Editor’s Note: The first place winner of our Eve Fiction Writing contest!
A short story by Signaleer 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.
The shield booster just kept on sucking energy. Her focus swerved anxiously between her capacitor and cap booster.
Another onslaught lowered her shields again, which was partly repaired by the shield booster. Her cap was about to run out.
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.”
“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?”
“So you knew I could’ve attacked you.”
“But you still did it anyway.”
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?”
“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.”
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.