She's not down here. She was in Syndicate for a while, joined another corp and moved into Placid. Her current corp cleared out of nullsec not too long ago, maybe a month, and left for parts unknown. I went into the lowsec system where her old corpmates had an office, and they were happy to talk to me when I started asking questions. Their enemies were happy to destroy my Ishkur on my way out.
I'd never been pod-killed before, for all the hulls I've lost. Raw terror, frustration bordering on a blind, red rage at my own helplessness and their lack of compassion. Not pirates -- there were no ransom demands issued, not even a comment in the Local comms; I was nothing more than a neutral target of opportunity. Just pounce, pop, pod, while they tanked the sentry guns. And it hurt, worse than anything I've known before: the most intense, stabbing headache ripping through behind my eyes in the instant before I woke up in a cloning bay on the edge of Empire space.
I didn't even know who I was, at first. How awful would it be if the transfer failed, sometime? I felt sick, afterward, physically ill from having to adjust to a new body which didn't quite feel like it belonged to me. It was so much worse than emerging from the pod after a long trip; like wearing a shirt that's just a size too small. These muscles had never been used, and moving awoke a complaint in every joint, leaving me leaning on the tech's shoulder and dribbling vat-fluid over his blue coverall. He was nice about it, at least; I guess he'd be used to it.
The corp reimbursed my ship, leaving me enough from insurance and my own funds to replace the modules. I thought this was awfully generous of them, until Sati pointed out how little an Ishkur costs compared to her Raven, and said it was just as well I'd stayed with smaller hulls, since modules for larger ships cost more, too.
It's been an eye-opening experience, the life of a semi-independant capsuleer. Yes, there's a CEO and directors I answer to, but I can choose when to be active, and for how long, what to fly that day and where. There's rarely any corp-wide activities; I time in for the day, do some work for an agent or go hunting Serpentis, log my earnings and deduct the corp's percentage at the end. It leaves me asking 'why bother?', but there's a bit of protection from being able to call on people for support, and the corp tax goes towards things the group needs. I had a hard time adjusting, at first; the lack of structure left me feeling like a loose cog until Flaschmann, one of the wing commanders, sat me down for a heart-to-heart over a pint which became several -- nobody warned me not to match a Brutor drink for drink -- and explained that if I wanted to be an effective pilot, I would have to take initiative.
Initiative is a scary word. It means you alone are responsible for yourself and the safety of your crew. There's nobody else to blame when everything goes tits-up; you can't use the excuse that you were only following orders. But since then, my reflexes have got faster, and I've been testing new loadouts against willing corpmates' hulls. They have advice to offer from their experience, and I listen, but at the end of the day it's only me making the decisions.
Flasch decided it was time to introduce me to a new aspect of the corp the other day: capsuleer combat. It's as different from the Serpentis-baiting I'd been doing as ocean-swimming is from an indoor pool, and the guys cheerfully tossed me in the deep end on a fast roaming op deep into Syndicate. The ultimate targets, I discovered, were the corp whose pilots had podded me the week before. I was scared. Serpentis don't have access to capsule technology and the enhancements it affords. The targets had been flying for years and had the benefits of experience and further training.
'Jack, if you don't start hitting back at the people who attack you, you'll be a target the rest of your career.'
That was Miska T'onik, a Khanid with a heavy accent and a ravaged face that showed he'd been through hell and back, genetic damage caused from being caught by one too many Titans in deep-nullsec conquests. If there was one person whose respect I wanted to earn, it was Miska -- the man suffered no fools and dealt levelly with everyone, even the people he disliked.
So, heart hammering, palms feeling sweaty despite the surrounding fluid in the pod, I sent my assault frigate plunging after them, the fleet of thirty small ships forming up around me as we warped. The feeling I got from that was nearly enough to make me forget my fear; it wasn't the first time I'd been in a gang-warp, but there was something different about it, this time. It felt good.
The scout running ahead of us in her covert-ops ship reported back that the nullsec entry was camped. 'Phobos, Falcon, Manticore, Ishtar, Claw,' Embryn called off. 'They're on the ball, Claw nearly decloaked me.'
Flasch cackled. 'We'll rape them. Squad one, primary the Phobos; Squad two, the Falcon is yours. Squad three gets the Ishtar; pop his drones first, if you please. Emmy, they got backup in there?'
'It's just them.'
'Jump-jump, everyone in!'
The interdictor on the far side lit up a swirling blue sphere of drive-scrambling pulses as the gate flared. They couldn't have missed the insane spike on the Local channel, however.
'Drop cloaks, hit 'em before they run!' Flasch barked.
My jump-cloak dropped, and I'd never felt so naked. I powered towards the Phobos and dropped into a tight orbit, opening up with the blasters as a cloud of drones swamped the field and a swarm of interceptors detatched from the main group and buzzed the recon ship. I was shaking hard, nearly in siezure.
The campers hadn't been ready for a thirty-frigate fleet. The interceptor jumped out and the stealth bomber disappeared -- cloaked or warped, I couldn't tell -- while the larger ships melted under the assault. The Ishtar made it to the gate and jumped, venting fire and vapour; the Phobos and Falcon died and we were through into nullsec. The Falcon pilot lost his pod
Lower Syndicate... echoed. There was virtually no one down here other than the Serpentis and the capsuleers who fought them for the resources. Save a distant blip on the scans, we were the only ones there. It was a long way down into the area our targets inhabited. A long way. The only others we encountered were single pilots moving fast to get out of our way.
I was in a state which would probably have been similar to that of any pilots picking up our frigate swarm on longrange scans, suffering from a perpetual adrenalin surge which the nutrients being pumped into my body couldn't ease. It was nearly painful and I had a vague sense that I was curled up tightly within my pod, quaking hard. A text message from the capsule tech popped up in my HUD, saying he was growing concerned with my elevated breathing and was boosting the oxygen mix. It was mostly a rodent-in-traffic reaction, anticipation of being run over by something so much bigger than myself that there would be no point in fighting it. I had no idea what to expect down here.
A private chatbox opened -- Flasch dropping a text-based query.
[How u doin jack?]The scout's transmission cut through the casual banter on the comms. 'Check-check. Target contact, got a twenty-man gang toward ZVN gate in PVH.' She rattled off a list of shiptypes from frigs to battleships.
[Rlx. Ur in a frig in a load of other frigs. No 1 will notice u unless u do sumthin rly dumb.]
[Is that last part tht worries me.]
[0.0 safer than hisec, jack. Fllow instructs ul b fine. Rmbr ur down here in combat ship n combat fleet. Ppl will engage but we got ur back. Jus do wut ur trained 4.]
'They grow 'em big down here,' someone commented.
'Who are they, Emmy?' Flasch asked.
'Third-parties, red to the guys we're after. I'm getting a lot of Local smack from them.'
'Noobs in our way. Hang on.' There was a moment of tense silence while we huddled in our safespot, the only beacons of life in a dead system.
'Right, come back here, we're going to loop around through EZA. There's a few people in there, so watch yourself.'
'Roger that.' Comms had gone dead silent. 'Embryn here, part of that gang's already on my exit gate.'
'Can you get through?'
'I live for running gatecamps.' A moment later she laughed. 'They didn't like me getting past them. You should move before they get in here.'
'Roger that, scout us around, darlin'.'
Syndicate was clear until we hit PC9. 'Fifty-seven in Local, looks like something big is going on. In space... Tempest, Geddon, Mega-Mega, Domi, Maelstrom... Thanatos. Revelation. They're duking it out on a station. No reds.'
'Are the gates clear?'
'Right, get to the next system.' We raced through without stopping, conscious that any waiting would give someone time to notice us and rally a gang. An empty system later, we were on top of our targets.
'Squad three get in there, set up bubbles, look like you mean business. Everyone else spread out around the gate here, go to optimal.' Flaschmann anchored a large warp-disruption bubble in the centre of the gate as the bait squad jumped through. The bubbles were a risk, since they couldn't be removed quickly. I set my Ishkur to orbit the gate just beyond the range of the disruption field so I wouldn't be trapped.
'Embryn here, they've spotted the bait.'
'What've they got?'
'Eight... ten, eleven. Couple inties, hacs... Eris, they have a 'dictor. Dominix, Astarte.'
'Oooh that's going to be nasty. Anyone packing ECM?'
There was a small chorus of 'drones' and 'I'm in a Kitsune' before Embryn's voice cut across the comms again. 'They have a Falcon, Falcon just undocked. Damnation. Fuuuuuck... I don't think we can take this.'
'All that for ten frigates, goddamn. Democratic vote: who wants to give it a shot and who'd rather try a different approach some other time?'
This was a new experience for me: the FC asking the gang's opinions about a potential engagement. By that point I would have cut and run if a can happened to bump me, so I remained silent.
'We'll just be one fantastic LOL-mail if we try it, Flasch,' Miska said.
'I hear that. Anyone else?'
'We've got enough jammers to swamp out the recon-'
'But not the command ships. Squad three, get back in here. Leave the bubbles if you have to.'
'Falcon on the gate, two hundred off,' the Squad Three commander reported. 'Desh, wake up, get back on the gate-- shit. His system's offlined.' The fleet channel count had already dropped by one as the pilot's ship went dead and emergency-warped away.
'He'll have the sense to restore comms before bringing full power back online. Get back here. Emmy, you stay there, prep to scout Desh back. Jackal, you're the fastest, scout us out the pipe. Destination is broadcast, we'll dock up in M2.'
We retreated quickly and docked up, blending into the masses of people in the station there. It was rather anticlimactic, for all the stress and how worked-up I'd got.
'Big gang coming up the pipe,' Flasch broadcast openly once we were safe. 'If you're going to fight, we can assist.' The response was a general laconic yawn from the local pilots and someone replied, 'Tell us something new.'
So we sat in the station, waiting for the heat to die down. Deshpati and his crew got his systems working again after a coolant failure of some sort and Embryn brought him out safely. We waited for an hour, chilling out in a bar with cups of coffee and tea to hand -- still on duty, and Flasch swore he'd pod anyone who undocked drunk.
I survived my first encounter with nullsec feeling like I'd been sucker-punched in the back. Glancing around the bar on our way back to the hangars, I wondered if Shae had ever spent time in here; her old corporation had offices in the station, so it seemed likely. How had she been able to stand Lower Syndicate? It was a hellish place, and I was happy to finally see the Reblier gate and Empire space.