I was sat in a cafe in the recreational zone under the Fullerene station's Skydome. However long these SoE stations have been in Thera, the best thing the Sisters of EVE did was build them according to the Gallente architectural template. This meant that as a visitor, even though I was evidently denied access to more than half of the station and its secret machinations, I could at least hang out in a normal building in a parkland near a body of water that has trees surrounding it, breathing near-normal air.
The coffee is actually quite good too.
I asked the guy behind the counter where they get it.
"Shipped in, like everything else", he said. He had two cybernetic arms and evidence of an ocular implant.
"Are you a capsuleer?" I asked him.
"Sure. Just like you." He turned and lowered the collar on his neck, revealing the upper cervical socket for jacking in. It had a plastic blank in it to prevent dirt ingress.
"Just like you? What does that mean? Do we walk around with signs on our foreheads?" I said.
"A capsuleer always knows another capsuleer. Basic survival mechanism."
"OK so tell me, if you're the owner of this outfit, why you're in Thera running a coffee shop instead of being out there causing mayhem?" I pointed up towards the Skydome's transparent roof, its permanent night and the brilliant ice-white beacon of Thera XIV, looming large and almost too bright to look at, which is a testament to the power of Thera itself, the A0-class white giant star that XIV is nearly 210 AU distant from. The system is at least twice the diameter of any system in New Eden. The sheer size of it is daunting, and Thera XIV is like an anchoring presence of planetary familiarity in this bizarre system of contradictions and enigmata, the full and detailed nature of which may never be understood.
The owner walked round from behind the counter and sat on a stool next to me, wiping the counter with a towel as if preparing to launch into a monologue: "Well like you I came here out of curiosity. I did the tour, I saw the Epicenter and the wreckage, the Talocan stuff - you've seen it haven't you? Don't tell me you didn't see it yet?"
"Yes of course. Incredible stuff. Unbelievable."
"Exactly. The Talocan Static Gates and the two derelicts - here have a refill." He tops up my glass. I get the impression he's wanted to talk about "The Phenomena Of Thera" for a while, at least with someone else who has a cosmic perspective.
"SoE will know, but nobody's telling."
"Exactly. I'm telling you: those derelict Talocan ships mean humanity knew about this place and visited it in the deep past. Are we supposed to believe we humans forgot about this place since? The Sleepers, for God's sake! What are they doing here? Listen, so like I said, I came here, like you, to look around, then I did the usual capsuleer thing and shot some stuff, killed some clones, then I hung out here for a few days and got curious - got those questions just like you - so I decided to stick around. Did a deal. Bought this outfit to give myself something to do in the meantime." He motioned around at the shop.
All the buildings in this Skydome were low-rise single-storey blocks with mock-vintage or rustic exteriors. Ground cars occasionally passed virtually silently along the wide promenades that were nowhere near as busy as the Skydomes in other Gallente stations. You can tell from the outside, when viewed from far above, that the Skydomes are built to a standard layout, but this one is sparsely populated by what I assumed to be the station's own personnel. Passing trade doesn't happen in Thera.
The lack of activity also led me to assume that this shop must have an alternative income, being run as it is by a capsuleer. Such duality is a New Eden standard. But then we're not in New Eden...
"Who did you buy this place from? SoE? What deal did you do?" I asked him. These stations are privately run, not commercial. ISK shouldn't mean a damn thing in this place.
"Never mind that - no, look, I can see you're curious. Not the average capsuleer who just passes through - shoots stuff, gets bored. Let me show you something that sums this place up perfectly."
He reached down behind the counter and produced a datapad, swiped it a few times and presented it to me.
"Here. This is Thera."
It was a transcript of a comms log from the Thera local channel:
I read it and smiled. Whoever Uzuki Aarku is, I knew exactly what he was talking about. It used to be incredibly difficult to find Thera by the wormhole lottery, but ever since the Signal Cartel exploration corporation based themselves here and started comprehensively mapping all the entrances to Thera out of nothing more than a sense of charitable service to the community (how rare is that?), it has become relatively easy to get here. Their holochannel, called 'EvE Scout', is a one-stop constantly-updated guide to all the current locations of Thera's access points. Wherever you are in New Eden, all you have to do (if you don't feel like making the effort to travel) is wait for an entrance to manifest itself nearby, go scan it down, and you're in. What you do then, is up to you...
Coffee-shop-capsuleer saw my reaction to the local channel text and said: "It's true you know. This place is like a magic castle kingdom. A place where time is meaningless. We're over a thousand light-years from New Eden and immune from CONCORD, the governments, the factions. Everything. None of that playground politics and perma-war has any meaning here at all. With those ever-changing entrances, Thera is like a house with a series of magic doors that lead to a different place each time. It used to be a total lottery, but Signal Cartel have turned it into more like a restaurant menu. Take your pick. Where do you want to go today? You can do anything you want here. The normal laws don't apply. Signal Cartel deserves a lot of credit actually."
Every question he answered generated another question. Naturally. "But you see that's another thing I don't get about this place," I said. "Why is its sec status a -1.0 when there is so much...", I searched for the right words, "...weird shit going on here?"
"What do you mean?" He asked. He already knew what I meant because he's been asked the question before and has asked it himself.
"Wouldn't you think that this place would be crawling with CONCORD? All the artifacts - opportunities for less scrupulous capsuleers than me. Thera should be a maximum 1.0, not hard null." I said.
"That's the contradiction. One of many. Wanna know what I think? I think the factions and CONCORD and everything else are scared shitless of this place and would rather it had never been found. Their hands-off attitude is about hoping the SoE will go away and us capsuleers will just use it as a shooting gallery. A free-for-all. Imagine it! The SoE were here before any of us! How? How did they get here?"
I glanced outside again through the open window frames that had no glass in them because there is no rain, wind or weather in the Skydome. Certainly the 'biological evidence' in this Skydome indicates a presence for many years - tree growth, other flora, animals. A trained capsuleer eye would also have noticed details on the station's exterior that imply an early generation of build. It was local 'night' here so most of the illumination actually came from the extreme albedo of XIV, cast down into the Skydome like a giant searchlight, searching for a truth. A home truth.
X marks the spot...
The other SoE stations in Thera are modified from standard Gallente and have rotating sections that imply artificial gravity by non-standard means.
Those stations are locked down even tighter than this one around XIV. Whatever research the SoE are doing, those stations are where they're doing it, not this one. 'Fullerene' is more like a storage facility.
The coffee-shop-capsuleer was in full flow: "What about the Shattered Planets? Thera is an A0 just like all the others. Seyllin, the wormholes, all of them! Go and look at the station wreckage around them all and it's obvious they were there before the planets blew up. I'm telling you, the SoE have been through those wormholes, and they know what's on the other side of those Talocan gates. Have you noticed the similarity with those wormholes in the Epicenter?"
"Similarity with what?"
"The EVE Gate. On a much smaller scale, but they're the same - emitting the same exotic radiation. I'm telling you, whatever is on the other side of those holes is the answer to everything. Sanctuary knows, and I want to be here when they tell. That's why I stayed here."
He wipes the towel across the counter as a flourish - an ending statement to this monologue. The five other customers in here aren't paying attention. Either they've heard it all before or they're really not interested, which should be a crime - the crime of incuriosity. Lack Of Interest In Thera. Maybe at least one of them was an SoE spook listening in.
Capsuleer Paranoia was setting in...
There was some undeniable validity in everything he was saying. As soon as I docked here the first time I was tempted to stay a while on the basis of pure scientific curiosity. The "House of Magic Doors" analogy is absolutely correct: the imaginative can use Thera as a lawless consequence-free hub with which to roam far and wide across New Eden and to return to a 'legally-safe' port that is exempt from any jurisdiction. The analytical commerce-oriented user of the EvE Scout channel can use Thera as a travel hub that takes advantage of the wormhole's shortcut in time, taking 1,300 light-year detours in an instant.
Now coffee-shop-capsuleer got agitated, as if I wasn't convinced by his case: "Listen, when the thing with the Drifter faction finally kicks off, Thera will become the safest place to hide, even though in spatial terms, the Drifters' home worlds are all part of Anoikis, just like Thera, so they're right next door."
"But there are no stable persistent traversable wormholes between here and there. Not yet."
"EXACTLY!" The Drifters will NEVER FIND THERA!"
He emphasised this point by punching me on the shoulder and nearly knocking me off my stool.
Thera. Drifters. Shattered Worlds. Anoikis. Damned Anoikis.
The worst thing that ever happened to us was finding that damned forsaken place...
I realised what this coffee-slinging capsuleer's real agenda was. I recovered my balance and asked him: "You want to go through those Static Gates don't you? That's why you've set up here, to wait."
"Yep," he said.
"The Epicenter - you want to see where it leads to don't you? If I was a true Amarrian, I'd ask you this: are you trying to find heaven?"
He smirked at me, winked and gave me a wordless answer that said: "Where else!?"
Damn you, exotic, mysterious, unknowable, Thera.