Part I: Achura
Ellie struggled with the rope as she moored her small boat to the wooden jetty of the lake. She was becoming more adept at the knots Papa G had spent many evenings teaching her. The boat stood fast but knocked gently against the old wooden jetty. Satisfied that it was secure she retracted the electric engine and selected ‘charge’ on the dial.
She knew all the characteristics of the Hypercharge module that fed the engine capacitor. Capturing every transient electromagnetic wave, even the warming spring sun, and converting it to Hypercharge. She thought to herself " Dorian would be impressed!"
He came four times a year for as many of her fourteen years she could remember, this was the first year that Papa G had allowed her to make the hour-long trip alone. The lake was as much a home as the old stone homestead now out of view. The forest surrounding the lake was alive with the promise of spring, tall conifers and small salt bushes spread out from the lake’s edge, home to nesting birds either singing or fighting she could never quite tell.
She took one last look at the boat playfully bobbing on the slight waves and glanced sideways at the sun dancing on the water. Patterns of light formed a matrix as the sun shone on the wave crests. Something connected within her mind that made her pause, but she let the moment pass.
Looking up at the gentle rise from the lake’s shore, she began the long walk up through the forest. Over the next hill where the trees thinned lay the road between the villages. The road was worn thin by hover jets as they made their way to Tesha the larger of the two towns. Today she would not be going to Tesha but the landing strip high on the western plateau.
The walk filled her with excitement, Dorian always had stories of adventures on some distant rock or station, places that teased her with imagined markets bustling with people, scents and colors. Her mind would then slowly drift back to a time and of other places that were sadder and heavy with darker colors. She tried not to think of her past. Everything outside of Achura brought with it a grey cloud of sadness.
The clear air, fragrant with spruce, and the sun’s warmth brought her back to the present as she walked up onto the plateau. The area cleared centuries ago and carved deep into the side of the mountain was infrequently used now. A grey landing pad extended hundreds of meters beyond the mountain, it stood harsh against the green forest, the only structures were a docking bay and an old maintenance silo. Two light drop ships sat on the grey tarmac, seemingly abandoned. The one of Amarr design looked new, the way all Empire ships did until you got close enough that the gold gave way to tarnish. The second State shuttle had been there for as long as she could remember, old and tired, the uncared-for blue steel no longer glinting in the sun. Ellie was early and from the edge of the landing pad she could faintly see the lake two kilometers below in the distance, a gentle breeze greeted her from the valley below.
The flicker of sunlight below and rush of sound brought her view back to the grey tarmac as a drop-ship fell from the sky like a stone, within fifty meters of the ground its maglev engines kicked in and it gracefully rested on the ground moments later. Two hover jets, transports from Tesha, spun out of the docking bay and came to a halt as the dropships rear doors opened.
Ellie was excited when she saw him finally disembark, crisp dark tight collared jacket, short black hair, and those glasses she knew he did not need, unmistakeably Dorian. He smiled when their eyes met and Ellie ran, far too excited than she wanted to be she almost giggled when they hugged.
“Hey sweetie, I swear you grow taller and way skinner every time I see you” smiling as he broke away a little “you make me feel so damn old”
“Your look way too cool to be old” she smiled, squinting in the sunlight as she looked up at him.
Ellie talked incessantly for the first kilometer back to the lake. Only then did she grill him for stories of life beyond Achura.
“And none of those weak censored stories either,” she said, “I want the full details,” and Dorian obliged as best he could.
On the shore of the lake they each took a handful of smooth stones, a ritual they had performed forever. Taking turns, they would skim stones trying to out-skip each other’s, usually waiting for Papa G to rest after the walk.
“I see you’re a Captain yourself now,” said Dorian pointing to the boat.
“Aye Sir,” she replied “I may not let your board her”
Dorian smiled and skimmed another stone. There was a pause as both watched his stone fade from view.
“I can tell you know,” Ellie said. Dorian glanced at her to understand the meaning.
“You can tell what?” he asked.
She looked across at Dorian and squinted in the afternoon sun.
“Sometimes you are different,” she turned and spun another stone that had a trajectory careering wildly to the left “I can’t say in what way, just different"
Dorian glanced away, not knowing how to respond.
“Tell me what it’s like?” she asked, “Dying, I mean.”
It surprised him how personal the question was, even after so many years of capsuleer life.
“Despite what people say” he began “we are not immortal, far from it. I am as frail and mortal as you or anyone else”
Dorian skipped another stone.
Looking at the lake he said, “It’s like being asleep at the bottom of this muddy lake of yours and being dragged awake. Quite unpleasant,” He smiled.
Ellie thought about this for a while
“My lake is not muddy!” She said and skimmed her stone. “But you are not the same person after you are awake?” she asked.
“You feel the same,” he skimmed his stone and glanced back at her “touch, sight and hearing, all the same,”
“But smell and taste,” Dorian shook his head “never the same”
She laughed as if told a joke.
“No seriously,” he said “things smell completely different, and food you used to love just doesn’t taste the same”
“So weird,” she said and paused to think.
He picked up another stone
“Strange, perhaps," He said pointing a finger at her "But there isn’t a cell in your body that was there seven years ago. At a cellular level, you are a different person. Your tastes change imperceptibly over time. Ours change instantly”.
“Still weird,” she said and thought she would love to stay here forever, skimming stones.
The afternoon breeze was picking up and brought the scent of jasmine from the rice fields.
“How is the old man?” Dorian asked and picked up his pack, “Still grumpy?”
“Still grumpy,” she said rolling her eyes and added, “perhaps you will like his cooking now?”
Dorian wagged a finger at her “Your insolence is unbecoming young girl”.
He walked to the boat with an affectionate arm around her as she gave him a rundown on the technical aspects of the vessel. He relaxed at the front of the boat, enjoying the sound of Ellie’s voice and her incurable enthusiasm for all things mechanical.
With the evening meal complete and Ellie showing Butch, the family dog, the latest Holoreels that Dorian had brought with him, the two men retired to the wide veranda that encircled the house.
“You know they will come for her," his father said with a heavy sigh, his rummy eyes staring off beyond the lake.
Dorian looked up at the myriad of stars that painted an immense and peaceful sky. In the background, the sound of cicadas, like a stone on a washboard, greeted a light mist coming in from the lake.
“The distances are huge,” Dorian replied “and we still have time”
Looking back at his father he felt the weight of the burden the old man bore, like a heavy coat pulling his frame even lower.
“Yes, they will come,” Dorian said “but we will be ready”
He looked inside at Ellie playing with Butch, the poor dog was well past retirement, but still had a protective eye for the girl.
“Does she know?” Dorian asked.
“She knows she is different,” his father said looking back into the house at Ellie with her long brown hair tied back into a ponytail and failing to get Butch interested in her datapad.
“Jos and some of the other farmhands suspect something," his father continued trying to hide his concern “Jos is no slouch, he gave me a certain look after Ellie fixed the storage air scrubbers ‘just by looking at it’ was the phrase he used.”
His Father’s gaze returned to the lake, “That boat of hers shouldn’t work at all, but it does.”
Dorian paused and thought a while as both stared out into the still night air.
“I will take her to the mine tomorrow,” Dorian said finally, still looking out across the lake.
His father glanced at him before exhaling deeply. Giving just a grunt in reply he turned and walked inside. The evening air was giving him a chill, anyway.
That night in the quiet of his room Dorian returned to his notes
To: Director of the Science and Trade Institute
Subject: Elisabeth (Ellie) Shea
Elisabeth shows signs of distributed cognition. The subject can detect clone states and perhaps implant augmentation at a distance. All indications show early signs of quantum resonance field control. Recommend discussions with the subject to develop a management mechanism. Still oppose pharmacological controls.
Dorian closed the datapad and would wait to see what tomorrow would bring before finishing his report. “We still have time,” he said as he turned off the light.
He stirred to the smell of jasmine reminding him of where he was, childhood memories filled his pre wake state, interrupted by the clanging of kitchen utensils. He had forgotten how well he slept in a real atmosphere.
The morning routine of the farmhouse settled into a familiar pattern that Dorian recognized. While drone technology was more sophisticated and the fields larger, rice farming had not changed in a century.
Dorian grabbed a backpack and walked to the old repair shed fifty meters to the back of the farmhouse. Built at the same time and with the same rough-hewn stone as the house, it stored most of the drones used for rice planting and harvesting. Dorian poked his head in to see Ellie’s young hands rebuilding drones with uncanny speed and care.
“Hey, you,” He called.
Ellie turned her head and smiled, but her hands continued working on the drone.
“I’ve got the old man to give you a couple of hours off,” he said and threw the pack towards Ellie.
She caught the pack and turned back to the drone and signaled it to power down.
The hike to the base of Mt Wutatu was refreshing and brought back childhood memories for Dorian.
“I don’t come out this way much,” Ellie said wandering a few steps behind him “perhaps once before, trying to find Butch”
Dorian saw the marker he was looking for and made his way over to the next rock outcrop.
“I don’t imagine Butch has been out of the house in the last few years,” he said.
Looking at the tunnel entrance, he switched on a small torch as they both walked into the dark.
“Our family started out mining in this valley before we turned to rice farming”
Ellie was genuinely surprised.
“We tend not to talk about it,” he said “the failure was a little embarrassing and a couple of generations ago. I grew up using this place as a den, then a fort when I was young”
He punched the keys on a hidden access panel and a door slid back smoothly.
He continued "and then I used it as a lab during my doctoral work, now it is just a storehouse more or less”.
Lights started up ahead of them and the short rock-lined entrance gave way to two huge caverns each the size of their farmhouse. In the first was an odd assortment of processing bays and racks of compute modules. She could just glimpse inside the next cavern where what looked like an older model transport ship or hover drone was sitting. Ellie was in awe, stunned by the sudden revelation, and then overcome with curiosity.
“Dorian, you have been keeping secrets haven’t you,” she said with an impish smile.
As she looked over the racks of equipment, Dorian stood with hands in his pockets admiring her excitement. He wondered what she would gravitate towards, like a teacher studying a pupil.
Ellie moved to one rack of compute modules, touching them gently. “I think I have seen one of these before,” she said, “they are quite old, aren’t they?”
“They are quite ancient in fact,” he smiled “by your standards at least”
Ellie had started enough power relays to activate the rack.
“Do you mind?” She asked.
“Not at all,” he replied, “all the equipment here has something in common, we believe they are replicas, to a small extent, of the reverse-engineered static gates the Sansha have used.”
Just the word Sansha brought with it a grey cloud and faint memories of something so distant she could not completely grasp.
It was now or never, thought Dorian and said matter-of-factly “What do you remember of life before Achura?”
The grey cloud again hovering over her mind, she felt vulnerable but gave way to the trust in him.
“Just the fire really and people running everywhere,” she thought for a moment “and then falling asleep on the cold steel,” she looked up at Dorian “I presume your ship?”
“It was my first mission for the Science Institute," Dorian began "and supposedly a routine scouting expedition. I was to land on an isolated asteroid deep within Stain. We had only scattered intel that this would be of any significance at all. I was flying one of three interceptors and we must have tripped a field alarm close to the belt. Immediately dozens of ships scattered from behind the asteroid. What looked like micro wormholes faded in and out of space all around us and the station on the asteroid began to collapse. The two other interceptors chased the slowest of the ships while I made my way to the docking arm on the far side of the asteroid. I saw two lab workers racing from the building and towards the end of the docking arm. They were carrying three cases and towing a young girl, a five-year-old girl, you.
“I was able to maneuver my ship almost on top of the docking arm and I opened the maintenance bay where they placed you and all they were carrying. I was of course in a capsule without the possibility of physically helping. They were imploring me to wait. There were more children. They ran down the docking arm, but an immense explosion engulfed them, creating a fireball that extended beyond the docking arm and deep within the Asteroid. I closed the bay doors and maneuvered away with three cases and you lying on the floor of my hold."
Ellie was silent, casting her mind back to somewhere, trying to make a connection.
Dorian continued, “I knew I needed to warp out of the system as fast as possible. I looked at you, lying on the floor of the ship, knowing the first jump would more than likely kill you. Without access to an escape pod and anti-jump meds, the pressure kills even the strongest heart. As the asteroid became more unstable and as they knew our position, we had to jump. You not only survived but your vital signs barely registering the pressure”
Dorian sat down across from Ellie and looked at her quizzically.
“After the second jump, we were all convinced that you were actually a drone,” mockingly Dorian’s eyes widened.
Ellie let out a laugh that surprised herself and they both smiled and relaxed a little more.
“I kid you not,” said Dorian “What else were we to think? After twenty-one jumps you were sleeping soundly.”
He continued, “As a scientific body, we needed time to understand what had happened and how this could happen at all. So we hid, and I hid you. I applied to be your guardian and for years the Science institute has been working on the data dumped in the back of my ship. It appears the Sansha had devoted the facility to genetic engineering and a field of science called quantum tunneling.”
For the next hour, Dorian detailed the findings of almost a decade of research where she was the only known survivor. As Dorian’s voice faded her world had now suddenly become smaller, crowding her, she began to long for the forest, the sky, the lake. The muddy lake, as if drowning, she could not breathe, she needed to breathe. She could hear Dorian calling from beyond the lake.
“Breathe Ellie, Breathe!” Dorian shouted, his face a few inches away.
She snapped out of her trance and exhaled, gulping great lungfuls of air, her heart racing.
Dorian tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear as she recovered.
“It’s a lot to take in, but I need you to know…” Dorian paused “I need you to know you are special. In fact, I think you know you are special” He smiled at her reassuringly and sat back “You know you are special don’t you Ellie?”
It all began to fit together now, like giant jigsaw pieces on a huge mosaic. The drones, the engines, they all spoke to her, or was she talking to them? She could feel them like a living structure, organic, all connected, and all part of her.
“I feel connected to things in a way that I cannot understand,” Ellie began “I can almost reach out and touch the energy of drones,” she stammered “of machines”
They sat silently looking at each other for a moment longer, imparting an understanding that would change both of their lives.
“Others will want what you have Ellie, they will fear you, they will want to control you, and we must not let that happen”
Spring gave way to Summer and Dorian made one more visit home. They spent most of their time in the mine, turning it into a workshop. They began with the smallest of machine components, and by degrees removing most of its instruction set, the operating system, leaving just power regulators. Ellie herself was the interpreter, controlling them using protocols and transmission mechanisms at the subcellular level.
Dorian tried his best to detail the science behind the Institute’s current understanding. While Ellie could understand some of the science, the more esoteric concepts of a unifying harmonic frequency that permeates the universe simultaneously were beyond her, but she loved to hear Dorian talk with passion.
“A few years ago what you can do would have been regarded as magic or the occult,” Dorian said then paused and sat down next to her. The time had come to talk about what may happen next. Eventually, they will come.
Her world had shifted to a new normal, Autumn brought unusually harsh winds and not even the rich glow of the forest would budge the growing sense of unease she was feeling. A fresh batch of drones came with fresh problems, Ellie wiped all their code as soon as they arrived, code which by now had become superfluous.
Winter saw Butch undergo surgery and given a prosthetic heart; he was still the ever-faithful companion, but something seemed missing in his eyes. She could feel Butch but differently, each beat of his heart she could feel, and a sense of sadness crept over her.
Dorian uncharacteristically missed the Achurian winter feast and Papa G became sullener and took to paying more attention to Butch. On the first cloudless day in a month, Dorian’s message came while she was rebuilding drones in the repair shed. She looked blankly at the console and understood what it meant. Grabbing her coat, she left for the lake. The wind was trying hard to force her back as she pressed on to the lake’s edge. Her boat seemed smaller now as it bobbed up and down on the waves, waiting for her. Less than a year had passed, but everything had changed.
On reaching the other side Ellie did not tie the boat to the jetty, she knew it would stay where it was, like a faithful companion. Her mind drifted immediately to Butch, his heart beating, and how his eyes had changed. Glancing back at her boat, the smooth stones at her feet caught her eye. Without thinking, she bent down and picked up two stones and placed them in her pocket.
As she walked up to the landing pad, the dropship became visible. An audible expectant hum from the ship signified the engine systems were on standby, ready for a quick takeoff.
Walking to the disembarking ramp she saw Dorian flanked closely by two men, Capsuleers, she could feel it. As she approached, she felt all three Capsuleers, and the moment changed, the gravity of the scene changed. There was a stillness in the air, as if time stood still. She slowed her pace. Dorian looked at her with an expectant gaze, trying desperately to tell her something, but she already knew.
“Hello, my lovely,” said the Capsuleer on Dorians left “We have come a long way to have a little chat with you”
The other Capsuleer she could see was holding a weapon to Dorians back.
“Fedo got your tongue?” he continued "If you would step into the ship like a good girl, I will let this one go”
Dorian could see the change in Ellie now, she fixed her gaze at a middle distance between them he could not see, slowly her hands clenched at her side, his body relaxed with inevitability. He knew that whatever happened next, there would be no turning back. The air seemed to stop, suspended with dust as if in a slow-motion Holoreel, then a silence so profound it chilled him.
Suddenly without warning both Capsuleers exploded on either side of him, their implants used as weapons decapitating the one, as the air filled with blood and bone. The other as if someone had pulled his spine out through his back. Instantaneous death leaving both wet, limp, lifeless corpses that defied recognition. Dorian covered in blood and the remains of the Capsuleers stared ahead at Ellie who slowly relaxed her clenched fists, her eyes rolled backward, and her body collapsed like a rag doll left to stand on its own.
Dorian ran to her, picking up her limp body, knowing that life would not be the same for either of them. He carried her aboard the dropship placing her in an escape pod and gently tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“No more skimming stones,” he whispered.
Dorian quickly spun up all systems and encoded a message to his father, lifted off, and pointed the afterburners at the tarmac incinerating the remains of the Capsuleers.