Prologue: The Limits of Knowledge
In my last entry, I described going to the edge of known space and learning what it felt like to be at the edge of the galactic abyss.
Thing is, it felt real enough, but I knew I'd been much further than that on a number of occasions beforehand.
I've felt increasingly done with known space, on the premise of 'been there, done that'. Cluster politics has heated up again of late with the plague outbreak and another possible Gallente/Caldari escalation and I just think yeah, whatever. Very little of it impinges on my bottom line now, which I find is a common progression among capsuleers who have a cosmic perspective. I periodically go planetside to refresh my palate, which always works very well, but it remains that after two years as a capsuleer, I've found out what I like to do and for the most part I stick to it. The ISK still flows, I could retire now and buy my own world if I wanted to, but there would still be those unanswered questions that ISK cannot buy the answers to.
Then, last month, Merkato Cesaille, boss of Signal Cartel's elite group of wormhole explorers and 'Ambassadors to the Sleepers' called the Anoikis Division, announced a new recruitment initiative as new facilities were coming online that would permit an expansion in the Division's limited numbers. I saw this as an opportunity not to be missed, because recruitment into the Anoikis Division doesn't happen very often and because I've become attuned to karmic synchronicity more than ever.
Anyway, I'd actually set the precedent for this new curiosity quite recently on one of those planetside excursions. Bear with me on this. A scene needs setting and it will all make sense eventually.
Desert Is A State Of Mind
The last time I visited my ancestral homeworld of Mishi IV, I went on a road trip with my friend Alisu in her husband's vintage, demilitarized Amarrian hovertank - a relic of when the Empire actually noticed Mishi IV instead of abandoning it as a passive fief of House Kador who are two regions away from here.
Alisu's husband, the noted Ni-Kunni sculptor, portraitist and surrealist Arshadru Serrasus-Abana-Cataalio, acquired the tank years ago and had the interior converted, optimising it for leisure rather than blowing things up, so it became a kind of camper van. You wouldn't know it from the outside though, because the tank retains its active camo. He'd taught Alisu to drive it, which was both generous and risky. Being a famous artist, he affected the attitude that every day of his life was a performance art installation. I don't know how he gets away with it.
* * *
Alisu and I headed out in the tank from her residence in the capital, along some highways through Mishi IV's more verdant and populated regions, then headed north across the southern continent's tundra, then through a minor mountain range and eventually to an ancient trade route across the Greater Western Dune Sea, which led to a small, incredibly remote settlement in the deep desert called Al-Dadashiri, a full 2,900 kms from the capital. The town was on the junction of several of the old trade routes that the caravans of pre-Amarrian occupation would use, so the town became established long ago as a place of trade in whatever goods it took to stay alive out there.
Today, in the modern era of high technology when almost everybody travelled long distances by aircraft and skimmer, the town of Al-Dadashiri survived as a kind of halfway house for ascetics, religious pilgrims and those who saw the desert as a place of escape. Our reason for coming all the way out here was that according to Alisu, there was a cafe in Al-Dadashiri which produced the best chai on the entire planet (and by extension the entire cluster). The problem, she said, was the owner only brewed it on one night every year, and attendance at this brewing session was by invitation only. Alisu assured me the invitation was taken care of. We just had to get there. Travelling overland in the hovertank instead of flying there, she said, would delay gratification and only enhance the pleasure of the end result.
I saw the logic in that, and it gave me an opportunity to explore more of my ancestral homeworld anyway, so I went along with it. I felt her other unspoken reasoning was to give us more time together. I wasn't going to object to that either.
* * *
It took Alisu and I six days to get to Al-Dadashiri in the tank, four of them while crossing the desert, which was a huge contrast to my normal working day where I speed round the galaxy at multiples of c. There is a lot to be said for slowing down and taking in what's going on around you.
Some people have long memories, and this tank is a symbol of something they spend their entire lives out here trying to forget, she'd said.
We'd park the tank in the lee of sand dunes at night, grounding it on short, stubby struts that would extend out of its base when the repulsorlift engine was inactive. We'd then cook sizzling steaks on the hot metal exhaust of the tank's fusion reactor's heat exchanger, which was something I doubt the tank's designers ever envisioned it being used for.
We never worried about the time as we embraced the methods of the ancients by using the sky as our clock and our calendar. It was such a novelty to view the stars without the luminosity-enhancing algorithms of cam drones. You can't beat the unaugmented reality of it: the density of the cluster, the pulsing EVE Gate, faint at this distance but still unmistakable; the Cauldron Nebula, dim and diffuse as nebulae really are, but covering a quarter of the sky and visible for half the night until the planet rotated away from it - not the tranquil blue pool that you see from Kor-Azor: from the Aridia side it looks angry like a kind of hairy tumour.
Occasional bolides would leave their silent marks on the sky; then maybe once or twice per night we'd see the same apparition but slower, sort-of in reverse: a ship decelerating out of warp and into orbit. There are few satellites orbiting Mishi IV, the brightest and most obvious being the automated Customs Office warehouse (I destroyed one of those in Khanid once - a lifetime ago) that we would observe each night either side of sunset and sunrise. The planet's tiny moon would appear a few hours before dawn, a static point of light, bright, but easy to miss among the myriad constellations of the cluster.
When the desert night got too cold we'd retire to the tank. Alisu would energize the active camo (just in case), so if there actually was anybody in the vicinity, they'd hear us but not see us, which was weird...
Then on the morning of the fifth day I got temporarily scared out of my wits when I was awakened by the inbound weekly InterBus trans-atmospheric shuttle, laying down double sonic booms across the desert as it effected a re-entry high above us on its way to the capital. I'd ridden that same shuttle the previous week. Now it just seemed alien, intrusive and in fact incredibly rude. I mean how dare it interrupt the sanctity of this pristine environment?
* * *
Our reverie, our dreamstate, ended when the settlement of Al-Dadashiri emerged from the shimmering desert heat near the end of the sixth day, by which time I'd become fully immersed and had largely forgotten about what was going on in the rest of the cluster. Actually, not so much forgotten, but no longer cared.
We parked the tank on a small, unmanned airstrip just outside the town, alongside two other vehicles: one land-based, the other a skimmer which carried a registration mark indicating it had also come from the capital, like us. I suspected both vehicles belonged to people I would meet later tonight in this mythical cafe. I wondered who had had the better deal: the skimmer driver who would have got here in just a few hours, or us, who had taken our time and immersed ourselves in the journey.
Alisu and I put on our hooded robes for the two kilometre walk into town. The sun was setting quickly as it does this close to Mishi IV's equator, so the desert air would rapidly chill again.
From a distance, the town looked like it did not want to be found, with no building being more than two storeys high. For the most part, the town's appearance was as if we'd regressed in time a thousand years as we'd crossed the desert, but a couple of the buildings - simple blocks with no pandering to style - had some concessions to technology stuck to their flat roofs in the form of 10-metre parabolic antennae, all pointing in the same direction, up, towards what I already knew to be the CONCORD station orbiting Mishi VII, which will have risen from the eastern horizon a couple of hours previously. They would be receiving either entertainment broadcasts or standardized footage of government hearings. Quite likely the former. This place was not so hardcore and devout after all.
As we got closer to the town, I broke the comfortable silence we were maintaining as we walked.
'Is this place safe after dark?' I said.
'Of course not', Alisu said.
'So why did we park the tank back there?' I said.
'It's no use bringing it into the town. We'd block half the street. Besides, if you're worried about danger, then don't. You're not in space anymore.'
'Er, I'm in the middle of the goddamn desert, out of contact with, like, everyone. The only difference is I can breath the air?'
Alisu took my hand as we walked and said 'Listen, I've kicked more ass than you've sat on. Chill out. You know for a death-dealing immortal you're quite the over-thinking neurotic aren't you?'
'Don't tease me,' I said.
After about twenty minutes, as it was getting dark, a few dim yellow lights passing as street illumination flicked on as we walked down one of the town's wider streets. There was only a small number of other people outside as nightfall appeared to have driven the population indoors.
We turned off the main drag into a narrow street, then turned again into a series of alleys that progressively narrowed until we could no longer walk side-by-side. I could smell exotic spices, chai, dung, fusion waste disposal, oils, all kinds of scents I couldn't even name. It was so evocative.
By now it was almost dark. I caught glimpses through open windows: a gambling den with five different languages in play; every other house seeming to be either a bar or a cafe; the noise of a too-loud holovid; dogs barking; domestic arguments; the sound of a discharging sidearm that was probably on the holovid but I couldn't be sure.
The maze of side-streets made the town seem bigger than it was. None of the buildings had numbers or ID or anything. You either knew where you were going or you didn't. Alisu clearly did as she stopped abruptly at an open doorway. The muffled sounds of voices came from inside and above us somewhere.
'This is it,' she said. Then she turned and grabbed my arms excitedly and repeated 'this is it Cassie, this is it! The chai!' I couldn't see her eyes for the huge hood over her head, but I could tell she meant it.
We walked in through the narrow doorway and up a badly lit stone staircase, our heels loudly betraying our presence so there would be no element of surprise even though I could hear those voices now from the room at the top of the steps.
At the top, Alisu turned right, and I followed her through a heavy curtain covering the doorway, into a room that was much warmer than outside and misty with exhaled hash pipe. The smell was unbelievable.
This did not look like a cafe full of chai connoisseurs. My Ocular Filter implant told me in less than a second that there were twelve other people in here, all of them swarthy desertified men, which annoyed me. I don't think any of them knew what a razor was. They were mostly all sat at several tables of varying sizes, which all had a number of one-hitters on them. Two of the customers had cybernetic arms (one may have had a cybernetic head); at least three were open-carrying, and everyone spoke strong Ni-Kunni dialect except one who looked like an Achuran, who spoke hushed Caldanese to someone in front of him whose back was turned to me, and who must have also been Achuran otherwise how could one understand the other? A low-ranking Amarrian priest sat in one corner on his own, his unblinking gaze fixated on a portrait of Empress Jamyl on the opposite wall, his lips moving but making no sound. There was a radio on somewhere broadcasting a sermon from the Ministry of Internal Order, which was just background noise in here and mostly drowned out by conversation. The walls were a faded orange, kind of like the desert outside, and had probably not been repainted since the occupation, and there was a hissing, smoking, bubbling machine on the counter at the far wall which I took to be the mythical brewing device.
Five seconds after we entered the room, and in timeless stereotypical fashion, they all stopped what they were doing and turned to look at us. The radio clicked off.
Alisu theatrically removed the hood from her head, so I did the same, like we were a double act. A few more seconds passed, then one of the randoms got up and walked over to us.
'Ladies, can we help you with anything?' he said. He spoke with excessive politeness for the situation, so he was obviously hiding something. His breath smelled of hash pipe and vehicle exhaust. His glazed eyes suggested he was off his gourd already even though the night was young. This was going to be fun.
An invisible mist-shrouded voice from the back of the room shouted 'Hey, the strippers are here!' followed immediately by the sound of someone's nose breaking and a kind of yelp like a dog, followed by 'what the hell was that for?'
Hash Pipe did not break his stare at us two. He bowed slightly and said 'I apologise, ladies.'
Alisu surveyed the room again, then looked this guy in the eye. With the funereal seriousness of a mistress of ceremonies, she said: 'We're here for the Sacred Nectar of the Sand Crab.'
Hash Pipe said: 'Who sent you?'
Alisu was not yet done with the performance. She raised her arms like an evangelist and announced to the entire room in a loud voice: 'The Mother of the Desert herself!'
Hash Pipe looked over at me, then turned to the rest of the room, where my Filter detected a virtually imperceptible nod from some red-headed weirdo at the back of the room who was obviously Mr Chai Man, Mr Big, Mr Kingpin. Then the room relaxed all at once as Hash Pipe outstretched his arms and said: 'Welcome ladies, please take a seat'.
Somebody turned the radio back up, then changed the channel to something with a tune. I noticed a brief, half-smile of acknowledgement and a nod between Alisu and Red-Headed Weirdo, so he knew exactly who she was and knew her style - that the desert evangelist schtick was not to be taken seriously.
The rest of what became a colossal all-night bender passed in twenty-eight courses of the spiciest chai I'd ever known, accompanied by serial one-hitters, all handed out ceremonially by Minmatar slaves who would appear on cue from a side-room. In-between, it was about noisy card games, some live musical breaks from the Achurans every hour on the hour - it turned out there were four of them - and being hit on a few times ('I've kicked more ass than you've sat on' was the perfect rebuttal). The whole gig ended abruptly when the first rays of dawn broke through the window. That would be it for another year. Some of the clientele were in tears when we left.
It was an epic session. You couldn't buy experiences like it. This clone I was in had no tolerance for booze and hash, but I didn't care.
* * *
When Alisu and I returned to the capital in the tank, she let the tank's AI take us autonomously back to the capital in half the time, as it could drive itself through the desert night while we slept our hangovers off. As the fog in my head cleared, I did some thought-experimenting about turning some of my ISK into hard currency, buying out Red-Headed Weirdo and turning his place into the definitive epicentre of Ni-Kunni cafe culture. People would travel to it from all over New Eden just to experience my chai. But then would keeping it secret, like he does, be more authentic?
I also had a series of insights into how this semi-forgotten desert settlement perfectly embodied the frontier wilderness philosophy - and the desire to escape - that is one of humanity's default states. I could find a version of Al-Dadashiri on every inhabited planet in the cluster.
In places like this, the minutiae of cluster politics seems a thousand light years away.
Just like it does in Anoikis.
So last month I joined Signal Cartel's Anoikis Division on a bit of a spur-of-the-moment thing, but with the higher purpose of addressing an imbalance in my experience. It shouldn't be the case that we have newly-qualified rookie capsuleers that have more knowledge of operations in the Anoikis Cluster than I do.
The Anoikis Division has three citadels in three systems in Anoikis: one in [classified], one in [classified] and another in [classified]. Not only are they [classified], but they are [classified]. If they were [classified], then they would be [classified].
This means operational secrecy is at the heart of everything we do there. Membership of the Division is limited to a handful of personnel, and operational comms are restricted. There is none of the exuberant curiosity of our Alliance channel. Codewords and cloaking devices rule. The pseudo-random nature of the entrances to the systems our citadels are located in, means access can't be controlled (actually it can up to a point, but that's a technicality), so we're at constant risk of rapacious scumbags coming in here at any time and 'evicting' us - as if the local indigenous population wasn't dangerous enough.
The system I selected as my operational base: I don't know exactly where it is. Nobody does. Nobody knows where any of them are. Attempts to map Anoikis have only resulted in vague dissatisfactory approximations. Only the Caldari scientist-capsuleer Mark726's Project Compass has identified the Anoikis Cluster at 1,300 (+/-100) light-years to the galactic south-east of New Eden. There is no way to confirm this observation visually. The thick gaseous nebulosities that dominate Anoikis render visual confirmation of its location in the galaxy impossible. There is a dim view of the galactic plane available in one direction, but that's away from the direction New Eden is believed to be located in, so it proves nothing.
The system I'm residing in has a relatively benign yellow dwarf primary. This is probably as safe as Anoikis gets as the cluster as a whole bathes in the complete catalogue of death-dealing hard radiation served up by pulsars, magnetars, black holes etc. etc.
The wormholes that facilitate travel to and from and within this cluster are the only way in or out of here. I've read many scientific papers on the analysis of these things. They've manifested between here and New Eden ever since the Seyllin Incident, so it's accepted as fact that the two events were related. The wormholes come and go, always within the same 36-hour (give-or-take) time-frame. The crucial fact is that they tend to lead to the same limited set of destinations and never anywhere else in the galaxy.
When you're aware of this fact, as everybody is by now, the question naturally arises:
What if they're not naturally occurring phenomena?
Who built the generating mechanism?
Who is controlling them now?
If the wormholes were to stop manifesting one day, then we would be trapped here, 1,300 LY from home.
On somebody else's territory.
It is well-known now that humans in the present epoch were not the first to get to Anoikis. Those circular black refrigerators are all over the place, along with their drone guards that shoot on sight. I wish they didn't. Some of us just want to talk.
The presence of Talocan relics here - weird structures, dead ships - is obvious evidence of humanity's knowledge of Anoikis in the ancient past. Why did we lose that knowledge? Is that knowledge still residing in a database that lies undiscovered on a planet somewhere in New Eden, waiting to be discovered by a data archaeologist?
That's why this place is so scary: there is a power at work here that doesn't exist in New Eden and we can barely comprehend it. It's ancient, but still far ahead of us in its power and capability. And yet some capsuleers treat this place with an unbelievably casual squatter's disregard for somebody else's house.
Not us, though.
I've only been here a couple of weeks, so I'm just scratching the surface. New doctrines are being worked up that require a heightened and sharpened Sense Of Paranoia ( Level V) and a Complete Divesting of Trust (Level V).
None of this is anything new to anyone, but this is what I've discovered:
You can learn to use those wormholes and their non-specific destination criteria in a particular way. The entrance to the system from known space moves around, so I find it easy to adopt the mindset that the entire system moves around with it. It's a compelling vibe and I prefer to live with it as it feels more exciting and adventurous.
If I'm back in known space on business and decide to linger, the system's wormhole will expire. It will then manifest in another known space system somewhere else, but the stress inherent to finding it is eliminated because our intel channel will always report exactly where it is, so I can look up the system's new 'location', and if it's nearby, I can head over there. If it isn't, if I can't be bothered to fly that far, I can just wait it out - live with the normals again, do some deals, build some stuff, go back to working on eliminating Covenant scum. When the system passes close enough I can head to the entrance, which will be in a known space system whose capsuleer occupants will be mostly oblivious to the entrance's presence, so I can slip out the back door of spacetime, right under their noses, and back to the dreamstate.
Back to our own ultra-high-tech version of Al-Dadashiri. A citadel in the wilderness.
Conversely, if I remain in Anoikis, every 36 hours or so the system will have 'moved' and I can leave it and go and visit somewhere new in known space, totally exempted from the limitations of the stargate network and its dangers of camps, gangs, 'deccers etc.
This method of conducting flight operations is actually incredibly liberating, and makes me feel as if I'm part of a secret society of capsuleers who have invented our own way of doing things and are beholden to nobody. Since the act of transiting a wormhole is instantaneous, the concept of distance travelled between Anoikis and New Eden becomes meaningless and irrelevant. It really can engender the belief that Anoikis is not really anywhere at all.
That Anoikis is a state of mind.
I can ride an elevator to the top of each of the twin spires in our Astrahus citadel in [classified]. In one of those spires is an observation loft where I can look out upon the cosmos. I've quickly adopted this as a regular routine. I can linger on the planet that the citadel orbits: an oceanic, with shallow seas barely covering huge impact craters probably formed by the ice comets that brought those seas with them.
This citadel, by the way: the clone bay doesn't work properly (at least it didn't when I tried to use it), and somebody didn't pay for the entertainment package upgrade in the holovid suite so if I want my favourite Impetus Studio feeds and FedMart shopping channel, I have to rig up a wireless feed to my datapad through the fluid router on Empress of Amarr, which is linked to my pirated setup in the Theology Council station in Zoohen, a mind-boggling distance away.
Also, the coffee machines all serve up standard Upwell freeze-dried dreck that must originate from the Caldari State where they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I was forced to redress this totally unacceptable situation by bringing my own supplies:
|Deep Space Transport 'Quantum Mechanic': cargo manifest: 2/27/119: routing: Tash-Murkon Prime - Jxxxxxx|
The difference here is the quality of the neighbours, who in Anoikis are trans-humanized, quasi-extraterrestrials who I suspect just want to be left alone to do their sleeping.
But when the hash really takes hold, I start riffing on the most mind-boggling and crackpot theory of all: that the Anoikis Cluster is actually New Eden several billion years in our New Eden's future. Apparently some of the mappers have declared similarities in the arrangement of star systems here. It seems so, therefore it must be so.
It is of course the highest of all dreck. If Anoikis is New Eden in the future, then New Eden is Anoikis in the past. However it is a fundamental tenet of physics that you cannot travel backwards in time and you cannot communicate with the past. The fact that our fluid routers still work in Anoikis and we can communicate with New Eden in real time, proves that they are separate locations in the same epoch.
There is another reason why it's dreck: if Anoikis was the future - if we were time-travelling during transit - then how come nobody who lives here knows the lottery numbers..?
[This journal has been cleared for dissemination after appropriate redactions in accordance with current operational guidelines. AD Policy document ref:0024788/4651/4170098]