7 Kilometers Out
Emilia Dallocort felt the Caldari frigate shudder as it left warp, the inertial dampeners canceling out the worst of the momentum shift. The Heron slowed to a halt 16 AU from the wormhole she’d just entered from. A quick sweep on her D-Scan informed the pilot that she was alone in the empty pocket of space, at least for now, but Emilia’s gaze still glanced around the dark void as if her eyes might catch something her system scanners wouldn’t.
The capsuleer was tense. She was no stranger to dangerous systems, but this was rather unknown territory. The lawless stretches of J-Space weren’t just out of reach of CONCORD, they were located in a completely different galaxy, bridged to New Eden only by a network of changing, unstable wormholes that might collapse at any moment. This meant even allies and corp-mates would have trouble responding to distress calls should she run into trouble. Criminals and killers made a point to hunt prey like her in outer reaches such as this, seeking to steal valuable cargo and rip expensive implants out from her cold corpse. On top of this, J-Space wasn’t entirely unsettled. Sleepers and Drifters, known to be incredibly hostile, often inhabited these systems as well. Emilia couldn’t afford to run into any of these entities if she valued her ship and her life.
Despite all these risks, the pilot had chosen to venture here. There were those who aimed to uncover more about the mysterious races that inhabited this galaxy, hoping to glean insight from their ancient, advanced technology. These people were willing to pay high amounts of isk for any data or tech an explorer might be able to scrounge up. This was precisely why Emilia was here. As dangerous as these trips were, the hazard pay was worth it. She needed money for when she finally located Harmony, and this was one of the quickest ways for her to accrue it.
The sound of her probe launcher firing reverberated through the ship’s mass. Pulling up the star map, she looked over the various cosmic signatures her system scanners had picked up. She chose one and warped the probes into the surrounding area to begin pinpointing it. Time slowly ticked by as she systematically narrowed down the location of the signature. The clicks and taps of turned knobs and flicked switches were the only sounds to fill the otherwise silent shuttle. As minutes passed by, Emilia scanned down one signature after another until finally…
“Gotcha,” she muttered. Her display read 100 percent scan resolution on what appeared to be some sort of abandoned structure. Diagnostic data from the probes seemed to identify it as a relic site classification. Emilia withdrew her probes, and prepared to warp in. She aligned the heron and slowly pushed the throttle forward to approach warp speed threshold. Within a few moments, her systems initiated the warp core and her field of view was distorting around her once again.
As the ship approached light speed, the sky around her began to bend. Stars and cosmic colors drifted forwards and stretched towards her destination of travel. Green swirls of light, like those seen in the magnetic displays of an aurora borealis, danced around the ship and illuminated the cabin. Warp tunnels were a beautiful sight Emilia always paused to admire, but they were as short as they were awe inspiring. Mere moments later, Emilia felt the ship’s momentum shift as it quickly decelerated 20km from the abandoned relic site. The ping of her D-Scan sounded as she did a quick sweep for any emerging threats. Nothing nearby, and the site looked to be dead. Ripe for the picking, it seemed.
“Red Herring to FC, initial scouting of the JWD-472 wormhole looks clear. System is partially scanned and I am on approach to a relic site.” The capsuleer released comms and engaged her afterburner, however within the next moment she quickly opened comms again. “Scratch that, I see a Mammoth on scan.” It must have just jumped into system or flew into range. She pressed scan again but just like that the ship was gone.
“Noted,” her flight commander responded through the speakers, “Keep scanning down the system and be careful. You’re alone out there.”
“Yes sir,” she replied, disengaging her AB and pulling back on the throttle. Her ship stopped, floating right beside what looked to be a sizable chunk of a smashed, unidentifiable spaceship. She used an analysis module to inspect the security of the remnant electronics, and scanned the cargo hold of the destroyed vessel. This hadn’t been touched yet. There was some seriously valuable junk in there. Keeping one eye on her directional scanner, Emilia established a link and opened a terminal to attempt a hack into the ship’s systems.
Time continued to tick onwards. The capsuleer scanned constantly, looking for that Mammoth or any other unknown ship within D-Scan range. She successfully cracked open two cargo containers amongst the wreckage, and was on her way to the third when the Mammoth appeared on scan again. She watched the entry warily, scanning continuously, and opened up a map of the system to try and determine where it was sitting. However, as quickly as it appeared it was gone. Based on the Mammoth’s behavior and its classification as an industrial barge, Emilia reasoned that it was making cargo runs through a wormhole route. There were two wormholes within range of her directional scanner, reinforcing this idea. The Mammoth was likely harmless, however haulers like that often attracted unwanted attention. This was precisely what she wanted to avoid.
“Keep hacking, I’ve got lookout for you now.”
The sudden onset of Commander Kaang’s voice made Emilia jump. He has lookout? Is Danki on grid with me? A quick check revealed zero ships on her overview. He’s cloaked… Emilia realized. A chill traveled down the capsuleer’s spine. While it was reassuring to know that her FC was on grid with a destroyer, it also served as an ominous reminder that even D-Scan couldn’t keep her entirely safe. She hadn’t an inkling that anyone was with her before he had spoken. If he were hostile, she would have certainly been dead.
Shrugging off her growing dread, Emilia established a link to the nearby wreck of a frigate and got to work. She injected a virus to map out the security controls, and began trying a few payloads. Nothing was working and soon the system shut her out. She rolled the virus to change its fingerprint and reinjected it. This only ever worked a handful of times before the lingering AI would catch on and lock her out completely.
“Get out now,” Danki spoke urgently through her ship’s speakers.
Emilia didn’t hesitate. She aborted the hack and spun her ship into alignment. Her computer system beeped a warning. The virus had destabilized the wreck’s afterburners, and a chain reaction was beginning to spiral out of control. Emilia shoved the throttle forward, her heron speeding away from the frigate as a glow began to emit from its thrusters. A bright flash lit up from behind as a ball of plasma exploded from the wreck’s stern. A shard of glowing molten metal flew past her, quickly slowing to a halt in her view before it was yanked backwards again as her ship entered warp.
The Heron careened through the warp tunnel before dropping out again at the safe spot she’d marked previously. A quick sweep of her D-Scan showed nothing, but her FC wouldn’t have sounded the alarm without reason. “I’m at safe, what’s going on?” Emilia spoke over comms, “Should I wait here or jump out of system?”
“Leave the system. An interdictor and battlecruiser just arrived.”
“On it,” Emilia confirmed, relieved that he was around to spot them. Those were nasty ships. Her heart pounded as she aligned to her exit and initiated warp again. Blood pounded in her ears, and she dared not look away from her overview to admire the beautiful lights that danced around her. However, as she left warp and her overview populated, Emilia’s heart stopped. Camping the wormhole were the two ships Danki had spotted on D-Scan, likely waiting for that Mammoth to make another pass. Regardless of the reason, the two ships were sitting between her and the exit, and Emilia was 7 kilometers out.
As soon as Emilia landed on grid, the surface of a giant yellow sphere blew past her. The hunters had engulfed her in a bubble to prevent her ship from warping away.
Her systems screeched to warn her of an impending lock. The hunters were pouncing. Emilia had maybe seconds left to live.
Acting on pure instinct, the capsuleer threw her throttle forward and punched her afterburner. She disengaged the thermal controls, overheating the AB to increase thrust. The sudden acceleration threw the capsuleer back against her seat, her inertial dampeners unable to completely nullify the acceleration.
The Heron adjusted course as its pilot aimed for the wormhole’s tangential edge. Entering the space-time bridge at the speed she was going was dangerous. Wormholes were unstable phenomena that were easily disrupted by mass. As an object’s velocity increased, its effective mass increased as well, so with Emilia’s AB pushing red, even her light heron would cause ripples. She risked collapsing the wormhole just by traveling through it, but she didn’t have a choice. She could either enter quickly, or never enter at all.
Emilia clutched the flight stick with a grip that turned her knuckles white. Her eyes locked on the growing wormhole that was her salvation. 5 kilometers… 4 kilometers… 3… the distance seemed to close at a crawl. Suddenly a missile whizzed past her view, the rocket narrowly missing its target. A strafe of laser fire swung past soon after, grazing her shields as Emilia felt the gravitational shift of the wormhole’s surface. 600 meters, come on! The capsuleer braced herself as the Heron dove towards the spherical bridge in a rapidly descending orbit. Her frigate shook as it plunged into the space-time pit; stars around her stretched and distorted. The capsuleer’s stomach churned as she spiraled through the tunnel, like she was on a roller coaster with no up nor down. Finally her Heron exited, screeching out from the edge of the wormhole’s other side. The back of the ship looked to be burning, a trail of molten heat shielding dotting her path as the AB sputtered and failed. She had made it back to Yebouz, once again into the safety of high security space. The criminals that attacked her wouldn’t be able to enter this system without CONCORD swooping in to dispatch them.
Emilia disengaged her ship’s propulsion and wiped sweat from her brow. She released a tense breath into the hot air of the surrounding cabin, cranking up the coolant on the ship’s life support systems. Close call, she thought, leaning back in her seat for the first time since Danki sounded the alarm.
Danki! she shot up, realizing that he was still in system. He would be right behind her, which meant he was about to fall into the same trap that she did. Emilia had to warn him.
“Danki, they bubbled the wormhole!” She yelled over comms, “They are at the exit! Do not warp!”
“Danki? Do you read? The interdictor is sitting at our exit!”
Emilia sat in silence, staring at the wormhole a few kilometers away. She couldn’t make out his ship through the gravitational lensing, and she had no idea if her comms simply weren’t getting through, or if he had already been blasted by the criminals sitting on the other side. An eternity passed over the course of several seconds. If he died, this was on her.
Emilia’s eyes caught movement along the wormhole’s surface. A distorted shape was growing, spiraling around the edge as it neared the exit into Yebouz. Is that him? she hoped. If that ship wasn’t her FC, it not only meant he was probably dead, but it could also mean she would be at the mercy of whoever was piloting the vessel. High security space wasn’t a guarantee of safety, and she was a sitting duck after burning out her propulsion systems.
As the vessel emerged from the surface of the wormhole Emilia was able to get a proper look at the ship, and she let out a sigh of relief. Danki Kaang’s ship was beaten and battered, with the armor plating singed in several places. It looked as if his shield had failed during his burn to the wormhole, but his armoring had kept the hull intact.
“Sorry for the silence, didn’t have time to chat back there,” her FC spoke over the comms. “Next time, let’s mark the exact location of the wormhole instead of the ship’s location in orbit. I’d rather not fly several kilometers while under heavy enemy fire again.”
“Yes sir,” Emilia replied, realizing her mistake. The minor error of placing her bookmark a few kilometers askew was enough to get both of them nearly killed. They had made it out by a thin margin. Judging by the state of Danki’s destroyer, had her Heron taken a direct hit she would have been reduced to scrap metal. Emilia was lucky to be alive, and she would certainly never make that same mistake again.