*This is a long one, and in-character. Enjoy!*
"I am the harbinger of hope! I am the sword of the righteous. And to all who hear my words..."I shook my head at the display. Until I'd caught Pegleg Punk's commentary on the coronation of Jamyl Sarum, I'd not bothered to look at the broadcast recording. Perhaps I ought to pay more attention - the Amarr are a serious power in New Eden, no matter how much I may disapprove of their methods, with a very long history and deep-set traditions... but how much of that elitist tradition will remain, if they can accept a cloned royal on the throne? Rumour will not be contained so easily.
Seriously poor choice of words, there, for a diplomat, I thought. 'Harbinger' is a dire word to use; it's never, ever applied in relation to good things.
The contrived pomp on the monitor irritated me on some base level I couldn't explain, and I switched it off. Like the attacks earlier this year, the display of force was barely larger than that fielded by many of the capsuleer combined alliances. Idly, I mused that if the capsule pilot community cared enough and could put aside their differences, we could totally stage a coup over control of the skies.
Comms buzzed; it was Mynxee. 'Hey, girl! You up for a roam with me and Niss? Chesh might be coming, too.'
Oooh. The sheer silliness of the other night had put me in the mood to laugh in the face of death. 'What sort of ships we flying?'
'Ghetto gang. Cheap stuff.'
'I'll get Spice.'
I hadn't flown this particular Thorax yet; my contracted hauler had only just brought her in from highsec, along with a spare 10MN microwarp drive for Sugar, which I hadn't yet got around to refitting after our last outing. She'd left a note taped to the side of the replacement module which read simply, 'LOL, n00b!'. Spice was fitted with a tracking disruptor in place of a stasis webber, with a full rack of ECM vespa drones in the bay. Arriving at the docking bay, I checked the Local channels while the crew warmed up the cruiser for me. Where the hell did all these people come from? A swarm of random neutrals with no obvious affiliations were out in space; logged into the station docks was a pair of women I'd ID'ed as a capital pilot and her hired cyno operator.
Mynxee checked the undock and reported it clear as I settled into my pod and stirred the cruiser from her slumber. Dropping into space below the station, I debated a dive to one of my instant-warp points or a direct hop to the gate. Just as I hit warp, the cap pilot decided to emerge in her Thanatos carrier. A prod at the directional scanner showed several freighters out in space, and I guessed there must be some sort of operation going regarding a pilot-owned station (in conference with a local acquaintance later, I learned that my assessment was indeed correct, and it was his corp's POS that got shot down to armour that evening).
Aeschee, next door, was as full of docked-up Dead Parrot Shoppe boys as ever; flying through there is like wandering into an empty cave wondering if the bear's still in residence. We met up with Nisstyree and Cheshirepus in Vitrauze, Niss in a heavy assault cruiser, Chesh in a Hound stealth bomber and having severe comms issues. He finally managed to rig something useable out of a set of normal earphones, which was so typical of Minmatar construction that I had to laugh.
'Hey, I thought this was a ghetto-ship run, Niss, what the hell?'
He just laughed: Ishtar is his baby.
We set out, following Mynxee's lead and poking around for targets as we went. The systems this end of Gallente space were echoingly empty.
Mynxee spoke over the comms, laughter bubbling under her voice. 'Set course for Amamake.'
(random, barely audible exclamation from Chesh)
'What, you didn't think we'd be going home in ships, did you? C'mon!'
Amamake it was. After a quick conference with my command crew - all of whom seemed game - I decided it was time to throw caution to the solar winds and see what happened.
We rattled around the pipeline for a bit, myself trailing a few seconds behind the others, and at one point I noticed someone tailing us, a lone pilot in an unknown ship. I called it in and we regrouped on the gate in Saidusairos to see if he'd bite.
In hindsight, one of us - ideally Chesh in his cloaking bomber - should have stayed behind in Gratesier to see what was coming; at the very least, I should have done a better job scanning. And we definitely shouldn't have engaged on the gate a pilot with not-quite-outlaw standings with Concord: Mynxee and I were in the same corp, but Niss and Chesh would be on their own.
Not the most well-thought-out of plans. This is why I should never be put in charge of a fleet. And we paid for it when the Deimos-class heavy assault cruiser jumped in, reapproached the gate and primaried me. Niss got sentry-fire and had to run, leaving his drones behind. Mynxee took sentries well after Nemeron opened fire on me, which just does not compute, and we all expressed interest in knowing why it's not permitted to defend one's alliance- and gang-mates if they are not in the same corporation. My vespas got a couple good jams on him before he loosed his drones on me; when I saw which way it was going, and that I'd not be able to deagress and jump in time, I ordered the crew to their escape pods, pulled the drones back and four of them perished with my poor Thorax.
We didn't care; the fight had me grinning from the sheer madness of it, so broadly that my face hurt. Creased from laughter, we exchanged cheerful pleasantries with Nemeron as the others safed up in the system and I headed back to Vitrauze for Sugar and a fresh crew. My replacement Thorax was still lacking that MWD, requiring a quick run back to Ladistier, where Local was still abuzz. On the return trip, I passed Nemeron, still in his Deimos, who promptly turned and followed me into Gratesier again! Ready for another go, we set up for a belt-bait in Saidusairos, but after a few minutes of waiting, we decided the Deimos pilot had simply been rattling my chain a little more, and we headed on. Niss needed drones, his own flight having been scooped along with my loot by Nemeron. We set a detour for Kourmonen for a quick shopping-trip, but Chesh had to go home to attend to more important things than goofing around terrorising total strangers.
A few systems down the pipe, we caught a query from the Hellcats open channel.
''Sup babe. You guys out hunting?' It was Jaxxon Voers, debating which ship to warm up.
'We're on a roam in hell,' Mynxee responded - leave it to her to sum it up so encouragingly!
Lord Mathar broke in, asking, 'Hell? Gallente nullsec?'
'Kourmonen headed for Amamake.'
'Hmm, I will meet ya in Amamake, that's real close to me,' Jaxx responded, prompting Mathar to drool over the prospect of killing our neutral associate. We dropped Jaxx the fleet comms information and he got on with prepping his Helios covert ops.
Of course the reason Kour was such a good place for shopping was due to the high level of militia warfare raging through that system! That entire region of Minmatar space is currently under heavy contest from the Amarr, and the system teemed with fleets. It set my nullsec-ingrained paranoia to high-alert, being in a system that cluttered with people itching for a scrap. The only reliefs were the lack of warp-scram bubbles and the locals' attention focussed primarily on each other - four random pirates were a minor concern, though that didn't stop a large portion of the station-camp from pursuing Niss on his way out.
Too many people around for us to nobble a straggler quiet-like. We headed through into the quieter system of Auga.
It's runs like this that, rather than the adrenalin-overdose shakes, give me a buzzed high of near-invincibility. It doesn't matter if I lose ships or never catch anything. It's the rush of beating odds, slipping through nets and dodging potshots. I'm a tiny thing, if you meet me face to face. But let me strap that rocket to my back and it's like letting loose a deranged demigoddess.
Auga was ripe, and we settled in to do a little hit-and-run hunting whilst waiting for Jaxx. I picked up an Ishkur assault frigate in the direction of a Minmatar-faction complex beacon, we warped to the acceleration gate and Mynxee dropped in to see if he was there.
'He's here! Hurry up!'
That damn gate couldn't activate fast enough - Ishkur vs Rifter is far from an even fight. Between the two of us, we gave Kaifen something to think about, though Mynxee had to warp out and beg a remote-repair from Niss, who... hell, I dunno where he'd been during all that, but he was around somewhere (edit: Niss says the acceleration gate wasn't configured for his ship, which makes sense, since the faction pilots who took offense to our intrusion were piloting frigates).
While we waited out our aggression timers, a guy I remembered from Atrocitas hailed me in the Local channel. We chatted for a bit, catching up, and Mynxee commented in fleet comms, 'Shae knows people everywhere!' - Which isn't true, really, I just remember people I see frequently. The faction militiae moved in and the system began to heat up, so we moved on into Amamake
Now that's irony.
And for ten minutes of poking about and scanning, nothing happened. There were camps on the stations, camps on most of the gates, and everything was incredibly, eerily quiet. There was nothing manageable that we could consider popping without having a fleet drop on our heads. We decamped to Dal.
Which was hopping. We found a convenient safe and sat for a bit, letting Jaxx warm up the prober. Seeing the probe on scans initially nearly gave me a heart attack, till I noticed its icon floating a few kilometres away on my overview. Then the excitement started.
'Jaxx...' I asked, 'How many of those Spook probes are supposed to be out here?'
'I've only dropped one.'
''Cause I've got two on the directional.'
Someone was onto us. I made a couple more safe spots while we debated what we wanted to do, then returned to where Mynxee and Niss were sitting. Niss, the sneaky bastard, had a cloak fitted on his Ishtar, and was sitting a ways away from myself and Mynxee.
'Jaxx? What kind of probe have you used this time?'
'It's just the Spook, why?'
'I'm seeing a Spook and a Snoop on the scanner.'
Niss piped up. 'If that's there, they're really close to finding you guys.'
Time to play chicken. Mynxee and I aligned to different things in space, and I started refreshing my scanner like a mail junkie refreshes their inbox.
Broadsword on scan!
'Broadsword!' Niss yelled, just as the heavy interdictor appeared on our overview. Mynxee and I punched the warp commands and zipped off in different directions.
'I bet that drove them nuts the way you guys bugged out like that!' Niss chuckled. Unfortunately, my warp dropped me onto a planet, and the hictor was coming in hot behind me. As soon as I landed, I was grabbing a safe point from my database as my next destination. My armoured cruiser was distressingly slow to realign, and by the time I'd coaxed it back around, there was a Broadsword sitting on my head.
Come on, come on, comeoncomeoncomeon... Warp!
I couldn't honestly say what must have been going through the Broadsword pilot's head at the narrow escapes... I didn't even stop to catch the guy's name. A member of my command staff prodded comms for my attention, then called me a psychotic, suicidal nutjob and informed me I'd just taken ten years off every crewman's life with my antics.
'Mate, if you wanted safe and unexciting, you'd've stuck manning haulers.'
I was jazzed from how close I'd come to being caught. This was what I'd come out here for, why I'd started down the combat route to begin with. If I'd been sitting in a chair, I'd have been virtually bouncing with glee; as it was, I'm fairly certain I was giggling madly.
But I was feeling hunger start to gnaw in the pit of my stomach - the nutrients supplied in the pod provide everything a pilot needs, but they do nothing to quell the emptiness in your stomach when you've not had solid food for more than eight hours. I said as much to the others, and everyone seemed to be in the same situation. Making certain we were deeply hidden in the empty spaces between the planets, we shut our ships' systems down and offlined, each emerging dripping from our command capsules to tend to the needs of the flesh, after so long spent tending the needs of steel.
* * * *
'Shae? Hey, Shae?'
I glanced up from what I was working on. 'Heya Mynxee, what's up?' I poked the button under the little green light that indicated visual transmission and her proud Brutor features appeared on the monitor.
'I've decided I'd rather not drift in here much longer; wanna be in my own bed tonight.'
'Uh huh. You got a hot date you'd rather not keep waiting?' I grinned as she blushed and muttered something noncommittal.
'Aaaaaanyway... The guys are incommunicado, probably already asleep. I'm gonna banzai the route back to Vit.'
'Cool. Think I'll follow you.'
I unfolded myself from my chair, stretched, and made my way to the capsule bay. 'Commander Vexx, I'll be onlining shortly; we're heading home.'
'Understood. Passive sensors indicate the system's gone quiet in the last hour or so.'
Sugar rumbled to life in the blackness, external lights winking on like pale imitations of the far-distant stars, automated systems warping her back to the point she'd drifted away from since systems shutdown. Mynxee was already a couple systems out, reporting the way clear; I set course for Vitrauze and the warp drive flung my Thorax towards the gate.
In catching up with Mynxee, I spotted a familiar name in the Local channels, running at speed ahead of me.
'Hey, Letrange is in Ezzara.' Attempts to hail him locally went unnoticed, however - he was leaving systems as I was entering, and his path left ours shortly.
I caught up with Mynxee in Arzad and we headed for a system I shall call Tarara-Boom-Diay simply because it's more interesting than 'Tararan'. The pipe back down was quiet, very quiet. We were chatting about random stuff with other people who frequented the corp open channel when I hit the Mannar gate in Mormelot just before Mynxee.
'Oops!' I yelped as the system coalesced around me. 'Got an Astarte... Nighthawk... Myrmidon. On the gate,' I reported. The three ships had arrived at the gate just as I'd emerged, setting off my 'It's a trap!' alarms.
'I love this system,' Mynxee sighed. 'It's so pretty.'
I realised that her Rifter's systems were suffereng slowdown again - she'd been having issues with it lately, and clearly hadn't yet seen what was awaiting us.
'Yeah,' I agreed tightly. 'Pretty gatecamp.'
I'd emerged aligned with empty space, and those ships were fitted for small-ship capture, judging by the blue ripples of sensor-boosters ringing them. 'I'm screwed.' I felt a sort of dull resignation; there was no way in hell I could coax the microwarp drive to get the cruiser back to the gate in time to avoid destruction, and the nearest object I could align to was the next gate. I sent an alert to the crew to abandon the ship and get to safety. Then I set the warp coordinates for the next gate and closed my eyes.
They were on me in an instant, and spent less than a minute carving Sugar's hull down to the beams. As I watched the shields, then armour and structure disappear in puffs of smoke, I plugged warp coordinates in and began the warp attempt - I could do nothing whilst still anchored in the ship, but the capsule's computer would remember the instructions while I suffered that dangerous moment of vertigo every pilot gets upon the loss of their ship, as our perceptions through the electronics readjust and reset. I escaped the camp safely, received a notice from Commander Vexx that all crew were safe and accounted for, and vented a little of my frustration into the local at the three men who'd blown my ship up, so close and yet so far from home.
'Whee. Man, we just got out of fucking Amamake, too,' I complained, not really caring what the reaction might be.
Triksterism, the Astarte pilot, responded, 'Amamake is fun.' The man's name twinged at the back of my memory, but I couldn't place him. I simply asked where I knew him from, but he didn't know, either. It wasn't till much later that I found his name on the old Atrocitas killboards and realised he must have been one of the Syndicate locals while we had been mercenary.
The rest of the run back was uneventful, but I continued into Ladistier, since I had no ships docked in Vitrauze. Later that evening, I received notice that my crews had been picked up and were returning via InterBus; did I have ships for them to get to work on with my usual modifications?
'Not yet,' I sighed. 'Return to Lad, I'll see to obtaining replacements in the next few days. Until then, everyone's on paid leave. Go take a break.' I could use a break, myself, but when you live from others, cutting out the middleman, you can't afford - literally - to slack off.
The hot water from the shower only made me realise how exhausted I was, and I collapsed shortly thereafter into bed. It wouldn't be the last time.