gold knee-length dress. That trademark brown hair is flowing freely all over the place.
I slow down, and Jamyl comes to a stop a metre away from me. She looks me in the eyes, her expression unreadable and enigmatic.
I take a risk and merely bow my head instead of doing the full kneeling-before-the-divine garbage, which as an ethnic Ni-Kunni is just not going to happen. If Aire Arryns was here he’d be prostrate on the floor, unable and unwilling to even look at her. Ridiculous.
‘Majesty’, I say, simply.
‘Cassie’, she replies, then she breaks into a grin, steps forward and embraces me.
I return the embrace, then I hear a commotion behind and the sound of metal and various clicking sounds. Jamyl releases me and moves to the side and behind me, then shouts towards the sound as I turn to look.
Her personal guards, there the whole time, hidden in the shadows of several Founders’ statues: at least 20 of them, all tooled-up and looking straight at me. They form two columns and leave through the door I entered.
Jamyl turns and takes my arm: “Come to my private chamber, through there,” she says.
‘Majesty’, I reply. I follow her towards the doorway she entered from, my heels clicking so loud I’m becoming self-conscious about it. She glides silently and effortlessly.
‘Majesty, majesty,” Jamyl says; “Is that the only word you can say Cassie? You know what my name is.’ She says this mockingly, with a sly grin.
We enter the private chamber. Standard Amarr - soft furnishings and statues everywhere, with an open glass doorway leading to a large balcony from which the noises of Dam-Torsad can be heard. Jamyl walks straight out onto it. There is a table and two chairs there, accompanied by another attendant, who I notice immediately has no ears. All the better to not hear state secrets with.
She sits, then motions for me to join her at the table.
“Please Cassie, sit. Disrobe if you wish.” Jamyl motions for the attendant to help me take the heavy black and red robe off me. Don’t see why not.
“Thank you Jamyl,” I reply.
“Cassie, let’s dispense with the formality shall we? It’s me!”
“OK, Jamyl, but this one makes me nervous,” I nod towards the attendant.
“He can’t hear. He’s been surgically altered. You can say what you want to.”
“Listening devices? Microphones? Drones? Out here on this balcony we’ll be visible from orbit.”
“Yes, I know. So what? You’re a trusted friend of mine, and there are no listening devices, believe me. Visiting delegates get told that to keep them on their toes.”
I glance out over the city. This balcony is not the highest part of the palace as it goes on for several more floors of Imperial Apartments above us. I surmise that the reason Jamyl’s private quarters are down at this level is to make them less conspicuous to assassins that favour the sniper method. But why is there an open balcony? Of course, a shield!
The city is coming alive as the Amarr primary sets below the horizon with a vivid display of colours encompassing the red/orange end of the spectrum. Lights are turning on everywhere, and the tallest spires reflect the diminishing sunlight and refract it into a brief rainbow visible on the surface of each tower.
Jamyl sees me looking at this spectacle and says: “I don't tire of that sight. Probably the most interesting part of my day, these days.”
I glance up into the darkening sky and see a prominent gaggle of lights directly overhead and moving to the east, towards the setting star. The more I look at it, the more lights I see. Some of them morph into brief and ultra-swift streaks of white light moving away from the gaggle - the focal point. It’s the Amarr Monument in orbit with its attendant dust cloud - a miniature glowing nebula. The collection of lights around it are starships; the streaks are the visible manifestations of warp drives - ships, visiting the dome, crossing it off a list of sights, just like I did, a long time ago. As I look at it, I see brief blue flashes, yellow flashes, green; a red flare; the signature of someone being ganked, probably. The eternal never-ending story of life in the cluster being played out above my head as if it were theatre.
“Personally I’d never tire of looking at that”, I say, maintaining my gaze at the object in orbit.
“A capsuleer always has a cosmic perspective, isn’t that right Cassie?”
Jamyl looks up at the attendant and points to our glasses. He picks up the bottle on the table and pours a dark-coloured liquid into it which instantly triggers all kinds of memories of my youth.
“Feral Fedo Blood!” I almost shout.
I used to drink this stuff by the barrel when I was a student back on Eclipticum. Feral Fedo Blood - a brand name - is a kind of strong ale derived from the fruit of a Cascade Tree, indigenous to Kor-Azor Prime IV/Eclipticum. It was not technically legal there (the drink, not the tree). The ‘Chief Nun’ Sera Kor-Azor used to do holovids denouncing it as blasphemous and impure, which was mind-blowingly hypocritical given the Holders‘ fondness for the forced usage of Vitoc. My Ni-Kunni community would laugh and carry on brewing our own version of it right under the Holders’ noses, only possible because some of us were Holders.
“The Fedo Blood, how did you know?” I say.
“Cassie, come on, we’ve known each other for years! You’re a Ni-Kunni! You lot live off this stuff don’t you?” Jamyl takes a swig, then motions for the forced-deaf attendant to pour some more.
I take the glass and taste it. Spot-on. Perfect.
“Why did you ask me to come here Jamyl?”
“Well we haven’t seen each other in ages. I read your journal you know. I love reading about what you’re doing out there. I make all the slave children read it too. What ship did you come here in?”
“A Sarum Magnate as it happens. Sexy Beast.”
“Yes I know I am.”
She laughs. It’s nearly dark now. The city is a festival of lights - moving and stationary. Ground traffic; aircraft; shuttles arriving from orbit. Searchlights are shining up at the Imperial Palace. There’s a breeze coming down from the north. Apparently this means it will rain tomorrow. By then I’ll be back on Danera V, 20 light-years away.
I take another swig and put the glass back on the table. I turn towards the Divine Empress of the Amarr Empire, ruler of 500 worlds - or whatever it is.
“What’s going on Jamyl? How come you’re not visible anymore? Nobody’s seen you since you were crowned.”
She looks down - averts her gaze: “I’m bored. I don‘t believe in any of this. I want to go back out there.” She points upwards, towards infinity. I look up again: now the Domain Nebula is becoming visible. It covers most of the night sky and is indescribable in scale and beauty. It seems as if the planet is enclosed by it like a protective shell. Just then a particularly vibrant flare of blue light announces yet another capsuleer death up there.
Jamyl is a trained capsuleer. She is also a clone of her previous and original self. She broke the Amarrian Doctrine of Sacred Flesh, trained in secret, and ’came back from the dead’ at the Battle of Mekhios and laid waste to the Minmatar Elders’ fleet in an Abaddon. That was the Jamyl that sits before me now, appearing lost.
I finish my glass of Fedo Blood and motion to the attendant to pour more. I make a mental note to ask Jamyl for another bottle later. The corp will love this stuff.
“Jamyl,” I say, “what am I missing here? You’re the Empress of Amarr. You can’t just leave here and go back out there, as much as I’d like it because it would be great fun for a start; but you’d instantly become the biggest target in all of New Eden.”
“Yes I can, it’s why I’ve been withdrawing from public life, so I can escape, get back out there; and of course I’m not going to declare my real name. No-one would recognise me because no-one would believe their eyes. I want to see a Drifter Battleship up close! Have you seen one?”
“Yes, loads of them. I lost a ship to one and I got to within three kilometres of another. They’re actually all over the place now. Their current tactics seem all about reconnaissance; checking us out; watching us; observing our movements. Seems obvious to me there’s an invasion imminent. The Hilen Tukoss vid. You’ve seen it. You must have.”
“That’s what I mean. I know everything that’s going on, but I see none of it from here. Out there -” she points up again - “is where the excitement is - the future.”
Jamyl lays a hand on mine: “Take me back out there Cassie, tonight. I want to join your corporation.”
I hear an alarm off to my left side. I look across and see nothing to suggest an alarm, which doesn’t stop. I look around. I stand up from the table and look around again. The alarm is still going on but neither Jamyl nor the attendant appear aware of it. Now there’s a voice:
Get out of my mind..!!
Wake cycle complete…
In the single blink of an eye the scene around me changes to the view out of the interior of a clone tube. I’m apparently lying down. Taltha is looking into the tube’s glass window, straight at me, smiling in that way of hers that I’ve seen every time I get regenerated.
The tube retracts and I breath fresh laboratory air. The cycle has repeated again.
“Conoban?” I whisper. This body’s first word.
Taltha helps me sit up.
“Where else?” she says; “This method you still keep using to come and visit me is a bit brutal isn't it? If you want to see me then why don't you just fly here?"
I stare at her blankly. I feel like there's something still missing inside my head - it's all those implants I had inserted there. They're still in that other body that's out there somewhere - where was I..?
Taltha continues: "Now then, we’re trying a new dreaming algorithm that eases the transition - we formulate dreams based on the uplinked neuroscanner data that streams in from your last death so it’s bang up to date. What were you dreaming about?”
Suddenly I remember: “Corporation recruitment.”