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The Minmatar Republic Fleet Issue Stabber-class Cruiser Hungering Cold quietly slipped out of the event horizon surrounding a temporarily stable wormhole, heralded only by a spray of radiation and a burst of photons. As the turbulence of its arrival quickly dissipated, a host of electronic sensing equipment got to work, taking readings of everything in sight, attempting to pinpoint the ship’s location by triangulating known reference points. From the outside, the small vessel was swarming with activity, as hatches opened, instruments unfolded themselves, and attitude-control jets began to fire fitfully to correct the slight roll that was the only evidence of the ship’s physics-bending trip through the wormhole.

Aethra Sunder floated, still and silent, in the life-support gel that filled her pilot’s capsule. Occasionally, electrically-induced muscle contractions would ripple through her, health-maintenance subroutines firing off messages that insulated her muscles against atrophy and the wasting bane of prolonged zero-gravity exposure. Her closed eyes twitched rapidly back and forth, the only part of her to even seem remotely alive, responding to the computer-generated simulations of sight and sound being fed into her brain by her ship’s systems. Sometimes when the ebb and flow of her thoughts was particularly dynamic, or her situation unusually stressful, her subconscious would manage to slip one or two electrical impulses past the capsule’s careful watchdog electronics and cause her leg to kick or her arm to thrash wildly. But most of the time, she just drifted along, physical body hidden behind walls of metal and electrons.

Unlike the vehicles of the distant past, with their pedals, levers, control sticks, buttons, gauges, and warning lights, the Hungering Cold was more akin to a garment than a simple means of conveyance. Aethra didn’t simply pilot the ship, she wore it like a second skin. Its maneuvers, her actions; its sensors, her eyes and ears. It was easy to forget that there was still a soft, fleshy body somewhere within the metal shell that truly housed her consciousness. It was so tempting to simply forget frailties of her origins, to allow her mind to sink completely beneath the waves…

And then, when inevitably she would give in, package up and section off her memories of being human, being flesh, being weak… when the arrogance and hunger for knowledge and power that drove her grew too strong to resist… when that siren’s call from the depths of the unknown would catch her within its melody… that’s when the dreams would come.

Usually, it was the tree. Great, tall, and ancient, it reached as high as up and as wide as the horizon. She was sitting at its foot, in the grass. She had with her a picnic lunch, a blanket spread out beneath her, and a meal for two people laid out upon it. Just looking at that second place setting would fill her with a deep dread, a sense of terrible loss which she could not explain. And every time, she would begin to weep, the tears in her eyes blurring her vision, blotting out the hateful sunny skies and the mocking wildflowers scattered around her. And as the tree loomed huge behind her, as the world spread out empty and uncaring before her, that empty seat across from her would fill with accusation and loss. She knew, somehow, that none of this was right and that all of it was her fault. She would stumble to her feet and try to cry out, to beg forgiveness from the wind, and the earth would grind open before her, and she would twist to try and save herself but it was always just a moment too late and she would fall, deeper and darker and deeper, into fire and agony. And then she would wake, physiological monitors in her capsule shrilling warnings into her mind.

This time was like that, like all the others. But it was also different, because this time, as she pushed the cobwebs of old panic and remembered-forgotten-imagined loss aside and took her bearings, the tree was still there.

The tree was still there.