Eyes of the EmpireKiersten White
“Pick any of the last ten transmissions you’ve looked at. You have to live there for the rest of your life. Where are you?” Lorem said, her voice ringing through the small processing room where they all worked.
Maela admired how Lorem could multitask, sorting through data while keeping up a steady stream of chatter.
Dirjo Harch did not admire it. “Just do your job.” He deleted whatever he was looking at on his screen and pulled up the next data packet. Maela wished they could work individually. Or better yet, in small groups. She’d pick Lorem for her group. And Azier. So really, she’d make a group that was everyone except Dirjo, with his sour expressions and his pinched personality.
“I am doing my job,” Lorem said, chipper as always. Sometimes she wore her cap at a jaunty angle over her dark curls. Just enough to be off dress code, but not enough to give Dirjo an excuse to report her. Maela liked the uniform, liked what it meant. That she was here. That she did it.
A light flashed near Maela’s face and she flipped the switch, accepting an incoming transmission and adding it to the ever-growing queue. She had spent so long with the Vipers, infinite rows of them, round domes and legs like jointed tentacles. She used to stare into their blank black eyes and wonder where they would go. What they would see.
Now she saw everything.
“But while I’m doing my job,” Lorem continued, and Dirjo’s shoulders tensed, “I don’t see why we can’t have some fun. We’re going to be looking through a hundred thousand of these transmissions.”
Azier leaned back, stretching. He rubbed his hands down his pale face, clean-shaven, wrinkled. Maela suspected working on the Swarm transmission recovery and processing unit was a demotion for him, though she didn’t know why. Dirjo and Lorem were just starting their Imperial service, like her.
“Lorem, my young friend,” Azier said in the clipped, polished tones of the Empire, the ones Maela was still trying to master to hide that she came from somewhere else, “the man we report to is serving on the Executor as part of Lord Vader’s Death Squadron. Do you really think fun is a priority for any of them?”
Lorem giggled, and even Maela had to smile. Dirjo, however, scowled, turning his head sharply. “Are you criticizing Lord Vader?”
Azier waved a hand dismissively. “They’re bringing death to those who would threaten the Empire. I lived through a war none of you remember or understand. I have no desire to do it again. And Lorem, to answer your question, I’d rather stay in this floating tin can forever than visit any of the forsaken rocks our probe droids are reporting from.”
“Not a hundred thousand,” Maela said softly.
“What?” Lorem asked, turning around in her chair to give her full attention to Maela.
“Project Swarm sent out a hundred thousand. But some won’t make it to their destinations. Some will crash and be incapable of functioning after. Some might land in environments that make transmission impossible. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll receive anywhere from sixty-five thousand to eighty thousand transmissions.” Vipers were tough little wonders, and their pods protected them, but still. Space was vast, and there were so many variables.
“In that case,” Lorem said, grinning, “we’ll be done by the end of the day. And then we can decide which planet we’ll live on forever! Though none of my prospects are good. You’re from the Deep Core, aren’t you? Any footage from your planet so we can add it to our potential relocation list?”
Maela turned back to her own work. Her accent attempts hadn’t been as good as she thought, after all. “No footage. We didn’t send droids to Vulpter.”
Azier snorted a laugh.
“Why?” Lorem asked. “Why is that funny?”
Dirjo hit a button harder than necessary. “Half the probe droids we have are made on Vulpter. Back to work.” His tone was brusque, but he looked appraisingly at Maela. “You came from the manufacturing side. I would like to speak about it, sometime.”
Maela went back to her screen. She knew this work wasn’t sought-after. That it was either washouts like Azier or those who hadn’t managed to climb up the ranks yet like Dirjo. But she had specifically requested it and had no desire to move elsewhere in the Empire’s service. She slipped her hand into her pocket and rubbed the smooth, rounded surface of a probe droid’s main eye. How many times had she traced these eyes, longing to see what they saw? Imagined flinging herself through the reaches of space alongside them to uncover sights untold?
And now here she was. As close as she could get. The fates and visions of tens of thousands of probe droids at her fingertips. It was an actual dream come true.
For her, at least.
“No,” her mother said, not bothering to take off her mirrored goggles. “Absolutely not.”
Maela felt the pout taking over her face, which made her angry. She was past pouting age, and definitely past being teased for the way her lips refused to allow her to hide any emotions.
“It’s not fair,” she said, gesturing at the prototype her mother was tinkering with. “There’s so much out there, and they see everything, and all I see is this factory.” Maela leaned close, looking at her distorted reflection in the probe droid’s main eye. She knew it wasn’t an eye, not really, but she always thought of it that way. She would walk down the lines of droids, hanging like fruit from mechanical vines, making certain she saw herself in every single eye. That way, when they went out into the galaxy, flung to places and planets she would never visit, at least part of her would be taken. A ghost in her mother’s machines.
“You think you’ll see so much, working for the Empire?” Her mother made a face like she had a bad taste in her mouth. “You don’t want any part of them.”
“How can you say that?” Maela threw her hands in the air, astounded at her mother’s hypocrisy. “You work for them!”
“I do not work for them. I design and manufacture droids. Which is not an easy business to be in after the Clone Wars.” She sighed, leaning back and running her hands through her wild curls. They were more gray than black now, and Maela knew beneath the goggles she’d see the fine lines of age slowly claiming all the skin around her mother’s eyes. “This is what I’m good at. It’s what keeps our family safe.”
“And keeps us locked up here on this lifeless planet in this lifeless factory!” Maela kicked the table, and the prototype parts went skittering away. “At least if I were working with the Empire, I’d be doing something.”
“Yes,” her mother said, in a tone like a door sliding shut. “You would be doing many things.” She walked away, leaving Maela alone with the metal that was not yet a droid.
Maela picked up the eye and stared at her reflection. She didn’t want to be a ghost, a memory, a prisoner. The eye fit perfectly in her pocket, tucked alongside the decision Maela had made. She would send herself out into the galaxy, flung to new and unknown destinations by the same Empire that claimed these droids.
Maela’s eyes were grainy, so dry she could hear her eyelids click when she blinked. She didn’t know how long she had been watching footage, dismissing transmissions that offered no useful information. The others had wandered out at some point, to eat or sleep, she didn’t know.
She didn’t need her mother’s droids to carry her ghost into the galaxy, because she was connected to them now. They were at her fingertips, and she stared out through them at countless new sights. She was everywhere.
Plants as tall as buildings, towering overhead, glowing in colors human eyes couldn’t have discerned. Desertscapes so barren she could feel her throat parching just looking at them. A depthless ocean, eyes and teeth and fins exploring her as she sank into darkness. World after world after world, and she was seeing them all.
She was so blinded by the infinite white ice of the newest planet that she almost missed it.
“Someone made those,” she whispered, tracing the even, symmetrical mounds rising out of the snow. They were metal, and, according to the droid, they were generating power. Which meant they were being used. But before she could make the connection active and direct the droid, the screen flashed and then the feed was dead.
Her droid had self-destructed. Which could only mean it had been attacked. Maela’s heart began racing. This was it. She had found what they were looking for, she was certain.
She pushed her comm. “Dirjo, I’ve got them.”
His answer crackled with static and sleepiness. “Got what?”
Copyright © 2020 by Seth Dickinson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.