Amarr System, Amarr Prime,
Southern Ves-Udor, Satach City,
It was an evening made murky by a strong wind from the north bringing dust and fine sand from the Great Interior Desert to swirl through the streets of Satach City. Relief from the gathering gloom and scudding dust was provided by the city's fiercely orange street lights, reinforced lately by an army of lamps both devotional and festive. The city lay a hundred kilometers and more from the desert's edge and the ancient mountain fastness of Satach's Spite; but it was the natural destination for the waves of pilgrims, commoner and noble, come to see the rite of Shathol'Syn.
Satach City was not a large metropolis. The town had grown up around the old river and road way-station serving as a convenient layover for those who wished to visit the sanctum and shrine that was the old fortress to the north. In times long past, Satach's Spite had been a common enough destination for those remembering and celebrating the days of the Athran Reclaiming, the conquest of the planet by the Amarr. The greater Reclaiming that had spread the Amarr Empire across hundreds of star systems had inevitably reduced the importance of the more obscure devotional sites, such as Satach's Spite. Even so, by any reckoning the ancient fortress was a holy place of the Amarr. For the Sarum Family, that martial house whose ancestor's deeds had given the place its name, the site remained especially important.
The city's core was centered on the ancient bridge over the river and the highway through its old heart was wide enough to allow for the multitude of stalls, booths and roadside preacher platforms that had sprung up in the months since pilgrims had begun to trickle, then flood into the region surrounding Satach's Spite. The narrower side streets of the old town had been clogged night and day with the throngs for some weeks past. Not even the wind and sand had made much difference, even as it rendered the crowds almost ghostly in the flickering play of shadow, light and dust.
With the host of pilgrims, something of the old, wider importance had returned to grace Satach's Spite and the surrounding region. The climax of the ancient rites of succession had been witnessed two days past with the coronation of Empress Catiz I in holy Dam-Torsad. The coda would come the next day when the ritual of Shathol'Syn would claim the lives of the old, unsuccessful heirs and claimants to the Golden Throne, and thereby clear the way for renewal of the Empire's great houses with fresh blood. The ancient fortress and shrine of the Sarum Family would serve as the place of the ritual in observance of the final passing of the time of Empress Jamyl I, late of that house.
In these times, Satach City could be reached by air, and even shuttles from space, as much as by road or river. The Sarum Family had long used the town as the administrative center for the region surrounding Satach's Spite, and there had been a landing field capable of taking shuttles as well as atmospheric flyers for centuries. Now enlarged, the field and the rest of the town's outskirts were surrounded by a new city of tents, prefab temp-habs and motorized homes. The commoner pilgrims, in their multitudes, encircled the old city like an army at siege. The nobles, naturally, were either staying in the old city's hotels and hostelries, or keeping to their parked shuttles and starlighters.
The landing field sat next to the old highway and traffic to and from the port was a constant stream of personal motor transports, buses, taxicabs and goods wagons. Out here the Sarum Family's Police Guards kept the highway clear of the merchants, mendicants and monks cluttering the old city. Through the stream of vehicles heading to town from the field came a taxi cab, threading past the slower wagons and buses. The cab made it to the inner town quickly enough but when it reached the old town it perforce slowed to a crawl, as the highway was narrowed by the roadside trade that had been allowed to plant itself along the route.
Soon the foot traffic grew dense and impossible to pass through at any speed. Haltingly, the taxi pushed through the crowds and turned into a reasonably wide crossing street, before coming to a stop. A masked and loosely-robed figure got out of the cab, raised its hand to the driver in a gesture that could have been thanks, farewell or both, and stepped into the pressing flow of people moving through the streets.
Anyone curious enough to look closely at the fairly tall, slim figure would see that the mask was actually a close-fitting helmet of some kind. The mouth and nose were covered by a breather unit and the eyes hidden by dark glass lenses set into oval mounts. The helmet was formed of some kind of fabric that glinted and shined as the sodium lights and flickering lamps reflected off the material. A closer look still would reveal that the flowing, light desert-style robe covered a one-piece outfit of the same material, studded here and there with metal and polymer fittings. Flexible but sturdy boots and gloves of a slightly lighter material completed the full-body covering that this figure was wearing beneath a simple desert robe.
The figure's outfit, while unusual, was hardly the most striking or bizarre ensemble to be seen in the streets of Satach City during this time of high ritual and mass pilgrimage. The rite of Shathol'Syn was perhaps the most extraordinary act of self-sacrifice in the canon of the orthodox Amarr faith. No less than five great princes of the Amarr Empire would submit themselves to immolation the next day. Such a rite could not help but attract the extreme and macabre of tendency, besides the simply observant and pious.
In among the pilgrims from across the empire, dressed in as many different styles and fashions as there are planets held under the rule of Amarr, there moved those of deeply devout, passionate, even fanatic disposition. Here and there snaked processions of chanting monks. All along the highway walked tight groups of banner-bearers with house gonfalons held high, these often ritually torn in signal of the sacrifice to come. Even penitents bowed under weighted yokes and flagellants scourging themselves could be seen here and there, tolerated in the context of this unique ritual week as perhaps they would not normally be in the open streets of a city of Amarr Prime.
Watching all, wandering or standing post among and alongside the crowds, were the Police Guards of House Sarum, the Paladins of the Ministry of Internal Order, and the occasional squad of the Empress's own Imperial Guards, these last resplendent in gold-chased combat armor. As the robed and masked figure moved along the central highway with the crowd some of these guardians of the Imperial peace noted its passage and scrutinized it closely. Some went so far as to capture an image and compare it to references in the security databases of the Amarr Empire. Others recognized the figure's attire for what it was without need to check.
The masked figure wore one of a hundred variants of the outfit of a space-adapt, one probably born to life in space, and certainly used to minimal gravity and a carefully controlled mix of breathing gases. The deceptively close-fitting garment's fabric was advanced nano-weave material that incorporated a secondary, reinforcing skeleton and musculature for one unused to the pull of a planet's gravity. The mask was a rebreather that filtered the air and provided only that mix of atmospheric gases the spacer would be used to breathing in a ship or space station. The mix of gases peculiar to Amarr would probably be intolerable to this person, let alone the dust, smoke and filthy exudations in the air of crowded Satach City. The police and soldiers, inclined to accept that this person had good reason to go masked, relaxed further on noting diplomatic tags at the shoulders of the loose robe the figure wore about their suit.
For those charged with maintaining the security of the city, the fact that the tags indicated their bearer to be a member of a trade delegation from the Caldari State's Lai Dai megacorporation was all the more reassuring. The Caldari were allies and Lai Dai was known to be among the most pro-Amarr of the megacorps. For the Sarum Police Guards, on the streets to maintain public order above all else, a glance and a quick check sufficed as the tall figure passed them by. The Imperial Guard were more concerned with threats from militants and puritanical fanatics. Still their duty caused each squad the figure passed to discreetly scan and check the tags. Finding them to be legitimate, they logged the check and returned to watching the crowds for potential dangers. For their part, the Ministry Paladins looked on impassively, reacting not in the slightest to the passage of this mysterious figure. The MIO's security troops were merely the deliberate and open sign of that vast apparat's presence in Satach City.
Following the masked figure at a casual distance was one of the more covert representatives of the MIO in Satach City. Sub-Inquisitor Ramal Zoshan was dressed in local fashion, a long overgarment of fine wool served as a coat about his collarless shirt and loose trousers, tucked into desert boots of tanned goatskin. A light, felt hat with a low crown and broad brim completed the unremarkable outfit and suggested that Zoshan was simply a local herder, perhaps a small leaseholder from the surrounding grazing lands. The area was well south of the desert's edge but the territory was mostly hills and scrublands, useful for grazing herds of the hardier ruminants and benefitting enormously from the river that the city straddled.
Zoshan, indeed, was almost a local, hailing from the city of Ozol, some two hundred kilometers east along the river. Ozol, unlike Satach City, lay within Throne territory and Ramal Zoshan had entered Imperial service after completing his civil service examinations with reasonable distinction. By chance of the tithing draw, he had been called to serve the Ministry of Internal Order and had been happy to accept this lot without exercising the right to a single redraw that his examination score gave him. To tell the truth, he'd been attracted by the idea of serving the MIO and his ability ensured that he was considered for the ranks of the investigative branch. He had been assigned to Satach City for the duration of the period leading up to and including this coronation week. His daily task had been the same for weeks, mingle with the crowds and detect any threats to the security of the Imperial order.
The masked representative of the Lai Dai megacorp had been noted automatically on arrival from space at the landing field. His diplomatic credentials had been checked three times by the MIO and were considered authentic. Nevertheless, the taxi that picked up the diplomat had been a ministry special. It paid to be careful and thorough where foreigners from another empire were concerned, however friendly to Holy Amarr they might be. When the Lai Dai trade delegate abandoned the taxi due to the crowds, Ramal Zoshan had been tasked to tail the diplomat discreetly.
The Lai Dai man's name was Saatta Mochan according to the summary that had been transmitted to Zoshan's commpad. He was listed as an accredited interstellar negotiator with the Lai Dai megacorp's ship construction division. Given the vast coverage of Lai Dai and the enormous scope of its ship-building enterprises, the responsibilities of the man could be as narrow as setting up deals for individual build runs of combat frigates or as wide as orchestrating trades involving multiple freighter convoys of hulls and spare parts.
He could also be something other than he seemed. Most benign of the alternatives to the face-value role of Saatta Mochan was that he was some kind of covert agent of the Lai Dai megacorp. Possibly he could be nothing more sinister than a courier. Everyone used secret messengers. Shading into an area of greater concern was the possibility that the man was an operative concerned with industrial espionage. Perhaps even a political or military intelligence agent. Undesirable as this would be, it was understood that allies monitored one another and so long as certain bounds were not exceeded nothing more need be done than to note the activity.
It would be a different matter, requiring some form of response, if this Mochan were something of the nature of a thief, saboteur or assassin. Again, it was known that allies occasionally found the need to carry out such actions on one another's territory, even against one another's assets. It was also not acceptable when it was discovered. A far worse and much broader range of threats would be suggested if the man were not remotely what he purported to be. Given the signs of authenticity shown so far, Mochan proving to be something other than a Lai Dai man, except perhaps his being the operative of some other Caldari interest, would be cause for extreme concern. In the context of the holy rites of this coronation week, such a finding would undoubtedly trigger a state of high alert.
Alive to all possibilities, Zoshan tracked Saatta Mochan at a sedate pace along the central highway until he saw the diplomat turn into a side street. The MIO man knew that street led to a little square with a hotel and a couple of bars occupying most of the frontage. There were a few small shops in the square too but it was late evening by now and they were most likely closed unless the owners were determined to squeeze even more profit from the pilgrim crowds. He hurried as best he could to get to the corner, leaned in and saw that Mochan was crossing the square, much less crowded than the main street, in the direction of one of the bars. Zoshan stepped into the side street and followed.
Sure enough, the Lai Dai man entered the bar, its illustrated sign with scepter and crown iconography displaying the name "Ametat and Avetat". Zoshan's mouth twitched and pursed in a momentary flash of disapproval but he knew there were certainly thousands of bars called that across the Empire. He himself knew of a dozen drinking holes with that name in the towns of Southern Ves-Udor. Moreover, it was hardly even skirting the edges of injury to the dignity of the Throne when it came to it. Zoshan though was something of a puritan even for a member of the MIO's inquisitorial corps. He'd personally closed down a filthy river dock dive in Ozol called "Jamyl's Jugs" after the passing of the last empress. Even then, it was primarily the impropriety of such a name in the aftermath of her assassination, when inquisitorial teams had been especially on alert for examples of lèse-majesté, that had prompted the action.
The sub-inquisitor reached the door and paused, he was a moment or two behind his quarry. Good enough, the bar was small and by now the man was likely seated. Zoshan looked around the dimly-lit square one more time and pushed through into the bar. It was gloomy inside but lit well enough, and Zoshan made for the tap counter while noting from the corner of his eye that Mochan had joined another man in one of the three half-circle snugs at the back of the bar. He ordered a light wheat beer imported from Dam-Torsad, not being so extreme in his views as to actually abjure alcohol, and considered. Looking sidelong he noted that a few tables were set in front of an upholstered bench running along the wall to the side of the counter. Two of these tables were empty. He took his drink to the table nearest the counter and sat on the bench.
From his corner, Zoshan had a good view of the entire bar. He took a swallow of his beer, set it down and took out his commpad, all the while keeping an eye on Mochan and the man he was talking to in their snug. To a casual observer, the Sub-Inquisitor was a local enjoying respite from the crowds with a beer, reading from a standard commpad. In fact, Zoshan was carefully imaging the two men with the decidedly non-standard camera sensor on the back of the commpad. He was not particularly surprised to note that the snug was enclosed in a sound-dampening field. There was nothing illegal about privacy shrouds and he would expect a diplomat to carry one. Mochan's mask would also prevent a visual reading of his lips. In any event, the other man appeared not to be concerned about that. He was actually speaking around some kind of slim inhaler tube that glowed with a blue light every now and again. There was also a board game on the table and the man was toying with a die as he spoke.
While he waited for the image captures of the man to bounce through the security databases, Zoshan looked more closely at him using the imager. For one thing, the man was clearly Minmatar, though Zoshan couldn't immediately place the tribe. For another, while his outfit was a spacefarer's rig of some kind, it appeared to be conventional with no sign that this fellow required supporting systems in the planetary gravity. The detail that stood out most clearly was a diplomatic tag at his breast pocket. Zoshan magnified this in his commpad's image plate. A Thukker Tribe diplomatic envoy tag of some kind. He sent an image of it along to narrow down the search that had been running in the background. That explained his unfamiliarity with the man's ethnic markers, Zoshan had never encountered a Thukker before. Free Thukker were not exactly a common sight anywhere on the Ves-Udor continent and very few Holders maintained purebred Thukker slave stocks.
Zoshan mused on the strangeness of two diplomats meeting in this dingy bar. It was an unofficial contact of some kind, no doubt about it. Not necessarily an alarming matter though. So many foreign representatives of one kind or another were in town before the final hop north to Satach's Spite in the morning. These two could be taking the opportunity to renew an old contact or arrange some matter on the side. Zoshan checked the records on this bar. Sure enough there were ministry recording devices hidden in all the snugs. He'd be able to review their conversation later. His commpad chimed. The search had returned a hit. The man Saatta Mochan was talking to was a diplomatic envoy of the Thukker Tribe's Vo-Lakat Caravan and his name was Tamasek Sjakhuni.
++Some Personal Recollections++
Anoikis, Harmonic Node Q3:X-7:Th:Var1.71,
SOE Sanctuary Research Facility,
"Sjakhuni!" The shout from Sister Latimas as she strode through the shimmer field interrupted the quiet routine of the laboratory and made my lab assistants look up in alarm. I continued what I was doing, entering the last two data references into the analysis program before setting it running. When Latimas walked up to me and said my name again, more quietly, I looked up and smiled.
"Sister Latimas, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
Latimas looked around and gestured to the watching assistants, "Give us some privacy, please." Silently, the assistants filed out through the shimmer field. Latimas walked back over to the entry to see that they'd gone.
I laughed. "They're hardly going to linger in the airlock, Latimas. For one thing it's quite cold in there. For another they'd have a hard time hearing us through the field."
Latimas turned back to me and grimaced. "I'll cut to it, Sjakhuni. The Upwell Consortium has just agreed to a technology sharing deal with CONCORD regarding the data they recovered from the Serpentis Corporation."
"I'm aware of the development. It was inevitable given Upwell’s desire to appear above board. I don't see that it changes anything. CONCORD have always been serious about enforcing technology sharing. When they can."
"We can't afford to ignore that when we implement the delivery phase of the plan."
"The contingencies have been put in place. Our agents have made contact with assets in all four empires. Getting Project Ascension into the field before CONCORD know about it won't be a problem."
"That's just it. There might be a problem. Our intelligence cell has reported that the Serpentis data trove included a lot of Angel Cartel data. We're not sure what's mixed up in there but..."
"But it might just include pointers to our Angel connections. Unfortunate." I frowned in thought. The Angel Cartel weren't really that important to the undertaking but they had access to a lot of resources. More to the point they had access to a lot of recovered technology that they didn't understand that well. I'd been able to help them with a certain project and in return they'd provided a few items that accelerated the timetable.
"How bad do you think the exposure could be? Would your contacts have shared details with the Serpentis?" Latimas was worried by all this, an administrator and scientist at sea when it came to such matters. Not the for the first time, I wondered why the Sanctuary had seen fit to place her in charge of Project Ascension.
"They wouldn't share the smallest detail of their end of it with the Serpentis and they'd be discreet enough about the shipments to us. Still, the shipments went through a complicated smuggling chain. I wouldn't be surprised if Serpentis couriers were used somewhere along the line."
"You're saying it's possible they could connect the equipment shipments to us. That this could increase scrutiny on the Sanctuary then?"
I laughed. "The Sanctuary and the Sisters are under plenty of scrutiny, Latimas. All that nonsense about Project Discovery being for the betterment of humanity doesn't fool anyone." Latimas bridled at this. "Well, maybe it fools the masses. It doesn't fool anyone who matters. The AG12 Office is bound to have been looking into Project Discovery. Crowdworking scientific analysis through the capsuleer liquid router networks was novel enough. The fact you put actual Drifter tissue scans out there will really have woken them up."
"They filed an access request, certainly. We refused it, they have no jurisdiction over scientific enquiry."
"As if that will have stopped them from pursuing it. Look, AG12 are not stupid people. They've rooted out almost every covert technology developed by the empires and given enough time they'll root this out too. My concern is that Ascension is delivered and put into the field before they expose it. The empire recruitment and conditioning programs have to be up and running before CONCORD gets wind. That's going to be difficult enough. One of them will leak. Probably the Gallente, they'll have difficulty hiding what's going on."
"I wouldn't trust the Amarr to keep anything secret. Their bureaucracy always makes for a lot of fingers in the pie."
I nodded. "It could be, there again they could all leak. Something like Ascension can't be kept quiet for long. I give it, oh, maybe a month after delivery before AG12 have enough to act."
Latimas blanched. "That soon? But that's hardly enough time to set up production and transfer facilities."
"All that will have to start now, on a parallel track. If there's one good thing about this Serpentis business, it'll give us the leverage we need to have the infrastructure phase accelerated."
"How can we do that before we're sure that Ascension is viable?"
"Ascension is perfectly viable. How many times do we need to go through this? I've demonstrated that the techniques work. You've seen volunteers go through the process with no ill effects."
"Speed of knowledge acquisition has been halved in those kept in Alpha state."
"You don't get something for nothing. I've explained all this at length and predicted the knowledge uptake friction during genetic locking. Preparing neural pathways for knowledge uptake on a blank gelform clone is useless without the personality being able to use those pathways to acquire the appropriate knowledge. That's something they're not going to be able to do without genetically locking with the pathways as they learn. If the empires want their capsuleers to train more quickly they'll have to pay for the Omega level QE 4-He implants like anyone else."
"The implants aren't the issue. It's the QE 4-He, refreshing the implanted pools is expensive."
"Well, yes, that goes without saying." Latimas could be otiose sometimes. "The reality, of course, is that even capsuleer primes can't use anything but their basic capsule control systems when their QE 4-He drops to reserve levels. That's the advantage of the new clone gelforms and nano-implants. The new clones will let them use the integrated neural pathway bundles even when the QE 4-He drops to the Alpha state. Given that Alpha level QE 4-He supply is mandated for all pod-enabled captains by the Yulai Convention, it will give even the primes a reason to adopt the new technology. The empires won't demur because of the tremendous increase in naval manpower they will gain."
"While humanity gains a force that will be able to fight back against the Drifter threat."
I smiled. "Indeed."
Southern Ves-Udor, Satach City,
Valset Sarum Sq., Ametat and Avetat,
The masked Lai Dai representative spotted the man he'd come to meet as soon as he entered the Ametat and Avetat. He walked over to the snug where the other man sat idly playing with the pieces of a board game and sat down across from the Thukker diplomat. The Thukker smiled, put down the die he'd been rolling between fingers and thumb, and pressed a stud set into a control panel on the wall. The Lai Dai man nodded as a sound-dampening field enclosed them.
"Very good but what about listening devices inside the field?" The masked figure gestured at the table.
"I've taken steps to defeat the bug hidden in the table. A standard MIO install, I believe."
"Only the one? You're sure no other agencies are listening?"
"The local police have two cameras with microphones in the room but haven't troubled to bug every table in the place. Perhaps the Ministry guard that perquisite for themselves? Although I'm not sure the minutiae of turf wars among the Amarr security forces interest me that much."
"That's a lax attitude considering the peril we stand in by just being here. What about the Imperial Guard? They're understandably on alert."
"It wouldn't surprise me if the place were bugged by the Trade Registry come to that. But this table isn't and the Guard aren't bugging it either. I can assure you that I haven't been lax on that score. Oh and you look to have picked up a tail."
"I'm quite aware of him. It's routine, no doubt. I'm using the name 'Saatta Mochan'. I'm a representative of the Lai Dai trade delegation." Mochan brushed his diplomatic tags lightly.
"Amusing. I wonder how many times they've tried to penetrate your suit's shielding."
"At least three times and I assume any attempts I haven't noticed have failed too. I see you chose to use your existing cover."
"I’m comfortable as Tamasek Sjakhuni. Oh and you know, they could well have succeeded. They wouldn't swoop in now. After all, who knows where we could lead them?" Sjakhuni smiled broadly, picked up the die and began fiddling with it again, keeping his eyes on Mochan all the while.
Mochan sighed, a distorted, harsh sound through his mask, and indicated the board and pieces. "I see you haven't lost your taste for games. What's this one?"
Sjakhuni laughed. "You should recognize it with that cover. It's Torigi. A Caldari classic. Torigi-kapeli is quite popular. It would be odd for you to be unfamiliar with it, old friend. Rush the cover this time?"
"Your message arrived while I was engaged with other matters. As you say, the cover was rushed. It's not for home ground use." Mochan shrugged.
"True enough. These po-faced Amarr functionaries are not likely to ask questions about Caldari games, even one quite popular with the less pious elements." Sjakhuni grinned and rolled the die. It came up with a Caldari ideogram Mochan recognized as representing the infamous Caldari Tea Maker ceremony. Sjakhuni laughed again, "Let's hope that's not an omen, old friend."
Mochan made a cutting gesture with his hand, "Enough of this. Why did you contact me and what is so important that I had to interrupt my observations of the Amarr court, this week of all weeks, to meet with you personally?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Ascension. It's time for the next stage in the evolution of the capsuleers. As a matter of fact, it's already happening." Sjakhuni smiled and shifted his position slightly.
Mochan became very still. "This wasn't as agreed. You were supposed to monitor the situation with the Sisters and the Lakat-Hro. What have you done?"
Sjakhuni shrugged, "I merely prodded them in the right direction. They had plenty of material to work with. They would have got there in the end."
"It's too soon for this."
"I think not. It might even be too late. Let us hope not. Still, I can't have you interfering and you'd have picked up on this sooner or later. I'm a little surprised you haven't already."
Mochan nodded slowly, "CONCORD agencies have become aware of a new development in the field of cloning that appears to be in the hands of some state actors. AG12 is investigating but I hadn't appreciated the scope of it. Your handiwork, I now see."
"Yes, my friend. Well, it does seem that my timing is good on this occasion. Speaking of which, when did you last synchronize?"
"You know I'm not going to tell you that." Mochan shifted in his seat, attempting to bring his left hand to bear.
"Ah, ah, ah! Don't bother, I synchronized an hour ago. You though, well you swapped from your court cover without a body change, evidently. So I have to think you're about a week out of synch. Which suits me very well." Sjakhuni scooped up the die and rolled it again. It landed with the ideogram for 'mercenary' showing. "Ah, perhaps another omen, hm? Well, it's time we went our separate ways. Quite literally."
"Wait, these people." Mochan indicated the rest of the bar with a jut of his chin.
"I'm being economical. Doesn't hurt to have witnesses survive and it makes it look so much more professional."
Mochan nodded. "There will be a reckoning for this."
"We'll see. Good bye for now, old friend."
Sjakhuni rolled the die again. Mochan briefly glimpsed the symbol for 'escape' before Sjakhuni smilingly shook his head and pressed a control stud on the remote that had suddenly appeared in his hand.
Ramal Zoshan was about to take another swallow of his beer when the containment field-damped explosive charge blew him out of his chair and into the wall. Feebly raising his head, he dimly registered that the snug at the back of the bar had been reduced to a flame-edged hole before he collapsed into unconsciousness.
++Communication to an Associate++
Origin: Occluded orbital signal via SCC financial data fluid router 47/hub9/p3/Amarr/TW/Domain
Proceed with action phase of Offspring Cepheus at your discretion.
Initiate orientation phase of Darkness Visible as soon as possible.