On the command deck of the Hank Hynoski, Frances sits idly at his console watching the D-scan cycle. A ping, a flash, a broken image: “Astero”. A look of benign disinterest darts across his face. He shifts slightly in a cracked pleather seat, choosing to ignore the matured odor of stale farts and sour sweat that waft out of its seams. In keeping with the prescriptions of old Matar, the command deck of this Hound is cramped, inglorious, and tinseled with the flashing silver of “temporary” heat shield tape.
Decommissioned from the Minmatar Navy’s training fleet, the Hank is a capsuleer vessel now. And on a frigate, that means skeleton crew. Any well-salted traveler of the void will tell you that the nice thing about a skeleton crew is that you don’t have to hot rack bunks. And no hot racking means, well, worse things than stale farts live in common-use furniture. Nice to be the captain of your own ship in these matters, as it were. Plus the toilet is usually free. Nice, 1-month-ago-Frances thinks as he signs his life away to become a D-scan Operator on a 90-day tour. Of course, quintuple rate pay for fractional rate effort didn’t hurt either, as people in his position often remind themselves.
Now, glass-half empty? It didn’t take an old salt to realize that any job on a capsuleer vessel of this size is largely superfluous, which is problematic if you’re used to having some sense of agency over your own fate. And quintuple pay? Synonymous with “unlikely to complete contract”, which is also really saying something on a capsuleer boat. Whatever the contract says, they weren’t gonna go looking for your next-of-kin. But seeing as how Frances was wanted for questioning by the Caldari authorities, well, he didn’t have much choice but to let his cup runneth over with optimism.
And in truth, things had panned out far better than Frances could’ve hoped for when he signed that contract over a month ago. This Cyrus Kurtz guy flying the Hank was a hi-sec dope who’d had enough Cheetah’s shot out from under him to be risk averse, if often clumsy. They’d done a long pull blundering their way through Outer Ring, stalking but not shooting Ventures. All the quiet had made the boys down in the ‘torp bay edgier than anybody.
But up on the deck, we could see the game for what it was: a pleasure cruise. More surveillance than combat. Good money. But this capsuleer, he was getting impatient and you could sense it. I wondered when he’d give in and just pop a Venture, send some poor mine-boat scabs to the cold dark for a cheap thrill.
The Hank jolts and her bones creak as she comes to a halt at yet another low-sec gate. You never do get used to that quick stop coming out of warp, especially on the small boats. Nor less grateful for magnetic caf-drink tumblers, in this case the one slapped to the bulkhead next to the d-scan console. Gyrostabilized crew-quarters my ass.
As they commence the gate-jump, the unsettling brightness of the warp causes the viewport to polarize and darken.
The word Hrokkur flits across my display.
Ping. (Dead-end Minmatar bung-hole…)
Flash (…comes to mind)
Just like that, I’m locked out of the D-scan as the ship becomes sentient. You can make jokes about them, but capsuleer is capsuleer. They fly ships. As soon as that expensive hull showed up on scan, we of the Hank became pixels living in a game, and it wasn’t made for us. I watch the scanner eliminate celestials as we bang to a halt out of warp again. We’re down to just a few AU’s. My eyes follow my brain as I think the commands that I’m watching occur on-screen. Is this what’s it like?
The bubble becomes a cone. “Golem zero’d on scan, Hrokkur V Moon 17,” I announce out of habit and with practiced calm to the other non-participants on the command deck. The warp drive engages. Liquid splashes around inside my magnetic tumbler.
I look out of the viewport towards the fore of the vessel and see a flash of thrusters burning bright and close amongst the stars. The viewport HUD shows 212k.
I realize suddenly and with no uncertainty that I am about to die for this hi-sec goober’s combat fantasy. We can’t take a Marauder. It’s obvious. The hull shudders around me as the Hank aligns and begins to close slowly, cloaked, with the lumbering Golem which I can now identify as SSN-21. A squadron of bombers? Okay, maybe. With acceptable losses. But solo, it was suicide. Not if you’re a clone.
Time passes like a kidney stone as we slow-boat into range. Ten excruciating minutes. The thrusters twinkle brighter. Like that, like combat always is, suddenly there’s no time at all. Like the last grains of sand in an hourglass, the seconds are accelerating.
Fifteen kilos out now. Ten. “Scram range in,” – ■■■■, there goes the cloak – “three seconds!” someone shouts, “EWAR online, we’re painting,” – WHOOSH – the hull rocks as the first salvo flies and the structural stabilizers correct with violence.
–and now there’s not enough thermal tape in the cluster to keep it under 38C on deck, let alone down in the ‘torp bay as the modules start to build heat.
A mixture of fear, rage, and helplessness courses through me as the first salvo ripples across the Golem’s shields, the bear having now been carelessly poked and our lone frigate clearly ill-suited to the task at hand. Drones will chew us to pieces five times over before we make it through that marauders’ tank. My eyes are bouncing nervously between the D-scan and the viewport, sure of spotting that inevitable flight of Warrior II’s. My heart is pounding. Nausea.
Jet-fuel vapor from the ‘torps is coalescing on the viewport window, trapped between the shield and the hull. I watch as the next three pinpricks of light transform into blossoms – and then three more. Still, the Golem holds its course, beleaguered and impossibly untroubled. What’s this guy doing?
Aboard the SSN, I realize that thousands of mortals are scrambling through the tight halls and smoldering compartments, working to keep ship systems online and waiting, devastatingly, helplessly, hopelessly waiting for their ship to take action.
Another salvo clears, and Hank is slapping armor now. We haven’t even been targeted. SSN-21 putters forth aligned to nowhere, drone bay doors sealed like a mausoleum. Hull breaches are venting meat and circuits into the darkness.
It’s been scarcely a minute since the Golem was locked, but on deck the cooling fans are overclocked and it’s pushing 48C. It got so hot so fast inside the Hank that I’ve only just begun to sweat when the viewport auto-dims. For just an instant, SSN-21 shines like a pearl. And then it’s gone.
Hank moves through the debris field with the finesse of a freight train, and her shields pulse as metal scrap and burnt, frozen corpses wash across them. Mortified and yes, I’m ashamed to say, elated, I realize that I’ve fallen ass-backwards into maxing out the ship-kill performance incentive in my contract. If we make it back to a station in one piece, I’m going to be an extremely wealthy man.
We loot the wreck. Normal deck operations have resumed, and I go back to the rote work of D-scanning as we pick our way out of low-sec. The warp drive activates, taking us away from the carnage. I allow myself a moment to sit back, stretch, and take a breath. The shaking has stopped, now. I think about what it might be like to be a capsuleer. To be an immortal. To not care.
Down in the bowels of the Hank, behind a sealed bulkhead door, there’s a capsule. I’ve seen it only once. Inside floats the naked body of something which, for the moment, approximates the form and contains the sentience of someone called Cyrus Kurtz. I wonder- does his body give a ■■■■? His brain? Does it know what it’s being used for? The ship pivots into alignment, and my mind is forced back to operations on deck.
The ship is shaking violently in warp. I stare with clinical disinterest at the scanner display, but in my peripheral view, I catch a glimpse of golden-brown liquid sloshing in the tumbler. I can’t tell if it’s half empty or half-full.