No Prey

Editor’s Note: The first place winner of our Eve Fiction Writing contest!

No Prey

A short story by Signaleer Dagmar Maulerant

Dagmar Maulerant

Myles Flardou, the lone pilot’s profile read. Age 27. Member of the Federal Navy for more than 3 years. Security status: -0.7

3 years! If they both weren’t in the middle of nowhere, she would’ve pinned him for a distinguished space captain. If a capsuleer spent 3 years in the same corporation without moving on, it must’ve surely meant they were dedicated for life, right?

Most concerning of all however was his killboard. Dozens of green kills lined the pilot’s recent activity for the last few months. And all of them were either Tech 1 or Covert Ops frigates fit for hacking and exploration. She could scarcely believe it, but there was no way around it; the killed pilots were all from different backgrounds and were blown up in different constellations, so the kills were most probably authentic. None of his victims had perished on grid with any celestial or standard human-made structure either, meaning they must’ve surely been attacked while hacking.

The kicker? He always used a Manticore-class Stealth Bomber.

A Stealth Bomber. Not an Astero or a Stratios or a T3C, but a Stealth Bomber.

She dragged her attention back to her probe scanner window with trepidation. The scanned coordinates of the only cosmic signature in that system stared back at her, taunting her with its cheerful green background and unblinking white words. Sig ID: AEI-443. Ruined Serpentis Monument Site. Distance: 5.45 AU.

This wasn’t good.

If she had been flying an Astero, it would’ve been a lot easier. She would’ve still had some reservations, but in the end she probably would’ve just gone for it. Stealth Bombers were relatively easy to defeat with a tough droneboat such as that one. The hunter probably wouldn’t have even attacked her; she hadn’t seen any Astero kills in his killboard after all.

But noooo, she was stuck with a Heron.

At first she had tried to find him to make sure he wasn’t just docked or lazing about. That solar system was small enough for her to scan down on its entirety no matter her position, yet he was nowhere to be found. There were no stations or capsuleer-built citadels anchored either, so the most logical explanation was that he was cloaked somewhere, unreachable to anyone but himself.

There was no denying it: Myles Flardou was waiting in that Monument for a victim to kill. Or at least making a very good impression of it.

In any normal situation, this would’ve been an obvious decision: jump out of that system and return to the wormhole she had come from. It’s not like she wouldn’t find any more sites to loot.

However, this wasn’t a normal situation. Normally she wouldn’t even be flying a Heron. Its powergrid and slot layout left, in her opinion, little room for any of the necessary adjustments she deemed necessary by any decent exploration frigate to fully brave the dangers of the night sky. Exploration frigates should be quick to align, but also contain a big enough tank to last an initial onslaught before darting out of sight. They should also be able to survive all of the most common hunter attacks and some of the less common ones as well. The Astero and Stratios were some of the most common spaceships hunters used to surprise explorers and kill them before they could escape. Force Recon Cruisers, while more rare, could still do the job, and Tech 3 Cruisers could also be used with the added possibility of a smartbomb attack. With all of these ships, your best choice at survival would be to warp away before their sensors could lock you.

Stealth Bombers though were a different story. No matter how nimble your frigate, escaping a Stealth Bomber was almost impossible, meaning that a confrontation was inevitable. Your options were to fight, run away, or use a jammer and hope against hope their lock could be broken. The ideal ship to use in those cases was an Astero, but a weak T1 or T2 frigate generally stood no chance against them.

That’s why for once, she chose to use a Heron. Unlike its brethren, it could be both agile and a surprisingly good fighter. Getting out of scram range was difficult as it was already and she’d never been a fan of jammers, so combat would be her only option. While Stealth Bombers could be formidable with light missiles against frigates like hers, they also had a very weak tank. If she could last long enough against an onslaught, she could very well kill the hunter first. And that’s exactly how her Heron was designed, with some help and testing from her own corpmates.

So maybe… maybe she could get the loot from the relic site and avoid being killed by the Manticore. He had no apparent allies to back him up, so maybe she could actually return the favor. It was the perfect opportunity to truly test her Heron and herself against an experienced adversary. And besides, a justice delivery for all the downed explorers seemed very fitting.

Once she made the choice, there was no stopping her.

First she deployed her Mobile Depot and waited a minute until the device had fully assembled. Then, she took remote control over it and used the mechanism to swap her ship’s fitted modules with new ones. It took only a moment for the microwarpdrive and scanning enhancement modules to be replaced by all kinds of shield upgrades and the all-important relic analyzer. After that, she pulled the Mobile Depot back to her cargohold.

Her Heron moved. In a few seconds, it entered warp and immediately flew towards the Monument site at crazy speeds. Dashing across the solar system, it didn’t take long for the grey vessel to near its destination. As the warp tunnel started to thin out, she bookmarked her coordinates and saved them to her personal folder under the name ‘Perch’. Merely a second later, her spaceship came to a graceful stop.

Before her now lay the ruins of what once was a thriving site of respectful contemplation. The existence of Serpentis Monuments were a true dilemma; after all, it was a well-known fact to any that looked into the issue that Salvador Sarpati, the CEO of Serpentis, hated religion. His corporation’s cosmopolitan character welcomed all sorts of people into its ranks, yet all its members seemed to share their leader’s contempt for the practice. Why then had those Monuments been built in their name? No one truly knew. One of the more common and popular theories was that they were built only as a cover to carry out illicit transactions in a discreet environment, something which had certainly been carried out by the pirate faction before.

In any case, the fact remained that all the Monuments seemed rather empty, including this one. It consisted of an enormous thoroughly-crafted statue of a saint holding a staff up in the empty vacuum of space. Surrounded by it was a big circle of several chunks of debris, supposedly to mark the end and the beginning of the monument at approximately 60 kilometres across. She had no doubt that during its active days the items floating in space were much more clean and appealing to the eye. Now however, the area was but a shadow of its former glory. Asteroid dust covered all of her surroundings and random trash littered the area, forever bound to its meandering.

The sight was nothing new to her. What once provoked solemnity now evoked a sense of urgency. It was never a good idea to stay around for long, even more so now that there might be a cloaked vessel watching her every move. It was in moments like these when she felt the most exposed that she missed her cloaking device.

She gathered what she could find. There were five containers 20 kilometres from her position. Back when the site was still visited by pilots, the people in charge of taking care of those places were the only ones who had access to them. The only way she could do the same without damaging them was to hack them open.

The Heron moved once again to her will. It made a sharp 180 degree turn and entered warp. This time it only skipped a couple thousand kilometres before halting to a stop in the previously saved coordinates. The containers were still visible in her Overview, allowing her to sort through them at a safe distance with the added benefit of being able to warp to each of them directly. Like usual, she chose the container with the most difficult hack and willed her mechanical body to warp towards it. The vessel did so effortlessly, landing at less than 2000 meters from the rectangular object.

A cloud of dust blocked her vision, and she swerved the camera drone away, inwardly cringing at the sight of her Heron floating in the middle of the sticky particles. Roaming through these ancient sites was bound to get her ship dirty, resulting in a lot of calls to a station’s cleaning service after her trips. She never understood why some capsuleers never cleaned theirs; to her, a spaceship was as much of a body as her human form. She’d hate to go about with grime and dirt clinging visibly to her hair or skin, and that corresponded to her ship form as well. Minmatar hulls were the only exception; their rusty exterior was a mere design choice, if she had to guess.

Targeting systems were activated. In a few seconds, the container’s signature radius was locked by her frigate and ready to be hacked. She continued as survival procedures dictated. Planet where she could escape to in case of an emergency? Check. Stationary spaceship? Check. Close enough distance to the container to pull in the contents of its interior once she’s hacked it open? Check.

She angled the camera drone so that her emergency exit was clearly visible to her. It was hacking time. She activated her analyzer module and inserted a virus into the container’s locking mechanism.

A new window opened and covered most of her vision. She could now travel through the system’s software in search of the system’s core. If she managed to find it and erase it, the container would immediately open up. But first, she minimized the window and kept a close eye on her surroundings. This was coincidentally the best time for a hunter to leap out of the shadows of its cloaking device and attack an explorer, when the latter’s attention was diverted to hacking.

Heart pumping rapidly, she waited a couple of seconds.

Nothing happened. Cautiously, she brought the hacking window back to her vision and proceeded with the hack.

Despite the added difficulty of hacking in a Tech 1 frigate, it didn’t take her long to find the core. In the blink of an eye, the container’s defenses evaporated and the lock swung open. She quickly pulled in all the salvage she could find and warped back to her perch. So nothing had happened… He was either not there, not interested in attacking her, or waiting to kill her on another hack. The best hunter was a patient hunter. He was maybe hoping to instill a false sense of security within her to catch her off-guard later on, or maybe he also wanted the salvage and was waiting for her to hack more cans so he could loot her wreck. Either way, she wasn’t stopping now.

Two hacked containers and still no sign of the Stealth Bomber. While she was hacking the fourth one however, another capsuleer popped up in the solar system’s local list. She immediately warped away from the Monument altogether to a safe spot in the middle of an empty pocket of space, fearing an ambush. A few seconds later, an Ares-class interceptor popped up in her directional scanner and remained there until the capsuleer’s name disappeared from the local list. Just a traveling vessel apparently. She let her mind relax slightly. Paranoia was a virtue in this game of uncertainties. After a minute, she warped back to the Monument and continued with the hack.

Finally, a single container was left. Last chance for her to escape with whatever salvage she possessed. Sometimes she liked to leave the last can unopened to evade hunters who waited until the last hack to attack her. Thinking about their frustration was very amusing if she was completely honest with herself.

This time, she wouldn’t do that. She’d give him one more chance to kill her. The Heron warped to the fifth container, and after running through the preliminary survival measures, inserted the virus.

He appeared just when the hacking window was starting to materialize.

Her Overview flashed with the new appearance, the highlighted asset that represented a capsuleer spaceship. Coldness paralyzed her thoughts.

She had tempted fate too much. The trap was sprung and she was about to get killed, just like she had predicted. She was about to get killed.

Time slowed down. Adrenaline cleared her mind and sharpened her focus. A switch went off within her.

She was about to get killed. But she was going to fight back.

First she aligned to her escape planet, knowing that trying to enter warp would be pointless. Her suspicions were confirmed once she closed the hacking window and saw the Manticore-class Stealth Bomber bumping her frigate off-course. When they collided, both spaceships were propelled to opposite directions.

It was soon followed by yellow brackets that surrounded the hunter, meaning her Heron’s signature radius was being locked down. Don’t waste any more time! She reciprocated, readying her lasers, and deployed a swarm of Tech 2 Acolyte-class combat drones.

Just as her commands were being executed, she received the first blow. A fifth of her shield evaporated, and a red icon flashed above her capacitor in her user interface, warning her she was being scrammed. With her navigation computer disrupted beyond her control, she was now completely ensnared by the hunter, who circled her Heron speedily in a tight orbit.

Her drones quickly shot out of her drone bay, buzzing around her spaceship. She immediately realized her mistake. Shit! I forgot to set them to aggressive mode! Only two seconds remained before the Manticore was locked down, but she didn’t want delays; she wanted her drones to attack now.

Hastily, she changed their settings. Afterwards, it took only a moment for her drones to notice her attacker and move swiftly towards him. They landed their first shot just as her sensors were finally able to lock him down. An analysis of the vessel’s integrity appeared on the top left corner of her vision in the form of three white bars, each depicting the spaceship’s structure, armor and shield. A small chunk of the upper bar however, representing the hull’s shield, was a deep red instead, courtesy of her drones.

Her lasers also responded to the new target and fired upon it. However, a message displayed by her inner sensors revealed they had missed the moving Manticore completely. Frustration tightened within her. He was moving too quickly for her lasers to keep up with him!

She didn’t have time to worry about that though, because the Manticore had once again unleashed its missiles and decimated another fifth of her shield. Her main tank was almost halfway gone and she wasn’t even close to defeating him. Keeping herself alive was her priority.

So she activated her shield booster for the first time. It immediately regenerated part of her shield, but also sucked a lot of her capacitor. If she kept the module running, she’d run out of power in less than 20 seconds. As such, the next module she used was a capacitor booster, which injected enough energy to her power source to keep the module running for longer. Thank Bob I remembered to keep it loaded.

She let the situation play out for a moment. Her shield regenerated a considerable amount before another attack depleted it to half its capacity. She kept a close eye on her cap booster, which started to reload automatically after using its single power cell. 10 seconds until it could inject more energy to her capacitor and her shield booster had the ability to keep running for longer.

9…

8…

7…

The shield booster just kept on sucking energy. Her focus swerved anxiously between her capacitor and cap booster.

6…

5…

4…

Another onslaught lowered her shields again, which was partly repaired by the shield booster. Her cap was about to run out.

3…

2…

1…

Her cap booster was loaded just in time. She activated it once again, and her power source was filled to the brim once again. Relief softened her mind momentarily. Her tank wouldn’t last forever, but it’d do for now.

She had 20 seconds to divert her attention to something else. Looking back at the Manticore’s intel, she found out that only a third of its shield was depleted. Why were her drones taking such a long time to finish it? He had probably fitted a shield extender to his vessel. Coupled with his incessant orbiting, it made for an unexpectedly tough frigate to blow up.

Would she be able to last long enough to kill him before he killed her? It wasn’t easy to tell. Concentrating beyond the roar in her mind was a task within itself, but she tried her best. Was there anything else she could do to speed up the process?

There was a way to deal with her lasers’s lack of tracking, but she had to do it quickly or she’d miss her cue to refill her capacitor once again. She opened a radial menu from her target’s intel and searched through the navigation options. It was easy to find what she was looking for: the ‘Keep at Range’ command. Swallowing her impatience, she mindlessly set it to 20 kilometres and put it into effect.

She felt the Heron twisting within itself, breaking out of alignment and making an effort to burn away from her attacker. She knew it’d be impossible; the Manticore was faster than her. But the purpose wasn’t to get away from it, but to allow her hull’s alignment to follow that of the hunter’s and help her lasers keep up with him.

The result was immediate: her next shot hit the Stealth Bomber successfully. It didn’t cause as much damage as her drones according to her sensor’s analysis, but it would at least add 30 more dps to her overall damage application.

She couldn’t afford to get distracted however. Focusing back on her capacitor, she found out her cap booster was in the middle of reloading and her power source was about to run out. This time it was empty enough to deactivate her shield booster, and she noted that her shield was still at 50% capacity, which did little to comfort her. Tick tock tick tock.

After a few seconds of infinity, the cap booster was once again reloaded. She used its power cell once again, and reactivated her shield booster immediately after. Her shield soon started gaining back the strength lost from the hunter’s next blow.

She stepped back to review the situation. This time her relief was deeper; her shield was holding once again and the Manticore now had less than a third of its shield.

It was only then that she truly started to smell victory. If things continued the way they were, his demise would come a lot earlier than hers. The less strength the Manticore’s shield had, the stronger her frantic wish for success became, and the stronger her heart squeezed in her chest.

That was, until a new capsuleer appeared on the system’s local list.

Her hopes were cut short. No no no no no. What if they were coming to aid her adversary!? What would she do then!?

She had absolutely no idea. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t hide. She was sure she’d die immediately if another capsuleer joined their fight.

But she couldn’t let it get to her. Not yet, no matter how bad the situation seemed. Not until their combined damage was breaching her structure and she was left dangling in space like a broken wing. She could only watch her directional scanner like a hawk and pray to Bob that the newcomer wasn’t a friend of the Manticore.

A moment passed where nothing happened. Her drones and lasers continued to eat at the hunter’s shield and her own was being barely kept by her spaceship’s full core power.

Then a new vessel appeared on d-scan. A Malediction-class interceptor. She watched with rapt attention as the spaceship remained for one second, then two, then three, then four…

Until it disappeared. Both from d-scan and the system’s local list.

Relief poured out of her in a single, all-encompassing wave. She couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it. If she were in control of her human body, she would’ve covered her face with her hands and laughed out loud. Or maybe sobbed.

With newfound vigor, she snapped her attention back to the situation at hand. Her cap booster was being reloaded, and the Manticore’s shield… was pure red.

She drowned her elation with effort. What if he had something else up his sleeve? What if he pulled out a trick that changed the tide of battle? What if she missed one crucial detail that ended up being her demise?

Her attention was divided between her cap booster, her shield, and the hunter’s remaining defense. To her triumph, his armor was getting destroyed a lot more quickly than his shield. By the time she was injecting more power to her capacitor and reactivating her shield booster, his armor was already gone.

Only his structure remained. It was being dealt with just as quickly as his armor. She forgot about everything else and stared at the last white bar as it got redder and redder, not daring to look away even for a second, gleefully awaiting her moment of victory.

Just a little bit more and she’d get a clean hit on the Manticore, obliterating it to smithereens. Just a little bit more and she’d win.

Suddenly, the circle depicting the hunter’s intel blinked out of existence. Her confusion was immediate, completely replacing her excitement. What had happened? Why had she lost her lock on him?

The answer became obvious as the Stealth Bomber’s highlighted row grew a shade greyer in her Overview. She barely noticed its distance to her had increased exponentially before the asset disappeared just as quietly as its intel.

He had warped away.

Her gut twisted with indignation. He warped away!

She was so caught up in the moment that she hadn’t noticed him breaking his orbit and aligning. It made perfect sense that he’d want to escape after seeing he was about to lose.

Of course he’d warp away.

Disappointment filled her to the core. She was so close to killing him! Being so used to fleeing hunters instead of attacking them, she’d hoped to take a kill of her own for once, but unfortunately that wouldn’t be the case. This was why capsuleers were so insistent on tackling their victims before moving in for the kill.

She sighed to herself. For now, she couldn’t dwell on her emotions. It wasn’t a good idea to stay around now that the fight was over.

Dejectedly, she surveyed the battleground: her shield booster was still running, using up her capacitor, and her drones were meandering about. She commanded them to return to her drone bay and deactivated the shield booster, which run for one more cycle before stopping entirely. As her drones zoomed back to their respective chamber, she looked around the user interface in search of something she might’ve missed.

There was only one more excuse she could think of to stay put, which was to hack the last can. However, a mix of tiredness and paranoia plagued her at the thought of doing that. Her sour mood only grew as the adrenaline left her body and a wave of pure exhaustion washed over her. It was one of the reasons why she didn’t engage in capsuleer combat very often; as much as she prepared for it, she knew that deep down, she was no fighter. The heart-pounding rush was nice once in a while, but it couldn’t bring her the satisfaction she craved.

A small part of herself mocked her for being scared, but a bigger one told that part of her mind to shut up. She was in no mood for fighting herself over the issue.

Considering her business done, she aligned her Heron back to a safe spot and entered warp. While traversing through the warp tunnel however, a message box appeared suddenly in the middle of her vision. Myles Flardou is requesting a voice conversation with you. Will you accept?

He wanted to talk to her? Not through text but voice comms? But why? To yell at her?

She gave it some thought before shrugging to herself. She’d been hoping to have a word with him before departing anyways. Whether that involved a friendly conversation or a yelling match, she’d soon find out. Worst case scenario, she’d just leave the channel.

She accepted the request as her ship came out of warp, and a communication link was established. A second was all she needed to wait.

“Hi there!” A male voice greeted her. It wasn’t exactly what his voice would sound like if they were talking in person; the quality and overall cadence of his speech was too perfect, too pristine as a consequence of how their ships’s inner software interpreted the sender’s temporal lobe, the part of the brain in charge of speech, and projected it to the receiver’s cerebrum, the part in charge of hearing. But it could easily transmit tone and volume, and judging by his greeting, he appeared to be rather cheerful.

It was enough to set her more at ease. “Good evening,” she answered politely.

Only capsuleers could greet each other like that after a death match, she thought with amusement.

He chuckled merrily. “Dude! What the hell was that? What kind of fit are you using?”

She let her shackles fall slightly. As much as she had wanted to kill him, she was touched by his reaction, honored even. Here was a seasoned hunter, complimenting her performance. “A fit that happens to specialize in killing Stealth Bombers?”

“Yeah, no kidding. Mind if I check it out?”

She considered his request. “Depends. Are you going to spread it through some secret hunter forum?”

“Heh, I’m just plain curious. The most I’ll probably do is save it and show it to my friends; I’m sure they’d love to know how a Heron managed to fend me off.” He explained. He had a very likeable voice. “And even if I were to do that, it’d only teach us hunters to be scared of every explorer we meet. I know I am.”

Or how to make fits that counter my own, she thought privately. I know that’s what I’d do. A chuckle escaped her nevertheless. He was being super friendly and she loved it. “If you say so, then yeah, I’ll give you my fit.”

“Awesome. I can give you mine to make it fair.”

“Oh thanks! I’d like that.” She proceeded to open her fitting window and drag the current arrangement into their channel.

“But you can’t post it in any secret explorer forum either!” He joked.

She laughed as the link to her fit was shared with him. “Fair enough.”

“And even if you did that,” he continued, “most people would probably tell you Stealth Bombers are only good with torpedoes. They don’t tend to believe me when I say they can make excellent frigate hunters.”

She immediately found herself agreeing with him. And not just agreeing, but opening herself to him. His assertion rang too familiar with her own struggles to make other capsuleers see the potential of her own exploration fits, her Heron’s included. Who said a T1 frigate couldn’t fight back? It was just a matter of knowing which modules to use, how to use them, and keeping your limitations in mind.

“I can definitely relate,” she started. “The same thing happens with my Heron. I know it’s not an orthodox fit in that it doesn’t even have a prop mod, but it should be able to survive, like, 75% of all hunter attacks. It should be able to warp away from any normal cloaky before it can be locked, survive a smartbomb attack from a T3C, and fight back against a Stealth Bomber. Dictors would be its weakness, but it’d only work if they were already cloaked next to a can; otherwise I’d just warp away after seeing them approach on d-scan. It’d also be a problem if I was bumped while hacking or two hunters worked together to kill me, but it’s rare for that to happen, at least depending on where exactly I’m exploring. So I’d say it’s a solid fit.”

After a beat, he said, “Wow, you really thought this through, huh?”

She smiled to herself. “It’s the best I can do, at least with the Heron.”

“Well, my friends thought I’d be easily killed by any frigate with a Manticore. That would be true in any other case, but exploration frigates don’t tend to be prepared for combat. And with its zero recalibration delay, I can catch and kill almost any exploration frigate no matter how agile they are. And even if they did send drones after me, I can generally last long enough to kill them first with a shield extender, so it’s almost like the perfect hunter.” He huffed. “Well, emphasis on almost. Maybe it wouldn’t be if more explorers knew how to defend themselves, but the fact still stands that I managed to blow up tons of frigates with it.”

His own fit was included in their chat. She saw an opportunity to satisfy her curiosity as she opened the link and his fit replaced hers in the fitting window. Just like he had mentioned, his fit had a medium-sized shield extender, two scrams – one of which was a faction design -, and T2 light missiles. An exploration frigate hunter through and through. “I’ve actually been wondering about that. I saw all your kills on your killboard and thought you had sworn revenge on every living explorer or something like that.”

His laughter was contagious. “Nah, I have nothing against explorers. You see, I had a bet with a friend of mine in which we tried to kill as many explorers as we could in a spaceship of our choosing. Naturally, I chose the Manticore and she chose the Astero, which I totally think is overrated by the way. We gave each other a month and the loser had to give the winner a 100 million isk.”

She whistled appreciatively. “That’s interesting. But for the record, while I agree the Astero is overrated, it’s also an amazing ship.”

“Yeah, sure,” he waved off, “but I’m just tired of seeing it so much.”

“Heh, true.”

“Anyway, I ended up winning, but she wanted a rematch, this time using a Stealth Bomber herself. And I agreed for some reason. So uh, here I am. Withering away in a remote area of space for another 100 million isk.” He pretended to sigh in defeat. “Sometimes I find myself regretting my life choices. But at least I managed to convince her that Stealth Bombers are worth something.”

“So you’ve been staying in Outer Ring for nearly two months by yourself?” She asked, both in disbelief and concern.

“Yeah, pretty much. I chat with my friends constantly and the locals know me by now, so I’m not entirely alone.” Then, he added more seriously, “But it does get difficult sometimes. It’s an interesting challenge surviving in nullsec with a single ship, but it gets tedious after a while.” He suddenly groaned, as if he had remembered something. “And the waiting! Oh my god the waiting. I feel like I now grow ten years older every hour I have to spend perched on a relic site. It’s torture.”

She laughed, and was suddenly very glad about failing to destroy his ship. Getting another fitted Manticore from highsec and returning to such a faraway region as Outer Ring was no easy business, especially without a wormhole to assist you. The route was filled with gatecamps and more hunters than one could count. “I can imagine,” she acknowledged with sympathy. “The fact that you survived this long without dying is more impressive than the killing if you ask me.”

“Heh, my friend did die a couple of times,” he mused. “Maybe that’s what gave me the time to beat her despite being in Outer Ring. Stain has more explorers, but it’s also a lot more dangerous.”

She huffed in response. “That’s exactly why I don’t visit Stain anymore, especially without my license.”

“So you’re Alpha? Not only did I get beat by a Heron, but also by an Alpha? I don’t know whether to congratulate you or feel humiliated.”

“Why not both?” She joked.

The two laughed out loud. It’s been a long time since she’d had such a refreshing conversation. Both her and Myles seemed somewhat like-minded: not afraid to go against the trend to achieve better results and unwilling to back down from a challenge, coupled with a good disposition. Despite the differences of their roles, they found a lot of common ground in other areas.

She had pretty much forgotten her previous sulkiness; all that remained was a deep contentment.

“In that case,” he stated as their laughter died down, “congratulations for defeating me.”

“Why, thank you.”

“Although I have to admit, I’m glad you didn’t destroy my ship. Going back to highsec to fetch another would suck, especially since I’m so close to reaching the deadline of my bet.”

“Well, now I’m glad I didn’t kill you too.”

“Meaning you weren’t at some point?” He inquired with suspicion.

She closed her fitting window and maneuvered her camera drone in a nervous gesture. “Um, maybe?”

He only chuckled some more. “I understand. I would’ve been bummed too. Which reminds me: you said you knew about my killboard. Does that mean you hacked the cans despite knowing I was there?”

“Yup.”

“So you knew I could’ve attacked you.”

“Yup.”

“But you still did it anyway.”

“Yup.”

There was a pause. After a moment, he spoke. “You little devil.”

More laughter spilled out of her, undeterred and carefree. “Says who?”

“Heh, you got me there.” He paused before saying, “I wasn’t actually sure what to make of you, you know? I saw your killboard and profile and guessed you were probably experienced at what you do, but I also saw your guns, which really confused me because those who fit them to T1 frigates are generally newbies thinking they can fight back. Plus, you had never lost a Heron, so I had no other leads on your fit. So in the end I just went for it, thinking ‘I can probably do this’. Famous last words.”

Warmth bloomed within her. His openness and good sportsmanship about the whole deal was almost overwhelming. “Heh, yeah, it’s the first time I use this ship. I actually didn’t like Herons all that much until a corpmate gave me the idea of using one to fight Stealth Bombers. So now I don’t hate them all that much.”

“Well, now I do.” He jested without bite.

Her gut twisted with wry humor. “I’m sure you can get over it.”

“Nope, I’ve been traumatized for life.” She could almost feel his grin.

“So now every time you see a Heron you’ll curl into a ball and bawl your eyes out?”

“Yep, pretty much. And then I’ll only be able to roll through life.”

Her amusement couldn’t be contained any longer. She giggled and said, “Tough spot buddy.”

“I appreciate your concern.”

They both giggled until falling into a comfortable silence, the first since they’d begun speaking. Her attention wandered as she thought about her next question, or maybe a new topic of discussion. She felt her Heron swaying gently to the lulls of its own engine, the barely audible and artificially-created hum of the starship’s hardware and d-scan, the ubiquitous sensation of floating in the depths of an infinitely vast sea of stars, nebulas and darkness. She sometimes forgot how overwhelmingly beautiful space was, and how peaceful.

“So how long until your bet is finished?” She asked as the moment passed. “You said it was almost over right?

“3 days.” He replied. “After that I’ll finally be free, and I won’t accept any more rematches.”

“And who’s winning for now?”

“My friend; she’s just one kill ahead of me. It’s too bad I’ve been catching less frigates recently, probably due to my killboard. That’s also why I took the risk to attack you. But there’s still time to catch up with her!”

“Of course! Do you dock somewhere to rest or just stay in space?”

“The latter. My Manticore is a Cross-Capsule model, so I can activate my cloaking device manually without my pod and stay in an unaligned safe spot for the night while I sleep. I also have enough food here to last for a couple months, so this ship has pretty much become a temporary home for me.”

“Wow.” For a hunter, he was sounding a lot like an explorer. “You really thought this through, huh?” She echoed his earlier words.

“Yup. I can’t afford to risk docking in a station camped by a capsuleer gang.”

That was true. Faction stations were coveted by any nullsec group, and tended to be their center of operations. It was risky to dock in them without the local gang’s consent.

Suddenly, Myles swore. “Oh shit.”

“What is it?” She asked in concern.

“My ship is almost wrecked. I need to repair my armor and structure. Which means I have to dock somewhere with a repair service.” He groaned with resignation. “I should’ve brought a Mobile Depot with hull and armor reps. I just assumed that if I were caught by anyone I’d be a goner anyway.”

“Oh.” Dread accumulated in her gut as she processed his words. His shield was his main tank, which would regenerate by itself, but without a local repair module, his armor and structure would remain damaged. While neither of them would hold if he was under serious attack, he could still count on them as cushions if he were able to escape at the last minute.

An idea occurred to her. “Do you want me to scout for you?” She suggested. “I can make sure the route to the station is clear.”

As she had expected, he immediately refused. “No, I can’t ask you to do that. You’d die as soon as you set foot in a gatecamp, while I at least have a cloaking device. I’ll see what I can do about this.”

She pressed the issue however. The thought of leaving him in his current state was almost painful. “I don’t really mind. I can easily replace this Heron if I die anyways.”

“Still, there’s no need for you to do this.” He insisted.

“But I want to.” She argued back. “Besides, it’d be a real shame if you died right now for whatever reason.”

It was almost unsettling how quickly her convictions had changed. She’d wanted him dead so badly at first, and now she was willing to put her own life on the line to help him live, all because he was being so unreservedly kind. She rarely connected with anyone this way, let alone a hunter who was supposed to prey on her, but it didn’t matter in the end. Myles was not a cold-blooded assassin any more than she was his victim. Now, they were more than that; a little companionship was all it took to achieve that. Kindness has such underestimated power, she thought.

Myles stayed silent for a few seconds, then said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Ok then.” He yielded. His tone afterwards was grateful. “Thanks a lot for the offer. If I win this bet, I’ll split the reward in half with you.”

“There’s no need to do that. You don’t owe me anything.”

“But I want to.”

Affectionate exasperation curled within her heart. “Fair enough. Let me just refit and we’ll be on our way.” She deployed her Mobile Depot and waited for it to assemble.


The closest system with a relatively safe station according to Myles was 9 jumps away. If the intel provided by the killboard and her virtual map was correct, no kills had occurred anywhere in the route for at least an hour, which were the best odds they could strive for anyway. It took them around fifteen minutes to get to their destination unscathed; after finally docking, he offered to scout ahead while she made her way back to her wormhole. A small part of her was still hesitant to trust him, but the truth was that she didn’t want to part ways with him just yet; she was really enjoying his company. Plus, the idea of refusing his help after she had done the same for him made her feel like a hypocrite. So she took a leap of faith and accepted, waiting another fifteen minutes until he was done repairing his spaceship to let him have the lead.

They talked a lot about themselves and their backgrounds as they traveled through Outer Ring; apparently he lived with a lowsec group in Aridia and spent his time managing planet colonies, clearing Blood Raider camps and flying in gangs, although he wasn’t dedicated enough to join any capsuleer corporation. In turn, she told him about her tendency to travel through wormhole space and nullsec and her frequent gatherings with her corpmates to destroy Sleepers, tour around New Eden, and clear pirate strongholds. It was very easy to jump from one topic to the other, and before she knew it, they were already back at the system with her exit wormhole.

Something like disappointment filled her at the realization. The idea of ceasing communications and never seeing this funny, smart and easy-going person again was unexpectedly upsetting. “What are you going to do now?” She asked as she warped to a safe spot.

A yawn escaped the male capsuleer. “I’ll probably call it a day. I’m so freaking tired.”

The warp tunnel thinned out, and her Heron landed in an empty pocket of space. “Just a few more days and you’ll be free.”

“God, yes. I can’t wait to get back.”

A silence enveloped them for the first time since they left the relic site. But unlike before, it wasn’t a comfortable one. She felt she had so many things to say, but couldn’t find the words or the courage to express them. A gaping hollowness started craving itself deeper and deeper within her as the seconds ticked by, festered by her own insecurities and her heavy heart.

He broke the silence just when she was about to thank him for his services and bid him farewell. “So hey,” he started, “I have another idea on how to spend my reward. Other than sharing it with you I mean.”

“We still don’t know for sure whether you’ll win or not.” She reminded him.

“Yeah, but uh, you know, it’s something that can happen anyway.” Was it just her or did he sound… nervous?

A small, hopeful cloud started to condense at the back of her mind. “Such as?”

“Like… buying you a drink? I still owe you for scouting for me.”

The cloud grew as thick and heavy as a fog. She could see nothing beyond it but her own combination of relief, excitement, and underlying panic. Was it ok to accept? She barely knew this person after all.

She could see it as bright as day: meeting at a somewhat crowded bar, appreciating each other’s physical forms, sipping from their drinks, enjoying a conversation as meaningful as the one they’d just had. They might knock it off extremely well and indulge themselves in more suggestive banter, or maybe find a potential ally in their intellectual and emotional respect for each other. Whatever the outcome, she was still not fully ready to embrace the implications of such a meeting, as much as she didn’t want their relationship to end. What she needed was time, and probably someone to talk to. Take a step back, gather as much intel as she could, and decide on an educated verdict later on. She was in uncharted territory, and as a fully-fledged explorer, she would decide to retreat for now.

But still, this was more than enough. It amply refilled the hollowness in her soul, and made her feel better than she’s felt in a long time. This was what truly brought her satisfaction. “I’ll think about it.” She answered softly. “I’ll let you know what my decision is before your deadline. Is that ok?”

“That’s great! Take as much time as you need. You know how to contact me.”

“I do. And thanks for scouting for me as well.”

“Don’t mention it. Talk to you later?”

“Yeah. And good luck with your bet.”

“Thanks! Have a safe flight.”

“You too.”

Their conversation ended along with their communication link. The silence that followed felt empty after listening to the sound of their voices for over an hour. Funny, how it all started with a fight that lasted less than two minutes.

The Heron slowly aligned to the wormhole and entered warp. Within a moment, she had landed and was journeying across the space-time anomaly, entering a system far far away from any known space.

She had a lot to think about.

Anamnesis

Editor’s Note: Continuing with our Eve Fiction Writing contest winners, here is our fourth installment.

Anamnesis

A short story by Signaleer Tolgaard Asanari

Forward

Tolgaard Asanari

I feel I must apologize for the flawed structure of the following story. Although it wasn’t written by me, I am aware the breaks and skips of the story make it seem much more an outline than a true telling. The Achuran who gave me this story, being something of an artist and political activist, insisted that the following statement be published in conjunction with the story. I am not sure I have the requisite sensibility to appreciate this statement, having perhaps to much common sense and a low tolerance of nonsense, but here it is:

“I wrote this story considering the rigid stratification of overall Caldari culture. As this story appears an outline, with parts missing between sections reducing the readability and overall impact of an engaging and meaningful story, so too does the inflexibility of Caldari society interfere with the continued growth and expansion of what should be a truly exceptional and influential culture extending and advancing the human condition.”

I know. I don’t really understand it either.

The following is a true story… Names and other personally identifying information have been obfuscated or removed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

The Beginning

The child tosses and turns, caught in the bonds of an unnatural sleep, fair hair plastered against a sweat-streaked brow. From time to time, Nurse gently bathes the child’s face with a cool, damp cloth, occasionally adjusting blankets and pillows in a forlorn attempt to ease the child’s discomfort. Nurse is a firm believer in a higher power, an over-arching deity who controls everything while cradling the fate of humanity in ever-loving hands. At times like these, however, that faith is sorely tested, for how could a loving God allow something like this to happen to a child? Especially this child? Tears glistening on wrinkled cheeks, Nurse renews the attempt to comfort the child’s condition, praying as always that the child will one day awaken, and that the sound of laughing and giggling and playing will echo through the mansion once more.

The Setting

Achura, known by some as Saisio III. A planet with a gravity slightly higher than the planet of human origin, covered in rich farmland, spectacular mountain ranges and possessing some of the best vacation and hunting resorts in Caldari space, Achura is the ancestral home of the Achuran race and a relatively recent addition to the Caldari State. Achura is notorious for attempting to go its own way in cultural affairs, but remains staunchly Caldari in governmental and business proceedings.

Sukuuvestaa corporation, one of the largest and most powerful business entities in Caldari space, maintains a large presence on Achura. Long known for their focus on agriculture, mining and real estate investment, Sukuuvestaa corporation has for some time been a favorite of the Achura, with a large percentage of the corporate upper echelon keeping offices and estates here.

One such estate is located just east of the large, sprawling SuVee headquarters complex, in an area graced by cool seasons, warm sunshine, gentle breezes and a fast 15 minute flight time to company offices.

The Problem

Late in YC107, Caldari medical services began to notice what appeared to be a new syndrome appearing in children of Achuran descent. Although rare, affecting just 1 in 10 million children, the condition was somewhat concerning. Symptoms included fever, extreme lethargy and an inability to concentrate, followed quickly by collapse into a semi-catatonic state. Patients affected by this condition usually remained in a semi-catatonic to comatose state, despite all treatment attempts. A noticeable deterioration of bodily function usually resulted in death within 2 years. The condition became known as Seylin-Formins Disorder, named after the facility in which it was first identified.

In YC112, researchers at the Achuran Institute of Medical Research and Development discovered a possible link between Jovian disease and Seylin-Formins Disorder through a cooperative endeavor with the Institute of Jovian Studies and, unofficially, with the Society of Conscious Thought. Recent advances in technology, primarily capsuleer-interface technologies, allowed the fairly rapid development of a possible remedy. Surgical installation of a sophisticated and invasive neural implant system, controlled remotely by an advanced AI, seemed to offer the best chance of repairing, or perhaps offsetting, the neurological damage caused by Seylin-Formins. Deployed in YC114, initial results were startlingly effective. 98.9% of cases were effectively treated leading to regression of symptoms, and while there was a relapse rate in the single digits, the remedy was hailed by everyone involved as a monumental success.

That is, unless your child happened to be among those in the single digits.

The Child

Lost in a fever dream. Swirling, sparkling, spiraling lights; explosions without end. Sense of vicarious movement, faster than light, stars blurring into solid streaks, rushing to possible doom/destruction/death (but not final, no; never final.) Overwhelming sense of OTHER, intuitive understanding of concepts far beyond a six year old. A sense of sight, enhanced beyond biological limit, colors and shapes, forms of ships, gates, stations, planets. And hearing, oh the sounds… the rush of missiles, sounds of beams discharging, buzzing sound of projectile systems engaging, low shield/armor/hull klaxons… (Dim perceptions of Nurse, and cool rags, and outside noises, but OHH so far away, and not really REAL.) Awesome victories, devastating defeats, riches beyond imaginings, losses beyond belief…

And the child continues to lie motionless, face composed. A discerning observer might distinguish the flush of fever spreading across tiny cheeks… or, perhaps, the flush of inescapable excitement.

The Executive

Tall, dark haired, handsome in a rugged sort of way, wearing an expensively tailored E-suit, the Executive strides into the building. Heading toward the Executives personal elevator (no security here; any unauthorized person wouldn’t have made it into the building), the Executive communes with an inbuilt personal AI, reviewing and amending the schedule for the day. Riding the elevator to the 140th floor is something of a meditative exercise; some Executives drop in to the helipad on top of the building, but this Executive appreciates the few seconds of quiet and isolation the elevator affords… and besides, having ones own private elevator is one of the established perks of the job, and should therefore be enjoyed to the fullest.

Exiting the elevator and emerging into the outer office, a few things register. All secretaries are in place, working their private communication suites and handling the more mundane affairs of office. None look up at the sound of elevator doors opening, as expected. The last secretary to look up and make eye contact with the boss was terminated immediately. They are here to do the work of the Corporation and, by extension, the Directorate, not engage in satisfying personal curiosity on Company time.

The office is large, furnished in a quiet, unpretentious but extremely expensive style that screams power and wealth, in an understated way, of course. An observer might be surprised to see no desk anywhere in the suite. Artificial creations of intimidation, power and place setting are not required by the occupant of this office; anyone who gets this far is beyond those necessities. The Executive sits in a personally tailored leather and titanium chair and picks up a folder full of various appropriation proposals. Although these could be reviewed electronically in an installed personal augmented virtual reality environment, sometimes having the physical papers to review can lend a certain je ne sais quoi to the experience. Besides, having the time to process information physically is another established perk of the job.

As the day progresses into the afternoon, a grimace crosses the Executives face, something the secretaries would all swear was impossible. The Executive is famous for a granite, unyielding expression. An internal alarm has reminded of an appointment outside the office, and it is time to leave. The Executive heads out the door, scanning the assembled personnel to verify all is as it should be, heads down and working, and crosses to the elevator, exercising the Executive privilege to come and go at will. This time, going up. The ‘Copter is required. Hopefully the appointment can be accomplished within a short time; there are still many things to be done here before the day is over.

The Meeting

“As you can see, following this chart, the present configuration of the Seylin-Formins implant is effectively suppressing the erratic processing of information taking place in the limbic system. Misfiring of neocortical neurons are being handled correctly by implant sub-processing. Paralimbic cortical regions have been …”

“Doctor, I’m not a medical man. I don’t actually care about limbic processing or the structure of the amygdala. What I do care about is what procedures will be necessary to restore proper functioning to the mind and body of my heir.”

“Director, we have been working virtually nonstop on the project ever since the relapse occurred. We have our best minds working on it. It is a difficult case, but we have hope that a res…”

“Doctor, I took time out of my busy schedule, which included deciding on the allocation of funding and grants to various institutions across Suukuvestaa’s areas of interest, to come here today. Please don’t tell me I wasted my time coming to your institution to hear another of your excuses. I came here solely because I was told there is a procedure that may repair the issue. Was I misinformed?”

“No, there is a… procedure. It is very tentative. A theory has been proposed that a slight ‘leak’ in the subspace processing linkage between the implant structure and the controlling AI is allowing outside information to be injected into the stream, causing destructive interference with the implant structure associated with processing within the Cerebrum. The process by which this may be occurring is not clear. A further…”

“Doctor, I must return to work. Will this process heal my heir, or do I need to fund another clinic to research the issue?

“Director, it is the considered opinion of this institute that, at the present time, this procedure offers the best chance of a recovery. Whether complete recovery or not, I can not say, as it is experimental in nature.”

“Very well, proceed, and notify me when you have something concrete to offer.”

“Director, one more thing… this procedure… well, it is experimental. There is a chance that reprogramming the substrate and realigning the various implantation nodes could render the subject into a permanent persistent vegetative state, with little to no hope of recovery.”

“Do it, and notify me when the procedure is complete.”

The Nurse

The young child, fair headed and light eyed, runs across the carefully manicured lawn, laughing and shouting. Catching sight of Nurse, the child alters course, gaining speed and catapulting into the waiting arms of Nurse, knocking both to the ground. Laughter and giggling continue as Nurse exacts revenge for being spilled onto the ground by the ruthless application of tickles. The child breaks free and speeds off, attention distracted once more, this time by a butterfly, enjoying a child’s golden afternoon in the sun…

With a start, Nurse awakens, sitting in a chair in an opulent waiting room. Gut wrenching, heart aching sensation as the memory of the dream passes across the tapestry of reality. Nurse remembers the child’s birth, the awe and delight as the realization of fair hair and light eyes registered with the doctors and nurses attending. A combination of fair hair and light eyes amongst the Achura is a rare thing, and supposedly signifies great luck, health and wealth for the possessor of such sublime features. Nurse fully believes this child will rise to greatness, all things considered. As the child grows, the superstition appears to have a factual basis. The child is healthy and intelligent, with an engaging personality, all flashing smiles and happy laughter.

Then, the downfall. Increasing lethargy, lack of smiles, lack of laughter, almost no energy followed by a total collapse. Nurse prays to an all compassionate God for intervention, and it seems to be a success. A grueling operation, a few days of recovery, and suddenly the child is back again, providing light and life to an otherwise dark and sterile existence. The child’s relapse almost destroys Nurse; only the fact that there isn’t anyone who, in Nurse’s opinion, can adequately care for the child enables Nurse to go on at all.

And now, this. A second operation, this one as experimental as the first, and potentially even more perilous. Nurse still can’t understand how the Director, even though stern and coldly inhuman in mannerism, can work while this operation is in progress. It is all Nurse can do to sit and remain quiet, as the urge to run down the hall to the operating room, beat on the door and demand an update is almost overwhelming.

One hour down. The doctors have said this operation could last upwards of eight hours. Nurse stares at the unmoving hands of an antique clock in the waiting room. Internal time checks reveal it is in working order, but time is at a standstill. All Nurse can do is wait.

The Commencement

A sterile operating theater, with doctors and nurses surrounding a small figure lying on a padded and cushioned table. Arms and legs strapped to avoid unnecessary movement, the child is covered with a synthetic coverlet, engineered to monitor the body’s vital signs and provide recommendations to attending physicians in the event of abnormality, as well as capable of extruding a nano-technology driven interface to take sudden corrective action if required.

To an observer unfamiliar with the proceedings, the equipment in the room would seem strange. A small half-bowl with a crystalline appearance is situated over the child’s head, although apparently making no direct contact with the child. A medium-sized white box is located on a smaller table, adjacent to the child. A thin cord extends from the box, passing through the crystalline bowl and appearing to plug directly into the Occipital region of the child’s cranium. A crash cart is parked against the far wall; no one thinks it will be of much use in this situation, but regulations are regulations. That is all; despite the complexity and ground-breaking nature of this endeavor, not much else is actually required. The doctors and nurses standing around are also somewhat superfluous; most of the operation is managed, regulated and performed by an advanced AI. However, it is technically an operation, and besides, it cannot hurt to have a few doctors and nurses on hand. In theory, there won’t be much of a person to save residing in that young cranium if the operation turns out badly, but theory is theory, and this is reality. If the child can be saved, these people are prepared to move heaven and earth to make it happen.

A mental signal is sent, a command is acknowledged, and the AI begins the procedure.

The Procedure

Increasing coherence of thought, alterations of mind increasing reception of aberrant signals, deepening understanding of concepts once foreign, and what once were flashes of external stimuli flowing inward have become cohesive, episodic incidents of vicarious experience…

Floating through space, and all’s quiet in the area. Bouncing from planet to planet, the child hits the target location on the third try. Coasting to a stop, the child examines the cache, finds the contents satisfactory, and heads off into the void, reminding Allison to update the markers. A wormhole appears ahead, an anomaly the child has already located and marked, and preparations are made to make transit. Maintaining caches might not always be the most exciting endeavor, but it can be among the most satisfying. The child enters the wormhole, and…

Cloaked in space, bombs and torpedoes ready to go. Tension rising as the child approaches the target. The cruiser is apparently oblivious to the child’s existence, and proceeds about its current activities. Closer, closer, ON TARGET! The cloak drops, the bombs and torpedoes fly, and a massive wave of exaltation passes through the child as his target explodes in a cartwheeling, pinwheeling blaze of light and fire, pieces of matter blazing outward from the center, temporarily lighting the darkness. The child turns and heads for the nearest high-sec wormhole, mission accomplished…

Brief sense of darkness, flickering sense of reality…

Cargo hold half full, continually orbiting a large, ore packed asteroid, maintaining a watchful eye on sensors as the child’s mining equipment cuts into the massive rock below. The child returns attention to the TRI-D entertainment module interface accessible from the pod, and continues watching The Adventures of a Space Age Por…

Wavering, space begins to flicker in and out… sounds become distorted, vision elongated, feelings compressed. The child is happy/angry and sad/exuberant. Something is wrong, but the child’s will is strong, and very quickly…

Shields gone, armor gone, hull at barely 5 percent, the child makes preparations to warp off in the pod. Initiating the align instruction, the child begins spamming the warp instruction. A sudden explosion, fire and light surrounding the child, a sense of motion, and… the pod speeds outward! Heading away from the explosion, heading toward safety and a station with implants intact. You can’t win them all, but you can surely try!…

Blackness engulfs the child, oppressive quiet, numb feelings. The child floats in an endless abyss. A light appears in the distance, slowly growing in size. A voice sounds in the silence, not actually heard but experienced…

“Child, you are lost… come this way.”

Sudden irrational fear breaks through into the child’s consciousness. No… No… NO! With a supreme effort of will, the child breaks free, and…

Recovering from the gate jump, the child groans aloud. Gatecamp! Bubbles covering the immediate vicinity, ships in the immediate area trying to decloak, lock and destroy! But the child is clever. Fitted with a covert cloak, the child selects a random direction and begins to move. Internal tension flares as a ship passes oh so close, but still too far away to strip the cloak protection from the vessel. Slowly, the vessel creeps forward, closer and closer to the bubbles edge, and then… FREE! Cloak still engaged, the child warps off to the predetermined safe, whooping with joy and excitement…

Again, blackness. Again, quiet and numbness. This time, however, there is no voice, no sound… simply 3-D holovid crystals, spinning resolutely through space, passing before the child. Small children, running and playing on green, green grass, chasing one another as the child looks on, smiling… (feeling of numbness lessening, quiet somehow less oppressive) Nurse, clapping and singing with a small child… Nurse, bestowing the tickle punishment for a supposed minor infraction…

Numbness is all gone now, replaced by a quiet warmth… sounds of laughter and singing are slowly replacing the quiet as a sensation blossoms in the child… a long forgotten sense of love and life and feeling. The child wants to… do whatever is necessary, but some last darkness remains, blocking the way.

Blackness fades to light, and all around the child a room appears. Tall figure in a suit, standing, looking down on a small child. The figure reaches down and grabs the child, hugging the child tightly. Pulling away, the child is startled to see the look on the tall figures face… however briefly, a smile has appeared.

Last explosion of light and sound, unnatural darkness fading away forever, the child finally fades into a precious, peaceful abyss.

The Conclusion

Afternoon approaches. The Executive tries to focus on routing orders, appropriation allotments and other important issues, but it is growing harder to maintain concentration. For once, these subjects appear less than trivial. The Executive is not known for nervous mannerisms or pacing, and yet…

Abruptly, dropping paperwork onto a convenient table, the Executive leaves the suite and quickly walks toward the elevator, failing for once to look around the office. (Probably for the best, as the secretaries are so startled by the sudden, unprecedented appearance of the boss that a few actually look up. The boss has never left this early before without a scheduled appointment.)

Arriving at the institute, the Executive quickly walks toward the private suite reserved for the operation and recovery. Calling ahead would, perhaps, alleviate the anxiety suddenly making itself felt, but surely if a problem had occurred…

Up ahead, a cluster of people are arranged outside the main room of the suite. Doctors, Nurses, Technicians… all standing around the entrance to the room, looking inward… what has happened? For the first time in a decade, the Executive breaks into a run, heading for the door. Personnel fade out of the way, making room for the Executive to enter. It is only at this moment that the smiles on the faces of the people surrounding the door become evident, but the Executive is focused solely on the room ahead.

Nurse, standing by a bed, head down, tears sliding slowly onto old, cracked cheeks. Looking up, smiling, and stepping aside, revealing a small figure sitting on the bed. The child sees the Executive enter the room, and, fueled by the power of childhood, and love, and life, despite muscles atrophied by years of lying in bed, fairly catapults into the Executives arms. For the first time in a long time, the granite cracks, and a smile appears, banishing for all time the apathetic impassivity that was fed by rage, and loneliness, and fear.

Epilogue

In YC117, researchers at the Achuran Institute of Medical Research and Development, in cooperation with scientists from the Institute of Jovian Studies, in a partnership with technical elements from the Society of Conscious Thought, finally derived a highly successful, multi-pronged approach to the treatment of Seylin-Formins disease. At the time of this writing, all known cases have been completely cured, and sudden onset cases are usually treated successfully within 48 hours. Rumors of a complementary derived treatment for some cases of Jovian disease have been reported, but no proof has been presented. The Society of Conscious Thought, when approached by this author, declined comment.

Dreams of My Father

Editor’s Note: Continuing with our Eve Fiction Writing contest winners, here is our third installment.

Dreams of My Father

A short story by Signaleer Soup Atross

Soup Atross

Her first wormhole opened like a wound in her brain. She hesitated outside its blooming mass. She couldn’t bear to dive in. But she couldn’t turn away. The ripe center was the color of blood, beating like a heart. Behind her cloak, she slipped through the event horizon and waited to come out the other side. Waited until it felt like the system’s star went out. Until her mother picked her up and took her away. Until the universe went to sleep and all the station lights went out and the clone of the last capsuleer rotted in its tube.

She told Claire he would come back. In her mother’s arms, she watched his ship go from the station, a semicircle with a line through it. The Nonni sun golden in her eyes. And when he didn’t come back that first year, her mother showed her his clone. No one’s ever really gone, she said. See? And she saw him behind the glass, like he was sleeping, his brow furrowed with the dreams of the void, the black beyond their small star, the clusters and jumps and systems she learned about in school, the way they came together after the first gate, the way New Eden stretched across the stars.

He’s not sleeping, she said, smoothing her curls. He’s not here. And the years passed. Her class in school went to the holoreels, the training simulator, the mission agents. But she just watched the great station window, watched the ships come and go, the long-barrelled freighters and the hooked jaws of the cruisers, and sometimes the big ships with all the supplies, ammunition, antidotes, ore. And sometimes a ship like her father’s would wink by, an explorer’s ship, with the telltale half-circle of blinking lights. And even as she became a young woman, she never was able to swallow the bright cold joy of what if. What if it was him, back from the beyond, with the pieces of the universe he promised to show her? What if it was him and his beard and his large hands, the way he held her at night, mother told her, and she tried to remember, rocking her to sleep while the noise of the station hangars breathed deep breaths in the background.

Fleet Commander Gaterau started to notice her. Watching the ships launch. Watching the pilots come and go. Walking past the clone bays. She knew Claire was the daughter of Graham Lennelluc, knew what it meant to wait for a ship to come back in from the stars. But her mother had warned the FC away. She thinks she remembers being whisked behind her mother’s legs in a station corridor when the FC tried to give her a model of father’s ship. I won’t let you take her away, her mother said. I won’t lose her too. And she remembers Gaterau’s face, the way her jaw set, the way her eyes cooled. Someday she will have the choice, Amanda. But she was too little to remember. Her mother told her this story, as a confidant, as if she agreed, as if they were both agreed. No other Lennelluc would be flying away to anywhere. Not ever again.

And the time passed. She’d stopped walking by his clone years ago, stopped trying to see his eyes behind his eyelids, stopped believing he was just asleep, even though mother had told her he wasn’t. But where did he go? I don’t know, she said, and she looked older now, the wrinkles and veins showing through as she put her face in her hands. I don’t know. And now she would have to be the grown up, and she would comfort her mother, and take her by the hand, and show her daddy’s clone, and tell her he would be back. He said he’d be back, she’d tell her mother. No one’s ever really gone. All the ISK in the family in that sleeping clone in Bay 38.

When mother was ready to die a citizen’s death, old age coming, no capsules, no implants, nothing funny, she said, because why do I need to live if your father is gone, Claire asked her again where daddy went. When she was a little girl in her mother’s arms, she would point out the station window and ask if daddy went that way, and her mother would nod. Yes, he went that way. But now she needed to know where. Claire squeezed her hand and tried to keep her voice strong and steady. Where did he go? Why can’t I follow him?

Her mother gestured for her keepsake container, the one she’d used for her jewelry and her favorite holoreels and her insignias and trinkets. And inside was daddy’s ship from the FC, still bright, still white and red like in the reels, the compartments and lights and antennae, the thrusters glowing. She knew the ship from her dreams. And she knew what she had to do. But she kept it to herself, even when mother’s body was at last biomassed and FC Gaterau gave Claire her first Corvette. Her first appointment with a mission agent. She was a natural scanner, said her FC. She had a knack, and even as she was learning how to quadrangulate the anomalies that appeared like ghosts in her probe view, she was scanning for him.

After that first wormhole, she knew where he must be. She knew enough about the universe to know he was in Anoikis, the empty place between places, unmapped and vast, except by the scouts and wormhole corporations, who could shed light on some places like a bulb swinging in the dark. In glimpses, the dark room would glow. A corner here, a corner there, and slowly, across her view, while she drank deeply from her ship’s dash, Anoikis became home. She took up with an exploring corp, ran a hundred thousand relic sites, put enough ISK away for a clone next to daddy, in Bay 38, Row 7, Seat 5. She was flying his ship, the one with the great crescent wings on each side and the long pointed nose. The one she remembered, in the golden light of her memory, warping out from the Caldari Navy Assembly Plant of Nonne. Warping away from home, while her mother held her and pointed off into the dark.

Claire knew there was a small chance he was really gone. There were tales of some deaths that you couldn’t come back from. The miniature moment between destruction and the neural scan, between brain death and the burst transmission to a clone. But Claire expected better of her father. Sometimes, when the probes wheeled across another system looking to tighten a signature, she could see his face in the lines, the face from her dreams, the face from the clone in Bay 87. Sometimes she saw his hand span a constellation behind another relic site whirring behind an obelisk. Sometimes she saw his heart beat in the center of a wormhole. He was waiting for her somewhere between the empty places. Somewhere in upside Anoikis, where even the Tripwire couldn’t follow. Somewhere he couldn’t come back. He could only wait.

My father told me she would come back. In his arms, I watched her ship go from the station, a circle with a line through it. The Nonni sun golden in my eyes. And when she didn’t come back that first year, father showed me her clone, next to granddad’s. No one’s ever really gone, he said. See? And I saw her and granddad behind the glass, like they were sleeping, their brows furrowed with the dreams of the void, the black beyond.

The Atonement of Ravanna Zahelle, Solo Pirate

Editor’s Note: Continuing with our Eve Fiction Writing contest winners, here is our second installment. Some words edited for family friendly audience.

The Atonement of Ravanna Zahelle, Solo Pirate

A short story by Signaleer Void Raven

Void Raven

The frozen corpse of a woman, a baseliner, rotated slowly. The face displayed no physical trauma, in stark contrast to the obvious signs of extreme violence exhibited by the rest of her body, which was a mess of twisted and contorted limbs attached to a severely battered torso. Her face, however, did convey just how terrifying the moments immediately preceding her demise had been, when she saw her imminent death with inescapable certainty, as that terror was imprinted on it in frozen perpetuity by the near absolute zero temperature of space. A closer scrutiny of her face would have revealed that she had also experienced some form of sadness leading up to her death, for there were frozen teardrops attached to her eyelashes and stuck to her skin at the ends of tear streaks that ran down her cheeks. As she rotated, they glittered and sparkled like tiny diamonds in the light of the central star.

Pulling back from her shimmering face one would have seen that she was but one of many other corpses floating among the wreckage of a ship, destroyed earlier by a powerful explosion. These corpses had not too long ago been the ill-fated crew of that ship. Embroidered on their clothing was the name “Valhalla II”. The woman was not part of the crew; the shredded remains of her clothing was different from the others. They were baseliners, and as such they were not afforded the luxury of access to fresh clones with which to simply start a new chapter of their lives as capsuleers were. No, they were permanently dead; no more than the collateral damage of conflict wrought by capsuleers. Human detritus forever lost in the vast ocean of New Eden. Mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, children and siblings that would never come home again.

Several hours earlier

Deep in low security space, Ravanna Zahelle, a solo pirate, watched impassively as her prey floundered helplessly in the unrelenting grip of her ship. Ravanna had applied a warp scrambler and webifier to it, in addition to a neutralizer on its capacitor. Her ship’s weapons were trained on it, and a flight of her combat drones were swarming around, both groups of deadly weaponry ready for her command. The freighter was not going anywhere. It was hers to do with as she pleased. What a gloriously heady rush it was to have such absolute control over others. It was like a drug and she was addicted to it. But like all drugs it came with side effects, the most prevalent of which was that Ravanna hated herself for not being able to feel the slightest remorse for the ruin that followed in the wake of her attacks; the psychological trauma and scars and financial destitution that her victims had to cope with if they paid the ransom and were subsequently released; or the death and destruction, coldly delivered, when no ransom payment was forthcoming.

She lived by what to her was a simple rule of the universe.“The strong prey on the weak. Big galaxies eat the little ones. I take from those weaker than myself. It’s a simple rule to live by…no, the only rule to survive by, in New Eden.” she mused. By the Sisters of Eve, she despised New Eden and her place in it.

“I’m so f’ing messed up.” thought Ravanna. “Just another wretched, flawed soul adding to the abundant misery in this grim, harsh universe. How the hell did I get to this point?” she asked herself, rhetorically.

The internal conflict always kept her company, sometimes buried deeper down and easier to ignore, while at other times, like now, it was closer to the surface and more demanding of reflection and resolution. Morality…could morality exist in an ostensibly uncaring, indifferent universe? If the whole; if the sum of the parts, was uncaring could any of the constituent parts, like herself, be caring? By the Sisters, her head hurt. She was a damn pirate, not a philosopher. She would never find an answer to her inner turmoil; after years and years of trying, she was no closer to a resolution. Her addiction, the thrill from doing what she did best had, up to now at least, always won out over the self-loathing that came from seeking it.

“What would happen if one day the reverse was ever true?” she wondered absent-mindedly.

Ravanna’s thoughts returned to the task at hand. She waited for the trapped pilot’s response to her demand for ransom; somewhat patiently at first, but quickly less so. Every additional minute she delayed, increased her own personal risk in the endeavor. The victim could be requesting backup assistance. Stronger pirates could attack her. A bounty hunter could surprise her. Her main concern was not dying, since she was a capsuleer, but rather losing her ship, since every ship lost was an increase in the direct cost of her “business”. Plus, there was the cost in lost time to obtain a replacement ship. Clear, cold calculation…she liked that.

Ravanna opened the communications channel to her victim again. “Valhalla II, what is your decision? My demand is not negotiable. If you do not transfer the requested funds immediately, I will destroy your ship and take whatever remains of value.”

“Please! Please! Don’t do this!” came the response from the freighter captain. “I don’t have that amount of money; all my funds are tied up in the collateral for this courier contract. If you were to release me, once I get paid, I’ll transfer the ransom you asked for. You have my word.”

“Yup.” thought Ravanna. “That’s exactly what you’ll do. In a few hours when you reach your destination, you’ll just happily pay me. No, you’ll file a piracy report, my security standing will decrease further and I’ll be even more ‘Wanted’.”

The captain continued, “I truly cannot pay you right now. I also have a family onboard that will pay me for passage at the destination, so I will pay you more than you ask. They have a baby daughter. You don’t have to do this. It is a choice you make. Please release me so I can continue and you can get your money.”

Ravanna felt her ire increase. Always the same stupid excuse: “I don’t have the money.” Or attempts to play on her feelings of guilt: “You can choose to let me go instead of destroying me. Please won’t you make the right choice this time?” The one about the family onboard, with a baby no less; that was new. She had never heard that one used before. Of course, it was a blatant lie, just like the lack of money. Families with new-born children never travelled across lowsec in a freighter. Never.

Appeals for her to make the “right” choice were dead on arrival. Yes, it was her choice to decide what to do. But what her victims never realized, until it was too late, was that she always chose to follow through with her threat to destroy their ship and loot whatever she could if she didn’t receive the ransom. For the love of the Sisters, she was a hardened pirate and she accepted ransom or dealt destruction without prejudice. Her life was very binary in that regard. She always honored a ransom payment and released the victim; but in return for that concession to the universe, she also honored the consequence of no payment.

“No negotiations. The only thing, the only thing that will help you in your current situation is payment of the money. Oh…and don’t give me some ridiculous crap about having a family onboard. Just give me the money and you can leave, or prepare to lose your damn ship, OK?.” Ravanna replied, her voice even in tone and volume, yet nonetheless threatening. “There will be no further communication from me. You have one minute.” she warned ominously.

“No! Wait, please. I’m not ly…” The victim was cut-off mid-sentence as Ravanna closed the comms channel. A minute or so later, she viewed her account one more time to verify whether the ransom had been transferred to her. It had not.

“So. It has come down to this again.” she thought blankly.

It had been a while since she had been required to destroy a ship; it almost felt like she had been on vacation. The real world was suddenly back. She became aware of a growing headache. They always came before she dispensed her wrath. Why did some people think they could outplay her? Why did they force her hand? No matter…the time had come.

“I’ve been here before; I’ll be here again.” she thought without emotion and followed with “This is on you.” as she looked at the Valhalla II and thought of the captain, and also as justification to herself. Without a qualm, she gave her drones the command to attack and her guns opened fire.

A short time later, after the final explosion died down, all that remained was a field of wreckage. With the clinical efficiency gained from years of cold-hearted experience, Ravanna quickly recalled her combat drones, launched salvage drones and began looting operations. While sifting through the remains of the freighter, the ship’s sensors picked up an SOS signal from a small emergency crew escape pod floating away from the scene. In all her time, she had never before found an intact escape pod among the wreckage.

“Well now.” thought Ravanna. “An emergency escape pod. Let’s see who might be inside; could be it’s the captain.”

She would welcome him aboard her ship and then let him know that she was holding him ransom. Again. But this time she would be delivering the message in person; a new experience for her. Exhilaration suddenly came on strong.

She activated a tractor beam that pulled the crew escape pod into one of the loading bays on her ship. Once it was inside, and the looting operations had been completed, she set a course for a safe location in the system to have a little conversation with her victim. At the safe, Ravanna exited her capsuleer pod and made her way to the loading bay. Upon arriving there, she cautiously approached the escape pod with her handgun drawn. She needed to be cautious. She was a capsuleer, yes, but she was only “immortal” when she was in a capsuleer pod or otherwise connected to the technology that enabled clone retransplantation. While on her ship, but outside her capsuleer pod, she felt naked because she was then as vulnerable to permanent death as any common baseliner. If a person inside the escape pod was to fire a killing shot at her she would die once and for all. She often hated herself, but that didn’t necessarily translate into a deathwish. She pressed the button to open the hatch, standing well-off to one side, gun pointing steadily at the opening.

The sound of a crying baby came from inside the pod. Peering in through the opening, she saw a baby girl about six months old cradled in the arms of a dead man, whom Ravanna presumed was the father. He had succumbed to his injuries from the attack after making it into the escape pod with his daughter. The captain of the Vahalla II had told the truth.

The foundation of Ravanna’s existence swayed and rocked. There was no one else in the pod, which most likely meant the child’s mother had perished aboard the freighter. Despite her rigid callousness, Ravanna couldn’t suppress the thoughts that suddenly flooded her mind about the terrifying chaos that must have erupted around this family when her drones and weapons started firing upon it. Thoughts that generated visions that evolved in painstaking slow-motion. She imagined the husband yelling at his wife to grab their baby, while he searched for and led the way to an escape pod. She thought about the mother frantically racing through flaming sections of the ship behind her husband, clutching her baby, lungs choking and eyes burning in the acrid smoke-filled corridors and ears ringing from the weapon and drone blasts raining down onto the ship, desperately hoping against all hope to get to the escape pod before it was too late. She saw the two parents acquire injuries along the way as the unrelenting impact of the drone and weapon strikes caused pieces of the disintegrating ship to batter and tear into them, yet somehow avoiding the baby. She envisaged the mother finally collapsing somewhere, her injuries too severe for her to continue any further, screaming out to her husband to turn around and take the child. There would have been little time for “Goodbye” or “I love you” between them, if any at all. She saw the mother crying in anguish as she watched her husband and daughter continue on towards the pod as she was left behind, never to know if they made it and never to see them again. She saw the father dying in the escape pod with his little baby in his arms. She shuddered involuntarily; nausea rising from the pit of her stomach, as her last vision, that of the mother’s corpse, her tears frozen on her face and sparkling like gems in the light of the distant star, slowly rotating and drifting off into space, faded to nothingness. She had murdered the parents of this baby. Ravanna’s self-loathing spiked to a new high. Normally, the human devastation she caused was kilometers away; beyond her sight; at a dispassionate distance where she could simply and easily ignore it. But this; this was right in front of her. For the first time ever, Ravanna had come face-to-face with the direct consequences of her chosen way of life.

“Who the f— travels through lowsec in a freighter with a f’ing baby onboard?” she screamed at the dead man, still not fully capable of accepting that this was actually all her doing, and searching for a way out of the hell that she suddenly found herself in.

Her headache flared in intensity and pounded inside her head like a large kinetic round impacting thick armor plate. For a few seconds all she saw was a searing white light. The outburst frightened the baby and intensified its crying. What to do now? Her first thought was to quickly eject the pod with father and baby back into space and move on as if nothing had happened. Yes, she could do that. Ravanna started to close the pod, but, for some reason, looked more closely at the baby. Instinctively, and against her heartless nature, Ravanna smiled at the baby, which was apparently enough of an interaction to cause her to abruptly stop crying and smile back. Taken by surprise and unsure how to react to that, Ravanna took a step back, and sat down on the floor of the loading bay in front of the pod, heart racing and breathing quickly. She massaged her temples. The baby was now gurgling and babbling, soothing sounds that Ravanna yielded to and that allowed her to think deeply. Some time later, she stood back up. She had finally arrived at a resolution to her internal conflict. She knew what she was going to do now. She wasn’t going to abandon the baby in space. Ravanna approached the pod, reached in and quickly searched through the father’s clothing, finding identity cards that she pocketed and then picked up the baby.

“We’re going back to the station. Take this child and find a suitable spot to stow her safely for the trip back. Disable the SOS signal on the pod and then jettison it back into space before we leave.” she barked to her crew. Ravanna closed the pod with a swift, firm kick to the hatch, turned around and left the loading bay, heading back to her capsuleer pod. She bookmarked the location where the escape pod had been jettisoned and then set a course for the station.

The following day

Early the next morning, well before the station became busy, Ravanna took the child to the local Sisters of Eve office. She placed the baby, together with an envelope addressed to the Sisters of Eve containing the identity cards and a brief handwritten letter, on the top step in front of the main door.

She looked at the girl and, calmly and softly, said “These are the Sisters of Eve. They will know what to do. They will make sure that you will be well cared for. It’s the best I can do now. It’s all I can do now.” Ravanna cupped her right hand around the left side of the girl’s face, stroked her chest lightly with the fingers of her other hand, looked her in the eyes and mouthed “I’m so sorry.” She had never before said those words to anyone. A single teardrop splashed off the girl’s cheek.

With that Ravanna left the baby on the steps and headed back to the docking bay, but not before making a detour to the clone bay to check on her medical clone. She was there a little longer than one might have expected of someone who was just confirming that everything was functioning correctly, but soon enough she was at the docking bay. Ravanna undocked alone in her pod, and headed to the location she had bookmarked the day before. She felt at ease as she calmly activated the pod’s self-destruct sequence and then waited. Back in the station, after the pod’s destruction, her medical clone remained quite still, displaying no signs of life. It had been disconnected from the life support and consciousness transfer systems.

Blackout

Editor’s Note: In true Signaleer fashion of being the content you wish to see, Quinn Valerii hosted an Eve Fiction Writing contest for the corp and I was honored to be asked to be one of the judges for it which also included Thrice Hapus and of course Quinn as well. This week and next week I’ll be posting up our top five winners. Personally I really enjoyed the contest, we’ve certainly got some talent in the corp and hope to see more in the future. Please enjoy our first installment.

Blackout

A short story by Signaleer Shiro Karagi

The following is based on a true story.

Shiro Karagi

The frigate Persimmon had seen better days. Its hull pockmarked with shrapnel and covered in scorch marks from countless glancing laser shots, the Imicus-class craft slowly banked around the asteroid, the Pilot keenly aware that his pursuer was still out there. Trying to fight his way out of the system was a fool’s errand – the reavers who hunted him were patient and cunning, harrying him through the cluster for the better part of a week before cornering him in a dead-end system. With no other way out, he could be certain they’d be waiting for him at the system’s sole warp gate while the rest of their gang carried out a methodical search of the various asteroid belts and derelict military staging posts he’d flown through in a desperate attempt to lose them.

Persimmon drifted between the rocks in silence, the light from the nearby star glinting slightly off her dull green paint. The Pilot drew his ship to an abrupt halt – from the other end of the asteroid belt, his pursuer emerged. The Sabre-class destroyer lurched into view, unfettered by a need to hide from it’s prey. Scarring from Persimmon’s few lucky reciprocal shots was evident along the pirate vessel’s left flank, with smoke billowing from one of the more serious injuries towards the rear of the craft. The destroyer bore the callsign Barbarous Bitch – it had been painted with stripes of metallic gold and the darkest black, and was festooned with imagery depicting every manner of gruesome atrocity known to man. The Bitch moved apace between the asteroids like an Amarrian slaver hound honing in on the scent of some poor, helpless wretch.

The Pilot’s saving grace was the electromagnetic anomaly both he and his pursuers had warped through to get here. With their onboard directional scanners disrupted by the sudden surge of power, and CONCORD’s failure to maintain local communication networks in the region, both predator and prey were forced to rely on their sight alone to locate each other. With great care, the Pilot guided Persimmon around the rear of a large asteroid mere moments before the Bitch came into view. The reaver suddenly opened fire on a nearby asteroid, obliterating it in an instant.

Shards of debris bounced off Persimmon’s hull, yet she remained still. The Pilot knew he couldn’t fight his way out of this one, and the only chance he had was to remain invisible and hope his pursuers grew tired of the chase. The Bitch stalked menacingly past the Pilot’s shelter, occasionally unloading its gatling cannons on any asteroid large enough to potentially shelter its target. The Pilot breathed a sigh of relief as the smoke billowing from the reaver ship faded into the distant recesses of the asteroid belt. Suddenly, the Pilot’s directional scan flickered. He glanced at it apprehensively – it was only a matter of time before the Persimmon’s systems recovered from the electromagnetic disruption, and the reavers’ ships’ systems wouldn’t be far behind. Staying put had kept him alive this long, but it wouldn’t last. He had to find a way out. The Pilot cautiously guided Persimmon out from behind their shelter at a glacial pace. His pursuers were experienced cutthroats, accustomed to operating in all manner of conditions. A temporary loss of directional scanning equipment wouldn’t deter them, nor would it render him invisible from keen eyes.

The scanner suddenly flickered to life, and the Pilot’s stomach sank as he glanced at it. Almost two score hostile craft had spread throughout the system, twice as many as had chased him in, with a small band blockading the warp gate and preventing any escape. The Pilot had to think quickly. Launching scanner probes was risky, but he had no other option. He activated the launcher, dispatching his remaining eight probes. Working quickly, the Pilot maneuvered the probes’ scan across the system, desperately trying to find a wormhole, while behind him a thick pillar of black smoke crested the asteroid belt and began moving towards the Persimmon. The Pilot pored over the scan data. If he could find a wormhole – and if his pursuers hadn’t found it already – he’d have a slim chance of escaping with his life. After a few stressful minutes, the Pilot grinned wearily as his probes finally honed in on one, located at the farthest edge of the system. If he weren’t encased in a capsule filled with goo, he might’ve jumped for joy.

It took 8.34 standard seconds for the Persimmon to align to the wormhole in preparation to warp, but it only took 7.69 standard seconds for the Barbarous Bitch’s autocannons to roar to life, ripping a hole in the side of the frail craft. Slammed hard against the side of his capsule by the force of the impact, the Pilot frantically attempted to return fire, but to no avail. The Bitch was too far out, and a futile salvo from the Persimmon’s aft railguns sailed listlessly over the reaver’s ship. The Pilot panicked as the Bitch’s cannons tore into his ship again like a ravenous beast. As the Persimmon entered its final moments, he hastily executed the emergency protocol programmed into the ship’s communications, and the information his pursuers sought was erased from existence.

His capsule bursting forth from the wreckage, the Pilot quickly aligned with the wormhole’s location and engaged the warp drive. The Bitch locked onto him in seconds, but to no avail – he was already gone.

The Pilot cursed himself as he hurtled through space towards his only chance of survival. The encrypted communications data he erased were worth billions to the right people, a fact the reavers chasing him knew all too well. His capsule slowed as it neared the wormhole, before leaving warp drive and slowing to a halt. He was mercifully alone here, with only the cold expanse of space to keep him company, his pursuers nowhere in sight. Before him lay the wormhole – a horrific, gaping maw into the unknown, an uncharted, unexplored anomaly that scoffed at the laws of time and space. The Pilot took a deep breath as he moved towards it. It was now or never, a slim chance of escape or certain death in the cold reaches of a forgotten, dead-end system. This wormhole was uncharted, and he had no idea where it led, but it surely couldn’t be any worse than here.

Surely.

The Pilot entered the wormhole from which he would never return.

In the backwater system, the Barbarous Bitch warped into range of the wormhole, her bearings creaking and shuddering as she left the warp. In her wake flew a fleet of two dozen fellow miscreants, outcasts and other assorted vermin. Her pilot stared unblinking at the yawning maw in front of her viewscreen. A few seconds passed in silence as the reprobate armada waited eagerly on their leader to make the call.

“Go.”

The Bitch and her hangers-on fired up their afterburners and marched onwards through the gaping tear in space that lay in front of them. They’d lost their prize, but they’d have the Pilot. They’d make sure of that, even if it cost them everything.

They too, entered the wormhole, oblivious to what they’d find there. They too, would never return.