During a particularly bleak period I died three times in five days.
I lost three ships and two sets of implants.
During one of these deaths, I even managed to 'arrive' in Conoban during a period of high demand, so my consciousness and core essence of being were held in a buffer for four hours. I was queued like a damned packet download. During this period I was a non-corporeal entity. I was a digital ghost.
Losing the implants was worse than losing the ships. Among others I had the Limited Cybernetic Beta and the Eifyr & Co. WS-605 Warp Drive Speed enhancement. Nothing too sophisticated; it's not like I was holding Genolutions or Crystal Betas in my head, but that warp speed headmod was incredible as it allowed me to see the chaos of spacetime like I was reading music; to play my engines as if they were instruments of ultra-efficient performance. Intermix physics became exquisite symphonies to be played in the universe's infinite concert hall. I didn't need to be told where my engines' limitations were by instrumentation; I could hear them. Quarks became quantum harmonies; the boson was my bassline.
It was a beautiful thing.
The gunnery implant I'd dabbled with and quickly embraced (along with Surgical Strike and Sharpshooting skills), allowed me to look at a target from 40 km away and decide not what half of the ship to hit, but which of the capsuleer's eyeballs.
It was empowering and addictive.
Waking up with the intelligence and perception mods in my head was like being able to instantly speak another language. I laughed at my unaugmented childlike previous self and wondered how the hell I ever functioned. My skill-training regime was enhanced - quickened - by the 'ware in my head, along with sheer ability. I couldn't help but perceive the slowness of the physical world around me; that unaugmented meatheads were idiots. I understood why the Jovians pursued their cyborgising philosophy, while still considering them to have gone too far with it, to have stripped their humanity away in the pursuit of perfection, because to be human is to be imperfect.
There's no reason why we can't become more efficient and less stupid though. Cybernetic mods, headware, skullcircuits, neurocyborgising, whatever you want to call them, on the whole, are a good thing.
So when you wake up in a clone bay with them all missing, it's like forgetting how to speak or forgetting where you live. There's a hole in your head and in your persona - your essence - because you can't do those things anymore until you go and get the implants replaced. Waking up from that process, the re-implantation, is like recovering from a massive hangover. Being reduced to the meathead state again is intensely traumatic. Never again...
I was discussing all this with Taltha again in my quarters in Conoban, after she'd supervised my third regeneration in less than a week and made it crystal clear to me how disgusted she was with me.
"How can implants possibly be a good thing for you if this keeps happening and you have to go and buy them all again?" she said.
She had a point.
"It's a downswing. It happens. It's like that card game I've been learning. Poker. You have ups and downs," I said.
"Not in your case. I've seen the killmails. Each time you got killed because you can't follow your own advice." She said this with some sarcasm and not a small amount of contempt.
"That's not fair! Anyway some of that nullsec pirate lot get killed three times in an hour. I'm not that bloody bad!"
"You're supposed to be more noble than that. You're an explorer, not a killer. I'm disappointed Cassandra. Disappointed."
"So you're not going to do your thing on me tonight then? The 'physio' ?"
"No. If you think you're on a downswing - if that's what you want to believe - then break the cycle: take some time off. Do something else. Go and visit that ancestral homeworld of yours. Where was it?"
"Mishi IV. Aridia."
"That's it. OK, I'm off. I have to go and revive some more capsuleers. It's a never-ending conveyor belt and frankly sometimes you lot are a complete pain in the ass."
She got up from the couch and left. She walked out still carrying the beer I gave her. I'd never actually annoyed Taltha before like this.
That idea about visiting the homeworld though: she had a point there too...
* * *
My parents always made it abundantly clear where I had come from, ancestrally. Genetically. They also made it abundantly clear how Ni-Kunni had come to benefit long-term from accepting a short-term trauma in the form of being found by the Amarr and subjected to their Reclaiming, in order to enjoy a later freedom in the form of still being able to function as an ethnic enclave. It sounded to an outsider like collaboration, but it was actually cunning, guile, subterfuge and chameleonic properties that carried us through because Amarr dogma makes all Amarr a bit one-dimensional and, in a sense, slightly gullible. All you have to do is remind them how superior they are.
That process took several centuries and was emphatically not painless, but it was the example my parents set to me: that our lifestyle on Eclipticum as a respected family of traders was the result of playing a multi-generational game.
One thing they or any of my Elders never did was imply any kind of 'pilgrimage' to the homeworld was necessary; except to say that it was up to me, that Ni-Kunni look forward, not back; that the past doesn't exist anymore; at which point I would question the contradiction in that statement with the ancestry thing. My parents would say that "history is not the same as the past". At this point I would leave and go out drinking again, with all the insouciance of any self-obsessed teenager who only thinks as far as the next day.
Fast-forward a decade: now I'm a capsuleer, enjoying a form of conditional immortality and a kind of freedom of the cluster, not only because I can travel on my own terms, but because the capsuleer's political ambiguity allows me to easily travel to places that non-capsuleer 'meatheads' can't easily reach.
Now was the time to make the trip.
Mishi IV is on that list of 'not easy to reach' which is a list that is far longer than you think it should be. It is deep within the hardcore lowsec of Aridia (although according to strict galactic geography it is above most of it) and is not served by regular transports, not even InterBus, so it requires a covert ops mindset. Naturally, as Taltha observed, I ignored my own advice and took the Imperial Navy Slicer. Actually, Sid Vicious is now a competent ship as I've fitted the Tech II-class weapons I've now trained for which can attain 168.2 DPS with Gleam S crystals. In terms of firepower, it's as good as any frigate. But what about the meathead at the centre of it...?
I also had a political window of opportunity in the form of Aridia's dominant alliance Lowsechnaya Sholupen currently being an ally of our ally Darwinism. This meant I could pass by their wreckage-strewn gate camps in Sadama as if they weren't there. I was officially 'blue'.
Mishi IV itself is not on the capsuleer's network of ports-of-call either. It has no orbitals other than a standard automated POCO station. Mishi VI, VII and VIII on the other hand, have active orbitals. I berthed Sid in one of these and caught the next intra-system shuttle to IV, my ancestral homeworld.
* * *
It's an indicator of how much of a backwater Mishi IV has become, and an indicator of how history can become sidelined when it doesn't have a price tag attached to it, that the birthplace of an entire ethnic community can become unimportant, even to an extent to that community itself. But such an attitude has preserved the planet. Orthodox Amarr dogma: the databases, the encyclopediae, would all have you believe that Mishi IV was always and still is a troglodytic slum. The 'lack of resources', its failure to register on the Amarr bottom line and the consequent Amarr withdrawal, has actually saved and preserved the planet and large sections of its paleo-culture.
The largest city on IV has no more than half a million people in it. There are two continents that have no roads and less than a hundred souls living on them. The badlands, the deserts of every flavour - red, brown, gold, orange; the Grand Ergs, Great Ergs, the Four Expanses, the Lesser and Greater Western Dune Seas, the Great Interior Sea and its Shoreline: all as they were when humanity first settled here in preference to the nominally-temperate VI and VIII because it was the least worst option climatically.
What few records remain on the ancient aborted terraforming programme that generated IV's oceans are probably best expressed in the series of cometary impact remnants that are now large shallow lakes.
I think the prevailing belief among the religious, was something about desertification as a result of the 'wrath of God shutting down the portal from heaven as a punishment for attempting to change the face of that which is pure', or something along those lines. Nobody really knows for sure anymore after the Amarr came and purged virtually every belief system that preceded them.
The oldest of these temples is still used today as a retreat for those of us who remain Amarr-devout. It is 12,000 years old. As far as I know, nobody practices the old pre-Amarr ways anymore, but there is one wall in this temple that escaped the Amarr revisionist policy and is still decorated with the ancient tracts of the water barons. It is viewable 'by appointment only', meaning the right name, the right facial tattoos, the right relatives, and a mandatory antipathy towards certain more modern religions...
The relative slowness of the non-warp-capable intra-system shuttle meant the advance notice of my arrival generated by the shuttle's passenger manifest generated a certain amount of status on my behalf. I became a 'Returner' in the eyes of some minor local media who wanted to interview me as a cultural curiosity - the requests came in before I'd even landed. Meanwhile, in the shuttle's passenger lounge, my visible cyberware spoke for me and triggered conversations with other Ni-Kunni.
"So many of you never come back", they would say.
"I thought it was the Ni-Kunni way?" I would reply.
"It is," they would respond, typically ambiguously.
On the ground, on IV itself, people even referred to me by my full name without me even telling them what it was: Cassandra Serena Orizi-Habalu-Dannidaana. I should explain: all Ni-Kunni that have triple-barrelled family names like me are directly descended from IV's ancient water barons who all practiced polygamy in their mobile fiefdoms as an insurance against the harsh, nomadic desert lifestyle all the ancients had to adopt. Those 'aristocracy' became Holders after the Amarr arrival, then most of them emigrated off-world, with my own ancestors ending up on Eclipticum and eventually renouncing their Holder status in favour of becoming the family of wealthy traders that was eventually able to send me to Hedion University. That's how far we've come. That's why I've got three names.
As a result of my name, the very few remaining Holders on IV got wind of my presence and requested my attendance at a couple of receptions they threw in their respective townships. Apparently, and probably as a result of some degree of boredom, among this class it's 'any excuse for a party', but this thing about me being a 'returned noblewoman' was so far removed from everything to do with my upbringing and being a capsuleer that I considered turning them down, but my curiosity wouldn't rest.
Besides, it would give me an excuse to see more of the planet.
These parties seemed to have a dress code, although nobody told me. Ni-Kunni women still wore veils as part of a vibrantly colourful formal dress. The men stuck to standard Amarr, but with the common theme of that horrible dark purple colour that Amarr have decreed should be 'Ni-Kunni' like a bloody ID card (just like how Khanids are supposed to wear black all the time). At least the women's veil thing had an indigenous historical reference at its core in the form of the veil being an ancient and essential protection against the planet's harsh sandstorms; now it's merely a fashion statement traditionally only removed after nightfall.
Decorations inside the Holders' villas always contained strong references to our nomadic past: carpeting, rugs hanging on walls, exotic carvings, simulacra of cave paintings either painted on a wall or projected as a holo; books, parchments, Amarr Scriptures; banks of modern holovid screens embedded in walls made of 5,000-year-old brick sourced only from one place on the planet. As a fusion of ancient and modern, it was actually all incredibly well-executed and very tasteful, and I couldn't complain. There was none of the crassness and obvious materialism that you might find in the home of a Gallente.
At these parties, my sockets and augmentations were once again a source of great interest, as well as my ship, the corporation, and capsuleer life in general. I held a kind of court:
"Are you really a clone?"
"I'm the same person in a different body," I'd reply.
"What ship have you come here in?"
"It's actually an ex-Navy ship. It's called an Imperial Navy Slicer."
"Is it really dangerous in Aridia?"
"More than most regions, yes."
"Why is it so dangerous when there's nothing here?"
"That's why it's so dangerous. There are conflicts going on right now, out there, above your heads, that you won't necessarily get to hear about."
As a form of theatre I borrowed someone's datapad, networked into Sid docked around VIII and pulled up the star charts for Aridia with the 'Ships Destroyed In The Last Hour' function:
"See that? Look at those yellow blobs," I said. "All these yellow blobs are capsuleers killing each other right now. Some of it's right next-door."
"Right next-door? That big one there - Jasson - is three light years away."
I hesitated: "Well... three light years... in stargate terms it's right next door. I mean I can be there in less than five minutes from the undock..." I was determined not to force a cosmic perspective on them, but I'd done it anyway. I wasn't going to convince them though. It's not as if the population were in any real danger, even though there were a couple of extant minor Covenant enclaves in this system. It's not even as if the night sky is full of the lights of spacecraft like on Oris. The citizens of Mishi IV are totally disconnected from cluster politics. In a sense the best thing the Amarr did was withdraw and leave them to it, and given the way things are in the cluster now, it's easy to envy their innocence; although whether the prevailing economic stagnation on IV means that 'innocence' also equals contentment for its wider population is a matter for serious debate.
More drinks (heavily spiced chai), more voices: "Is your corporation really badass" [I was shocked at the use of the word badass]
"Yes, yes it is."
"Where is it based?"
"I'm sorry, I can't say."
"How many people have you killed?"...and there we go.
"None," I would lie: the eternal hypocrisy of the capsuleer's policy of only counting the temporarily inconvenient serial 'deaths' of immortal capsuleers as 'kills'; discounting the hundreds (thousands?) of Sani-Sabik lives I had ended in the process of Covenant takedowns; and Serpentis; and Guristas. Sansha's Nation I would prefer to regard as liberations from a form of deathlife.
It was at one of these parties where I met Alisu Serrasus-Aabaanaa-Cataalio. She stood out a kilometre because she renounced the veil before sunset. Not a cultural faux-pas at all, but the sign of a rebellious nature nonetheless. Her husband Arshadru was a famous painter on IV and was every bit as liberal as you would expect an artist to be, and evidently as liberal as Alisu was.
"One of my brothers became a capsuleer like you," she told me. "I haven't spoken to him for two years, but the last I heard he was working for the Goonswarm Federation."
"It happens. The lack of contact," I said. "We become divorced from the normal conduct of human society. It's the immortality - the cloning."
When I said this, she furrowed her brow slightly as if the idea of her brother enjoying unlimited bio-reboots hadn't occurred to her - that her brother was technically not the same person he was the last time she saw him.
"You know Goonswarm?" I asked her, immediately regretting it.
"Of course," she replied, sharply. "People can read in Aridia you know. We get the holofeeds."
"Sorry, that was unnecessary"
"Yes", she smirked, enjoying my embarrassment.
After some more spiced chai, small talk and a bit of background musical accompaniment, later on Alisu asked me: "Where are you going next?"
From somewhere deep in my race memory I invoked a traditional Ni-Kunni idiom that I'd never even said before: "I think I'll just follow the sand."
"Let me be your tour guide then," she said. "I have nothing to do for a few days and he won't mind..."
* * *
In the end I stayed on IV for two weeks. I tried not to be such a tourist, but with Alisu as my highly selective and discerning guide I toured the ancient sites that I'd only seen in holovids. The Monument To The Founders; the Amarrian First Landing Monument which is now semi-derelict and ignored. Alisu's insider knowledge took me to all the best bars, cafes, galleries, restaurants, private drinking clubs, places that don't appear on any tour guide and that I would never have known about or even found by accident. She even showed me that you don't need an armed guard to walk round the markets after dark, once again contrary to Amarr dogma.
With Alisu's advice, I bought an apartment on the top floor of a low-rise block in the fashionable, artisan part of Grava-Kunstler, one of the oasis cities in the equatorial Lesser Western Dune Sea. Grava-Kunstler has no spaceport. It has no airport either. It is accessible only by three monorails from the capital, which means my ship in the orbital at Mishi VIII is a minimum of two days' travel away.
Alisu was a typically Ni-Kunni woman with guile, a permanent aura of mischief and wonderfully sensual (like me, let's face it), and for the remainder of my time on IV we duly became lovers with the full sanction of her artist husband, who I'm sure would have liked to paint us in the act were he not at a conference on the other side of the planet and practising his own form of ambiguity. The affair seemed perfectly natural and made sense, because sometimes that's just how it is. It was the ideal way to end the journey, which wasn't really at an end at all.
I have enough ISK in the bank already that I could retire here and go native right now, today; but I have unfinished business out there. For now though, being among my people is grounding: a form of rejuvenation better than any cloning. I am living among my history. And, I now have at least two reasons to return here on a regular basis: the apartment, and Alisu.
* * *
I prepared Sid Vicious back at the station around VIII for a departure, back to the day job, back to the cosmos and the timeless infinite.
She messaged a reply straightaway: May the sand dunes point the way.
As I left the system headed for Southern Aridia I realised my parents were right: history is in the present and alive in all of us.
The past no-longer exists.